Nightlies: Editing and Tracking Life


“Primitive” though he might seem by contemporary standards, Georges Méliès (1861-1938) demonstrated the “enormous potential inherent in the editing of exposed film.” That, according to David Cook, in A History of Narrative Film (Norton, 1996). Think of the early practitioners (Thomas Edison, the Lumiere brothers), with their one-minute “entertainments” and stationary cameras: to be sure, Méliès used strictly stationary camera shots, forcing all of the action to happen within the frame of an inert lens, but he was one of the first to string together scenes into something amounting to narrative. And to accomplish this, Méliès had to manipulate the frames, editing out (sometimes literally “cutting” the celluloid) and splicing together (again, literally) scenes for visual effect.

Films can be viewed as edited versions of life. They squeeze together space and time, shrinking geography and making ancient epochs seem more immediate. There are consequences, of course, not the least of which are the crude stereotypes that result from squeezing cultures into one little frame (a problem with most westerns, even up to the contemporary period: there’s only so much film to present the perspective of a diverse group of people). You probably have friends (I know I do) who complain about films “based on a true story” that are full of egregious errors—or omissions; here, life has been edited out, and in some circumstances, we can say that the guts of the story or the person have been ripped out.

Filmmakers like Edwin S. Porter (1870-1941), D. W. Griffiths (1875-1948), Fritz Lang (1890-1976), F. W. Murnau (1888-1931), and others exploited the possibilities of editing, until the tide turned in the the second half of the twentieth century: why not let the camera run a little longer? why not let it linger on strange and perhaps disturbing objects or actions? If film could trim and splice together bits and pieces of human lives, it could also highlight the dark corners, the gaps, that tended to be ignored by other media (newspapers, books, etc.). Indeed, a contemporary film gets the label “controversial” for not editing, in a certain sense, content that others might wish stayed in that dark corner. For not editing enough. (For their explicit violence or sex, Bonnie and Clyde (1967), Straw Dogs (1971), and Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975) fit into this category. See this Time article for a list of famous controversial or banned films.)

But films and TV shows can also be very subtle in their composition of life, editing or tracking, lingering on some minute portion within the frame, maybe so briefly we miss it. Directors have sets arranged in specific ways so that every object might serve as a part of the narrative; and sometimes the characters themselves miss these details, delaying the moment in which some important mystery is solved. Maybe even a horrible mystery. Maybe a dark secret that only the camera can illuminate, like a flashlight in a forest. And maybe only when it wants to, at just the right time (again, unless we’re watching closely, and see the black turn to red and let our gaze linger a little longer—or stop and rewind).



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