by Justin Chang
Reviewed by Kylah Magee
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Anyone who thought editing was purely a technical or practical sort of job should be required to read Justin Chang’s new book, Editing. Never have I been so convinced of the detrimental role an editor plays in shaping a story. Emotion, intuition, perception, reaction - these are the key words used most often by the film editors in this book who delight us with their experiences working in motion pictures. They inform the reader, and help us understand how imperative their role is in the production of narrative film.
Chang has provided us with a beautiful book that includes not only some of the most exquisite images from film history, but also very in-depth essays from the most successful editors in the industry. To be able to read their first-hand experiences working with great film crews makes this book incredibly enjoyable. Each section features one great editor and includes, in their own words, how they started, who they learned from, their most challenging struggles, and their best experiences.
Since the early days of film, editing was supposed to be invisible and, thus, the editor was much the same. This book explores how essential the role is, and not just for story comprehension (although, without an editor, there would be none). Every editor in this book is the ombudsman between the director and the audience. The editor sees the film as the audience does - the first to see it on-screen rather than on-set like most involved with the production.
This book reveals that one of the fundamental responsibilities of an editor is to convey the “feel” of a scene. There’s nothing very systematic about how an editor works. It’s just a feeling they get when it’s right. The director/editor collaboration is so strong that usually when the editor feels it, the director feels it as well. Often the essays went to discussing the rhythm of a scene, comparing it to music like jazz, where there’s no right or wrong way to portray the art form, it’s just a matter of sensing that something works. As Christopher Rouse explains, “My cutting is more intuitive than cognitive.”
The only obvious omission for me in this book was Thelma Schoonmaker. I would have loved to read an essay from her describing her work with Scorsese and her experience breaking into the business. Chang’s finely detailed work leads me to think her exclusion was not due to him, and I can only hope she’ll participate in the second edition.
“People often forget that a movie is not a movie until it’s edited,” says Michael Kahn. I used to think I was conscious of this but the next time I watch a really great movie, I’ll be thinking about emotion, rhythm, and wondering what the editor was feeling when they made that cut.
Kylah Magee received an MA in film studies from Chapman University and a music degree from Texas State. She has worked with the LA Film Festival and the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas. She currently works as a researcher for a bestselling writing team in Austin, TX.
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