The Cutting Edge

Some of the most interesting documentaries reveal the “hidden” aspects of the movie-making process. The Cutting Edge delves into one of the most invisible of the film arts, editing.

At its simplest, editing is the assembling of shots into a cohesive whole. But editing is so much more than that, as this documentary reveals.

The film follows three dominant paths. The first is a loose history of editing and how it developed. It begins with the usual suspects of Thomas Edison and the Lumiere brothers. Narrator Kathy Bates notes, “They held a shot until they got bored… or the film ran out.” (At the time, the 1890s, films were less than a minute long.)

The history continues with Edwin Porter and his two major contributions. Martin Scorsese discusses the psychological and emotional impact of The Life of An American Fireman, while editor Walter Murch comments on The Great Train Robbery.

D.W. Griffith often is cited as the inventor of the classical Hollywood style, and this film goes through some of his innovations at the time, including continuity, flashbacks, parallel action, and close-ups. Through contemporary examples such as Matrix, the film shows how these techniques continue into the present day.

Of course, no documentary about editing would be complete without mention of the Russian innovators such as Sergei Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov, though the voiceover breezes through the Marxist ideologies underpinning their techniques and focuses more on the propaganda and politics. The filmmakers even recreate Lee Kuleshov’s famous experiment in juxtaposition of images to create meaning. And again, it shows the reach of these techniques by showing the Odessa steps sequence alongside similarly composed shots from The Untouchables and Brazil.

History continues with the innovations of the French New Wave and the use of jump cuts and with the cinema verite editing and the influence on improvization. It wraps up with the controversy surrounding digital editing, which moves editing beyond the limitation of frame by frame. Instead, editors now can edit within the frame, replacing one actor with another, for example.

A second dominant path delves into the challenges that editors face in creating certain types of scenes, including action sequences, suspense, car chases, conversations, and intimate moments. Clips from various films help illustrate these challenges, including the famous Psycho shower scene, Silence of the Lambs, XXX, Out of Sight, Body Heat, Basic Instinct, and The Horse Whisperer. Accompanying these clips are explanations from the editors themselves about what they were trying to accomplish with their editing, all the while revealing the “invisible art” at the same time.

The third dominant path entails the relationships with editors to the industry. At first editors were seen as parts of the well-oiled production machine that was the Hollywood industry at the heights of the studio era. Many of the early cutters were women, as the job was seen as similar to sewing or weaving. Sound, of course, changed that, with more men coming into the editing role. Editors still went unappreciated throughout the classical Hollywood era, but women such as Margaret Booth helped ensure the importance of the role.

This film also shows the relationships that editors have with film directors. Director Ridley Scott likens the director-editor collaboration to a marriage, only hinting at the depths of the working relationship. Quentin Taratino talks about working with Sally Menke on Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction. Alexander Payne and Kevin Trent discuss their visions for the closing scenes of Election. Stephen Spielberg talks about working with Verna Fields on Jaws and about the tensions between less is more. He found that two less frames, which Fields was working toward, would make the shark seem more scary and less like a “great white floating turd.”

Editors themselves get the chance to talk about working on certain films and clips from each illustrate their comments. Tom Rolf talks about The Horse Whisperer, Pietro Scalia mentions Blackhawk Down, Lynzee Klingman talks about Home for the Holidays, and Thelma Schoonmaker discusses Raging Bull, just to name a few.

In addition to these dominant themes, we are witness to Walter Murch, editor and sound expert on such films as The Conversation, Apocalypse Now, and The English Patient, at work in his studio putting together a sequence from Cold Mountain. With him and throughout the film, we learn much about the many details that go into making (or not making) a cut.

The strengths of this film are many, including the wealth of information, the many famous talking heads, the insider insight from the editors themselves, the bevy of film clips, and the minimal voiceover. It shows both the early innovations and their continued influence.

I have three critiques of this film, one related to structure and two related to content. With the amount of information in this clip, a little bit tighter organization might have helped. At times the headers introducing the sequences and the talking heads’ commentary did not align. Second, what about Esfir Shub? She was an editor throughout most of her career, starting in Russia and then later working on Western films as well. Third, what about cinema verite and direct cinema? While the basic premise of these movements is “fly on the wall,” the editing assumes a much greater importance in bringing those films together.

The Cutting Edge is an excellent history and insight into the craft of editing. For those who teach film studies courses, the film offers many clips and sequences useful for showing in class, and the famous names explaining the scenes make for an entertaining lesson in film history.