When I was living in Johannesburg, I spent about four months dating a woman who worked as a professional editor for film and television commercials. She put together a video of surfing clips for me to help me promote “Groundswell,” and while I was thrilled with what she did, I never had a full appreciation of just how much work video editing is until I tried my own hand at the task. As you might have seen three weeks ago, my own project was ridiculously simple. It consisted of a single image, a few simple fades, a sequence of white text scrolling over a black background, and a single splice of video pilfered from the end of a movie to include the final few logos that are standard issue for every credit reel. Getting these few things done kept me up until 4 AM during one evening and 2 AM on another.
I think editing is, from the audience’s perspective, the most underrated aspect of filmmaking. A film cannot be great without great editing. Lousy editing can ruin what would otherwise be a great film. And while clever editing will never be enough to save 90 minutes’ worth of crummy material, if you’re willing to claim that you’ve never in your lifetime been hoodwinked into seeing an awful movie simply on the strength of a well-edited preview, then I’m willing to call you a liar.
The Film: Lost in Translation
The Song: “Just Like Honey”
The Artist: The Jesus and Mary Chain
Film editing is often referred to as an “invisible art” because the better it’s done, the less of an impression it makes. The first time I can remember being conscious of lousy film editing was during the very first battle scene in Gladiator (2000), when Maximus’s army defeats a tribe of Germanic barbarians. The viciously quick cuts were so disorienting that it was simply impossible to understand what was actually happening. Later, when Maximus fought against both a fellow gladiator and a group of leashed tigers, there was a lingering close-up of Russell Crowe’s face, and his nuanced emotional reaction to the fact that there’s a freaking tiger trying to bite out his throat! It’s garbage. It’s all close-ups. There’s barely a single frame where a character’s entire body is shown at once, and the movie, which included some magnificent footage, was a huge disappointment for me.
Although it’s an entirely different type of film, Lost in Translation (2003) shows what happens when a film editor displays actual patience with the available material. Sifting through literally hundreds of hours of footage can be incredibly tedious, and watching each clip dozens of times must make it very difficult to keep one’s perspective. Once you’ve seen a clip enough times, it becomes imprinted upon your memory, and it becomes easy to forget that the audience has never seen that clip before — they need more than an eighth of a second to process the images of a sword stroke, or a spinning kick, or a gunshot. The makers of The Matrix (1999) understood this well — whenever something was happening extremely quickly, they made a point of slowing everything down to a crawl so we could see exactly what was happening and where each bullet went. Lost in Translation works in the same way, but with emotions.
From the initial few moments of Lost in Translation, as editor Sarah Flack treats us to a lingering shot of Scarlett Johansson’s hindquarters, it’s evident that the characters will spend a significant proportion of their time in idle pursuits. There’s very little passion on display in the film and when it is, such as during John’s (Giovanni Ribisi) lobby conversation with actress Kelly (Anna Faris), it’s generally viewed with disdain. What makes Lost in Translation, and the editing work in particular, successful, is that this sense of boredom is conveyed, without actually becoming boring. There’s a Henry James story — The Beast in the Jungle — that attempts to tell the tale of a man whose only distinguishing characteristic in life is that he is someone to whom “nothing on earth was to have happened.” When I read this story, I found it unredeemably dull. The magic in both Sophia Coppola and Sarah Flack’s efforts in Lost in Translation are that they tell a similar story — the tale of a man during whose journey nothing particularly remarkable happens — but manage to create a sense of emotional tension that makes it absolutely fascinating.
Academy Award nominations for Best Editing tend to be joined at the hip with nominations for Best Picture. The last time that a film won a statuette for Best Picture and wasn’t at least nominated for a Best Editing award was in 1980. It’s only happened nine times (’34, ’37, ’48, ’55, ’63, ’66, ’74, ’77, ’80) in the history of the award, which became a category in 1934. Lost In Translation was nominated in the Best Picture category, and while Sarah Flack won a BAFTA award for Best Editing, her work received no recognition from the Academy whatsoever. The idea that blatant Oscar-bait like Cold Mountain would be nominated ahead of Lost in Translation for a best editing award is an insult.
The unforgettable final scene between Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson is a MacGuffin of sorts, where the actual words that he whispers into her ear are meant to remain ambiguous. The last few clips of Bill Murray’s ride through traffic on his way to the airport give (Americans, at least) one last taste of the cultural dislocation — in Japan they drive on the left-hand side of the road. It’s something that Quentin Tarentino took the time to get right in Kill Bill (2003), and feels sufficiently unnatural that the point comes across wonderfully.
“Just Like Honey,” the Jesus and Mary Chain song used for the final scene and the first few moments of the credits, came from their debut full-length album Psychocandy (1985). My chief complaint with the Jesus and Mary Chain is that all their songs sound the same. Fortunately, I really love whatever it is that all their songs sound like, so I’m pretty much guaranteed to enjoy each and every song they produce. The moment I heard this song begin in the film, I knew that Sophia Coppola had outdone herself.