I’ve always been fascinated with movies. At my home growing up, only one television station came in clear enough to really watch without getting a headache, and that station was NBC, which did not do a late movie, but had talk shows instead. So when we were old enough, I’d hitch a ride with my buddies, and we’d drive the half hour it took to get to the nearest theater to catch a movie. We did this the majority of weekends for two years.
I’ve heard more than one director say that a movie is really created in the editing room after the filming is over. That’s where forty hours or more of footage has to be condensed down to about two. Orson Welles, whose movies were sometimes famously mutilated by the studios after he had finished filming them, went so far as to say –no doubt with bitterness– that “the only time one is able to exercise control over the film is in the editing.” There was a French film theory, I think, that considered the director the author or “auteur” of a movie, as a writer is the author of a book. And I think Welles’ point was that, actually, a director can not be thought of as the author of a movie unless he also has editing power over it.
One of the books on my Self-Doctorate syllabus that I just finished was In The Blink Of An Eye, written by film editor Walter Murch, editor of such films as The English Patient and Apocalypse Now and The Unbearable Lightness Of Being.
Murch is somewhat of a dilettante philosopher like myself, and I was interested to read what he had to say about why cuts in films work. You see, a century into movie-making, we take cuts for granted in movies; it bothers us not at all to instantly change perspective on an actor or to suddenly have one actor’s face replaced with another or even to make huge leaps in time and space. But as you know, unless you’re experiencing an acid flashback, this doesn’t much happen in real life. The field of our vision is continuous. There are no “cuts.”
So, the question is: Why don’t we reject cuts in movies? Why don’t we find them disconcerting or annoying?
Murch believes there are several reasons why we are willing to accept cuts between shots in movies. The first possibility is that actually, we do experience cuts in our daily lives— every time we blink. Granted, the world around us can only shift so much “in the blink of an eye,” but nevertheless, blinking does break-up the continuity of our environment. A branch swaying in the wind will not be in exactly the same position after we blink as it was before.
I think the discussion of blinking as “cuts” is intriguing, but I’m more inclined to go with Murch’s other suggestion as to why we accept cuts: Dreams. As we all know, the state of dreaming is a state of constant shifts in perspective, and inside the dream, no matter how fantastical is the jump from one place to another, we almost always accept it. We’re going up one staircase in an office building— and suddenly we’re decades earlier climbing the stairs of our childhood home that was torn down ten years ago, and we don’t hold up our hand in the dream and yell, “Hold on, hold on! Wait a minute! That’s impossible!” No… typically we just go with the flow. There are exceptions of course, which would make for another interesting blog entry one day: lucid dreaming (which, personally and sadly, I seem to experience less the older I get).
The third reason Murch offers for why we do not reject movie cuts is that even while we are awake, our mind frequently leaps between images, as one thought leads to another through the mysterious associations of the psyche. For example, perhaps one day we see some stranger reading a postcard from France, and in our mind’s eye appears instantly the image of that beautiful person with whom we shared intimate nights and carefree days when we visited Paris in our exuberant youth.
Ahh… and watching those memories inside our head is like watching clips from the dramedy that is our life, a film so absorbing and well paced that as it nears its end we will surely think of it as passing as swiftly as a sparrow through a room, and of each day as being lived in the blink of an eye.