Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

Shots and Cuts

By Steven Pressfield | Published: March 16, 2011

I wish I could remember where I saw this (it might have been in a documentary on PBS about Battleship Potemkin) but some master of filmmaking was asking a roomful of students, “Of what does the vocabulary of cinema consist?” I was guessing lamely in my head along with the students onscreen, when the master finally ran out of patience and answered his own question:

“Shots and cuts.”

the hangover

Ed Helms in "The Hangover"

Everything else, the man said, is just variations and refinements.

The greatest cuts we’ve ever seen

Let’s have a little communal interchange. Write in your fave. What is the greatest movie cut you’ve ever seen? Post it in the Comments section below, and let’s see what we all come up with.

Here are my top two. (I’ll dibs them fast before anyone else does.)

First, The Hangover. From the guys clinking glasses on the rooftop—“This is going to be a memorable night.” CUT TO: a floor-level shot of the villa in which our four heroes are staying; dawn light streaks in; a chicken waddles across in the background. Then we see Stu (Ed Helms) face-down on the tiles, passed out, with his eyeglasses lying askew beside him.

Cuts work in writing too. The device isn’t limited to film. Cuts work in dance, art, restaurants, architectural design. Any time we jump from one discrete impression to another—visual, verbal, musical, mathematical—that’s a cut.

A cut produces a void. Negative space. But the void isn’t empty. It’s informed by what came before and what comes after.

You and I fill in the void

What’s so powerful about cuts is that we, the audience, get to fill in the void. We participate. A great cut often makes us laugh. Why? Because when we fill in the blank—in The Hangover, we easily imagine the drunken carnage that must have taken place between “bottoms up” and waking up—we have been included by the filmmakers in the joke. The writer and director have paid us a compliment. They know that we know. And because we are allowed to take part in the action, we enjoy it.

The door opened. Brett stood there. Behind her was the count.

I love this passage from The Sun Also Rises. Each space between the sentences is a cut. What Hemingway is doing is describing what his narrator Jake Barnes’ eyes take in and register—in precisely the manner and sequence that your eyes or mine would take the experience in. The magic Hemingway is working is the opposite of cinema. Instead of using visual images to tell a story, he’s using words to produce a visual image (and tell a story.) This is no accident. It’s a skill that Hemingway purposefully developed as a journalist and then honed and refined when he turned to writing novels.

My second-favorite cut

If this one hadn’t been copied ten thousand times, I would cite it: in The Paper Chase, Timothy Bottoms and Lindsay Wagner are young Harvard students in the ’70s who have just met each other, chatting about nothing in particular … CUT TO them waking naked in bed the next morning. When I saw this movie in a theater at the time of its release, the audience howled with laughter. Good laughter. The cut was so true.

But because we’ve all seen that one copied over and over, I’ll go instead with The Deer Hunter. After well over an hour of a Russian-American wedding in Western Pennsylvania, establishing our heroes—Robert Deniro, Christopher Walken and John Savage—and the fact that all three have enlisted in the army and are bound for Vietnam … CUT TO: helicopters descending above a Vietnamese village, with our guys appearing, not as green troopers just arrived in-country but as salty, battle-hardened vets. Again the filmmakers have paid us, the audience, the compliment of knowing that we know. We can imagine basic training, first exposure to combat, etc. It’s all implicit. An hour or more of storytelling has been compressed into a single cut—and you and I haven’t missed a thing.

What’s your favorite cut?

Please write in. I’m curious. There must be thousands of great cuts that we’ve all seen but that we’ve temporarily forgotten—or the cut was just so good that we appreciated it and didn’t even realize it was happening. Animated films are a trove of brilliant cuts because the filmmakers don’t have the luxury of exposing film and getting lucky. They have to storyboard everything. Because storytellers in animated films have to be so rigorous in their preparation, they dig deep. They past the Level One solutions to Level Five and Level Ten. That’s where the great cuts live.

What’s your favorite?

