Sunday, June 21, 2009
When Did Movies Start To Become Over-Edited?
Today was Vincente Minnelli day on TCM. Though I'm a big fan of Minnelli as a visual stylist, his career is awfully uneven. I've called him the Michael Curtiz of MGM -- a director with a great eye and a distinctive visual style but not really someone who did a lot to shape the scripts he worked with, handled every type of movie that his studio specialized in (different specialties at WB and MGM), and could be depended on to make a first-rate movie if the producer gave him first-rate material to work with.
The essence of Minnelli's visual style is, of course, the long take with the fluid, constantly-moving camera, a style influenced by Max Ophuls. But to some extent, this was just Minnelli's personal spin on the MGM house style (just as Curtiz's shadows-on-the-wall trademark fit in with the Expressionism-influenced Warners house style). From at least the '30s onward, MGM movies frequently did whole scenes, or long parts of scenes, in one take. Look at, say, A Night At the Opera: many of the scenes with Kitty Carlisle and Allan Jones are one-take scenes, and in the Arthur Freed unit, the non-Minnelli movies have as many long takes at the Minnelli films. That's just the way the producers cut the films, and the way the directors shot them:
Other studios tended to be heavier on the editing, particularly Warners, where Hal Wallis loved editing (Jerry Lewis said that the one way to insult Wallis was to question his instinct for cutting). Warners films of the '40s are much quicker to cut back and forth between characters than MGM films, which will often keep the characters in the same frame for as long as possible.
But one thing all, or nearly all, movies from this period have in common is that they have fewer cuts than almost any Hollywood studio movie being made today, or even in the last 20 years. Which brings up a question I often wonder about: when did cutting become the default technique for any scene in a Hollywood film? Or to put it another way, when did the two-shot turn into a special effect?
I remember that in the '90s, when I first got interested in "classic" film, I started noticing that contemporary films had all kinds of edits during a scene that an older film probably wouldn't have had. Even at cut-happy Warner Brothers in the '40s, it was reasonably common to at least use the master shot for the first part of a scene before cutting in, or to keep the characters in one shot when it would enhance the comedy (like the "shocked, shocked" scene in Casablanca). But by the mid-'90s, even if characters were sitting on a park bench or in the back seat of a car -- sitting side-by-side, facing the camera, nothing obstructing our view of either character -- the scene would cut between them almost immediately. It wasn't only Hollywood movies, because non-Hollywood movies also seem to have more cutting than they used to, but it's more pronounced in Hollywood films.
The saddest example of this from the mid-'90s was the Pacino/DeNiro scene in Heat, which after all the hype, almost never had them in the same frame together. That's cinematic malpractice, but it was the logical culmination of the idea that a two-shot is, in essence, a special effect or a gimmick. Whereas at MGM or Paramount in the '40s, the two-shot was an essential part of film grammar.
There are many reasons why this happened: the increased ease of editing, the increased power of editors. The lack of directors who "cut in the camera" to protect their shots (John Ford, Orson Welles, et al would shoot important scenes with no "coverage" to make sure they couldn't be re-cut). A reaction against the '50s and '60s when Hollywood movies went too far in the opposite direction, trying to fill the CinemaScope screen by going as long as possible without cutting in.
There's also the increased use of practical locations instead of studio sets, as well as the increased emphasis on realistic placement of the actors. If you're going to put the actors in positions that actually look like where people might really sit or stand, then it's unlikely that both of them will be in clear view of the camera. (This is one reason why from the '50s onward, multiple-camera television shows rarely use two-shots or long takes: the actors have to be positioned in a way that makes them visible to the audience, and then the cameras have to catch them wherever they happen to be.) Whereas you'll notice in any Minnelli movie, there are scenes where the characters sit or stand in very awkward or artificial ways, so that they'll both be clearly seen in the shot.
But I think Hollywood movies today have gone too far with the over-editing, losing sight of what can happen when you put two actors in the same frame and let them interact. It often seems like movies are obsessed with picking and choosing the best bits of each take, whereas it can often happen that the "flawed" bits of a long take -- the ones that would be eliminated in editing -- give a scene its character and spontenaity.
Here's a scene from the master of the long, static take (that is, long takes with little or no camera movement, as opposed to the fluid takes of Minnelli or Ophuls), John Ford, in Two Rode Together. If Ford had cut in, selected bits of other takes -- though he didn't even do other takes for this scene -- it would be less rough, less funny and less real. It wouldn't be worth the greater "realism" of letting them move around more, and it wouldn't be more "cinematic" than doing the scene with cuts.
Why isn't that movie on DVD, by the way? Ford, Jimmy Stewart, Richard Widmark, a Western -- is there some kind of rights issue preventing Sony from bringing it out?