Bright Lights Film Journal :: Cutters’ Way: The Mysterious Art of Film Editing

An essay on the hidden, underappreciated geniuses behind great films: the editors.

[Walter] Murch played a vital part in shaping four of Coppola’s most celebrated films — The Godfather, The Godfather, Part ll (1975), The Conversation, and Apocalypse Now — but was noticeably absent from the director’s more ponderous projects in the eighties: One From the Heart (1982), The Cotton Club (1984), Peggy Sue Got Married (1986), and Tucker: The Man and His Dream (1988). Some people might not see that as a coincidence.

On the magic of cuts and juxtapositions in films. They’re like dreams, or like thought.

What is it that makes cutting work? How is it that we accept such a violent transition — whether it be from a wide shot to a close-up, from Paris to the Sahara desert, or from the seventeenth century to the present — as a cut? “Nothing in our day-to-day experience seems to prepare us for such a thing,” Walter Murch observes. “From the moment we get up in the morning until we close our eyes at night, the visual reality we perceive is a continuous stream of linked images: In fact, for millions of years — tens, hundreds of millions of years — life on Earth has experienced the world in this way. Then suddenly, at the beginning of the twentieth century, human beings were confronted with something else — edited film."11 What prepared them for this? Not painting, not theater, not even literature, cinematic as some of Dickens’s scenes now appear. Murch speculates that it was dreams. "We accept the cut because it resembles the way images are juxtaposed in our dreams,” he writes. “In the darkness of the theater, we say to ourselves, in effect, ‘This looks like reality, but it cannot be reality because it is so visually discontinuous; therefore, it must be a dream.’"12 Director John Huston saw it differently. Cinema, he said, was not just a reflection of our dream lives but the very essence of conscious thought, with its fitful jumble of visuals and sound: "To me the perfect film is as though it were unwinding behind your eyes, and your eyes were projecting it themselves, so that you were seeing what you wished to see. It’s like thought. It’s the closest to thought process of any art.”

Also cool sections in there about the Ralph Rosenblum/Woody Allen partnership; the influence of Russians like Eisenstein, who began as editors; how the nature of editing work led to opportunities for women; digital editing; and more.

Bright Lights Film Journal :: Cutters’ Way: The Mysterious Art of Film Editing