It's A Montage In There


Recently I was asked by the Australian Screen Editors to give the opening address at their annual awards night in Sydney. After experiencing a pleasant egotistical flush of mild flattery, I explained that I would have to turn down their invitation. The reason was simple. I felt entirely unqualified to brief a roomful of professional film and TV editors on editing.

Lest this sound a note of nauseating modesty, I quickly added that my colleagues in the Australian Film Critics Circle were equally unqualified to pronounce on editing. This, despite the fact that for several years they have annually given a prize to what they consider to be the year’s best edited Australian feature film. When the award was introduced a few years ago I unsuccessfully tried to convince my colleagues to drop the idea. Ever since I’ve refused to vote in that section even though I vote on best direction, cinematography and acting, which are also specialist crafts. Here’s why.

Great editing is often invisible. Not always, of course. Think of Thelma Schoonmaker’s dynamic work in the boxing sequences of Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull and you have an obvious example of editing that works like an artful punch between the eyes.

Jill Bilcock is the best known Australian screen editor working today. It’s significant that she’s renowned for her work on Baz Luhrmann’s Strictly Ballroom, Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge, where the editing tends to be quick. Many would be surprised to learn that her resume also includes films that are less demonstratively edited like Blessed, The Young Victoria, Catch a Fire, Road to Perdition, Elizabeth, The Dish and Evil Angels. Bilcock adapts her editing style according to the material and the director with whom she’s working. She’s certainly not going all out to be noticed.

Even slow editing needs to have a rhythm. An editor must not only ensure that a film makes narrative sense but also that it makes emotional sense.

I was knocked out by Anthony Buckley’s extraordinary editing in the recently restored 1971 Australian classic Wake in Fright, directed by Canadian Ted Kotcheff. The gambling in the pub and the kangaroo shoot are nightmarish sequences that will remain imprinted upon the minds of anyone who sees them.

Buckley, who would go on to greater recognition as a film producer, edits expressionistically here. He presents intense, almost jagged montages that assault the viewer. Watching these scenes, you know you’re watching something that’s been edited, in the same way you watch Citizen Kane and become quickly aware of the way it’s been directed.

More frequently, however, an editor‘s job requires the assembly of sequences that don’t draw attention to the way they’ve been spliced together — even most of Wake in Fright works in this way. An alert critic may be slightly more alert to this than the average filmgoer — but not by much. The critic will already be not only following the narrative but looking for metaphors, themes and subtext, constantly assessing performances and cinematography. In other words, quite enough to occupy the mind. Editing will usually only be obvious when it’s fast and abrupt or during scenes that go on for what feels like too long. And when a film contains one or more bold montage sequences, the director tends to get the public credit — not the editor.

What no viewer can really know about is what material the editor has left behind on the cutting room floor (or, more correctly, on their hard drive, since films are now edited digitally). An editor is at least partly responsible for the kind of performance an actor gives because they choose the takes and give shape to the overall performance. A different assemblage of takes can give an entirely different impression of an actor’s interpretation of their character.

Another thing that makes an ignoramus of virtually everyone shut out of the editing suite is the exact nature of the relationship between director and editor. Of course the director takes final responsibility for a film but — at the risk of uttering a deadly cliché — film is a collaborative medium. Some editors like to spend a lot of time in the editing room working closely with their editor while others give a lot of leeway. No outsider can know the nature of this relationship on any particular film unless they have been briefed by those in the know.

Of course in spouting all of the above I had, without intending it, prepared a speech. Thus it was I ended up delivering remarks along these lines to a room full of professionals last weekend. Nobody hurled cabbages. Some even approached me afterward and told me they agreed. So as nice as it would be for film critics to publicly celebrate the work of our most talented editors, it’s probably not such a great idea.

Sorry folks.

And for the record, Samson and Delilah, edited by Roland Gallois, was named Australian Screen Editors’ best edited local feature of 2009. You can read the full list of winners here. The 2009 Australian Film Institute Awards take place in Melbourne this weekend. The nominees for best feature editing are: Nick Meyers for Balibo, Jill Bilcock for Blessed, Mark Warner for Mao’s Last Dancer and Roland Gallois for Samson & Delilah.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.