June 4, 2018

Why the Unconventional Editing of 'Requiem for a Dream' Is Considered 'Good'

If "good" editing is supposed to be hidden, what are we looking at when watching the hip-hop montages of "Requiem for a Dream"?

It's difficult not to notice the editing in Darren Aronofsky's 2000 psycho-drama Requiem for a Dream. From unconventional transitions to, what the director calls, "hip-hop montages", each cut not only calls attention to itself but it also provokes an intense emotional response in the viewer, which are two big reasons why the film's editing is revered by so many. But wait, isn't "good" editing supposed to do the exact opposite, remaining hidden and going unnoticed by the audience?

In this video essay, Jacob T. Swinney of Fandor explores how editor Jay Rabinowitz used stylized editing techniques in Requiem for a Dream to successfully capture the emotional torment and dizzying highs of the film's troubled characters.

"Good" editing comes in many forms, but the style Rabinowitz employed in Requiem for a Dream is worth talking about because it bucks convention in such an obvious way. He doesn't try to hide his cuts but instead uses their presence as a provocateur to incite the audience emotionally. Here are a couple of concepts Swinney covers in the video essay that explains his approach.

Hip-Hop Montage

With more than 2000 edits, Requiem for a Dream has over double the number of cuts of the average 100-minute film from that time. This is largely due to the "hip-hop montages," or a rapidly cut series of fast-motion actions accompanied by sound effects, which depict the characters' drug use. Each of the shots in these montages only last (roughly) half a second, which gives the audience only enough time to recognize what is actually contained in the picture: a flame from a lighter, boiling liquid, a syringe, dilating pupils. They don't have enough time to think about what they just saw, only enough time to respond physiologically, with a quickened heartbeat, sweating, or even feelings of anxiety, discomfort, or confusion.

Inductive Editing

If your goal as an editor is to make your audience uncomfortable and confused, using inductive editing is one subtle way to do it. As Swinney demonstrates with his scene example, the audience isn't granted the small favor of knowing where the scene is taking place, who the scene's about, or what is going on. By introducing the scene with a close-up of a character the audience doesn't know talking to characters they can't see about something they're not aware of is not only agitating but it mirrors the desperation felt by Harry and Tyrone. 

  • Audience: Desperate for information about the scene
  • Harry and Tyrone: Desperate for money to buy drugs

This technique is used in other films and TV shows to produce the same unsettling, suspicious reaction, notably in Big Little Lies which often opts out of establishing shots in favor of tighter shots, effectively leaving out enough information to force the audience to be more engaged in futile fact-finding. In other words, the audience is always questioning, always responding emotionally, always trying to fill in the holes that the editor has left out on purpose.

So, what is "good" editing? Perhaps the answer to that doesn't pertain to technique, but rather to purpose. Does the editing make your audience feel the way you want them to? If it doesn't, you probably have more work to do.     

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