There is a sequence in Casablanca that provides context to Rick and Ilsa’s previous behavior and later conflict in the film. It uses a flashback to demonstrate Rick’s passionate love towards Ilsa and later betrayal through a plethora of editing techniques.
It begins with a Rick reaction shot. He is shown staring off into the distance with watery eyes, reacting to the diegetic piano tune. Then there is a dissolve into a flashback – the blurriness of the dissolve gives the viewer a sense of Rick’s intense sorrow at the upcoming memory sequence by letting the viewer see it through Rick’s foggy eyes. A brief montage occurs after this scene which displays the development of the love Rick and Ilsa previously had with each other through dissolves. These show fondness, but also show how little time has passed
When serious dialogue begins between the two characters, Curtiz follows the 180-degree rule to provide continuity to the scene. This makes it easy for the viewer to follow an important conversation that contains a lot of foreshadowing. The scene mentions Ilsa’s relationship with Victor Laszlo. Another dissolve occurs and quickly the viewer is introduced to a new pace through sporadic jump cuts. These signify the chaos of war and the coming chaos of the plot. Also, the cuts introduce a shift from nostalgic daydream to sorrowful tale.
The conversations between Ilsa and Rick continue to adhere to the 180-degree rule and include cuts to close-ups of each other’s faces demonstrating their continued love. However, the lack of dissolve gives the viewer an idea that something has changed between the two. This is when, later in the film, we learn that Ilsa became aware of Laszlo’s condition. This leads to Ilsa betraying Rick. She leaves him stranded on the train station, and Curtiz uses an insert to deliver this news to the viewer and Rick. The insert, an extreme close up of a letter, allows the viewer to share the sorrowful experience through the perspective of Rick because it’s implied to be held in his hands. The water pouring on the letter blurs the text, and the scene cuts away with Rick leaving on a train without Ilsa. This cut is a dissolve that is nearly as blurry as the one in the beginning. Both these events occurring represent Rick’s tears or sorrowfulness at Ilsa’s betrayal.
Masterful editing in Casablanca really allowed Rick’s character motivation to firmly understood by the viewer. The flashback used many editing techniques to really accentuate Rick’s intense feelings of love towards Ilsa. Also, the editing allowed the viewer to accompany Rick in a massive heartbreaking betrayal. That later drives the plot and becomes part of Ilsa’s motivation to fake being back in love with Rick. This supports one of the themes of the film. Lovers will do anything to keep each other out of harms way, even sacrifice their own happiness.
“City of God” is a Brazilian crime film released in 2002 which tells the story of the emergence of organized crime in Rio de Janeiro. It has received worldwide critical acclaim and has been nominated for several awards for best cinematography and editing. The scene I found fit this week’s subject was the opening one that sets the stage and setting of the film. A link has been posted at the bottom of this blog.
In the opening scene we get a very special set of edits in the form of fast paced, and fast-moving cuts. The first 1 minute of the scene simply shows a chicken being slaughtered for food but in this minute, we get several, short and fast cuts (nearly 7 cuts in the span of 4 seconds). In these cuts the camera moves back and forth between a live chicken, a butcher’s knife, a dead chicken being plucked or filleted, a knife being sharpened, a couple of customers and preparers, weapons on the table etc. The fast pace of this one-minute sequence tells the reader that the story takes place in a large bustling city, where everything is moving fast, work needs to be done quickly, and everything occurs in a neighborhood that is poor. The sequence is supposed to build the “hype” for the setting, getting the heart rate elevated to match the pace of the setting.
The next one minute of this scene goes into a chase for one chicken that seems to have escaped. The are lots of cuts and camera movements as the views switch from preparing food in a poor neighborhood to chase of escaped poultry. There are several camera shots showing again, the fast pace of the city setting, the suspense of the escaping chicken, one of the towns folk giving orders and finally the children of the neighborhood in pursuit. Close-shots, long-shots, crane-shots, tracking and chasing shots along with several instances of match-on-action editing when rounding corners or jumping from builds, make for a very artful and ridiculous chase scene.
Lastly there is the final 30 seconds of the scene where the main character has the chicken corned and the kids who where chasing it tell him the catch it for them. Suddenly a police squadron shows up on the opposite end of the road and both sides draw weapons. It is in this scene where a very peculiar camera trick shows. I would usually call this a 180 degree cut, with the main character at it center, but instead of using cameras to cut between the view of the children and the police the main character acts like a pivot and the camera revolved around him and we see the two sides ready to fire. This edit sets up one of the most important themes of he movie: “Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. If he stands still, he’ll be killed in the shoot out. If he stays still, he might be targeted as a suspect to gang violence and might be killed by the police. If anyone knows what this is really called, I’d really like to know what you think. At the very end this camera rotation is used to jump back to his past as a child and I’m very interested to know what the edit is.