Posted in Writing Wednesdays

32 Responses to “Shots and Cuts”

  1. March 16, 2011 at 1:46 am

    I’ll grab this before someone else does…

    The brilliant editing of the baptism scene at the end of Godfather. All along we’ve been led to believe that Michael is basically a good guy reluctantly dragged into his Father’s business. Then the shock as he says “I renounce Satan” CUT TO: Mo Green being shot in the face. It’s only at this scene at the very end that we realise Michael has embraced levels of cold, dark, ruthlessness that we didn’t see coming. In that moment we are forced to recalibrate the whole film, playing it back through our heads knowing what we now know about what Michael Corleone really is. A masterpiece of editing.

    And then the killer, a fade out as we see that (far too late) Kay begins to realise what we only grasped a minute or too before. This final shot, where we knew before she did, is a very subtle but even better shot that the stark brutality of the baptism.

  2. March 16, 2011 at 5:14 am

    The extinguished match becoming the sun in the desert in Lawrence of Arabia. Greatest cut of all time.

  3. Christopher
    March 16, 2011 at 5:41 am

    2001, the cut from the hurled bone to the space station

  4. Janet L.
    March 16, 2011 at 6:46 am

    I like the ending of the 70s movie “Serpico” starring Al Pacino and directed by Sidney Lumet. After Serpico testifies before the police commission about the rampant corruption he’s witnessed by his fellow police officers in the NYPD, Lumet cuts to Serpico sitting on a curb on the side of the street, alone, with his dog. Serpico appears abandoned, homeless and utterly alone in this wide shot. That final image says so much about the whistle-blower in our society, he may speak the truth to power but will pay a price. Serpico remains always the outsider, ostracized by his own.

  5. David
    March 16, 2011 at 6:46 am

    Ten years burning down the road
    Nowhere to run got nowhere to go

    -Born in the USA

  6. Steve Lovelace
    March 16, 2011 at 7:09 am

    My all-time favorite TV show, Arrested Development, used Hangover-like cuts as often as possible. In the pilot episode, Lucille says that she cares for all her children equally. Then a cut shows her a couple of hours earlier, saying “I don’t care for GOB.” (GOB is her eldest son.) As with all Arrested Development scenes, it takes a whole paragraph to describe a five-second gag. It’s the kind of technique that works in TV or cinema, but not in prose or literature.

    As for literature, Hemingway is famous for what he left out of his books. He called it “Iceberg Theory”, implying that 80% of his story wasn’t visible to the casual observer.

  7. March 16, 2011 at 7:55 am

    One of my favorite cuts is from Planet Terror, Robert Rodriguez’s half of the Grindhouse double feature (the other half belongs to Tarantino).

    Rodriguez used damaged film effects and missing frames for many of the cuts with great results, and for this particular cut he said in the DVD commentary that he was nervous about the audience “getting it.” During a screening, the audience busted up with laughter, and he knew he’d nailed it.

    I laugh every time I watch it. From IMDB:

    Cherry and Wray discuss their previous relationship in J.T.’s bedroom. We learn that Cherry left Wray because he couldn’t commit. Wray has Cherry look in the pocket of his coat. She finds an engagement ring. They have sex.

    [The film stops abruptly and melts on screen. A title card comes up saying that the film is missing a reel, and the theater apologizes for the inconvenience.]

    When the film starts again, some 20 minutes of the story have passed. J.T.’s diner is engulfed in flames, besieged by dozens of sickos.

    • March 17, 2011 at 10:10 pm

      Wow, each cut is better than the next. Thanks, you guys!

  8. March 16, 2011 at 7:55 am

    A.I.: The hand of a highly-advanced machine intelligence passes over the inert face of David, the boy robot, dead for thousands of years…and a subtle jump cut resurrects Spielberg’s Pinnochio to new life. Cut strings are reconnected in a blink of the eye.

  9. March 16, 2011 at 9:36 am

    Jim Jarmusch’s ‘Ghost Dog’
    So sublime are the cuts and shots I almost want to argue against them being so.
    You have them happening in the visuals, in the script and in that other part, in you the viewer, that cannot be fully expressed with words, they’re there and then they’re not – like ghosts.

  10. skip
    March 16, 2011 at 12:01 pm

    for me its the various “breaks of the 4th wall” by matthew broderick in ‘ferris buellers day off’ … groucho had a few too in marx bros movies…maybe he invented the technique!?!

  11. March 16, 2011 at 2:49 pm

    I’ve never been sure why this cut works:

    In “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”, we go directly from the iconic museum scene, with Cameron staring at the impressionist painting, abruptly to the German Day parade.

