Evolution of pace in filmmaking

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Eisenstein opened the door on the issue of pace and a wide variety of filmmakers walked through that door. King Vidor effectively used pace to build an aesthetic tension in the march through the woods sequence in The Big Parade. Walter Ruttmann used pace to capture the energy of the city in Berlin: Symphony of a Great City. And Frank Capra used pace to energize his dialogue-heavy narrative in You Can't Take it With You. The great leaps forward, however, would await the 1950s. In that decade, with Akira Kurosawa's dynamic use of pace in Rashomon—together with Alfred Hitchcock's set pieces in The Man Who Knew Too Much and, in 1960, Psycho—new pathways emerged, suggesting that pace could be used for more diverse purposes.

In Rashomon, Kurosawa presents four versions of the same story, each from a different person's point of view. The interpretations vary widely. Kurosawa's main editing device to underscore the differences in view is variation in the pace of each of the four stories. In the case of Hitchcock, the shower scene in Psycho has become the second most famous set piece in the history of film, and at its editing core it is the changes in pace that move the sequence from anticipation, to the violence of the killing, to the stillness of death.

The next significant development in the use of pace was seen in the work of Richard Lester in the Beatles films A Hard Days Night and Help!. Their dynamic mixture of movement, jump cutting, and variations in point of view (performers, audience, and the media) created a filmic persona of youthful energy and joyful anarchy. There is little question that the effective use of pace in these films accelerated—dare we say it—the pace of pace in film. After A Hard Days Night, commercials and feature films were cut faster.

The next step in the use of pace seemed on one level a reversion to the ideas of Eisenstein. Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch, particularly in its opening and climactic set-pieces, a robbery and a massacre, relies on modulation of pace to create a sense of the chaos of violence. Building out from the death scene in Arthur Penn's Bonnie and Clyde, the massacre that ends in the death of the final four members of The Wild Bunch seems the ultimate use of pace to mesmerize and simultaneously horrify its audience. At this point, pace seems to affiliate with particular genres—the police story in The French Connection, the gangster film in Scarface, the thriller in Jaws, and the war film in Apocalypse Now. In each genre and film, a different purpose might be served, but, in general, the mix of excitement and insight into the fragmented psychology of the main character captures the intent.

Perhaps no filmmaker best encapsulated both of these agendas—excitement and insight—as did Oliver Stone in his 20 years of work as a director, from Salvador through Natural Born Killers. Stone, in his use of pace, seems to be the direct descendant of Sergei Eisenstein by way of Sam Peckinpah. For each of these filmmakers, pace was the primary editing strategy for their storytelling agenda. Each wanted to move their audience by marrying an aggressive editing style to highly political, or at least politicized, content.

Although pace has been more recently affiliated with action directors such as McG (Charlie's Angels), and Tony Scott (Man on Fire), the most aggressive use of pace has been demonstrated by John Woo in his action-adventure renditions of police and gangster films (The Replacement Killers). The most consistent exploration of pace and its possibilities can be found in the work of Steven Spielberg, from Saving Private Ryan (1998) to War of the Worlds (2005). In order to clarify the changes in the use of pace, we now turn to its use in four different genres, starting with the docudrama.


Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne made Rosetta in 1999. Since then, they have continued to refine their approach in Le Fils (The Son) (2003) and L'Enfant (The Child) (2005). The style is essentially a cinéma vérité approach—handheld camera and the absence of lights and music.

Rosetta is the story of a 17-year-old girl. The film begins with her being forced from a factory job, and essentially the film follows her efforts to secure a full-time job in order to stabilize a life marked by a trailer-park existence caring for an alcoholic mother. A young man (Riquet) who works at a local waffle stand is interested in Rosetta. He confides in her, shelters her. In the end, she betrays him to his boss to secure his job. Riquet has been making waffles at home and selling them at the stand—in effect, stealing from his boss. Rosetta reports him and gets his job, but life is too challenging. She gives up the job and the film ends with Rosetta unsure about the future—not knowing whether she should take up with the young man or continue her hand-to-mouth existence.

