Continuity vs. Disjunctive Editing

Editing impacts the perception of space and time in a film and the way an audience perceives emotion and ideas from a film. One of the most important concepts covered in this chapter is the way editing can either “emulate our ordinary ways of seeing or transcend them.” Editing meant to emulate our ordinary way of seeing things is called continuity editing. In this editing style, each shot has a continuous relationship to the next shot, and it is such a standard in the film industry that certain “rules” are followed to make sure the editing is continuous. A cut is largely unnoticed, and the space and time of the scene are believable and realistic. The following clip shows an example of continuity editing.

This first half of this clip from Titanic (1997) shows a conversation between Rose and her fiancé Cal. It begins with a dissolve transition, to indicate a change in space and time. Next, it follows common rules of continuity editing; an establishing shot shows the setup of the characters seated around the table, and then a shot/reverse shot pattern along with over-the-shoulder shots shows Rose and Cal’s faces as they speak. Reestablishing shots are thrown in to remind us of their orientation, but since the 180 degree rule is never broken, the action remains on one side of an imaginary line and the audience is never disoriented. As Rose and Cal look offscreen at each other, we observe eyeline matches, and the camera often shows reaction shots of Rose as she becomes alarmed at Cal’s anger.

However, as we know, realism and verisimilitude (the appearance of being true) are not always primary concerns of filmmakers. In disjunctive editing, the editing is visible, and attention is called to a cut through jumps in time or space or certain rhythms. The following clip shows an example of disjunctive editing.

This clip from Breathless (1960) shows Michael and Patricia riding in a car, and uses jump cuts, where the action is interrupted by a cut. The camera continuously breaks the 30-degree rule by containing a shot that is not at a position greater than 30 degrees from the previous shot. Patricia is shown doing different actions from similar angles, which draws our attention to the fact that there has been a cut and a jump in time.

Both editing styles succeed in generating emotions and ideas, but they are achieved in different ways. Disjunctive editing calls attention to editing itself to affect viewers, while continuity editing allows other elements to impact the viewer. In the clip from Breathless, the jumpy camera movements enhance the jumpy feel of the movie and enforce the urgency and distraction of petty criminals on the run. In the clip from Titanic, we can feel Rose’s sense of feeling trapped by Cal and by wealth by being able to focus on the characters’ emotions and actions rather than the editing. Furthermore, in the clip from Titanic, cinematography and mise-en-scene are also able to play a greater role in adding meaning to the film; long shots of the table are followed by medium close-ups of characters faces so we can sense their emotion. The wealth of the characters and their way-of-life is shown by their costumes and props.

Is one editing style more effective in adding meaning to a story? Will disjunctive editing become more popular and continue to “break the rules” of continuity editing as audiences crave new and exciting editing features, or will audiences continue to need films to mirror real life so that to a certain degree there will always be editing “rules”?

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