    This cut joins two iconic sequences of 80’s cinema: the museum scene and the parade sequence where everybody dances to the Beatles’ “Twist and Shout”.

    But…does the cut itself work on its own? Or is it effective because it joins two amazing sequences?

    I’ve never been able to decide.

  12. March 16, 2011 at 5:02 pm

    Well, My favorite cut was Mars Attacks *I just watched it yesterday*

    People are all happy that Martians gonna come and visit us on friendly terms. Cut: Half the world is destroyed by them Ha Ha,

    Even chronicles of Narinia (the lion the witch and wardrobe) is also cool:

    Kids find out a beautiful world. Cut: they have to get into huge fight to save the world!!

  13. John
    March 16, 2011 at 7:16 pm

    Since your post has me thinking of recent films, my mind runs first to “I Am Legend” where the opening bit is the doctor explaining how her engineered retrovirus was introduced in a trial group to treat cancer patients.

    “And how many are cancer free,” the host asks.

    “All of them,” the beaming scientist replies.

    “So you’ve actually cured cancer,” the TV host says incredulously. The doctor agrees, smiling for the camera.

    The next shot you see is Will Smith in a muscle car, tearing through a decaying New York, totally devoid of human life with weeds shooting up through the streets, hunting for food.

    It’s a very tidy leap like you’re describing, with volumes to say not only about the chaos, devastation, and tragedy we didn’t see in the interval, but is a damning indictment of the scientist/s trying to play God and being inconsiderate of the potential consequences. There’s a whole movie worth of story in that opening 2-3 minutes that we’re lead through before the “personal” story of Robert Neville ever gets underway.

  14. Paul Wieland
    March 16, 2011 at 7:42 pm

    DEAN WORMER: Bluto Blutarski, zero point zero.

    CUT to Bluto who raises eyebrows with a pencil dangling from nostril.

  15. March 16, 2011 at 9:19 pm

    Castaway, on the island when Tom Hanks passes out after knocking his tooth out with an ice skate, and it cuts to a bone thin, wild haired survivor hauling in a fish.

    Hmm…maybe missing teeth is a key ingredient in a great cut!

  16. March 17, 2011 at 11:24 am

    Dang, someone beat me to fave: the 2001 bone-to-warhead cut (it’s not clear in the movie that it’s a warhead, but the script labels it thus). Without a doubt the greatest jump-cut of all time!

    So for a runner-up favorite cut, let me come at it from a different direction: the cut that WASN’T there.

    In SE7EN, near the end, when they’re out at the windmill field, Morgan Freeman goes to open the box Spacey has had delivered. He jumps in shock and disgust at what it holds … but Fincher never cuts to what’s in the box. He avoids the cheap thrill of showing its contents and only in the following escalating standoff between him, Spacey & Brad Pitt do we realize what it must be.

    NOT cutting to its contents builds both the tension & importance of what is in there, and how it plays into the tragic downfall.

    Same idea — we get to fill in what’s not shown (and probably do a better job) — but by avoiding a cut.

    Very effective.

    • March 17, 2011 at 10:15 pm

      No fair, Bill, you TEACH this stuff! (But seriously … thanks — and thanks to all crazed cinephiles.

  17. Thomas
    March 17, 2011 at 1:33 pm

    “Amadeaus” opening sequence. A young priest visits the aged Salieri in the asylum for the insane where Salieri has been placed after trying to commit suicide out of guilt for having “murdered Mozart”. We are all as perplexed as the priest as to the mechanics of this madness. Smiling and speaking of his days as the féted royal composer in Vienna, Salieri plays on his piano a few bars of a number of his own “evergreens”, asking after each one if the priest, who claims to love music, remembers any of them. He doesn’t; he fidgets uneasily; he wants to be kind to the old man. Salieri swings into Rondo Alla Turca, and the priest’s face lights up. He merrily, loudly hums along. “Charming little tune…” Then his face goes a bit perplexed. “I didn’t know you wrote that.” Cut to Salieri’s face which is suddenly all gentle melancholy. “I didn’t.” Ever-so-slight pause. “Mozart did.” You get the full story later on in the movie, but it’s really superfluous – the whole story is told in that one cut to Salieri’s sad Mona Lisa smile.

