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Saturday, July 24, 2010

To cut or not to cut... (Klinger/Rousseau)

FID 2010 vidéochroniques #5 from Independencia (11 juin 2010; Marseille, France)

Gabe Klinger : "Directors don't know how to make decisions about editing anymore. Because it's easier to put a camera somewhere and capture something. They are not risking anything! I'm sorry to say it like that but I think they are very safe"

Jean-Claude Rousseau : "Editing is a very important question. To keep a [plan sequence] without cutting, [to edit a long-take with the rest], is some kind of courage filmmakers were not able to dare have years ago. Because from a point of view, the easiest thing to do is to cut. But standing a long shot is not as easy."

Here is the main conundrum at the root of the anti-slow movement (exemplified in this video). Somehow there is a pervading mindset amongst film critics against long takes. They forgot it all about Bazin's "Montage interdit". They forgot that cinema used to be much slower before the 90ies. They forgot that extreme slowness existed long ago, with Lumière, Flaherty, Kalatazov, Ozu... They forgot that Bresson, Dreyer, Bergman, Antonioni, Satyajit Ray, Tati, Tarkovsky, Jancso, Kubrick, Wenders, Angelopoulos, Jarmusch, Garrel, Erice, Herzog, Pollet, Straub-Huillet favoured the long take over cutting up in conventional cut aways. They forgot Experimental cinema developped a very strong alternative to editing : Warhol, Snow, Duras, Benning, Hutton, Dean... This is nothing new!

There is no theory that would discount the value of a plan sequence a priori. There is no intrinsic inferiority of the long take, moreover great masters of the past have proven time and again that the long take works, and works magnificently actually. We could eventually make the argument for the sake of film grammar theory, IF only we hadn't already seen several existing masterpieces prove otherwise in the past! Since these long take masterpieces exist, we can no longer posit such ludicrous hypothetical.

Just like Rousseau says, nobody would have uttered such allegation against the plan séquence a decade ago. Critics never suggested that Tarkovsky or Angelopoulos took the easy road by dodging the problematics of editing! Let alone the action-driven plan séquences of De Palma... For the simple fact that the absence of edits didn't seem to alter or even diminish the efficiency, power, creativity, depth and meaning of their shots. Nobody said Tarr Béla was being "safe" with his extended long takes.

Warhol is an extreme case, within the unruly field of Experimental cinema, and on the edge of Performance arts. Still, it is a revelatory example. Especially since Klinger later admits to loving Warhol's films, while he seems to posit an inherent necessity for editing in cinema, as if not cutting would automatically undermine the quality of a shot, or compromise the integrity of the entire film. This is plain silly! If you start the debate by forging the equation (editing = hard, long take = easy) in general terms, as a universal principle, without any consideration for their respective modalities of application... your argument is bound to be superficial and pointless.

Only the homevideo amateur, or the cellphone recorder, would think that "editing" is more work and involves taking hard aesthetic decisions, thus is obviously harder than leaving it as is, a single take capturing live whatever happens in front of the lens. Yeah, for people who ignore everything about editing, people who are not professional filmmakers, it may seem that way. This is very primitive thinking, in term of film theory.

What you're thinking is that young clueless wannabe filmmakers delude themselves in believing the copycat of a minimalist pattern will be no sweat and that critics won't remark the absence of talent. What you're trying to say is that lax, mediocre films by numbers (that happen to imitate the long take aesthetics) are made by lax, mediocre filmmakers. We knew that. This has nothing to do with editing style. You could easily say the same thing of mediocre mainstream copycats. You're not making a statement about editing superiority. You're using bad films as exhibit, to prove that what they imitate (the actual experts who master this style) is lame. This is so disingenuous.

Alright, if you listen too much to Godard's or Straub-Huillet's lectures, you will conceive an overinflated phobic intimidation for the just, highly significant, almighty edit, precise to the single photogramme, the absolute, exclusive editing point.
However, editing is not the end-all of cinema language. It is important, if you operate within a montage-type of cinema, if you develop a grammar that plays on the collision of images and the transition from one angle to the next. This is one conception of cinema, not THE ONLY possible paxis!

I believe film critics should be able to grasp several conceptions of cinema at once. A filmmaker usually engages strongly down one path or the other, and will develop a similar modus operandi, film after film, because it corresponds best to what they want to do with cinema. But, it doesn't mean that a film critic should transpose what they admire in one film, to ALL THE FILMS. Actually, there is a wide array of editing aesthetics between the polarized extremes of the binary opposition certain people want to impose. Editing is not an either/or question. The artistic decision is a lot more complicated than just an oversimplified "to cut or not to cut" : fast edit or long take; intensified continuity or boredom... There are other questions, equally important : WHEN to cut, and WHAT to do in between cuts.

