Monday, November 02, 2009

Post-1968 Movies That Use Dissolves?

This may be a bit of a pointless film-grammar question, but hear me out.

For a long time, the rule in most films was that if one scene happened at a later time than the previous one, the passage of time needed to be indicated by a dissolve. Particularly long time gaps (like the passage of a day) would be indicated by fade-outs. Cutting directly from one scene to another was only used as a gimmick, like the smash cut from "Merry Christmas" to "And a happy new year" in Citizen Kane, or the direct cuts to various nightclubs in The Girl Can't Help It as Tom Ewell takes Jayne Mansfield around the city.

In the '50s, some directors started cutting out the dissolves, feeling that it slowed down the pace (and also produced some ugly-looking color combinations with the newer, cheaper color processes of the era). Robert Wise did it in the movie Odds Against Tomorrow. And straight cuts between scenes had long been familiar in other countries, like Japan; look at Tokyo Story. But the people who really popularized direct cuts were the French New Wave directors, many of whom simply used that type of cut because they didn't have any money to pay the lab costs for process shots. But directors soon realized that audiences didn't need a dissolve to tell them that time had elapsed, and that direct cuts speeded up the storytelling while also being cheaper to do.

For an example of the change, look at The Birds and Marnie, by the same director and editor, made within a year of each other. The Birds uses a few straight cuts for dramatic effect, like the direct cut to Melanie driving to Bodega Bay with the birds in her car. But it mostly uses dissolves to denote the passage of time. Marnie looks the same in almost every way, but it uses straight cuts for all the short time gaps (with fade-outs for longer gaps).

Directors all around the world embraced the straight cut; television drama did as well. By 1968, the same year studios stopped making black-and-white movies, straight cuts became the editing tool of choice; the dissolve was now a special effect, just as the straight cut had once been.

However, there were some movies that continued to use the old-fashioned dissolve technique, and I'm not talking about something like Star Wars, which used wipes as a deliberate nostalgic nod to old serials. The Wild Bunch uses dissolves throughout, one of several strangely old-school techniques Peckinpah uses in the film. (He also used dissolves in his next movie with producer Phil Feldman, The Ballad of Cable Hogue.) And some directors and producers just seemed to prefer the dissolve over the direct cut. It seemed particularly pronounced in Westerns, maybe because they were thought to be aimed at an older audience (though that wouldn't explain The Wild Bunch.). Howard Hawks's last and worst Western, Rio Lobo uses dissolves; I doubt if he ever used a straight cut in his life.

Another movie that dissolves between scenes is The Man Who Would Be King; I haven't seen enough of Huston's '70s work to know if this was something he decided on specifically for this project (which was supposed to have kind of an old-fashioned feel to it, particularly since he had been trying to make it since the '40s) or if it was something he did often. Since Huston reportedly wasn't always around during post-production on Man Who Would Be King, it might have been someone else's decision, but then again it might have been his; I don't know. (Similarly, the fact that The Wild Bunch and Cable Hogue use dissolves might have been Phil Feldman's preference, rather than Peckinpah's; he didn't use dissolves in Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid, which Feldman didn't produce.)

Anyway, if you've gotten this far, my question is this: what are some other movies made after 1968 that use dissolves between scenes, not just as an occasional effect, but as the standard between-scenes transition throughout the film? One other example I can give is Top Secret!, where the ZAZ team decided to use big, slow dissolves at the end of most scenes.


Anonymous said...

Straight cuts were still uncommon enough in late 1960's big studio American films that "A Guide for the Married Man" could propel its momentum by their sheer overuse. In that film the abrupt cuts made wit play sharper.

EJK said...

Coppola uses them a lot. "Kramer vs. Kramer". DePalma. Cimino too.

Anonymous said...

Robert Wise was a former editor and very hands on cutter as a director. Like David Lean (many famous 'shock' and direct cuts in Great Expectations, River Kwai, Lawrence) Wise often imposed very self conscious sound/picture edits in his films, like the 'click clack' editing in Executive Suite, and the sharp "cool" cutting in Odds and the memorable open of West Side Story. He had the ability and interest to experiment with the conventional grammar.

Anonymous said...

You mention the influence of the French wave. The primary impact here was Godard's Breathless and the supposed introduction of the jump cut, which lurched ahead discontinuously within scenes and was a very big influence in general


Anonymous said...

Just watched Mamet's execrable "homicide"--- it's chock full of cross dissolves in almost every scene transition.

Steve said...

I'd have to get out the DVD to check, but I think Bogdonovich was still using dissolves in "What's Up Doc." I know he also used another technique that is nearly forgotten in today's film and video language in that long pan across San Fransisco to the hotel in morning: the Exterior Establishing Shot.

That Fuzzy Bastard said...

One of the great dissolve oddities in post-60s film is Blade Runner, which uses a dissolve in the middle of a dialogue scene (the first conversation between Deckard and Rachel). I've never understood why Scott put it there, given that the film is so very visually careful.

Also worth noting that a factor in the fall of the dissolve was television. As TV's limited editing toolbox became the visual standard, dissolves, irises, and wipes, all pretty much impossible with television equipment, started to seem old-fashioned.

Roger said...

There was at least one dissolve in BLAZING SADDLES, and Mel Brooks might've used them in later films as well (can't remember off the top of my head). Brooks also used another old-fashioned transition, seen in BLAZING SADDLES and HISTORY OF THE WORLD PART I -- a still frame of the end of Scene A "flips" diagonally to a still frame of Scene B, and the action continues.