Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Burchfield at the Bijou: Cutting Remarks on BIRDMAN

The day before this year’s Oscar telecast, Mrs. B and I went to see Birdman, the 2014 Best Picture Winner, at the Piedmont Theater in Oakland.  

Take my word for it, Birdman will dazzle your eye and sparkle your mind: superbly acted, ingeniously written, directed, and photographed, with some of the most brilliant camerawork and motion picture editing I’ve seen in years. It’s funnier and smarter than most movies out there.  

Even so, Birdman left me emotionally untouched, my heartstrings firmly knotted (unlike The Grand Budapest Hotel, which left a tender, lasting glow). As a former actor myself, maybe my own experience--not always a pleasant one—with Birdman’s theatrical world left me unsympathetic, unlike the actors, writers and directors—many of them theater people--who make up a large chunk of the Oscar voters. They emotionally identified with the film and voted with their hearts. Good for them. 

Anyway I, as usual, ignored next evening’s Oscar telecast with my usual Hannibal Lecter sneer (wearily explained here), opting to watch instead the following real actual movie on TCM:


Later, I looked over the list of winners and noticed one choice that chipped a shallow dent in my brow: The Oscar for Best Editing went, not to the daring, dazzling, fluid Birdman, but to the more conventional-sounding Whiplash (this generation’s version of Lean On Me, this time set, I gather, in Nazi Tiger Mother Music School.) 

To be fair, I’ve not seen Whiplash but I bet it was a good movie, at least technically. Its editors didn’t assembling its footage with dull garden shears. Yet, I felt mildly surprised that it—and not the bold, sinuous, off-the-wall Birdman—took home that particular statue. 

No no no, I’m not bitter and indignant--just puzzled. It’s still Hollywood’s industry party and they can give Saving Christmas and Kirk Cameron allllll the gold doorstops they want and I swear not to carry on as though ISIL had just struck again and the polar caps had melted and washed our great cities away. 

When it comes to the top awards (Best Picture, Director, Actor, etc.) the Oscars are definitely unreliable as indicators of true artistry. But when you go down a few landings to the technical awards (awarded to homely, gray-bearded mumblers in dull clothes), you might get a better idea of what Hollywood’s working people consider quality work. More than not, they’re right. 

I say this because the next time you watch a movie or TV show—of any kind—I gently urge you to consider the people who do the cutting and the weaving. Who take the innumerable pieces of raw footage and knit them together into something that not only makes entertaining sense, but sometimes makes Art.


Some years ago, I was engaged with a friend in a debate over Apocalypse Now when he remarked that the film was “saved in the editing room.” The claim seems to imply that writer-director Francis Ford Coppola had made a completely bad movie that he had no idea what do with, unlike every other movie which arrives in the editing room full formed where the film editor—often thought of as a four-eyed chump equipped with nothing but scissors and glue—puts it together at the director’s (always an Auteur, the Author) precise exacting orders. 

Later, when I went into screenwriting, I started reading whole shelves of books about the movies, especially the ones about how they get made: The Making of This n’ That, that kind of thing (A wonderful movie by the way. Shame on you for having missed it! When it failed to win the Best Picture Oscar I SHOT MYSELF!) 

One of my favorite and most enlightening reads was When the Shooting Stops, the Cutting Begins: A Film Editor’s Story by Ralph Rosenblum. Rosenblum was an accomplished and innovative film editor, famous for his work with Sidney Lumet and Woody Allen (whom I will stipulate as an actual “Auteur.”) 

It was while working in the editing room on Mr. Allen’s Take the Money and Run that Rosenblum turned to the Auteur and pointed at the exit door: “Young man, you have not shot enough of the right footage to make this scene work! You go out and bring me back the right footage, right now! Or no supper for you! (Last part, completely made up).  

And so out walked Woody (With, I imagine, shoulders bowed, head down, hands in his pocket: “Mr. Rosenblum yelled at me. Okay, I’ll go shoot his silly old footage!”). He later came back with the footage Mr. Rosenblum asked for. The result was a very good, very funny movie was even better and funnier.

