Archive for January, 2013


Editing to the Rhythms of Memory


I have recently read two books that have given me much thought on the subject of film editing. The first is In the Blink of an Eye by Walter Murch, who was an editor for Francis Coppola on “The Godfather” and “Apocalypse Now.” The second book is Andrei Tarkovsky’s meditative Sculpting in Time.

They each pose two very different theories concerning the nature of editing and especially regarding the question of why cuts work in the first place, and when it is appropriate to employ them. Murch seems to come from the Soviet Montage camp, pioneered by Sergei Eisenstein and mastered by Alfred Hitchcock, where shots represents different pieces of information that the viewer must assemble imaginatively into a coherent whole. Whereas Tarkovsky explicitly describes his disagreement with that mentality, claiming that it is not true to the nature of what cinema is. Tarkovsky looks back to the original films of the Lumiere Brothers and reminds us of what was originally so fascinating about the cinema in the first place: that it was imprinted time.

At the beginning of his book, Walter Murch poses a question, “why do cuts work?” And by the end of his book he has given his answer. He recognizes that humans ought to be repelled by cuts, since our own personal experiences have no natural equivalent – something Tarkovsky also points out. But Murch noticed while editing “The Conversation” that his natural impulse for when to cut was directly correlated to Gene Hackman’s tendency to blink. Murch spends the rest of the book describing how he believes our blinking habits are the natural equivalent of cuts, because, in psychological terms, our eyes remain open when we are focused intently on something, and we blink when we are comfortable with our surroundings. In short, Murch believes that natural editing rhythm will always be similar to our natural blinking rhythm.

Tarkovsky extends out his metaphor of imprinted time in a few essays throughout his book. He compares the role of the artist to that of a prophet, saying that both find their purpose in the conveying of great truths. Tarkovsky believed that to interrupt time with an abrupt cut is to be dishonest to the medium, as the medium is the very record of time itself. Not a reenactment of time, as a play might be, but a genuine record of its passing. Tarkovsky strove always to stage his scenes in an unbroken way. He believed that to fracture temporal truth was to falsify it. Interstingly, many normal viewers think that Tarkovsky’s style feels decidedly unnatural because of his hesitancy to cut. It does seem to me that cutting into the scene (especially from wide shots to close ups) feels quite natural and normal, but maybe that’s why I have two essays on Eisenstein on this blog and none on Tarkovsky. Preference is not everything.

I do believe, however, that I have stumbled upon a deeper understanding of what cinema is and can be, at least as it pertains to the telling of a story. People that have heard me talk about film theory know that I tend to fall into the Eisenstein camp, and that I especially enjoy his famous quote that “language is much closer to the cinema than painting is.” But as much as I have enjoyed pondering the relationship between editing and grammar, I am now really considering the relationship between film editing and the priorities of human memory. This short essay is only a first draft of this theory, which I’m sure I will revise every few years. I suppose I should point out that while I have never heard the analogy of memory applied to film editing before, Robert McKee does use memory as an analogy for good screenwriting, so I’m not wholly original here.

Essentially my grand idea is this: suppose that edits in any film sequence work and feel natural to the viewer not because of some experience in our daily lives (such as blinking), but because of how we experience the world in our memory. Think about your day yesterday. What are the first few things that you recall? If you are like me, then the first priorities of your memory are based on two things: Geography and Will. When I think of the events of my life a day ago, the first image in my head is of my home, and specifically the room which I spent the most time in. This is what I call the “Geographical Priority”. The first thing my brain does when I reacquaint myself with yesterday is jump to the location I was most prominently in.

The second image in my head is of the documentary materials on my newly purchased Godfather Blu-Ray collection. That is what I call “Priority of the Will”. I made a unique choice to watch those documentaries, but I really don’t remember what I had for breakfast yesterday, as that was a mundane habit. It is more common for our memory to prioritize the choices we make than the habits we have. Conversely, we tend to have staggeringly good memories for times when we felt out of control, and incapable of making choices.
Have you ever been swimming underwater only to run out of air before you are anywhere near the surface? How clearly do you remember that feeling of suffocation? Now contrast that with how clearly you remember the mundane details that have nothing to do with your will, such as how many times your friend jumped off the diving board?

Doesn’t it seem true that the human memory really prioritizes geography and will? We remember where we were, and what we chose to do, and especially whether some obstacle prevented us from achieving our immediate goals in the situation, but we struggle to remember things that never engaged our attention in the first place.
Editing to this rhythm has already been stumbled upon. Think about how commonplace it is for scenes to open with wide shots of a location, only to move closer and closer to the decisions of the characters, right down to the individual muscles used in the carrying out of that decision. The eyes are especially important, since it is through the eyes that we each empathize with each other.

I also read Francois Truffaut’s book on Alfred Hitchcock recently, in which they frequently talk about the clarity of simplicity. In any Hitchcock film, during any great action sequence or chase sequence, the editing is so specific that it takes on a near primal quality. The audience is never confused, and yet, his films are filled with intimate close ups instead of big wide shots. I want to demonstrate the primal sensation of memory editing with a little experiment.

