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Wendy Apple and Alan Heim's The Cutting Edge: The Magic of Movie Editing is a feature documentary designed to bring the craft and contribution of the film editor out of the shadows. In just the same way that the public used to assume that actors made up their own dialogue, the director has gotten credit for what often is the work of the editor. Apple and Heim assemble a prodigious group of interviewees (photographed beautifully by John Bailey) to tell their tale, both editors and (when appreciative) directors.
The film was meant to be the editorial equivalent of a popular docu about cinematographers made several years ago, but illustrating great moments in camerawork is much easier than showing an editor's work. All one has to do is toss up a few beautifully shot scenes by Nestor Almendros or Winton Hoch and half the work is done. Time and again in this docu we see famous scenes but aren't all that sure why they're there. A cut from The Searchers illustrates the difference between a long shot and a close-up, but we're more likely to be thinking about the director John Ford or the actor John Wayne, or just how beautiful the scenery looks.
So The Cutting Edge has to do a lot of remedial catch-up, teaching the audience what editing is from the definition of a film frame on up. We don't dig very deep into theory, although the highly vocal Walter Murch gives some case-in-point lectures as he plays with cuts in Cold Mountain. Frequent graphic illustrations are used to explain concepts that words just don't cover. People who already have a grasp of how film works will follow, but even though the material being taught is basic, casual viewers are going to be left behind. This isn't anyone's fault. Editing is about the nuts and bolts of film, and we don't normally watch movies about cars to see shots of mechanics struggling to remount a water pump.
The movie keeps its B&W content to a mininum and only on classic material that can't be avoided (Edwin S. Porter, Griffith, Eisenstein). Writer Mark Jonathan Harris organizes the film history part of the show quite well, starting with the invention of the concept of the cut and then its use in two diverging aesthetic directions. Narrative entertainments worked to make cuts seem invisible, while the 'scientific' propagandists used the cut to create collisions of content between succeeding shots. 1
But from then on we suddenly give short shrift to classic movies while today's noted editors talk about film theory, represented mostly by color film from the second half of the 20th century. There's a preponderance of 'bravura' sequences while the movie goes off track to talk about chases (Bullitt, French Connection), scares (Psycho, Scream) and violence (The Wild Bunch, Bonnie & Clyde). Each category comes with show-stopping fast-cut action, of which The Matrix is held up as the ultimate expression of great cutting. As if needing to hype the clip selection, the film rather shamelessly goes for the notorious Sharon Stone scene in Basic Instinct to illustrate an idea that has nothing to do with how to edit flash-reveals of female genitals.
The movie is shallow on theory and ideas, which is probably a necessity considering that it has to play to a general audience. The important observation is made that the coming of sound took jobs from women and gave them to men, but we're never shown the complexities involved or introduced to the problematical issue of picture-sound synchronization. We're told of the great career of Margaret Booth but not that her virtual tyranny over editing at MGM resulted in thirty years of cookie-cutter movies. Frankly, the history of editors in Hollywood is so political that most of the stories offered by the editors interviewed are anecdotal in nature. The truth would sound like a catfight.
The film is much better with emotion and humor. The editors are an entertaining and fun bunch of people to listen to (naturally!) and several recount amusing situations from the cutting room. Directors are encouraged to chime in to laud editors who taught them major film lessons, which allows Steven Spielberg to once again tell pleasant stories about 'Mother Cutter' Verna Fields, as well as repeat his discovery that a couple of frames in Jaws made the difference between a fearsome shark and a 'floating rubber turd." It's very entertaining to see Quentin Tarantino wax eccentric over his editrix, Sally Menke.
The movie talks about the director-editor team, using a graphic to emphasize the fact that next to the director, the editor is the most important person in the making of a film. Only one film clip (The Last Tycoon) makes fun of the old joke that the editor is a highly paid whipping boy for directorial egos. A long time ago directors often had little input into how their films were cut, but all that meant is that bottom line-worshipping producers and studio heads were in charge.
After many wonderful film clips of terrific scenes, the film winds down with a discussion of the modern style of cutting two-hour features into MTV-styled confetti with a cut every two seconds (or half-second), whether a cut is called for or not. Defenders of the trend cite the younger audience's ability to follow faster continuity in films, but several editors come on board in favor of letting the cutting rhythm of a film be set by the film's subject matter, and not the attention span of the audience. Carol Littleton shows an excellent example of a scene from Places in the Heart that makes the point clear; I suppose a counter- argument would dismiss the Robert Benton film as exactly the kind of old-fashioned movie that should be allowed to become extinct. Which is perhaps why so many modern movies are so disposable.
The Cutting Edge ultimately fulfills its mission to champion the art of editing, even though it barely touches on dozens of great cutters that worked for as long as fifty years, made most of the great Hollywood movies what they are and are yet next to anonymous. Viewers that watch Walter Murch happily making fine-cut choices on his slick Final Cut Pro system may think that anyone can do it well. It doesn't work out that way in real life, even when a thousand dollars or so will put high-quality cutting software on one's home computer. Back in film school it was possible to get editing experience because all the egotistical go-getters wanted to be directors - they'd rather party than sit alone in tiny cutting rooms. It also takes a great deal of experience and judgment to cut film or video well, and being able to navigate a computer program doesn't mean much by itself. The sheer frustration that used to accompany learning to use a Movieola or flatbed editing setup was usually enough to separate those that liked movies from those that cared enough to dedicate themselves to the craft, but now everyone is encouraged to become an editor. The big-time editors with the socko credits may be relatively anonymous but they're still a rarified, legendary breed.
Interestingly, the promotional materials Savant has seen on this film's theatrical release tout its producers and creators, but I never once saw a mention of the film editor. His name is Tim Tobin.
Warners' DVD of The Cutting Edge: The Magic of Movie Editing is an excellent transfer and encoding of a film given a beautiful look, especially with so many film clips from different sources. Kathy Bates's narration is smooth and well-integrated into the film's soundscape. The disc is 16:9 enhanced, with old flat movies wisely formatted with black pillarboxes. There are no extras.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Cutting Edge: The Magic of Movie Editing rates:
1. One film historical fact given in the show surprised Savant. Martin Scorsese mentions a very early movie about a fire station that utilized the concepts of parallel cutting for suspense way before Griffith's supposed introduction of those concepts. Both in film school and in later readings, I was given to understand that that 'fire brigade' movie was originally a straight narrative in the style of its year, and that in 1925 or so someone re-edited it to be more watchable, by cross cutting shots of the helpless victims and the firemen rushing to the scene, etc. In other words, the movie was an early example of filmic revisionism (listening, Mr. Lucas?) that ended up distorting film history. Since Mr. Scorsese is no slouch on his film facts, I now wonder if the articles I read were all wrong, and the early film was the 'years ahead of its time' milestone that The Cutting Edge: The Magic of Movie Editing says it is.