Editing as Punctuation: How 'Punctuation Marks' in Film Have Innovated Storytelling
"The whole eloquence of cinema is achieved in the editing room." - Orson Welles
Eloquence? How can editing be eloquent? Well, maybe Welles, like many before and after him, understood that editing, like speech and writing, communicates. It contains its own unique language in the form of cuts and transitions that have the ability to introduce new information and ideas.
In this phenomenally insightful video essay, Max Tohline takes a hard look at editing through a very unconventional and brilliant metaphor inspired by a Kathryn Schultz article in Vulture: editing as punctuation. It may change the way you look at editing from here on out.
Editing has many jobs, and Tohline highlights them at the beginning of his video, which were taken from the writings of one of the forefathers of the Montage Theory, Sergei Eisenstein. Among other things, editing can express different kinds of relationships, be they spacial, temporal, graphic, rhythmic, or conceptual, between shots, sequences, or even two subjects within the narrative. These expressions form a kind of language unique to editing, statements that communicate to the viewer something that is important to the narrative and add to their understanding of what's going on on-screen.
And that's usually how we think of editing -- as a language, as a statement or expression, a string of "words" that help give us new information apart from the audio and visuals. However, the brilliant idea Tohline offers up is that the smallest unit of editing semantics, a cut, transition, etc., can be just as moving and iconic as a line of dialog or beautifully composed shot.
Think about the examples from Schultz's article -- reading them is like getting punched straight in the gut: "My very photogenic mother died in a freak accident (picnic, lightning) when I was three..." (Lolita; Nabokov). Why? Because of the authors' creative and innovative use of punctuation, and given that editing, too, has its own "punctuation", it stands to reason that editing can grow and evolve in the same way that speech and literature has. Tohline suggests that editors can also use these "punctuation marks" to introduce new ideas and information in bold, new ways.
He analyzes the five examples from Schultz's article and breaks them down to reveal how each use of punctuation was innovative:
- Disruption through surprise
- Disruption by derailing narrative assumptions
- Disruption by revealing time instead of action
- Disruption by overturning editing conventions
- Disruption by calling attention to the act or substance of the medium
New words are born through necessity and innovation -- new words and new ideas. This is also true for the language of editing. Since the birth of film we've seen filmmakers create new ways to express that which was, at the time, incommunicable. "How do we compress time?" "How do we emotionally connect this sequence with the next one?" "How do we express the mindless drudgery of the modern working man without explicitly saying so?" Well, we surprise, we derail assumptions, we overturn conventions, we call attention.
We innovate so we can then speak more. Eloquently.