First, think about a time when you have expected to meet someone, but they never showed up, or perhaps they were very late. You stood there and politely waited. As a car drove toward you, you watched it closely to see if it belonged to the person you were expecting. If you thought it was that person then you probably leaned forward a little and started to take your hand out of your pocket to greet them. But the car drove past. Or perhaps someone did get out of it, but it wasn’t the person you were looking for. You attempted to inconspicuously return to your place, but you knew that you probably looked ridiculous if someone was watching you.

Now take the famous scene of the crop duster plane from “North by Northwest.” (Here is the scene, albeit with added music:
Watch how it begins with a great wide shot of the field (i.e. the Geographic Priority) and watch how the movement of Grant’s eyes represent the character’s first conscious choice in the scene. We know that he’s expecting to meet someone here. We project ourselves into his life through the natural phenomenon of empathy. So really, it is we (the Audience) who are looking for someone, and Cary Grant is just an extension of the audience’s motivation in the scene. Contrary to what some directors say, the audience does not project itself into the place of the camera, the audience projects itself into the place of the character. And so the actions and choices of the character are the most relevant part of the scene to the audience.

Watch how Hitchcock cuts in closer to Cary Grant’s face as the car comes closer along the road. Did you notice in that scene how Grant begins to take his hands out of his pockets when he sees the man get out of the car? That little character detail is a completely natural action given that he really expected this man to be the one he was waiting for. The audience, too, would have impulsively moved forward to meet the man. You can see how there is a perfect link in the scene between what Grant does and what the Audience would do in the same situation.

But back to the concept of memory editing. In this sequence, Hitchcock has prioritized the same two things that human memory prioritizes: that is Geography and Will, the combination of these two things is a major contributing factor to literally every human sensation. For instance, the geography of being underwater affects the will to breathe.
It has long been recognized that wide shots make characters seem alone. But only now do I understand exactly why this is. The geography of a wide shot will demonstrate the physical aloneness of the character, and the choices the character makes will by necessity be unbacked by society. The combination of physical aloneness and social aloneness creates the sensation of loneliness.

The geography of the open plain presents Cary Grant with a physical aloneness, and the bearing down of the crop duster against him presents an obstacle to his will. Notice that throughout the bulk of the scene (but especially the final two minutes) all of the shots either feature Grant balanced toward the middle of the frame, or they show what he is looking at when he adjusts his gaze. For instance, there is a moment right after the plane first flies overhead that Grant – now laying on the ground – looks beyond the frame of the camera. There is an immediate cut to some corn stalks a dozen yards away. The very next shot is of him running into those corn stalks.

Do you catch the significance there? These three shots (choosing to look, recognizing the new geography, then choosing to run) are perfectly harmonious with the pattern of memory (will, geography, will). His choice to run into the corn stalks only makes sense to us the audience because we know that the corn stalks are there. It is clear that geography (especially the spatial relationship between characters – in this case Grant and the Plane) contextualizes choice. And as you watch that scene, you may feel completely absorbed by it, precisely because of how natural the editing feels.

The impulse to cut on an eyeline change is a common editing technique, and is a big part of what Walter Murch’s book is about. But his explanation has more to do with the audience’s pursuit of new information. He has no real explanation for why or when to change from a wide shot to a close up. Sam Peckinpah was of the opinion that close ups are the director’s Ace up the sleeve, and should be used sparingly. But even that doesn’t really tell us why or when a close up should be used.

This is also a case where Tarkovsky’s emphasis on imprinted time would be completely unhelpful. He would show us merely the geography, as if we are a spectator to the action, when the audience is looking for sensation and participation. Tarkovsky would focus on recording the entire physical effort of fleeing the plane, without demonstrating a bias for either character. He used wide shots and long takes to clearly portray the physical relationship between persons and objects.

It is thought by some that by keeping the edits rare and the camera on wide shots, filmmakers like Tarkovsky force the audience to be more active participants, as the filmmaker does not explicitly control their viewing experience. But I disagree. If you were to compare a football player with a fan in the stadium, which would you say has the greatest participation in the game? It is clearly not the spectator.

Tarkovsky would put the camera in the bleachers and record the entire game in one uninterrupted take. Hitchcock would do multiple set-ups on the field using fast edits to put you in the mindset of the player. The first is certainly a valid record of the facts, but the second is a more powerful analogy to the feelings.

I really believe that great narrative editing is based on the relationship between Geography and Will, since the first contextualizes the second, and the second is the venue by which the audience participates. Tarkovsky believed that a film is at its truest when it purely imprints time. But I think that Pure Cinema does a much better job of recreating how the world exists in our memory than recreating how the world exists physically.

Hitchcock had a rule: the largest object in the frame has the most emotional weight. Doesn’t that sound just like your memory’s version of the world?

Think about the last time something scared you. Doesn’t it seem that the very object which so affected your emotional state overcame everything else in the world? Are you scared of snakes or spiders? When you see a snake or a spider that terrifies you, doesn’t it always seem much larger than it really is?

Film editing has the ability to recreate the experience of memory by prioritizing close ups for objects of tremendous emotional weight. You don’t remember what was on the wall behind the snake, you only remember the snake itself. Nothing else even came into your senses. A well-employed close up will focus your attention on the snake, and just like your experience in memory, you won’t even see the wall.