  18. Thomas
    March 17, 2011 at 1:59 pm

    Oh, sorry, it ain’t the “Turca”, it’s the “Nachtmusik”. Gotta watch that movie again ;o)

  19. mothersmurfer
    March 18, 2011 at 5:29 am

    movie version of Catch-22
    “Silk? Where did he get silk?”
    Cut.
    “Where’s my parachute!?”

  20. Diane
    March 18, 2011 at 8:57 am

    Candle smoke turns into train steam in Schindler’s List was one of the most evocative match cuts

  21. Andrew
    March 18, 2011 at 11:45 pm

    Already mentioned, but I thought I’d expand on it. I consider the aforementioned bone-to-satellite cut in “2001: A Space Odyssey” to be the greatest use of the cut in cinema history. In a single milisecond Kubrick conveys the entire advance of humanity. The obelisk that taught us to use the bone as a tool taught us to construct space vessels.

    I like your reference to “cuts” in writing too. For me personally the most powerful I’ve come across is in RD Blackmore’s 19th Century english novel “Lorna Doone”. I don’t want to spoil the moment of the book, but if you’ve read it you’ll know the passage where, literally mid sentence, the mood goes from the joyous celebration of a long-awaited wedding to disbelieving horror and shock. Masterful use of the English language.

  22. March 20, 2011 at 2:24 pm

    To me there are shots and cuts for genres. For example in a thriller like Play Misty – it is when Jessica Walters comes at Clint with sissors or In the Line of Fire when Clint opens a closet and sees his picture in the Kennedy motorcade. In Fabulous Baker Boys it happens when Michelle Piffer breaks out in a spotlight singing I Love You Baby. In a comedy it is when Frau Blueker is called by name and the horse goes wild. Each of these sets you into the reality of what to expect. In two huge movies it is the opening – Star Wars the speed of the space ship and Saving Private Ryan – the carnage in the landing craft even before they are on the beach.

  23. March 20, 2011 at 2:26 pm

    You’re right! There are so many wonderful cinematic cuts throughout world cinema. I would have to say the most striking and indeliable cut is from David Lean’s masterpiece LAWRENCE OF ARABIA when young rebellious Lt. Lawrence brings a lit match up to his face… we think he’s going to put the match out with his fingers, as he did in an earlier scene; however, this time he pauses and simply blows it out. CUT to the blazing red barren landscape of the desert… the sun large and heavy in the sky as Lr. Lawrence and his guide travel across the horizon in fabulous cinemascope.

  24. March 23, 2011 at 8:22 am

    From the Grauduate. A very young Dustin Hoffman inquires, “Mrs. Robinson, are you trying to seduce me?” Cut to the shot from underneath Anne Bancroft’s leg as she is pulling up her stocking and attaching it to her garter belt.

  25. March 23, 2011 at 12:13 pm

    A very young Dustin Hoffman saying to Anne Bancroft, “Mrs Robinson, you’re trying to seduce me? Aren’t you?” Cut to a shot from underneath her leg as she hooks her stocking back up to her garter.

  26. Derek
    March 31, 2011 at 10:46 am

    ‘There’s Something About Mary’ – the end of the zipper sequence. “And a-one, and a-two, and a-…” CUT TO: A paramedic. “We’ve got a bleeder!”

  27. Bumdog
    May 11, 2011 at 8:32 pm

    Its what I call a “written dialog transition”. Theres plenty of them in “Citizen Kane”. One is when they take the young boy away from his family, they cut to him opening his new slay. Thatcher says “Merry Christmas Charles”, little Charles replies sarcastically “Merry Christmas” then CUT to Thatcher 15 or so years later COMPLETING the sentence “-and a Happy New Year!”

  28. Daniel Webb
    December 7, 2011 at 8:47 pm

    I’m late to this discussion but here goes.

    Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. At the beginning, Young Indy has been chased by the treasure hunters and finally gets home. The sheriff shows up, takes the Cross of Coronado from Indy, and gives it to the hunters. The treasure hunter with the cool hat says, “You lost today kid. But that doesn’t mean you have to like it.” He then puts his hat on Indy’s head and pushes it down tight, hiding Indy’s face from the camera. When Indy looks up he’s a full grown Harrison Ford smiling.