Transformation Destiny

Film is the only art whose birthday is known to us.

The motion picture was born in Edison's New Jersey laboratory in 1889 and spent an innocent childhood at fairground sideshows around the world, amusing and astonishing audiences with its one trick - single-shot representations of events like The Sneeze, The Kiss, Train Arriving at the Station, Workers Leaving the Factory. Then around 1903, at age fourteen, it unexpectedly discovered the intoxicating and almost sexual power of montage. What emerged out of this adolescence, as a butterfly out of its chrysalis, was cinema. The construction of a coherent and emotional story from discontinuous and sometimes conflicting images is the fruitful paradox that lies at the heart of the equation: Motion Pictures + Montage = Cinema.

We have the testimony of Edison and the Lumière brothers, American and European inventors of the mechanisms that made motion pictures possible, but the voices of those who invented the art of montage, which made cinema possible, are long lost. And they were largely European, anticipating developments in America by a couple of years. How did G.A. Smith, in 1900, arrive upon the idea of the closeup in Grandma's Reading Glass? Or James Williamson, in 1901, the idea of action continuity across various locations in Fire! We simply don't know. How were these basic ideas elaborated and refined by Meliès, Mottershaw, Haggard, Porter and others? There are some interviews with the American director D.W. Griffith, and the books on theory written years later by Russian directors Eisenstein and Pudovkin. But as for what actually took place in the editorial trenches in the first two decades of the 20th century we have only the most fragmentary circumstantial evidence, and in 1924 Balazs was already mourning the lost opportunity. 'It was the first chance to observe, with the naked eye so to speak, one of the rarest phenomena in the history of culture: the emergence of a new form of artistic expression. But we let the opportunity pass.'

All the other crafts of film - acting, photography, painting, dramaturgy, architecture, music, costume, make-up, dance - are based on long-established arts, with roots extending down through millennia of development and tradition deep into the fecund secrets of humanity's prehistory.

But the defining craft of cinema - montage - seems to have quickly invented itself in a cocoon of silence, and to have continued that reticence as part of its protective colouration. Perhaps this is due to the personality of film editors themselves, or to the nature of their role as seconds to forceful and articulate directors. Or to the work itself, which most often aspires to burnish the efforts of others and to remain itself unnoticed. Perhaps it is simply priestly discretion: there is something of the confession booth to the editing room, where the omissions and commissions of shooting are whispered and discretely absolved by concealment or alchemically transformed into discoveries. Or maybe it is due to the very lack of deep-rooted tradition: there is not (yet) a rich vocabulary to describe what goes on as moving images mingle and fertilise each other, so we remain mute. Or cryptic: 'Why did you make that cut?' 'I don't know - it just felt right.'

Whatever the cause, this reticence is thankfully - after more than a hundred years - beginning to disappear. Several compilations of interviews with American film editors have been published in the last decade, but Fine Cuts: The Art of European Film Editing is notably the first collection to focus on European editors with their inspiringly diverse ways of assembling film. It also features illuminating guest appearances by a number of European directors -Godard, Varda, Tarkovsky, Truffaut, Mackinnon, Tarr - offering their insights into the editing process.

Many of the interviewees belong to cinema's fourth generation -those who began their careers in the 1960s and 1970s, as does the author Roger Crittenden - and as do I. Many of us consequently share the same inspirations, though I was born in New York. Like Roger, I was electrified by The Seventh Seal when I saw it at age fifteen - Bergman's vision was so distinctive that I left the theatre shaken by the thought: somebody made that film. As obvious as it might have been, this had never occurred to me before - Hollywood movies seemed simply to appear, like the weather, or landscapes glimpsed from a train. The unspoken corollary was that if somebody made that film, I could make a film. But the idea was too much for a fifteen-year old with no family connections to the film industry, and so it lay dormant.

Dormant - until I saw Truffaut's Quatre cents coups the next year, and Godard's À bout de souffle the year after that. As those two films confidently broke rules to which I had been oblivious, they allowed me my first glimpse of the power of montage, and it was consequently a great pleasure to read Roger's conversation with Agnès Guillemot, the only editor to work with both Godard and Truffaut.

What gives all of these interviews their complexity and warmth is not only the ten different nationalities, but even more so the richly diverse and 'uncinematic' family backgrounds of the editors collected here. Had they followed in their parents' footsteps they would have instead become teachers, pilots, tailors, doctors, farmers, chemists, vegetable sellers, astronomers, bookkeepers, salesmen, road workers, dry cleaners, dentists or civil servants. Luckily for the readers of this marvellous book, and for world cinema, they took another route and -to use Godard's evocative description of film editing - transformed chance into destiny, making the varied circumstances of their lives a reflection of montage at its most sublime, when accidental moments are propelled by structure into inevitability.

Walter Murch London,June 2004

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