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.”
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?