One of the criticisms I hear of older films is that they are slow-moving and boring. The editing of newer films is supposed to be faster. This is simply not true. The editing of modern films is different. In some ways, it’s even slower today.
Hollywood today is frightened to death of dialogue and plot. They fear it might get in the way of a good chase scene or fart joke. The problem is that a great number of films jettison so much dialogue and plot that they become basically two-hour chase sequences, and that’s boring. When you have no idea who is doing what to whom, and there is no characterization left to let you know it, then all you can do is sit back in your chair and wait until something interesting happens. Sadly, it seldom does.
Editor Peter Hunt (a pause now in silence for one of the greatest editors of all time) used to say that an action sequence in a film should never be more than five minutes long, or else the audience gets bored. He pointed to Thunderball (1965) as a movie that annoyed him a bit, because he’d cut the scenes the way they seemed to flow most efficiently, and the three producers on the shoot kept overruling him. “Oh, that shot is too good to throw out. Put it back in.” And as a result, he thought Thunderball was draggy in places. He was right. Still, Thunderball’‘s opening fight sequence is one of the slickest and most efficient in film history. It still works today. Don’t believe me? Check this out.
OK, the rocket pack at the end is too silly. But let’s contrast this with a newer Bond film, Casino Royale (2006). Due to legal snags, the original Fleming book couldn’t be adapted as an official Bond film until this was released. The book is a little sparse for a two-hour film. So what to do? They grafted on three chase sequences with just a hair’s breadth of plot to combine them. And each chase sequence was about 15 minutes long. The first one was a foot chase, which was at least pretty compelling, but it was followed by a truck chase inspired by (or stolen from) Raiders of the Lost Ark and then a chase through an airport taken from Die Hard 2 (if they’re going to steal from Die Hard films, can’t they at least steal from a good one?)
As a result, Casino Royale has been running for about 45 minutes before the story really starts, at which point I’ve pretty much ceased to care. It gets worse, because the plotline that Fleming used, which was intense and psychological, is cut to the bare minimum. We can’t have too much of a plot, because we might bore 15-year-old boys who come to see things blow up. It was only due to the fact that I know the book, and I know other versions of the story, that I could follow it.
In case you just missed it, I cited an example in which an older film actually moves faster than a newer one, and it was a film that the editor thought was too slow! The idea now, and increasingly, is that the story doesn’t matter at all, so we need to pad out the action scenes. This means that the video game based on the movie is probably going to be very cool. I guess no one has realized that video games and movies are different media. I’m not terribly excited about watching a two-hour video game in which I can’t participate.
So I’ve ranted enough about the slowness of today’s cutting, and how scenes go on too long. That’s not what most people go on about when they talk about old films being slower. What they’re talking about is that each shot is often longer in older films.
I’m not against fast cutting. You’ll note that the cutting in Thunderball is actually pretty fast. I am against cutting a movie so that you lose a sense of geography in the film. For over a hundred years, we’ve cut movies according to rules. These rules help us understand what is happening in a film. A fight should start with a long shot, which gives us an idea of where everything is located. We might then cut to a closeup of a punch, and then to a medium shot back to a reaction by someone. Establishing shot, insert, reaction…
There are a lot of people who don’t do that anymore. We shoot everything in extreme closeup. I’m not sure why we’ve gone to this, but we have. Some people think it’s because TV is lower resolution and closeups register better with the audience. This means that the filmmakers really are shooting for television even though we may see a theatrical release. Other people say it gives us a sense of immediacy with the action. In my humble, ranty opinion, it does none of that. It’s the cinematic equivalent of an epileptic seizure. We have no idea what is happening, and it’s nothing but disorganized movement. If we combine this with the trend for longer action sequences, then basically it just gives me the urge to sit back in my chair and yawn until something coherent shows up.
I know I’m opening myself up for a criticism that I don’t like anything that’s new. Not true. I want to see good, strong storytelling. Editing is part of that. For example, I was delighted to see Inglourious Basterds (2009). The opening sequence of that film is a thing of beauty. I won’t give it away, but it centers on a German officer (Christoph Waltz) trying to discover the location of some Jewish refugees. The editor stretches out some takes to make us uncomfortable sitting in our chairs. What is he thinking? Why is this scene going on so long? The tension builds masterfully. It’s as good as any scene you’re likely to see.
On the other end of the scale, watch the chase between Sean Connery and Nicolas Cage in The Rock (1995). It’s cut too fast, with too few establishing shots and too many closeups. You can see it here, although I apologize for the squished aspect ratio (and the language is not appropriate for kids). I’ll be blunt here: I love Sean Connery, I love Nic Cage, I’ve visited San Francisco and driven down these very streets. I hate this sequence. I can’t tell what’s going on. It makes no sense; the camera is too shaky, the cutting is too fast. Director Michael Bay made it on to my “banned for life” list because of this film.
You wanna see a good chase scene shot in this same area? Here’s one:” It’s from What’s Up, Doc (1972) made by Peter Bogdanovich. Notice that he uses long shots so that we know what’s happening. It’s not slow (it may be a bit long), but it works. The guy knows how to make a movie! Yeah, I know that the point of the two scenes is different. The Rock is a serious chase with a little comedy and What’s Up Doc is a comedic chase with some thrills.
My point is that the cutting is completely different, and that’s due to what the editor used and what the director gave him. I think it’s insane to make a generalization that older films are slower. Some are, and some aren’t. And you have to figure whether long scenes are slower than quick cuts. It’s hard to measure. Editing is an important and little-understood art. It’s something I’m going to come back to on this blog page. One of my pet projects is a re-edit of a scene from Plan 9 From Outer Space. I’ve contended for years that the worst problem with that film is editing. Stay tuned.