What Jean-Luc Godard's 'Breathless' Can Teach You About Jump Cuts & Editing
To members of the so-called "MTV Generation" (roughly, those who were born/had cable/were young enough to care about Quiet Riot videos in or around 1981), nothing is off-limits when it comes to the methods and effects used in movies and TV, and the notion that there ever was such a time seems bizarre and anachronistic. But yes, Virginia, there was a time when TV commercials were not edited like a Michael Bay film (there was even a time when there were there were no TV commercials, per se. I know, I know. Crazy.) What does this have to do with the price of potatoes, you ask? Nothing, but it does have a lot to do with the history of editing in cinema, a history that goes all the way back to the 19th century and is a vital history lesson for any indie filmmaker.
No doubt, you are familiar with the "jump cut," even if you didn't know its name. Simply put, a jump cut is, "an abrupt transition, typically in a sequential clip that makes the subject appear to jump from one spot to the other, without continuity." Continuity in film and video is really an illusion, just like the essential mechanism behind film (i.e., a series of still pictures, projected at 24 frames per second to give the sensation of continual and life-like movement.) At the birth of cinema, most films were composed of one shot, and were essentially documentary, showing real life events. Some of the first examples of jump cuts occurred in the work of French magician and filmmaker Georges Méliès, who is credited as the "father of the jump cut," which he discovered by accident and first used as a special effect in his 1896 film, The Vanishing Lady.
But while this is technically a jump cut, it is not what we think of when we think of the term, as Méliès is going more for a special effect, i.e. using the cut to create an illusion, rather than for its own sake. Gradually, the rules of film editing began to be codified, especially in the US, and D.W. Griffith's two films, Birth of a Nation and Intolerance established many of the conventions of so-called "continuity editing," or editing where, although there is a "cut," there is no temporal or spatial disruption. A key thing to remember about this editing is that it is usually "invisible," or not apparent to the viewer. In continuity editing, when two people engage in an on-screen conversation and the image cuts back and forth between their two heads, we are not meant to notice.
We accept the cut because it resembles the way images are juxtaposed in our dreams. In fact, the abruptness of the cut may be one of the key determinants in actually producing the similarity between films and dreams.
Most mainstream (read: Hollywood) films made use of continuity editing, only breaking the illusion of reality when a certain effect was desired, though whole movements of avant-garde and art cinema far too numerous to go into here experimented with new and exciting techniques in film production. But it wasn't until 1960, with the release of Jean-Luc Godard's first film, Breathless (or, À bout de Souffle, "out of breath") came out and shocked audiences, that the jump cut as we know it today would enter the popular film vernacular.
Godard's low-budget crime film, about a movie-obsessed hoodlum and his American girlfriend, was a sensation upon its release for its documentary feel and gritty aesthetic, like another French nouvelle vague (new wave) film, François Truffaut's The 400 Blows, which had, the previous year, brought world attention to the work of a small group of French filmmakers loosely grouped around the magazine Cahiers du Cinéma. Breathless, edited by Godard and Cécile Decugis, made extensive use of jump cuts in a new and exciting way that provided the film with a kinetic energy:
The reasoning behind these cuts has long been the subject of debate, with many stories circulated. The director (who just celebrated his 84th birthday!) himself has said that they were the result of economic necessity, because the film he had made was roughly two and a half hours long and the film he had been contracted to make was 90 minutes:
"I remember very clearly -- how I invented this famous way of cutting, that is now used in commercials: we took all the shots and systematically cut out whatever could be cut, while trying to maintain some rhythm."
This video essay by Richard Strong explores the evolution of the montage, pioneered primarily by Sergei Eisenstein, and explains how it set the stage for the introduction of the editing techniques found in Breathless. Check it out below:
No matter how it happened, the jump cut had a tremendous impact on the audiences who saw it, but it would have an even greater impact on the so-called "film school generation," directors like Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola, who were among the first American filmmakers to learn about film in an academic environment. In a time before YouTube or even VHS, universities were frequently the only repository of old films, which were often mothballed following their release. These young directors, as well as filmmakers like Arthur Penn, who used jump cuts in 1967's Bonnie and Clyde (editor: Dede Allen), one of the first major Hollywood releases to incorporate new wave effects, started to change the landscape of mainstream film.
These effects made their way from the movie theater to the TV screen as commercials began to be directed by a new generation of film- school-educated directors and editors, who needed to communicate, in 30 seconds, as much information, in as startling a way, as possible. And many of these same people were behind the new videos on MTV. To take one example, the immortal 1986 clip for "Everybody Have Fun Tonight" by Wang Chung is made almost entirely out of jump cuts. (And I think this might be the first time Wang Chung have ever been referenced in a serious manner, except perhaps by members of Wang Chung. I kid.) Another example of this effect is the video for Peter Gabriel's "Sledgehammer," though there it could be argued (by whom, I have no earthly idea) that the effect is more of a stop-motion animation one. Regardless.
Today, the effect is ubiquitous and with the advent of NLE software available to every filmmaker, the jump cut is about as avant-garde as, well, a Wang Chung album. But with the effect everywhere in film and TV, it is no doubt familiar to every filmmaker, whether they know it or not. (You may have even used it and not known what it was called!) And since this could only be but a (very) brief survey, if you have any examples of jump cuts you think are particularly effective, please share them in the comments!