When I finished Rosenblum’s story, it came to me that movies weren’t just saved in the editing room. They were made there, more often than realized. Like cinematographers and set designers, film editors were crucial to a film’s form and quality in ways I’d never considered. They were an essential, vital moving part of moving pictures. They, too, became my heroes. 

I love editors. I often wish I were a director just so I could hear them tell me what they need and then I would go out and shoot it. 

Like most movie fans of my generation I was married to the Auteur Theory. Over the years, the theory and I have undergone a separation. All films, even a glory like Citizen Kane (Robert Wise, editor), are a group effort, a synergy of minds and talent, occasionally driven or herded by a singular brilliant individual (the “auteur”) but most often not. To take nothing away from Mr. Welles—who delivers absolute credit as the driving force in Kane Mr. Allen--the individual genius is a contingent phenomenon at best. Sometimes, even Welles was just the onset director in films like The Stranger. 

At one of those torture chambers known as the Writer’s Conference I attended while a screenwriter, I was treated to program featuring Thomas Stanford, the editor of Jeremiah Johnson, a gorgeous and very good western frontier film, starring Robert Redford, directed by Sidney Pollack (who later described the film as being “made in the editing room.”). Mr. Stanford showed us raw footage—the dailies--from a wolf attack scene. 

We watched as Robert Redford, one of the great stars of his era, awkwardly repeatedlt wrestled on cold wet snowy ground with some playful huskies. A couple times they threw stuffed wolves at the star from off camera and he would roll around hugging them, going “AARGH! AARGH!” He would pause and sit there, eyes blinking, sighing heavily (“Life was so much easier—and warmer--on Broadway . . . .”). It was like parents throwing teddy bears at their children on snowy Christmas mornings. No suspense at all. The atmospheric pressure in the auditorium swelled with suppressed giggles. 

But next, Mr. Stanford showed the final result, after hours of cutting, recutting, adding sound effects and more painstaking whittling until it was shrunk down to a thrilling, punchy sequence that lasted less than a minute, with each shot lasting only a few seconds at most. The stuffed wolf magically materialized into a real wolf. (Unfortunately, I’ve not found reliable footage to share.)



Like prose editing, film editing most often works invisibly. Its effects ring deep in the mind. (Even Birdman’s seemingly one long single take is an illusion. I had fun trying to find where they made cuts.) Most of the time, editors are happy we don’t see their work. Sometimes, though, we can’t avoid it. That can be great (like in The Wild Bunch, Lou Lombardo editor), but it can also be bad, with the rise of MTV-style cutting. Sometimes the craft can be abused to the point of confusion; or to pump up excitement where there is none. 

The list of heroes who work this task is long and nowhere as celebrated as it should be: Margaret Booth (who was MGM’s supervising editor for decades); Walter Murch (Apocalypse Now and author of his own book); Dede Allen (Bonnie and Clyde); and Thelma Schoonmaker (Raging Bull) are just a few.  

(Note the number of women: Some enterprising soul could a write a book: Women in Film Editing. I’d be happy to help you with it. Drop me a line. My scissors are sharp and sure!)


Copyright 2015 by Thomas Burchfield


Photo by author

Thomas Burchfield’s latest (yet to be published) novel is Butchertown, a ripping, 1920s gangster shoot-‘em-up. He is also the author of the contemporary Dracula novel Dragon's Ark, winner of the IPPY, NIEA, and Halloween Book festival awards for horror in 2012. He’s also author of the original screenplays Whackers and The Uglies (e-book editions only). Published by Ambler House Publishing, those three are available at Amazon in various editions. You can also find his work at Barnes and Noble,  Powell's Books, and Scribed. He also “friends” on Facebook, tweets on Twitter, reads at Goodreads and drinks at various bars around the East Bay. You can also join his e-mail list via tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.

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