Published on June 9th, 2014 | by Hamish Crawford
Movie Editor Hoax: The Not-So-Ace A.C.E.s
Lee Smith A.C.E. and Jabez Olsson. I write these names in order to expose a cruel hoax in the films of 2012. You see, these fellows are credited as ‘Editor’ on two of last year’s longest, most self-consciously epic films—The Dark Knight Rises (165 minutes), and The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (169 minutes). And while I thought both were very good, the idea that they were edited at all is plain false advertising.
It gets worse. Smith and Olsson have supposedly ‘edited’ Christopher Nolan and Peter Jackson’s previous films. And an entire generation of these directors’ fans may suffer irreparable gastro-intestinal problems from not visiting the washroom during their bloated run-times. And that’s just in the theatres—because we all known Jackson can’t resist putting yet more footage somehow edited from the film (so Olsson at least showed up for work one day)—into his DVD releases, extending them several times over and meaning that his devotees probably have spent small fortunes and entire days viewing his handful of films.
Films used to come in all shapes and sizes—a greater variety than we now see. For every 9 hour 22 minute colossus like Abel Gance’s 1927 Napoleon, there were many more films of an hour or less. Obviously, the rise of television made it unlikely that an audience would pay good money for a 65-minute B-movie. There was still a worry about bored audiences, though, and commercial imperatives shimmied films into the 80-120 minute range. The Hammer films tended to be over after 80-odd minutes (which nowadays you’ll only see when a film’s been disastrously re-edited because of poor test screenings). For the frequently penny-pinching horror merchants, it allowed a quick shoot for cinematic pocket change and multiple films a year. James Bond’s first three films all clocked in at under two hours. Among the many post-mortems on the diminished success of George Lazenby’s Bond outing On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969), the theory was offered that it made a bit less than Thunderball and You Only Live Twice because, at 140 minutes, it played fewer times a day than its predecessors, and thus took longer to get into the black (although its $22 million US grosses come out to $124.8 million in 2012 money, i.e. more successful than The Bourne Legacy ($113.2 million). So George Lazenby kicked Jeremy Renner’s ass… fact!).
Let’s get back on topic. After the experimental not-quite-success (but-still-Bourne-ass-kicking) O.H.M.S.S., the next epic-length film of the popcorn-flick persuasion was probably Richard Donner’s genre-redefining Superman (1978). Around the same time, little-known filmmaker George Lucas made a certain virtually forgotten space-set film that (accidentally) stumbled on a way to tell your epic story while keeping the studio big-shots’ coffers full: dividing it up into a trilogy. Ironically, at the same time the movie adaptation of a certain fantasy trilogy that may have given ol’ George the idea was having its wings clipped by a nervous studio. Ralph Bakshi’s The Lord of the Rings (1978) had its ‘Part One’ subtitle removed after execs worried it would put punters off. Bakshi claims that this probably caused the hostility towards his film—the audience expected the whole story and came away feeling short-changed.
In that sense, what we have now is almost the worst of both worlds. Many tongues wagged cynically at the decision to change The Hobbit from two instalments to three, and cries of ‘marketing ploy’ were legion. But the movies themselves are long as well.
Here in 2014, the rubble of that late-70s pop culture explosion is still strewn around us (and likely to remain so, to judge all the fevered speculation about the new Disney-produced Star Wars). Funnily enough, despite the media rhetoric that people’s attention spans are getting shorter (in which case putting this paragraph here was a big mistake), it strikes me that stories are getting longer. Most television drama tells one long story across six, ten, or thirteen hours. The most convincing masochism in Fifty Shades of Grey is the damn thing’s page-count (514 pages). And let me remind you of fellow multiplex run-time abusers: Sam Mendes’ Skyfall (143 minutes), Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained (165 minutes), Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln (150 far worthier minutes), and Tom Hooper’s Les Miserables (158 more tuneful minutes). If you’ve perused even a bit of TV’s fictional output over the past few years, you may find your life significantly shorter.
My personal epiphany hit when I happened to catch two re-releases a while back: 2001: A Space Odyssey and Lawrence of Arabia. Stanley Kubrick and David Lean, two supremely long-form storytellers, I think crystallized that notion that a longer movie is a better one. And it’s about the most obvious observation ever that Kubrick’s icy Steadicam misanthropy and Lean’s loving aerial vistas and Dickensian detail are clear influences on both fellows (even if The Dark Knight Rises is more A Tale of Two Cities than Great Expectations). If the road to cinematic hell is paved with homage, then is it too much to blame these unassailable auteurs for today’s overcooked cinematic banquets?
At the end of the day, there’s no denying the longeurs. For all its visual inventiveness and perfect casting, The Hobbit could have trimmed or conflated a good two or three beasts and traps for its travellers. The Dark Knight Rises could mislay an hour without comment (I’d put Matthew Modine’s useless police chief at the top of my cutting room floor). It wouldn’t just be the buttocks of their millions of attendees that would be better off. Both films would work better for their shorter run times. And I strongly feel that it would take nothing away from their undoubted ambition and quality.
I offer a pearl of smutty wisdom so inevitable it could come from Carry On Film Editing: longer isn’t necessarily better (ooh, missus!). Editing is good. The best editors do more than just ensure continuity and alternation between wide shots and close-ups. They set the tempo of the film. Any film school boffin will tell you about that incredible moment in Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925) when the cut from a prone lion to an upright one creates a jarring sense of movement and action, and also serves as a symbol for the film’s theme of revolutionary fervour. The Soviet experiments where an actor’s expressionless face cross-cut with shots of a bowl of soup, a child, and a woman—and perceived as hungry, sad, and lustful by test audiences—have never been empirically traced, but sound about right. More recently, the iconoclastic editing of Jean-Luc Godard’s nouvelle vague films—where continuity was disregarded, hand-held long-take improvisation ruled the roost, and scenes ended randomly—contributed so much to the rebellious freshness of that genre.
I think it’s time for the nouvelle vague to come back into vogue. Let’s make them short, sharp, and inexplicable. I’d like to see Batman lounging around someone’s apartment making up lines about her break-up. I’d like Gandalf’s latest speech to cut off mid-inspiration for some irrelevant low-angled night-shots of Mordor. If we’re being honest, I think we’d all much rather see that than the more-likely alternative: an Abel Gance-aspiring 14-hour Superman movie.
Five Film Editors Lee Smith A.C.E. and Jabez Olsson could learn a thing from
- Verna Fields (Jaws, Paper Moon, Daisy Miller)—known in Hollywood by the presumably well-meant but horrible-sounding honorific ‘the Mother Cutter’
- Anne V. Coates (another prolific editor with everything from Becket and Murder on the Orient Express to Chaplin and Erin Brokovich—and most notably considering the above, Lawrence of Arabia)
- Peter Hunt (James Bond editor from Dr. No to You Only Live Twice turned director for On Her Majesty’s Secret Service)
- Susan E. Morse A.C.E. (a huge number of Woody Allen films from Manhattan to Celebrity)
- Agnes Guillemot (Alphaville, RoGoPaG, Vivre sa Vie)