Casablanca is an excellent example of continuity editing, through the use of a multitude of editing techniques the film constantly places the characters and locations in time and space relative to each other seamlessly. While watching Casablanca I never had to ask myself questions like, how did we get here? Or where is this? Or when is what I’m seeing happening? All of this editing comes together to eliminate any possible distractions from the story or characters allowing you the viewer to stay fully invested in the love triangle and struggles unfolding around them. One shot shot in particular that doses a good job establishing where rick’s is in relation to Casablanca and more importantly the airport.
In this scene we see the front of Rick’s café as Rick brings his current girl out to send her home, right away in this scene we see a spot light cross the front of the building rhythmically a few times then it quickly cuts to a light house to orient Rick’s in the city.
As seen above the cut to the lighthouse.
Later in that same scene as Rick talks with the chief of police you see both of them look off camera toward the sound of an airplane.
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.
Editing is a key stage in the post-production effort of a film. One of the more interesting aspects of editing that I had never considered was the 180 degree rule. This is a law of continuity editing that states the camera needs to stay on one side of the action line. I had trouble imagining how a scene that breaks this rule would appear on screen, so I found a couple examples to analyze below. The video embedded below is an excerpt from Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining.
Kubrick crosses the line three times over the course of a single scene in the bathroom. These cuts serve to exacerbate the suspenseful atmosphere that the film heavily employs. Each reverse cut temporarily disorients the viewer; a feeling that is in line with the strange and unsettling conversation that takes place inside the bathroom.
Another example of the 180 degree rule being broken is in Quentin Tarantino’s classic, Pulp Fiction. The scene in the video below takes place in a diner with Jules, played by Samuel L. Jackson, attempting to retrieve his stolen items. While this scene is also tense, it does have an air of supernatural suspense like the scene above from The Shining. The camera crosses the 180 degree line near the end of the clip, as all the characters start yelling and tension skyrockets. Tarantino’s decision to break the 180 degree rule has an important effect on the viewer. Since the rise of continuity editing in the 1950’s, the viewer now expects scenes to follow that accepted archetype. Because it is so unexpected, when the camera angle is suddenly reversed, it serves to impress upon the viewer that anything can and will happen. This editing decision elevates the tension of the scene above what simply the acting and sound can achieve on their own because the audience now believes an outbreak of violence is more likely.
Most directors believe editing (post-production) is the most important step in the making of a film. Although a shot is what you see, an edit is how you see it. An edit determines the experience for the viewer and entirely navigates the interpretation of a scene. And very often (unless intentionally otherwise), the viewer is completely unaware of this manipulation. They make it subconscious and seamless so that the viewers think they came to their own conclusions themselves.
Lately, especially with blockbuster films, we primarily see continuity editing– the style of editing that promotes verisimilitude and efficient story-telling. It requires little critical thinking on the viewers side and each shot naturally continues off of the last. This editing technique is usually used when editing is not a primary focus for the film’s development, but instead CGI or great acting performances. (This is actually why the Dark Knight trilogy is amazing– it has it all. The first scene that comes to mind is the parallel editing [alternation between two simultaneous strands of action] of this famous scene where The Joker is yelling “Hit me” while Batman speeds at him with the possible intent of actually killing him).
Unexpectedly, continuity editing is hard to uphold. There are several rules for it to maintain “sense.” Most importantly is the 180-degree rule. If the camera is on one “side” of a conversation (determined by an “axis of action” or “line of vision”), the camera must continue to be on that same side throughout cuts unless at some point the camera moves to the other side. Otherwise, it randomly appears as if the characters switched positions.
Slightly less important is the 30-degree rule. It states that the next shot must change in angle by at least 30 degrees from the current. Not only because a pan/tilt could easily replace the small angle cut, but also because viewers notice this and interpret it as almost an accidental stutter/jump in the film frames.
Continuity editing is easy on the viewer, but hard on the director. Is that what makes it the “default” choice? Because over the years, films have become less about creative expressionism and more about eye candy consumerism? And why in movies that are entirely fictional, do we try to maintain the realism of visual perception? Does that not contradict the fictionalism of the movie itself?