Thursday, February 13, 2014

Best Film Editing: Where's the Comedy?

Editing is often referred to as "the invisible art," because the best editing is the kind that audiences don't notice. One scene flows perfectly into the other, with cuts following the established logic of the film and nothing seeming jarring or out-of-place. Of course, most audiences don't recognize editing anyway; it was only after taking several film analysis classes in college that I began to notice and understand how film editing works, and even now I still don't completely understand. Yet there are things that I do notice: violations of the 180-degree rule (if two characters are in conversation, between individual close-up cuts they should occupy opposite sides of the screen; i.e. one character on the left, the other on the right), long unbroken takes (the one in this week's episode of True Detective, "Who Goes There," is remarkable), and jump-cuts to throwaway scenes. It's a tricky art, and one that's hard to understand when it's so hard to notice.

Martin Scorsese's longtime editor, Thelma Schoonmaker

Click for more.

Ostensibly, the Best Film Editing Oscar category recognizes five sterling examples of the year's best-edited films, crowning a winner that was most exemplary. However, a glimpse at the category's history shows that it regularly favors Best Picture nominees, with a handful of action movies and thrillers mixed in as well (true outliers are rare). In fact, since 2000, 52 of the 65 nominated films in this category have also been nominated for Best Picture; since Best Picture expanded beyond five nominees in 2009, 24 of the 25 nominated films were also Best Picture nominees (2011's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo being the only exception). Of those nominees since 2000, only three winners were not Best Picture nominees (2001's Black Hawk Down, 2007's The Bourne Ultimatum, and 2011's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo). And though the winners of Best Film Editing and Best Picture aren't always the same film, no film has won Best Picture without being nominated for editing since Ordinary People in 1980.

So naturally, the correlation here is that the best edited films are the best films, period. While that does make a certain sense, it excludes a number of other genres where film editing is crucial. Yes, there are a number of action films or thrillers that have won - the three winners that weren't Best Picture nominees listed above all qualify, and are certain shining examples of how important pacing is to an effective thriller (consider that all three films run at least two hours, yet never lose their tension or the viewer's interest). But there are other genres that can live or die by their editing that are often ignored.

The best example of this is comedy. There are several important elements to successful comedy, but the one that editing emphasizes the most is timing. A great joke isn't as effective if the punchline comes too quickly or is delayed too long, and cutting a scene before the gimmick overstays its welcome is what preserves the humor of it. And yet, year after year, comedy goes unrecognized in the Best Film Editing category. The five most recent comedies to be nominated in this category are:

- American Hustle (2013)
- Silver Linings Playbook (2012)
- The Artist (2011)
- Chicago (2002) - *winner*
- Moulin Rouge! (2001)

Two things immediately jump out. First, these are not necessarily laugh-out-loud comedies, but more like dramedies that lean more on comedy (the extent to which Chicago can really be called a comedy is questionable). Second, all five of them were also nominated for Best Picture in their respective years. The last comedy to be nominated for editing without a corresponding Best Picture nod? Robert Altman's The Player in 1992, which itself carried a level of prestige. You have to go back to 1988 to find a nominated comedy that can be described as "wacky" or "laugh-out-loud funny" (Who Framed Roger Rabbit, which won), and 1974 for the second-most recent (Blazing Saddles).

Who Framed Roger Rabbit? was certainly helped by being cutting-edge for its time.

Granted, it's not exactly a state secret that the Academy doesn't really lean to heavily on comedy, preferring "serious" and "adult" dramas, even when films in the former are clearly superior to the latter. But no matter how great a comedy's editing is, such as, say, in The World's End, it stands an uphill battle in being recognized by the Academy. Comedy, quite simply, is considered a "lesser" genre, and comedy films have to really stand out in order to be nominated in just about any category (Best Animated Feature and the two short film categories are usually the most humorous). And until we see another great madcap screwball comedy, it's unlikely that we'll see any change in this way of thinking as far as the Oscars are concerned. As for comedy's reputation in general, well, just look at how Shakespeare's tragedies are held up while his comedies too often fall by the wayside in critical circles.

(On a side note, the other side of the "lesser" genre coin is horror, which also relies heavily on editing to build tension and timing to create the most chilling scare. The five most recent horror films to be nominated for Best Film Editing are: Black Swan (2010), The Sixth Sense (1999), The Silence of the Lambs (1991), Aliens (1986), and Jaws (1975). Once again, this is under a looser definition of "horror," and Aliens is the only one of the five to not be nominated for Best Picture as well, and Jaws is the only one to win the prize. Horror has an even longer history of being overlooked in general by the Oscars.)

"Just tell us who's going to win the Oscar, Jason, god." Well, of this year's crop of nominees is once again all Best Picture nominees: American Hustle (Jay Cassidy, Crispin Struthers and Alan Baumgarten), Captain Phillips (Christopher Rouse), Dallas Buyers Club (John Mac McMurphy - a pseudonym for director Jean-Marc Valle - and Martin Pensa), Gravity (Alfonso Cuaron and Mark Sanger), and 12 Years a Slave (Joe Walker). I would assume that this is another category that's being pitched as Gravity vs. 12 Years a Slave, and the former probably has a comfortable edge here. That being said, it wouldn't surprise me at all if voters ended up splitting the difference and rewarding Captain Phillips. It did win the ACE Eddie for Feature Film this year in what was billed as an upset, so I can certainly see it happening again at the Oscars.

And it wouldn't be a discussion about this year's race if I didn't add my ballot, would it?

1. Captain Phillips, Christopher Rouse
2. 12 Years a Slave, Joe Walker
3. Gravity, Alfonso Cuaron and Mark Sanger
4. American Hustle, Jay Cassidy, Crispin Struthers and Alan Baumgarten
5. Dallas Buyers Club, John Mac McMurphy and Martin Pensa

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