Editing as Art

Editing forms the basis of how we interact on an emotional and visual level with any film.  An editor’s style and choice of techniques decide which characters we side with, how well we are able to follow the plot, and even allows certain thematic elements to seep into the image itself.  Christopher Nolan’s film Memento (2000) is an excellent example of the power of editing.

Throughout the film, his editor (Doddy Dorn) makes frequent use of eyeline matches and POV shots to put the audience in the shoes of the protagonist, a man struggling with his recent loss of short term memory.  We share his confusion and struggle to ascertain fundamental truths about his situation as the editor makes continuous use of sharp cuts to temporally ambiguous scenes.  We as the audience struggle with every sequence to piece together where it fits into the timeline of his life just as he does.

Though Memento plays with the techniques of temporal editing, it falls in line with the modern style of continuity editing within each sequence, obeying the 180-degree rule and the 30-degree rule, ensuring that during the portions of the film in which the protagonist is able to begin to piece his story together, we as his companions can also piece together his life alongside him.  Though the overall plot is muddled by his memory issues which are reflected in the editing, it is never unclear to us who is speaking, where they are located in the set, or their physical distances from other characters.

However, some films abandon with this modern style of continuity all together, seeking to blur the lines between even the characters themselves.  Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color (2013) uses this technique, or lack thereof, to great effect.

In the third act of the film, his editor (himself) begins to entirely dispose of the current “rules” of film editing throughout sequences that become almost impossible to follow.  He frequently cuts to inserts of scenery or random objects as one of the characters speaks, making it difficult to even tell who is telling these stories that become retold repeatedly.  He also does away with the 30-degree rule in most of the sequences which frame both of the protagonists together in conversation, making disjunctive cuts between shots which are only a few degrees apart, sometimes even canting the camera even between shots.  All of these methods combined together act to distract us and rip us away from any hope of following the dialogue between our protagonists, usually making these cuts at the precise moment we have just begun to latch onto the continuity.

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