The Art of Editing

Let’s start with something fun. Click here for a very funny and short movie parody (actually a trailer parody). Enjoy. And then consider it an object lesson in the power of editing–context completely changing the meaning of what was filmed.

Editing is the great, overlooked filmmaking art. A few examples:

The shooting script for The Great Escape contained an elaborate scene involving an early, failed escape attempt. Before the scene was shot, director John Sturges viewed a rough cut that included the “Here’s how we’ll do it” sequence before the escape, and the “Just been captured” scene afterwards. The juxtaposition of those two scenes worked so well that Sturges didn’t bother shooting this particular escape.

Steven Spielberg thought his career was over. His first theatrical feature had flopped, and his second was turning into a disaster. The big mechanical shark kept breaking down, sending the film way over schedule and budget, and leaving him with little of the footage he desperately needed. It took editor Verna Fields to turn Spielberg’s biggest problem–the lack of usable shark footage–into Jaws’ biggest asset.

In 1976, Woody Allen made an overlong, disjointed movie called Anhedonia, about a stand-up comic unable to experience pleasure. According to film editor Ralph Rosenblum, the first cut was “funny, but…nondramatic and ultimately uninteresting.” So Allen and Rosenblum began to hack away at it. As they cut, a romantic subplot began to dominate the picture. The final version was released in 1977, retitled Annie Hall.

As an art form, editing is unique to motion pictures. Writing, photography, acting, and set design all existed before movies. Editing had be figured out from scratch as filmmakers glued scenes together that had been shot separately, and slowly came to realize the power in those scissors and glue.

And now for some well-edited films.

Recommended: Match Point, Presidio, ongoing. The opening and closing credits have that distinct Woody Allen look, and one plot twist may remind you of Crimes and Misdemeanors, but nothing else in this very British class and sex drama reveals its writer/director. And while it’s no Annie Hall, this tale of a social-climbing tennis pro who lusts too much for another gold digger is probably Allen’s best film in 20 years.

Recommended: Casablanca, Stanford, Friday through Sunday. What can I say? You’ve either already seen it or you know you should. Let me just add that no one who worked on Casablanca thought they were making a masterpiece; it was just another movie coming off the Warner assembly line. But somehow, just this once, everything came together perfectly. On a double bill with The Maltese Falcon.

Recommended: The Maltese Falcon (1941), Stanford, Friday through Sunday. Dashiell Hammett’s novel had been filmed twice before, but screenwriter and first-time director John Huston did it right with the perfect cast and a screenplay that sticks almost word-for-word to the book. The ultimate Hammett picture, the second-best directorial debut of 1941 (after Citizen Kane), an important precursor to film noir, and perhaps the most entertaining detective movie ever made. On a double bill–in case you haven’t guessed–with Casablanca.

Recommended: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Red Vic, Sunday and Monday. Like the book it was based on, the fourth Harry Potter film takes the series to a new level, both scarier and emotionally deeper than its predecessors. In his fourth year at Hogwarts, Harry must contend with Lord Voldemort’s growing power, a very dangerous tournament, and the most horrible fear to ever strike a 14-year-old boy: girls. Kudos go to long-time Potter screenwriter Steven Kloves for his willingness to leave out subplots, first-time Potter director Mike Newell for putting the people ahead of the special effects, Warner Brothers for okaying the PG-13 rating, and J. K. Rowling for the wonderful books.

Noteworthy: The Education of Shelby Knox, Rafael, Thursday, 7:00. I caught a fascinating television news segment about Shelby Knox a few months ago. She’s an open-minded teenager from Lubbock, Texas, a town where an open mind is a mortal sin. She challenged her high school’s abstinence-only sex education curriculum (taught by the local preacher) and found herself in the center of a storm. I haven’t seen the film, but I liked her in that news segment. And she’ll make a personal appearance at the Rafael Thursday night.