Thursday, June 19, 2008

Cinema by a Thousand Cuts

Over at his Scanners blog, Jim Emerson hammers out another critique of the Wachowski Brothers' latest, Speed Racer, and uses a quote from Steven Spielberg to bolster his case. It's an interesting point, which leads to a fascinating discussion at his blog.

On the whole, I concur with Spielberg's general point, utilized by Emerson here to beat up Speed Racer: more directors should utilize the continuing, organic longer take over the repetitive, often crudely disorienting (and, one could argue, "cheating") postmodern quick cuts. Emerson goes into this all very deeply (though one could argue his focus on Speed Racer distracts from making a more comprehensive point, but he's not going for that here), and also quotes The Aspect Ratio blog's Benjamin Wright, who originally quoted Spielberg's statements to Vanity Fair about "cutting for clarity."

I tend to agree with Otto Preminger: every cut is fundamentally an interruption of sorts and if there are ways of avoiding such cuts, then that is wonderful.

That said, consistency can be the hobgoblin of little minds, or so Walt Whitman said. (Or was it a foolish consistency? No matter.) Spielberg himself points out that Paul Greengrass took the risky super high-speed editing scheme and didn't entirely sacrifice geography in the process. In any event, Spielberg says he thinks that approach worked for the sleek, high-tech, present-day Jason Bourne movies Greengrass helmed, but it wouldn't work for an Indiana Jones adventure, which, while paradoxically jump-starting the modern-day action-adventure "genre" template, is rooted in "old-fashioned" cinema, ala Gunga Din.

Beyond the snipings about Speed Racer or Bourne vs. Indy, or even the toxic "creative" outbursts of the perpetually adolescent Michael Bay, though, it's a sincerely intriguing question. It's overwhelmingly clear that everyone has "gone faster" over the years and decades in terms of their Average Shot Lengths, increasing the number of cuts. However, some films do seem to go "overboard," and Emerson's position on Speed Racer isn't without merit.

Much of this is answered in the context. And the editing does not have to be Bourne-like to be questionable. The context of the first extended sequence of Batman doing his crime-fighting thing in Batman Begins is marvelous because it's our introduction to the character along with the thugs, and we're taken by surprise just as they are. However, later in the film, Christopher Nolan largely opts for a similar shooting strategy to the climactic confrontations, and it diminishes the dramatic impact of the onscreen action. What at first seemed like brilliance is later possibly exposed as simply the director not knowing how to direct a geographically coherent action scene (did I just coin a phrase?), or else Nolan didn't see the importance in distinguishing the two setpieces in terms of compositional framing and comprehensive shooting strategy. (This is all said by someone who more or less loved Batman Begins.)

Speed Racer (special emphasis on the word "speed") wants to fly fast, and in many instances it does. Some of the quick, excessively busy cutting does make the movie strangely sluggish at times, or at least it did for me, but the Wachowskis made their film the way they did for defensible reasons. Emerson strongly disliked it, and has made his feelings known. And, again, he's onto something when he notes in one image caption that the term "dolly" or "zoom" doesn't so much apply to the camera in Speed Racer so much as "zip" seems to. Again, it's a thoroughly intriguing discussion--one that, I suspect, will become more important and heated as more and more films are edited in a quick, quick, quick manner.


Evan Derrick said...

I couldn't finish reading the post. I'm so tired of people beating up on Speed Racer, no matter how eloquent their positions are. Indirectly holding up the Bourne movies as being an 'ok' example of quick cutting while crucifying Speed for the same technique is tiresome. Ugh.

With that said, it is an interesting discussion (minus the catalyst that Emerson uses to begin it). I was discussing trailers with a friend of mine recently and how bizarrely paced they were 20 years ago. I postulate that the pendulum will swing back the other way soon as people begin to get sick of the MTV-quick-cutting technique, and we'll see a return to form. That might take a while, though.

Daniel G. said...

Though I'm known to avoid trailers beforehand, I almost always watch them afterwards. You're right, Evan - the quick cuts are just getting out of control. I think it speaks to what the marketing teams think of our attention span. We have to see 90 frames in a trailer or we won't be interested. Not me. The teaser for The Dark Knight was one of the best in years - just the logo and some dialogue. PLENTY.

Alexander Coleman said...

I agree with you, Evan, and I hoped to make that point reasonably clear (that Emerson beating up on the already wounded Speed Racer for its editing scheme sins could be seen as kicking a dead horse, though I give him the benefit of the doubt and think he's using it more as a launching pad for the entire greater discussion at hand).

The Bourne films I used to partly contradict Emerson's overall point via Spielberg, as I believe posters at Scanners already have. (And some taking Spielberg to task for his inconsistency.)

I agree about trailers. Yesterday when seeing The Incredible Hulk I saw The X-Files trailer and from the halfway point of it to the ending it was just one long, super-fast apparent highlight reel with quick, disorienting images packed on top of one another. It's a rather boring trailer technique at this juncture (even though I admit for what it's trying to do, the trailer works pretty well).

Evan Derrick said...

Trailers are already beginning to inch towards a more steady, less schizophrenic presentation. The trailer for There Will Be Blood did this (with that long, extended shot of Day-Lewis chewing up the scenery), and The Devil Wear's Prada's first trailer was simply an entire 3 minute scene, which I found to be brilliant.

user001 said...

i thought the wachowski brothers used superior actors than the matrix and a more unique script than i have seen in many movies. just for that it was worth seeing. i am excited to see what they do next because i also liked v for vendetta.

K. Bowen said...

Is it wrong not to be that interested in editing theory? What works is, to me, exactly what works for the material. I thought Speed Racer works as is.

Alexander Coleman said...

Firstly, thanks very much for stopping by here, K. Bowen.

I think I agree with you, and that's why I'm both conflicted in my own position and also ambivalent. In truth, different editing schemes will work for various films, and I do think Speed Racer's editing was largely successful for what the filmmakers were going after.