The locations for Rosetta are the workplace, the waffle stand, the young man's apartment, and the trailer park. The trailer park particularly seems rural and cut off from the city. A muddy-bottom river that passes through the trailer park represents a constant threat to it; there is no pastoral sense in this film.

The Dardenne brothers rely on a hand-held camera positioned close to the characters, particularly Rosetta. They stay close, yielding few long or locating shots. Their preferences are close-ups, but they occasionally include mid-shots to allow for two characters in the frame. Pace is accelerated by a reliance on jump cutting, both in simple locations and between locations. In Rosetta, the Dardenne brothers are using pace principally to capture Roset-ta's fierceness, her means to have what she calls "a job in order to have a normal life." This fierceness is illustrated in the opening. Rosetta is fired from her factory job. Her resistance is powerful as she tries to stay, in the end requiring security to escort her out when the efforts of the boss prove insufficient. The moving camera, the jump cutting, and the pace of this sequence palpably demonstrate Rosetta's fierceness. This quality seems to be the primary purpose of pace in the film.

A secondary purpose of the pace is to capture the instability of Rosetta's life. Her mother's condition leads the mother to be promiscuous with the caretaker of the trailer park. The caretaker plies the mother with liquor, while Rosetta attempts to moderate her drinking. Rosetta is, at different points in the narrative, facing a dire financial situation. At one point, she sells her clothes to raise cash. Her attempt to do so takes her to various second-hand outlets. Then there is a point in the film when Rosetta secures a job assisting the baker who owns the waffle outlet. The job ends after a few days, when the baker chooses to employ his ne'er-do-well son instead. Rosetta's desperation and her refusal to accept the situation are desperate moments for her character, who wants nothing more than a normal life. At each of these points in the film, the Dardenne brothers use pace to capture the instability of Rosetta's situation. Her reactions, together with the pace, serve to demonstrate the depth of her desire and desperation. Pace has rarely so powerfully evoked the inner life of a character.


The docudrama as a genre tends to emphasize the voice of the filmmakers. How we feel about the conflict between Rosetta's fierce desire for a normal life and the very instability of her life is the space the Dardennes want their audience to occupy. How do we feel about the space they have trapped us in? The thriller as a genre has quite a different goal. Above all it's a more entertainment-oriented goal and, consequently, pace takes on differing purposes in the thriller.

For the most part, the thriller is the story of an ordinary person caught in extraordinary circumstances. If he doesn't figure out by who is and why he is being pursued, he will, in short order, be dead. If he prevails, he will be a hero. In Paul Greengrass' The Bourne Supremacy, the main character, Bourne, isn't ordinary. He's a CIA-trained killer. But neither are his adversaries the usual run-of-the-mill killers. Here, Bourne is being pursued by the CIA and a Russian supercriminal. Before this thriller begins to sound like the ultimate action-adventure film, a number of character and story details will serve to humanize the main character.

Jason Bourne has amnesia, and Marie, the woman he lives with, tries to help piece together his past. He knows he has killed others. He also knows he has instincts that help protect life, but he can't save Marie. In the first 10 minutes of the film, he is blamed for killing two CIA operatives in Berlin. The real killer has planted Bourne's fingerprint at the scene. And he tracks Bourne down in Goa, India. There, in his attempt to kill Bourne, he kills Marie instead. In the balance of the film, Bourne will attempt to stop the CIA, who he believes is trying to kill him. He will also recover the memory of his last time in Berlin. There, his first assignment was to kill a Russian dissident politician. Finding the politician's wife in the room, Bourne killed her as well. Realizing his past deeds, he goes to Moscow to seek out the daughter of his two victims. He tells her how her parents died, in the hope that the truth (she was led to believe at the time of her parents' deaths that the two were a murder-suicide) will help the teenager. In Moscow, Bourne is pursued, in a high-speed chase, by Marie's killer. During that chase, the killer is killed.

What is also useful to the sense of the story is that the women in the film (Marie; Pamela Landy and Nicky, both with the CIA; and the Russian victims' daughter), each in their way, are helpful to Bourne. All of the men (Russian, American, and German) are against him. Paul Greengrass, the director, also made the docudramas Bloody Sunday and United 93, and his approach to The Bourne Supremacy is to treat events and people as realistically as possible. Pace plays a very important role in the creation of that sense of realism.

