Rhetorical Answer

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A response to the question never asked

The Art of Editing

In contrast to the Sound Design course, the Art of Editing course I just started turns out to be a more traditional humanities theory course: an analytical discussion of film editing techniques in the context of in-class screenings. Back in high school, I loved classes in which topics were subjective and there was no such thing as a wrong answer. Having since endured four years of training in an engineering school, however, I have learned that it’s important to be specific when defending an idea because being vague can be just as unhelpful as being wrong.

I have also learned, independently of school, that the most meticulously researched critical analysis of art can turn out to be complete BS. Alfred Hitchcock’s granddaughter once took a film class and wrote an essay, with her grandfather’s help, analyzing one of his movies. When she showed him the poor grade the analysis received from the instructor, he could only respond, “Well, it was the best I could do.” (I paraphrase from memory here, but you can watch the entire Mary Stone interview on the DVD special features section of To Catch a Thief (1955)). So I had to stifle a little skepticism as I stepped into my first session of The Art of Editing.

The class started with introductions such as the ones I imagine I missed in Sound Design last week. Quite a few of the other students already work in the film and television industry, and I hope to learn more about their day-to-day work experiences as the semester progresses. Since the course has no project lab component, though, I’m not sure what opportunity there will be to socialize. From what I’ve heard, their schedules sound pretty packed, Not that mine is any less so, of course, but theirs make for more interesting cocktail party discussion.

Getting down to business, we watched the first ten minutes of The Piano (1993) and discussed various editing choices the filmmakers with a few vague observations sprinkled with terms like “symbolism.” My internal warning light started flashing at that point, but I did glean a few tips regarding efficient characterization. I was also reminded that I should watch the entire movie again sometime, as the first ten minutes were totally absorbing, and I confess to being a little disappointed when the instructor stopped the DVD player for discussion.

Next we saw a short set of very interesting documentary and narrative films created by the Lumière Brothers, who invented the first movie camera in the 1890s, and an early short by Martin Scorsese called “The Big Shave” (1967). We rounded out the night with the first narrative film called The Great Train Robbery (1903) and an excerpt from Fatal Attraction (1987) to illustrate the evolution from continuous shots to pan editing to more sophisticated cross cuts.

Of all of the clips, the Scorsese film made a particular impression on me. After playing the short, the instructor asked the class what we thought of it. Most people commented that, had they not known anything about the filmmaker’s intent (which was spelled out in a brief on-screen interview with Scorsese beforehand), they would have had a different response to the film. The content was inscrutable enough that the audience could conclude with equal probability that the film was a) boring and pointless or b) a work of genius.

To the viewer leaning toward the first option, certain moments in the film stand out as unusual for no obvious reason. Not being immediately self-explanatory, these moments appear simply ill-considered and ineffective. If, on the other hand, the viewer assumes that everything in the film was a conscious choice by the filmmaker, and if the viewer then brainstorms as to what the filmmaker’s reasons might have been and comes up with brilliant explanations, he tends to go with option b.

The perceived genius of the artist, therefore, depends entirely on the determination and creativity of the critic. I call this the Principle of Inscrutability and look forward to applying it to my own work to elevate it to the level of artistic genius. Feel free to do the same.

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