Movies and Film: The Purposes of Editing

The Purposes of Editing

At the most significant level, editing form determines meaning in a film in the same way that the sonnet form helps determine meaning in poetry. In most Hollywood films, editing helps determine at least four dimensions of film narrative: in what order you receive information about the plot, how much information you are supposed to receive about the narrative, how you are supposed to feel about events and characters at any given time, and how you are supposed to experience the pace of the narrative. In addition, as the idea of montage suggests, editing can serve an intellectual function, often making aesthetic, political, or ideological assertions about the activities you are seeing, as well as emotional appeals. This latter activity tends to belong more to the world of avant-garde and experimental films.

Determine the Speed at Which Events Move Along

At the simplest level, editing determines the pace, and so the mood, of a film in three different ways:

  1. The editor determines the duration of a shot. Generally, the longer the shot duration, the slower the pace.
  2. The editor can decide what goes in or out of a sequence. In Lawrence of Arabia (Great Britain, 1962), in one of the most famous cuts in British filmmaking, instead of showing T. E. Lawrence travel from his safe office in Cairo to the desert, we see him extinguish a match in that office, cutting immediately from a close-up of the match light in a cramped office to the gloriously epic establishing shot of the desert and the desert sun.
  3. The kind of edit between shots determines speed. The slow dissolve can leave us lingering on a disappearing image for several seconds (for example, the last shot of Psycho [1960], when Norman Bates's face slowly becomes superimposed on the skull of his mother). Or the cuts between shots can be very quick: Gunfights at the O.K. Corral tend to cut very quickly between the various participants so that you won't lose a bit of the bloodbath.
Filmophile's Lexicon

Insert shot: A shot of an object that generally informs or reminds the audience of some-thing it needs to know: the missing gun lying in a gutter on the outskirts of the city.

Detail shot: A close-up of a graphic element of the previous shot.

Shot-reverse shot: A series of two shots, the second of whose angle is approximately 180º opposed from the first. Generally used to show two characters speaking, or to show the relationship between a character and the object of his gaze.

Give or Withhold Information

Sometimes editing gives you access to bits of information that will be important to subsequent events. We see a long shot of a man in the street. He looks harmless enough. But then we cut to an insert or detail shot of a hand holding a gun behind its owner's back. We realize that the man is waiting for someone he is going to shoot. Sometimes information is withheld in order to surprise us. Only at the very end of The Usual Suspects (1995) do we get detail shots of the various elements of the police chief's office out of which Verbal Kint has fabricated the elements of the tale of the phantom Keyser Soze: a coffee mug with the name of a made-up company, a bulletin board with the names of places and characters, and so on.

Determine Your Feeling for Events and Characters

How do you know when you are supposed to like a character? How characters are supposed to feel about each other? Music and casting of course help. Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts don't usually play the heavies. But the way characters are edited also says something about who they are. For example, when a man and a woman talk to each other they can be shot either in a two-shot or in a shot-reverse shot. The two-shot can imply (though certainly not always) a level of intimacy between them that crosscutting may not, because the characters in a shot-reverse shot sequence can seem emotionally further apart when they are not physically close.

The Illusion of Unity

Editors cut together material from disparate sources to give the illusion of unity and continuity. This editing constitutes the practical Hollywood use of the "creative geography" the Soviet filmmakers theorized about. (See "Eastern European Film.")

Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Movies and Film © 2001 by Mark Winokur and Bruce Holsinger. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

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