Let's look at the way Greengrass characterizes Bourne's struggle against his loss of memory. The film opens with a series of quick images—city lights, a hotel room, a body. The images pass by quickly. They are presented as recaptured fragments of Bourne's memory. They are fleeting and they are frustrating. Together, they yield a logical explanation. As we move farther into the narrative and to Bourne's return to the city where the crime took place, and to the room where he killed the diplomat and his wife, the pace slows down and we're given fuller information. But the movement—from the fragmentary opening to the gains in memory Bourne makes—illustrates how Greengrass opts to use pace. He's using it to give us insight into the personal problem, which is the memory loss, and into the means by which the character recovers his memory. Pace is the key to the pictorialization of the problem and to its solution.

Another purpose for the use of pace is to illustrate Bourne's instinctual survivalist skills. On one level, his are lethal skills. But on the level of characterization, they illustrate a level of training that has made him anticipate and react instantly to that threat. This is a point in the film at which Bourne has been apprehended by customs officials in Naples. He is traveling under his own name rather than under the assumed identity he so often uses. A CIA operative has entered the room to interrogate Bourne. Bourne is non-responsive. A call comes in telling the agent that Bourne is dangerous. As soon as the agent begins to reach for his gun, a rapid-fire Bourne disarms and disables him as well as the two Italian Customs police.

The characteristic instinct is even more rapid when Bourne visits another CIA "killer" in Munich. They are the only two of their kind still alive. Yet each is wary of the other. Bourne has the man secure his own hands. Nevertheless, a fight to the death ensues. This proceeds so speedily and with such a clear goal—each striving to ensure the death of the other—that the pace is breathtaking, all in the service of conveying just how dangerous and capable these men are. This editing approach is used at least a half-dozen times and each time it's exhilarating and convincing that Jason Bourne is not a man to go quietly into the night.

A third and perhaps most dramatic use of pace in this thriller is in the narrative, particularly in the plot. The scene in which Marie is killed is a pursuit, a car chase through Goa's streets, back alleys, and bridges. Green-grass must keep the narrative clear and yet capture Bourne's determination to escape as well as the killer's goal, the killing of Bourne. Greengrass focuses on the details such as Bourne switching out of the driver's seat in order to be able to return fire. The killer fires at the driver and kills Marie. The pace of this scene focuses on chaos and credibility, all the while including those critical shots needed to clarify the narrative progression of the scene. The pace is appropriate and effective to the narrative goals of the characters.

This editing idea is even more dynamically present in the climactic confrontation between Bourne and the killer on the streets of Moscow. The information that the killer is Secret Service, that he has telephone communication about Bourne's whereabouts, and that he all but owns the streets of

Moscow contrast with a wounded Bourne (shot by the killer) commandeering a cab and fleeing for his life through the streets of the city. Add to this a high-speed chase that ends in an underground tunnel in a shootout between Bourne and the killer. When Bourne shoots out the killer's tires, the killer's car smashes into a concrete pillar.

The pace of this chase differs from the car chase in The French Connection, in which the goal was to emphasize the crazy determination of a policeman in pursuit of a French gangster who tried to kill him. It also differs from the chase in Bullitt, which is all about the excitement, the thrills of a pursuit through the hilly streets of San Francisco. In The Bourne Supremacy, the pace is deployed to make the chase realistic, and to keep the chaotic narrative utterly clear. Greengrass succeeds in these goals. As in the other uses of pace in the film, Greengrass never forgets that editing is in service of a larger directorial idea, in this case making that narrative seem utterly realistic.


Another genre that has used pace as an important feature is the action-adventure film. Pace has long been an exciting feature of the action-adventure films, some of the best examples being found in the opening and the horse-truck chase in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Here the thrill of the chase is vitalized by the use of pace. Pace has been used to heighten the tension and amplify the stakes in Michael Bay's Armageddon and Roland Emmerich's Independence Day. And pace has been used to amplify the status of the main character, in essence, to verify that he and his colleagues are superheroes, as in Antoine Fuqua's King Arthur. But Zhang Yimou uses pace in a more subtle and surprising way in his film Ying xiong (Hero).