It is possible for cinema to develop several types of film grammar that might even contradict each others (because they are employed in different situations). Nothing would justify the superiority of one over the other, even within the same context of a particular point in history, in a particular geographical location. This might sound like news to some, especially those who think that contemporary cinema ought to be either technological or nothing at all, either fast or boring, either agitprop or meaningless, either narrative or esoteric. Sorry to burst your Manichaean bubble... cinema is multiform and needs no singular formalist rule. Films define their own rules, which work or not, but do not have to respond to whatever other films do around them, they only need to find their own place within film language, or even to invent another legit form that escapes any previous model.

We should be able to easily appreciate the singular achievements of both Eisenstein and Mizoguchi at the same point in history, even if their individual grammar might be fundamentally in opposition. Just like Godard's and Duras' editing style do not negate each other, each develop a different aesthetic that requires such editing, regardless for what the theory of their counterpart says. Just like today, open-minded viewers can understand the value in the editing choices of both Michael Mann and Tarr Béla, without blaming the other for not being as slow or as fast as the other. Editing speed is not an intrinsic indicator of filmic value (or of artistic laxity for that matter!).

I know that Klinger's implication is more about the intentions behind the decisive choice to cut or not to cut within the shooting of a sequence, rather than simply the resulting speed on screen. Sure. But if we take this problematic in abstract terms (instead of thinking about the workload or the thinking time required by the added editing job), there is no less imagination or reflection in the crucial decision to cut or not to cut.

A long take does not evacuate any worry, just because you know that all you have to do is to keep the camera running. It's easy to understand why wannabe filmmakers would think that this stylistic pattern (not cutting) is the easiest to imitate or emulate. But editing is just one issue (partially) solved... everything else is still to happen within the frame! Mise en scène is a lot more complicated within a long take! Shouldn't this factor make you reconsider your oversimplification of the "long take" style? This stylistic problematic is not as easily resolved.

If it takes more courage, it is precisely because it's harder to confront an extended stretch of time, without the predetermined format of a standardized cutting grammar. Once you've learnt the Griffith crosscutting and the shot-countershot rules, with the over-coverage habit of recent productions (shooting the scene from all possible angles, multiple times, to sort it all out in afterthought, on the editing table, because they couldn't figure out right away what was the best angle and best timing on the set...), the editing issue is as easily evacuated as for the long take. Especially since this fast edit grammar is so basic and tolerant for approximative transitions.

Viewers wouldn't notice as much one mistake (goof, continuity error, axis shift, odd POV...) if the general editing pattern is respected and overall coherent. Viewers receive an editing pattern rather than individual images. There is much liberty for each individual images within this flurry of cuts.
Whereas a mistake (hesitation, dead time, offbeat, blunder, shot scale awkwardness...) will less likely go unnoticed in a "long takes" film. Which is even more obvious to film critics : it is harder to fake (or plagiarize) a plan séquence, because its unity consists of the smallest details and a masterful control of the overall ensemble through and through.

And this is before even mentioning the genius there is in the achievement of a beautiful plan séquence.
I'm baffled by this rampant tendency amongst film critics to expect cinema to only be able to take a single form at the time, at the exclusion of all other alternatives. "If fast is in, then slow must be out", "if editing is in, then long take must be out"... This dichotomous ideology is very disturbing, especially for serious film discourse.

Evolution of Average Shot Length in selected American movies (mainstream, see here for CCC ASL) between 1930 and 2005, showing an overall descent from about 10" to just over 4" (see source below)



HarryTuttle said...

David Bordwell : "Cinephile conversation on the internet is currently rippling around a controversy about “slow cinema.” Whatever that rough category covers, it surely includes those festival films that put the camera in one spot per scene and simply observe. I’d argue that many of these minimalist movies are also AWOL when it comes to staging. After watching a long-take, flatly shot film with me, a Hong Kong filmmaker friend remarked, “This sort of thing is just too easy.” One difference between a solid “slow film” and an empty one, I suspect, lies in the extent to which the filmmakers explore the resources of staging."
1st of June 2010

> The only problem is that minimalist films tend to oppose the idea of a deliberate, ostentatious, fabricated mise en scène (which is the basic ingredient of the Classic age of cinema!)

HarryTuttle said...

"Le plan séquence c'est quelque chose qui ne triche pas, qui a un début et une fin, et qui est un petit moment de vie. On voit que ce qu'a fait le caméraman, ce qu'il a vu, dans son intégralité. Et donc, les gens le sentent et c'est sur que c'est quelque chose qui fait partie un peu - je dirais presque - du "gauchisme" du cinéma. Quand je dis du gauchisme, y'a quelque chose de soixanthuitard là-dedans. C'est pas quelque chose qui me touche 68. Mais c'est le côté politisation, engagement. Y'a un engagement politique dans le plan séquence. Y'a quelque chose de cassé, quelque chose de révolté contre le cinéma américain, contre le grand cinéma. C'est la nouvelle vague, c'est dire qu'avec une petite caméra je peux faire aussi bien que vous. Y'a quelque chose comme ça d'un engagement politique. Politique au niveau de l'image. Donc c'est tout un mouvement. Maintenant qui n'existe plus parce qu'on a plus de raison de se bagarrer comme ça. Mais le plan séquence c'était un militantisme."
Raymond Depardon (17 avril 1990)