Film Program Takes A Considered Look At An Often Overlooked Film Technique: The Edit
Film didn't become art until someone cut it apart. When Edwin S. Porter constructed 1903's "Life of an American Fireman" by splicing footage of real fires with scenes shot with actors, he discovered editing was the revolutionary split separating cinema from theater. A century later, Tom Warner, librarian at the Enoch Pratt Free Library's Sights and Sounds audiovisual department and a former City Paper contributor, wants people to see why the editor's choices matter. He's organized "Jump Cuts," a retrospective screening at 2:30 p.m., Jan. 6, in the Central Library's Wheeler Auditorium featuring, as the program notes describe, "short films that are notable for their imaginative juxtaposition of images as a means of artistic expression."
Warner, a trim blond with a well-groomed mien more befitting a GQ editor than a librarian cineaste, organizes several film programs a year, sometimes arranged around seasonal themes--such as spoofs and knock-offs for April Fools' Day, or female directors for Women's History Month--and sometimes just for fun, like his recent retrospective of Scopitone reels (a film jukebox popular in Europe that played short films set to pop songs, a precursor to music videos). On occasion he includes obscurities from his own collection of videos, but mostly the free screenings are an opportunity to make patrons aware of some of the neglected rarities contained in the Pratt's extensive--and available to the public--collection of more than 2,100 16-mm films and 15,500 videos and DVDs.
Warner christened this program "Jump Cuts," although he acknowledges that "it's probably not the most accurate term," since a jump cut--an edit made between very similar shots, so that people and objects in the frame jarringly "jump" to new positions--is often the mark of an unskilled editor. Then again, many excellent movies, such as Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless and Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver, contain jump cuts to good effect. "There's good editing and bad editing," Warner says. "I just chose `Jump Cuts' because in a lot of experimental films you see a succession of images. They just hit you over the head with it."
The movies selected by Warner illustrate that barrage of imagery perfectly. There's 1973's "Frank Film," a materialist autobiography directed by Frank and Caroline Mouris that sprays the screen with a near-infinite number of color cutouts from magazines and catalogs as Frank Mouris recites the story of his life. There's 1966's "The Pop Show," by Pop Art animator Fred Mogubgub, that shuffles quickly through movie stills, hand-drawn word balloons, and what looks like--but can't possibly be, can it?--a young Gloria Steinem drinking beer and licking her lips.
Any discussion of film editing is remiss without including director Sergei Eisenstein's 1925 Battleship Potemkin. Eisenstein, a devoted Marxist, infused movies with revolutionary fervor not only by glorifying the Communist cause but by re-envisioning the possibilities of the film medium itself. His great contribution to moviemaking was the realization that a movie doesn't happen in its footage, but between its footage, that its meaning is constructed in the imperceptible gully between one image and the next. Warner made sure to include the Pratt's copy of Potemkin's famous "Odessa Steps" sequence, where a series of judiciously juxtaposed images--civilians fleeing, troops advancing, a baby's carriage teetering tensely on the stairs and then tumbling down--convey not only the fact but the feeling of a historic massacre.
"People don't realize how prevalent it is in the culture," Warner says, describing how invisibly Eisenstein's innovations permeated standard film language. "You tell the story through a succession of images, like cinematic flashcards. I mean, when Hitchcock has a train going into a tunnel when some one kisses a woman, is that accidental?"
Nothing is accidental in Jim Henson's 1965 Oscar-nominated live-action short "Time Piece," a charming and lively experiment in synchronized editing that is instantly beloved by anyone lucky enough to screen a hard-to-find print like the one in the Pratt's collection. In the short, a young and lanky Henson rapidly cycles through one surreal situation after another--painting an elephant pink, sproinging up and down on a pogo stick, swinging on a vine like Tarzan, popping his head out of a toilet and yelping "Help!"-- each action synced to the jazzy tick-tock of a snare-drum metronome score. "Time Piece" not only puts Eisenstein's theories into playful practice, but beautifully demonstrates how editing compresses time and space at whim. "You don't have to tell a story in two hours for [Henson's character] to experience all these things," Warner says. "You can do it in nine deft minutes."
Or in less than four minutes, as demonstrated by "Get Down," a visually assaultive video from performance-art group Emergency Broadcast Network, the same guys behind the witty re-edit used in U2's Zoo TV tour that transformed a televised address given by the first President Bush into the Max Headroom-esque ultimatum "We will rock you." "They're total culture jammers," Warner says. "Their modus operandum is to take news feed, news broadcasts, and to turn that found footage into music." "Get Down" loops a dog-whistle note sung by Mariah Carey into a shrieking siren melody line, augmented by a drum-machine track and movie clips of Harrison Ford shouting "Get down!" as the video rapidly cuts through scenes of the Reagan assassination attempt, the televised suicide of R. Budd Dwyer, and a vexed Dan Rather ordering "sons of bitches/ keep your mouth shut."
"The vibe you get is one of fear and violence, `get down' not just meaning funky, but get down, there's a threat," Warner says. "So they're doing a visual pun on that. Sometimes they go so fast on editing that it approaches the Flicker films, the structuralist film guys in the late '60s and '70s. The famous ["Flicker" film] by Tony Conrad was supposed to have almost induced epileptic seizures in some people. At times you approach that, where it's just visual overload."
Aside from courting synaptic shock, what further understanding of the craft of editing does Warner hope people will take away from this program? "Just an appreciation that there is a plan behind what you see," he says. "What you hopefully see is an evolution from the Odessa Steps [sequence]. You can see that was created, not just setting the camera up and panning along. It's almost like an orchestra conductor. Everybody doesn't just show up and tune up and jam. It's a composed work."
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