Sunday, June 24, 2012

The Cutting Edge: The Magic of Movie Editing


Wendy Apple’s The Cutting Edge is one of the finest documentaries I’ve ever seen about a specific process of filmmaking. For film students, Apple’s film is required, for cinephiles, it’s necessary.

The film details several things, most notably how the film editor is one of the most important, yet most ignored roles within the filmmaking process. The movie implores dozens of interviews from people you’ve heard of, and twice as many from people you haven’t. Those men (and women) are the masters. The anonymous, patient, exacting movie crafters. They sit alone (or with the director by their side) and mold a movie into what it can be, and what it does become. “Great editing skill,” Sean Penn says early on, “Will protect a director from suicide.”

Truer words have never been spoken.


There are a million ways to cut every scene, and for movie nerds like myself, seeing it unfold and be explained by people who really know what the hell they’re doing is just, well, invigorating. 
At 1 hour and 40 minutes, The Cutting Edge manages to fit in enough to make you an expert. It fuses history with how-to, and never once strains your attention. Now, I hope you don’t mind, but if there’s ever a time for a movie fan to geek out, it’s in this review.

The Cutting Edge traces the beauty of editing all the way to Edwin S. Porter, who introduced inter-cutting with The Life of an American Fireman in 1903 by crosscutting a fire and the firemen on their way to put it out. From there it moves onto D.W. Griffith whose films like The Birth of the Nation (1915) established a classical (and revelatory) editing style that would remain until Dziga Vertov flipped it on its ass with his Man with a Movie Camera (1929), which was one of the first movies that, through editing, made the audience aware that they were viewing a movie.

We watch the Nazi’s discover what editing did for propaganda (via Leni Riefenstahl’s brilliant and horrifying Triumph of the Will), and how America established the classic, logical editing that would remain for decades. That is, until a mad genius named Jean-Luc Godard released Breathless, the film that broke all the rules. “Breathless was too cool for me,” Martin Scorsese muses. “I liked it, but I didn’t know what the hell was happening.”
I’m not going to transcribe everything the film chronicles, but believe me, for any remote fan of cinema, there is simply no way The Cutting Edge should go unseen. But if I take a moment to pull myself back from the awe that is laced through much of the movie, I can indeed point out a few flaws. One is Apple’s choice of interview subjects, namely Rob Cohen, the director of The Fast and the Furious (the first one) and xXx. In one scene, Cohen attempts to honorably justify the MTV style editing he’s grown accustomed to, while virtually every other interviewee (including Scorsese, Spielberg, and Tarantino) rebuke it.

MTV, as far as I can tell, ruined the art of movie editing. Music videos made it acceptable to hold a shot for a second before feverishly cutting on. Mind you, this isn’t always a bad thing, as Spielberg says in the film, that kind of editing can be extremely effective within a scene, but to sit through two hours of it is exhausting. This depends entirely on taste, of course, but I could not agree more.

Despite its few minor flaws, The Cutting Edge educates, inspires and let’s you in on a little secret that most people don’t bother to familiarize themselves with: the director is the one with the vision, the editor is the one who transcribes it. A-

(Note: This movie is rather hard to find. Send me an e-mail or DM me on Twitter for a little help – withrowag@gmail.com, @shiftingPersona)

16 comments:

  1. I agree that the film, like the Visions of Light: The Art of Cinematography documentary made in the early 90s, is a requirement for any cinephile/film student.

    Yes, it's flawed due to the filmmakers like Rob Cohen who subject that awful MTV editing style (which I think has worsened in the past few years).

    It's been a long time since I've seen it as I liked how James Cameron discuss what happens when a frame is moved from a second of footage. Wow...

    It was also great to see interviews with some amazing editors as I have some favorites. Thelma Schoonmaker is an obvious pick. The late Sally Menke whose work with Tarantino is essential. Andrew Weisblum for his recent work with Wes Anderson and Darren Aronofsky. Jay Rabinowitz for his work with Jim Jarmusch.

    I think my favorite editor is Nino Baragli. The work he did for Sergio Leone's The Good, the Bad, & the Ugly, Once Upon a Time in the West, Duck, You Sucker!, and Once Upon a Time in America alone makes him my favorite. Notably the famous three-way show down in The Good, the Bad, & the Ugly.

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    1. Ahh Visions of Light... another excellent filmmaking doc. If I can track that one day, I definitely want to review it here.

      That Cameron bit is so funny, and so rookie. Glad he immediately say the error of his ways. All the editors you mentioned are personal favorites of mine too. Baragli especially is an inspired choice. You simply cannot argue that climax of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.

      Thanks again for reminding me about this doc!

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  2. Visions of Light was awesome. I remember that doc blowing me away when I saw it in high school.

    While I was in film school, I studied editor Walter Murch a lot. He is among the great editors of the industry. His book, In the Blink of an Eye, is a must read.

    This doc looks very interesting. Hope it gets easy to find eventually! Thanks for shining a light on it.

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    1. Hmm, I may have to check out In the Blink of an Eye. He was an articulate, passionate speaker, and I'm sure that would translate into his book.

      It was a really really interesting movie. DM if you want the link for it!

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  3. I feel like I need to see this so I can better understand what the heck it all means when someone says something "ended up on the cutting-room floor".

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    1. Ha, this would DEFINITELY help out with that. (But really, that just means a scene has been edited out of a movie. Roughly 200 hours of film are shot for most feature films, which means 198 of those hours "end up on the cutting room floor.")

      Thanks for stopping by, hope I've helped some!

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  4. The worst editing I have ever seen in a big budget Hollywood film was Terminator 3, the opening was completely ruined! I may have to boycott future movies with that Terminator 3 editor involved ( :

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    1. It seems your boycott is two fold, as that flick had two editors: Nicolas De Toth (known for gems like The Covenant, Wolverine and This Means War) and Neil Travis (who won an Oscar for editing Dances with Wolves).

      Crazy.

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    2. Really, he won an oscar, wow, he's had some ups and downs then! (I guess all filmmakers have had highs and lows, to be fair, so I shouldn't judge them too harshly)

      Well, as I said in 100 film facts, when I threaten to boycott something(the oscars for example), it's a spur of the moment thing, not really a reality ( :

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    3. Ha, I'm right there with you man. And yep, all artists have highs and lows. Hard to hate when they've proven themselves!

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  5. Never realised Editor's were so important either. Will definitely give it a watch when I have time!

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    1. Oh they are SO important. They really make the thing come together. Tarantino says something very profound in the film, to the effect of, the difference between one frame and the other is the difference between a bad and great movie.

      Really, film is all about the editing.

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  6. It seems like I must see this! since I work as one, though not on film field. So true : "the film editor is one of the most important, yet most ignored roles within the filmmaking process." we are definitely patient people.

    Yes fast pictures isn't consumable for everyone, especially on long durations.

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    1. Oh if you are in the biz then I HIGHLY recommend this flick. It is so so good. Thanks for stopping by!

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  7. I want to show this film to my students. Where can I find it?

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    1. Believe it or not, I bought a VHS copy from eBay a year and a half ago. But I'm sure you can find it online somewhere...?

      Good luck!

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