In Which I Discover the Importance of Film Editing

Lord of the Flies
Au Hasard Balthazar

Lord of the Flies is not a great movie: the quality of performance given by the children in it is too variable. But it is a good movie that ends on its strongest note. I was quite surprised after watching it to realize that many of the individual scenes features improvisation, including improvised dialogue. As a general rule, I hate improvised movies: Aguirre, the Wrath of God captures indolence and insanity but at the cost of narrative and viewer patience; Drinking Buddies and its mumblecore ilk hang on too little story to justify their meandering run times; Anchorman demonstrates that it might be very funny to be in the room with a bunch of humorous people trying to make each other laugh, but that hardly makes a movie. Lord of the Flies avoids all of these pitfalls. The question is why.

The answer became obvious when watching Overlord, which matches archival footage of World War II to the story of a British man who is called up for service and dies during the D-Day invasion. The director went to great pains to use equipment that would have been available in the mid-40s in order to match up the look of the different parts. The effect is astonishing: the parts don't roll off each other seamlessly, but there's a strong mutual sympathy between the two. It's a film that puts most of its focus not on story or cinematography but editing. The two halves work because each is slotted into the appropriate parts of the overall film, and it is clear that switches between the two are quite intentional. The same applies to Lord of the Flies: each individual scene has a purpose within the overall narrative, so the improvisations are good when they work to the end of that scene (and its place within the overall narrative), and may be discarded when they are not. That is to say, there is a principle that allows the director to decide what remains and what is cut, that principle is tied to the overall thrust of the film, and the director edits the film with these considerations in mind. The principle that affects whether a joke is cut in Anchorman is whether that joke is funny or not, which has very little to do with the narrative of the movie, such as it is.*

The high art version of this is Robert Bresson, who chose people who were not actors to get more instinctive reactions, and frames much of Au Hasard Balthazar around the reactions of a donkey. If the story is well-constructed and the editing purposeful, then the end product can be quite profound and beautiful.

Watching these was one of those rare moments when some new element of vocabulary makes itself known; I'm not sure I had ever thought about how a movie was edited before. But it adds something new to the conversation, a new way of understanding why we like what we do and why certain things are effective and others not.

*The Big Lebowski, which is also mostly concerned with whether its jokes are funny, gets a pass because it is obviously supremely scripted in the manner of most Coen Brothers films. It's the writing rather than the editing that exerts control, but the control is there all the same.

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