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?


Anonymous said...


A few possible explanations.

1 - I notice that the term "New Wave" do not appear in this post. Do you not think that the jarring cutting they did eventually inbreed into just quiet scenes?

2 - Perhaps some filmmakers had in mind the films would be cropped for television, and over-edited to accommodate it, but I doubt it.

3 - Or maybe the rise of ADD made the filmmakers over-edit fearing that they'd lose the audience's interest.

The Ford clip (great quality from a great movie I have in bad shape, BTW) is an example of how wonderful and interesting a scene can be of just two people talking. Thanks for posting it.

Bill Peschel said...

During our great DVD Splurge a few years back, we bought a lot of movies from the '80s and early '90s, and noticed the same thing. Longer shots, a lot less editing (also a lot less cursing, look at the extended teen-party scene in "Say Anything" -- with almost no cursing (I think the whole movie maybe two explicatives) and one kid huddled over a toilet bowl (no signs of vomit). I shudder to imagine how it would have been handled today.

I don't know where the boundary year lies, but we just saw "Mad Dog and Glory" (1993) with Bill Murray and Robert De Niro. Low-key character study -- it's fun to watch both of them play against type and succeed. (In brief, De Niro plays a mild, good-hearted police photographer, Murray a loan shark who wants to be a stand-up comic, and Uma Thurman the girl between them). In two scenes, they're on a stoop, talking, and it's a two-shot with not much editing. Good pacing, not hyper, but it gives you time to take in the situation, and their acting. Fine movie.

I suspect part of the problem is that some of the directors are influenced by music videos, or came up from their ranks.

Steve said...

Check out Peter Bogdonavich's "What's Up Doc" for some long takes. I was surprised at that when they were pointed out in the director's commentary. But Peter admits he was going for the feel of the '30's screwball comedy style of Howard Hawks.

The MTV influence has definitely changed cutting practices. CGI makes it easier to cut within special effects shots. I wish I could remember what show it was, but I recently watched something where two people were talking on a park bench, and the camera actually 360'd completely around the bench during the conversation. Back when I went to film class, that was called Showing Off.

J Lee said...

To understand the cultish fetish for cutting in today's movies, you really need to go back to where many of today's directors either got their starts or became enamored of the technique -- by watching the music videos of the mid-to-late 1980s.

That's where, in lieu of any ability to create action with a bunch of people either singing and/or playing instruments, the rapid cutting technique to create a feeling of action really took hold, and in some cases with cuts as rapid as anything Frank Tashlin was experimenting with in his cartoons of the mid-1930s.

The idea to bamboozle the viewer into believing there was more action going on than there actually was did make MTV a hip place to be for about half a dozen years or so, and that idea of keeping the images shifting to avoid letting people know nothing much was really happening in terms of plot or character began making its way into feature films by the late 1980s, and into some TV production even before that (remember, the idea behind "Miami Vice" from NBC's Brandon Tartakoff was "MTV Cops").

If there's actually a reason to be throwing all those rapid-fire images at a viewer, then it's a useful technique; but as used by most directors, it's more akin to a strobe light at a discotheque during a boring dance song. You may think the changes mean something's happening, but it's not.

Anonymous said...

Commercially, the evolution of where we are now cinematically took hold with the accelerated cutting of MTV, then things like the TV show NYPD BLUE added incessant hand held shots, then former music video directors began shooting on five different film stocks. But those are just the mainstream influences. Orson Welles actually did all of this stuff first in his "F for Fake" movie, the last feature he completed. People thought his cutting had gone south at the time, but Welles was, as things turned out, no less visionary than ever.

Edward Hegstrom said...

I'm tempted to spend all my time quibbling with your characterization of Minnelli, but to answer the title of the post, I think movies became relentlessly over-cut around the time digital editing techniques became the norm.

Consider Martin Scorsese. Though his cutting always betrayed a certain flashiness, he always held still for his actors--remember the many long takes in "Taxi Driver" or "New York, New York" (partly an hommage to Minnelli...Hmmm) and "The King Of Comedy".

But once he (and Thelma Schoonmaker) got hold of an Avid, such moments went out the window, and it became cut, cut, cut. The quality of the performances suffered, too--the actors lack the space to find their own rhythms, and fall back on their usual mannerisms (especially Alan Alda and Alec Baldwin in "The Aviator" and Jack Nicholson in "The Departed"). The films suffer in much the same way--they can't find their own identity because their restless auteur is covered in flop sweat, afraid the audience might get bored.

Jaime J. Weinman said...

I'm tempted to spend all my time quibbling with your characterization of Minnelli

Go ahead -- though keep in mind that the comparison to Curtiz is basically a compliment.

Guy Nicolucci said...

You picked one of my favorite not-so-great Ford movies, "Two Rode Together," and you picked the best scene in it. Made my day.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Great post, and some great comments. I agree films, and television shows today, are over-edited. I wonder how much is due to technology and how much is due to our (perceived) shorter attention span.

Edward Hegstrom said...

Well, since you asked...

Curtiz was, as you suggested, basically a craftsman. He understood his job was to tell whatever story was assigned to him, and he did his job with competence, and occasionally brilliance. He was, no doubt, one of the finest jobbing directors in Hollywood history.

Minnelli always exerted a great deal more control over his material, from "Cabin In The Sky" onward. Yes, as a staff director at MGM, he occasionally got stuck with assignments he hated, and when that happened, the results could be pretty dire. ("Kismet" would be the obvious example.)

As a stylist, Minnelli's used the strange, vaguely exotic textures he favored in ways that enhanced even the most innocuous material. "The Long, Long Trailer" is ostensibly a slapstick comedy starring TV's Favorite Couple, but it charts their relationship as it falls apart, and it is shot in the same lurid colors as "Some Came Running." To someone as meticulous as Minnelli, that choice had to be intentional, and it gives the movie an unbalanced feel, making the slapstick more painful than funny.

I'm not a huge proponent of the auteur theory, but I've always thought Minnelli could be used as an example of a studio director who really WAS the author of his films.

Anonymous said...

"The Long, Long Trailer" is one of the unfunniest comedy films ever made. It is a veritable canonization of comic cliches. Wonder what Lucy and Desi really thought of that thing?

Steve said...

I caught "Trailer" in progress Sunday afternoon and missed the credits. I didn't know Minnelli directed that thing. Ye cats. Imagine Minnelli trying to direct The Queen of TV at the height of her power. Kinda like Coppola trying to tell Seinfeld how to do stand up. I'll bet there was a lot of aspirin taken on that movie set. Up until now, I just blamed the script.

You're right, Edward. Watching Lucy fall in the mud was more painful than funny. On TV, Desi Loved Lucy. In "Trailer," Desi's a jerk. It should've been called, "The Long, Long, Divorce."

Stephen Rowley said...

David Bordwell's book "The Way Hollywood Tells It" is worth a read for a look at fast cutting and other forms of what he calls "intensified continuity."

Anonymous said...

"Intensified continuity" has to be a term originated by a creative executive.

Stephen Rowley said...

No, an academic. :)

Don't let that bit of jargon put you off - it's a very good and accessible book.

rich said...

As one who dabbles in screenplays, I get the criticism that "nothing is happening here" when I have two characters talking, and they're "not doing anything". Your clip of Widmark and Stewart talking is frowned upon now; not just from a directing standpoint, but from a writing standpoint.

Anonymous said...

Good comments rich and all I can say in response is "hence the plethora of shitty films being made now."