The editing of films is both a science and an art—and one of the most powerful keys we have for unlocking cinema's secretsby Mark Cousins / May 4, 2009 / Leave a comment
In my eight years of writing on cinema for this magazine, not once have I directly tackled the subject of editing in film. Given that the cut is the flickering medium’s greatest party trick, this is well nigh inexplicable. Maybe I’ve avoided the subject because it’s too big. Or maybe editing is just too close to home for me to get any perspective on it.
Whatever the reasons, I think I know why my silence has suddenly dawned on me. I’ve just spent nine weeks filming my history of cinema in Kolkata, Mumbai, Delhi, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Sydney and Beijing. Now, suddenly, I find myself embarking on 11 weeks in a cutting room, chopping and re-arranging the results with Timo, my editor. It’s an instant, total change from one paradigm to another—and this, at its most extreme, is what an edit is. The only thing that has travelled across from the filming to the cutting room is, in this case, me.
Anyone who has seen recent films like The Dark Knight or Slumdog Millionaire knows that editing is, in a way, cinema’s claim to fame. It took the earliest directors a few years to shake off the influence of theatre but, by about 1907, the grammar of narrative cinema cutting was in place. In the century since, as a general rule, cutting rates in mainstream cinema have got faster. And the hard data is intriguing. In the 1910s in America, the average shot length (ASL) was about ten seconds (according to the brilliant film historian Barry Salt). In the 1920s, it was nearer seven seconds. By the 1970s, it was below six seconds. In contrast, cutting rates were always slower in the Europe—15, nine and nine are the figures for the same decades. The ASL of British films in the 1960s was 7.7, the same as the speedy Americans and two seconds faster than the mainland Europeans, whose films were always that bit more contemplative.
Innovative filmmakers have always, however, worked against such trends. Way back in 1925, Sergei “scissorhands” Eisenstein had an ASL of just four seconds in Battleship Potemkin. At the other extreme, the shot durations of masters of the long take like Kenji Mizoguchi, Michelangelo Antonioni, Theo Angelopoulus, Bela Tarr and Miklós Jancsó are 20 seconds plus.
The main bone of contention between the trend…