Thursday, March 29, 2012

HOW DID I GET HERE?

     When asked why I chose editing over other film crafts, I often recall my college internship at Calliope Films, a commercial production house.  There, on-set personnel arrived at work by 6 a.m.  Editors rolled in around 10.  The rest, as they say, is history.

     Of course, it’s not that simple.  Among those with a mid-morning start time at Calliope was Paul Hirsch (STAR WARS, etc.), then cutting TV spots between feature film assignments.  He was as brilliant and caring a mentor as he was an editor.  Chuck Workman, who owned the company, and Sonya Polonsky, a protégé of Thelma Schoonemaker’s, also helped guide me into post-production.

     But something more than a few extra hours of sleep each day and generous teachers had already drawn me to editing.  A few weeks ago, while preparing to direct a music video for singer/songwriter Haroula Rose, I realized what it was:  my passion for rock music exposed me to the editorial process before I even knew a name for it, and it tantalized me. 
     Haroula’s song “So Easy” (which, like our video, will be out in late April) is filled with allusions to early Beatles tunes.  So I began to study A HARD DAY’S NIGHT and HELP!, along with promotional shorts the band made for such records as “Strawberry Fields,” “Penny Lane” and “Hello, Goodbye.”  The hours flew by as I surfed across dozens of YouTube clips.  I discovered that director Richard Lester was a true groundbreaker. And I realized that the Beatles themselves, in order to avoid touring to promote new singles, invented the music video.
     Then, while viewing a film segment aired by Ed Sullivan in August1964, I remembered my first childhood experience of motion picture cutting.  I had seen the clip, in which “the boys” performed “You Can’t Do That,” when it was broadcast.  And I’d noticed, young as I was, that they’d played in the same auditorium wearing the same suits, and had been filmed in exactly the same style in the movie A HARD DAY’S NIGHT, which I’d seen a few weeks earlier.  Twice.  But “You Can’t Do That” wasn’t in the film.
     So, not yet a teenager, not knowing anything about filmmaking -- just watching “The Ed Sullivan Show” -- I discovered that scenes could be deleted from motion pictures (and reused elsewhere).  And the epiphany affected me deeply.  Later, of course, I would fall in love with cinema per se.  But rock’n’roll films were my gateway drug.
     On occasion, popular songs themselves heightened my fascination with editing.  About a year after Ed Sullivan ran the lifted sequence from A HARD DAY’S NIGHT, The Rolling Stones had a chart-topping hit with “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.”  At 3 minutes and 44 seconds, though, the song was at least a minute too long for top-40 AM play.  In addition, its third verse was thought to be “racy.”  So pop stations simply excised it.  I’d listen to the 45 rpm vinyl disc on my phonograph and compare it to what I heard on the radio.  Everything sounded identical except, of course, the length.
     Yet my pre-teen, pre-editing soul knew the truncated version wasn’t the same as the longer one.  The cut made by radio engineers was seamless, to be sure; verse three wouldn’t be missed if you didn’t know it existed.  But the abbreviated rendition of  “Satisfaction” seemed to respect authority while the longer one challenged it.  And, of course, deleting lyrics laced with sexual innuendo made the song less “hot.”  (Whatever that meant to a pre-teen.)
     A year and a half hence, during a January 1967 appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” the hot, sexy Stones taught another editing lesson.  CBS demanded that they change their line “let’s spend the night together” to “let’s spend some time together.”  Mick Jagger seemed to acquiesce.  But before he got to the words in question, the Stones’ front man belted out much more prurient lyrics which were on their record, somehow unnoticed by the censor:  


"I'm going red and my tongue's getting tired/I'm out of my head and my mouth's getting dry/I'm hi-hi-high…"
Those lines, it seemed, were ok with network standards and practices.   The Stones had, as requested, redacted the far less suggestive lyric, and the corporate beast was satisfied. 
     At the time there was no MPAA.  But nowadays, during ratings negotiations with that body, I occasionally think of Mick's ostensible capitulation to CBS.  And following his lead from the sixties, I’ll swap out marginally “offensive” words that irk MPAA board members in order to keep whole sequences that one would have thought far more vulnerable to bowdlerization.
     Once more in 1967, AM radio’s time constraints provided a potent demonstration of how a song could be dramatically altered by a seamless cut.  The Doors’ “Light My Fire” ran for 7 minutes on the band’s eponymous album; the 45 rpm single was under 3 minutes.  Eliminating its 4-minute instrumental section transformed the piece from a dark, brooding taste of early rock/jazz fusion to a mere pop tune.  This huge difference made me forever circumspect when, as a cutter, I’ve had to consider deleting scenes of substance from movies.
     I’m sure I couldn’t articulate these ideas about editing back in 1967.  I didn’t even conceive of them as such.  But later, rock documentaries like MONTEREY POP, WOODSTOCK and GIMME SHELTER introduced me to important filmmaking techniques – ways of assembling visual material that are mainstays in any editor’s bag of tricks.
     Watching D.A. Pennebaker’s cinema verite record of the Monterey Pop festival, for instance, I discovered what I eventually came to know as the “reaction cut-away.” During Janis Joplin’s life-changing performance of “Ball and Chain” (my life, that is), Pennebaker and editor Nina Schulman cut to a close-up of Mama Cass Elliot, mesmerized.  It jolted me.  The juxtaposition of shots made it clear that an accomplished singer was as moved as I –- perhaps to an even greater extent -- by Janis’s intensity.  So I felt more.  Heard through new ears, saw through new eyes.
     Such cut-aways were used later in MONTEREY POP, to achieve a similar effect.  In the middle of a stirring Ravi Shankar raga, the filmmakers inserted shots of guitar giants Mike Bloomfield and Jimi Hendrix, listening.  Their awestruck faces suggested that their music –- their focus and intention -- would somehow be transformed by the experience.  Viewers saw that the concert was momentous.  A sea change was occurring in the world of popular music.
     Years later, in college, I read Sergei Eisenstein’s Film Form, in which the Soviet director and theoretician wrote:  “From the collision (of two shots) a concept arises.”  I understood Eisenstein’s point –- that joining two shots adds something to a viewer’s experience not inherent in either image alone –- because I’d felt the power of such juxtapositions while watching musical performance footage. 
     Still more editing lessons were gleaned from movies that used popular songs as underscore.  A rendition of “Mrs. Robinson” on THE GRADUATE soundtrack which differed from the one on Simon and Garfunkle’s “Bookends” album made me aware that there could be different takes and different mixes of the same song or, by extension, the same shot or scene. WOODSTOCK’s split screens and staccato cutting showed me that flamboyant editing could be entertaining in and of itself.
     When I began to work in the film industry and continued to view rock’n’roll movies, they augmented and reiterated what I learned on the job.  The fact that performance quality is a preeminent filmmaking concern, for example, is obvious in Martin Scorcese’s THE LAST WALTZ, Hal Ashby’s LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, THE ROLLING STONES and Jonathan Demme’s STOP MAKING SENSE (which features song lyrics from which this post takes its title).  The vital importance of rhythm and precision in editing is something  I also discovered and rediscovered while viewing these documentaries.
     Certainly, all popular art is informed by material from other art forms.  For me, it’s been a blast to be reminded, during a current project, of the enormous impact rock music has had on my own work.
       
    

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