Hero uses stillness and pace juxtaposed to create a more formal quality to the narrative. Hero is the story of a nameless assassin (played by Jet Li). His ostensible role is to be rewarded by the Emperor for destroying the Emperor's most powerful enemies, Sky, Flying Snow, and Broken Sword. By giving the broken silver spear of Sky to the Emperor, the assassin gains access and proximity to the Emperor. Although he has been thoroughly searched, the assassin's proximity will allow him to quickly capture the Emperor's own sword and kill him with it. The film unfolds in the recounting of the assassin's heroic actions in defeating the above-mentioned powerful adversaries of the Emperor. Each story moves the assassin from the initial 100 paces away from the Emperor, finally to within 10 paces from the Emperor. When he has finally reached his goal of 10 paces, the assassin finds he cannot kill a man who has proved to have intelligence and vision as leader. In the end, the assassin leaves the palace and is killed by the Emperor's archers. It is as heroic a death as his three accomplices had achieved. The film ends alluding to the greatness of the Emperor, who during his reign united all of China.

Zhang Yimou stages his film as a meditation on what a hero truly is. Although his focus is upon four assassins and an Emperor, and a plot by the four to kill the Emperor, he is more interested in the inner life of each person, rather than the outcome. In short, this action-adventure film is all about character. Inner life is about passion, whether it is love of another or love of one's country. Each of these characters, including the Emperor, has passion to burn. Consequently, outer life—who wins material goods or honors or competitions—is less valued than is the fire that burns within.

Zhang Yimou uses a strategy about pace in order to pictorialize the inner life and the outer life. Since the outer life is less subtle, we turn to pace and life in the world first. The aspects of outer life—essentially the battle of the Emperor's army of invasion, the palace guard protecting the Emperor, and the battle of the assassin with Sky and later with Flying Snow—are dynamic and staged with a static camera and much cutting between extreme long shots and close-ups. The juxtaposition is dynamic but the stillness of the camera position modifies the pace. It is dynamic but formal, far from the chaos that pace creates in The Wild Bunch. Here the pace almost stylizes the battles. Clearly, personal power and military power are at stake, but the formal pace does not exploit the clash of powerful people or armies. Rather, the pace juxtaposes those sources of power, creating wonderment rather than conflict, beauty rather than strength.

Zhang Yimou's use of pace to create the inner sense of the character is far more subtle. Here he jump cuts in on the character's faces, almost seeking revelation or true emotion or intention. The fight between Sky and the assassin is revealing: Zhang Yimou jump cuts into the eyes or face at oblique angles, so that we don't see the whole face. Something is revealed, but, visually, part of the face is also withheld. Or the focus is on the clash of the weapons—sword and spear. The weapons become part of each combatant's body, providing an insight into how each man views his weapon. It is not a killing instrument, it is part of him. Again, pace reveals the inner life of Sky. Zhang Yimou uses the same approach to Broken Sword's calligraphy. The intent is to move away from the man as assassin and to reveal what is most meaningful to him. The use of pace in the attack on the calligraphy school, and Broken Sword's response to being under attack from a barrage of arrows from the Emperor's army, tells us much about Broken Sword. Pace is used to reveal not his tension, but rather his inner tranquility.


We turn now to the musical, a genre that is essentially a wish-fulfillment narrative focusing on "putting on the show" and a main character that is a performer who is unseasoned or overseasoned. The show will launch or relaunch the main character's career and secure a relationship with the leading lady. On both the plot and the character relationship levels, the character gets what he wants.

Most classic musicals, including George Stevens' Swing Time and Stanley Donen's Singin' in the Rain, follow the Busby Berkeley lead and take a mise-en-scène approach to the edit, essentially avoiding editing to capture the choreography of performance, rather than fragmenting the performance using the edit. In this sense, editing is seen as an intervention into the performance. Moving the camera was the preferred choice. Everything changed when Bob Fosse made Cabaret, and later All that Jazz (not quite a musical). In these films, pace became a dynamic option that Fosse integrated into the choreography of a performed song. Alan Parker followed with Fame, Adrian Lyne followed with Flashdance, and a kind of MTV approach became an important framework for actively using pace in the musical.

