The Dance of the Editor: Editing for Meaning in Film

By February 22, 2011R is for Research

Hello, campers.

Its been such a long time since I’ve been on here.  My apologies.

This week, I thought we look at how editing constructs meaning (with two highly entertaining examples…I feel).

In keeping up with my research, I encountered a very interesting article: Kenneth Dancyger’s “Editing for Subtext: Altering the Meaning of the Narrative.”  The article doesn’t ultimately say that editing is subversive to the narrative, but rather that within the editing of a film, there is great potential to enhance the narrative as well as create a home for subtext, he writes

“random shots could collectively achieve greater power than individual shots, how shock juxtapositions could alter meaning, the range of possible meaning that was possible from discontinuity editing (the jump cut), and the power of sound to shape as well as to alter meaning.  But throughout history, two guiding principles dominated editing: narrative clarity and dramatic emphasis” (Dancyger 38).

These are the principles that guide Dancyger’s investigation of film editing.  He works with films such as Saving Private Ryan, The Departed, There Will Be Blood, Lust, Caution, and Moulin Rouge to create a convincing article that shows how editing informs meaning.

This is much in the same vein of what we do in the Writing Center, but (obviously) without the images.  Nonetheless, I think our methods are applicable.  When working with the organization of a piece, the position of topics is highly important to the flow, cohesion, and message of the argument.  Films and even, to some extend, sequences within films carry an argument that the director wishes to convey.  (In short, each scene should have a point.)  One of the many tools used is editing.

Let’s put some theory to practice, yeah?

First, let’s look at some classic film editing:

This is a clip from Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (and, perhaps, one of the best choreographies ever captured).  Yet, as we watch, the editing is pretty straight forward.  It allows the dancing to tell the story of the Brothers winning over the women.  This is not to say it is a bad thing, but even as the tempo quickens at the end as the dance reaches its climax, the editing remains smooth and constant and we are left with a somewhat bland visual engagement. (Again, in terms of the physical construction of the clip.  The dancing makes my jaw drop every time.)

Contrariwise, editing can play a major role in enhancing meaning, as we see in:

In Moulin Rouge, the CONSTANT editing (in one 1min30sec moment, I counted upwards of 34 different shots) further enhances the character’s uneasiness and the jostling of the courtesan (not to mention the drive of the Tango).  The viewer is bombarded with cut-after-cut-after-cut-after-cut and I think a very clear emotion and experienced is created.

If we were to tutor these films, what could we say?  Could we work with the director of a remake of Seven Brides to better craft the argument/point/meaning of his barn dance scene as to better convey the idea of a battle in the construction of the scene.  What about Moulin Rouge?  Has Baz gone too far?  Is the succession of too many ideas too much?

How the director lays out her/his shots is a very clear manipulation of rhetoric. Mr. Lhurmann’s rhetoric plays greatly on the pathos of the audience, which is particularly seen in his editing (those that haven’t seen any other Lhurmann films…they’re all pretty much like this).  If we look back at old silent films, oftentimes the complaint modern viewers have is the jumpy-ness and the inconsistency of the shots.  Is this not the same argument given by teachers with essays that have no flow or cohesive point?

Again, I ask, am I reach for it or can we slowly begin to see film as having rhetorics of its own and how we may be able to tutor the  “writing” of film?

Works Cited

Dancyger, Kenneth. “Editing For Subtext: Altering the Meaning of the Narrative.” Cineaste 34 (2009): 38-42.