Of all the cinematic elements, editing probably stands out as the most peculiar and unique for the film art. True, there is editing in writing, but it is not quite the same. Editing a text is most often the process of ironing out of speling, tyipng punctuation and stylistic errors, the removing of sentences, paragraphs, etc. But the text more or less exists before the process of editing—it is not like the author has written a list of sentences that he then has to put together to make up the “final cut.” Although, of course, there are exceptions such as the Beat novel “Soft Machine” by William Burroughs which consists of cut-ups from a previously existing text, therefore it is maybe closer to the cinematic meaning of editing.
Film editing can mimic literary editing too. The in-camera editing used by experimental filmmakers such as Stanley Brakhage is somewhat closer to the more linear editing for writing. But the majority of the times, the editing of a film is essentially the stage of putting it together into a final form. A movie like La Jetee, for example, derives all its cinematic and kinetic energy from the editing. The film’s still images come to life and create the illusion of temporality and movement only through the complex sound editing, timing, and rhythm (as Terry Gilliam noted), and the dissolves, fade-in, and fade-out transitions.
Similarly, in Hollis Frampton’s Nostalgia the main theme is the relation of sound and images and the way they create temporality. The film gets the idea across mainly through its clever asynchronous editing. In Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac, the non-diegetic text and graphics (which, of course, were added in the editing room) intentionally diminish the realism of the movie. Change the editing for any of these films and you will no longer have the same product. It is editing that defines and shapes them as films.
“Editing” is a misleading term as it usually suggests the process of “fixing” an already existing product. But for cinema, a more accurate term is probably “montage”—the act of putting together. The Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein was one of the first to use the term in his theory of montage. He argued that an editing of two shots has the ability to create meaning beyond the sum of the individual shots. In other words, he recognized the potential of editing to transform the cinematic language.
In an interview, Francis Ford Coppola said “the essence of cinema is editing.” His description of editing sounds similar to Eisenstein’s.
[Cinema] combines so many other art forms, as do theater and opera, but the essence of cinema is editing. It’s the combination of what can be extraordinary images, images of people during emotional moments, or just images in a general sense, but put together in a kind of alchemy. A number of images put together a certain way become something quite above and beyond what any of them are individually.
A famous pop-film example of editing is Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction with its non-linear narrative. But this was not the first, nor the most striking example. Although not quite as elaborate and disjoined, Victor Sjöström used non-linear narrative with flashbacks for his 1921 film The Phantom Carriage. Christopher Nolan’s Memento used editing to emphasize its themes of memory loss, confusion, and self-delusion by alternating scenes in reverse chronological order with scenes in chronological order. One of the most recent examples of non-linear editing is The Broken Circle Breakdown, which was nominated for the foreign film Oscar. (Stay tuned for filmslie.com’s upcoming discussion of the editing techniques in The Broken Circle Breakdown.)
So here is a short clip that attempts to explain the roles of the editor in a very visual way. The idea that probably stands out the most is: “The less you notice our work, the more successful we have been.” It depicts editing as the complex and arduous process, which if done well appears seamless and natural to the audience.