When Baz Luhrmann made Moulin Rouge! (2001), the use of pace in the musical changed again. Luhrmann's agenda was to use pace to not only play with his love of the musical, it was also to use pace to articulate the joy of love, the pain of love, and the depth of desire. Of course, he also wanted to articulate the love of performance as well as love for people.

Moulin Rouge tells the story of Christian, a writer who comes to Paris to write about love. But he doesn't know anything about love. In Montmartre, he falls in with a group of Bohemian housemates—performers, writers, musicians. When the group's writer is overtaken by his condition, narcolepsy, they turn to Christian to write their musical "Spectacular, Spectacular." And they want the famous courtesan-actress, Satine, to play the lead.

That night at the theater, the leader of the Bohemian team, Toulouse-Lautrec, introduces Christian to Satine. At the same time, Harold Zidler, impresario-master of ceremonies, wants Satine to meet The Duke, a rich financier, who has the means to save Zidler's theatrical ambitions. Satine mistakenly believes Christian is The Duke. She finds out soon enough that The Duke is the real Duke, but not before Christian has fallen in love. In short order, Satine falls in love with Christian. The Duke falls in love with Satine, and is an insanely jealous rich man. He finances the play to buy Satine, but, as they say, you can't buy love. The lovers defy The Duke, the show goes on, and Satine, incurably ill, dies, and Christian has learned enough about love to feel that he is now a writer.

Before we plunge into pace and love and jealousy, it is important to acknowledge that whether love and jealousy are about a performance or about a person, each translates into energy. Desire, competition, and hatred also translate into energy, and here is where pace becomes important. Pace, by its nature, creates energy or tension when it accelerates and creates calm when it goes from fast to slower. Luhrmann first establishes energy when Christian arrives by train in Paris. Christian is excited. And whether he keeps hearing his father critique his decision to come to Paris or seeks out an apartment in Montmartre, Luhrmann's use of pace articulates Christian's feeling of excitement.

When Christian meets the eccentric Bohemians who will become colleagues and friends, again pace is used. Here it's not so much Christian's excitement, but rather his disbelief that such people exist. Disbelief turns to fascination and again pace, together with art direction, including hair and makeup, both individuates and makes these characters passionate artists, ready to march forward into their culture war, a musical production.

Finally, Christian is taken to the theater to meet Satine. A performance is underway. Here the pace quickens to the point of frenzy. Movement, dance, singing, performance, passion—all mix as we get a pastiche of the joyful aspects of being a performer. Pace makes this sequence one of the most dynamic in the film. We in the audience, who may never have dreamed of dancing and singing professionally for the length of this introduction, entertain all possibilities. The scene is nothing less than a seduction of the senses. Christian is hooked and so are we.

The pace is no less powerfully deployed later in the film in the Roxanne number. Here the purpose is to illustrate the pain of passion. Jealousy is rife as both the narcoleptic Bohemian and Christian experience a deep bout of jealousy. By cross-cutting between Christian and the narcoleptic, between the lovers of each man, and by images of their rivals or imagined rivals, Luhrmann uses an accelerating pace to capture the cascading feeling of being overwhelmed with desire and jealousy. The pain in the scene is palpable and Luhrmann uses pace to measure the characters' descent into the depths of their pain. Again Luhrmann is using pace operatically to calibrate feeling— in this case, pain; in the earlier case, pleasure and desire. In all cases, pace is playing the key editing role in modulating the characters' feelings.

□ Conclusion

In this chapter we have communicated an array of uses of pace. When linked to a genre, pace deepens the audience's sense experience of the doc-udrama, the thriller, the action-adventure film, and the musical. The repertory for pace has broadened; its use now is sophisticated rather than coarse. Although much has happened since those initial forays into pace by D.W. Griffith, we must not forget the key contributions of those early pioneers, Griffith and Eisenstein.

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