“The Cutting Edge: The Magic of Movie Editing,” a lively, occasionally illuminating tour of the “invisible art” of film editing, ultimately feels more like a textbook primer than an exhaustive study. Spearheaded by American Cinema Editors and featuring interviews with about 30 top-flight cutters, plus director collaborators, docu is lovingly rendered. Good intentions, however, do not entirely outweigh the didacticism in director Wendy Apple’s approach nor the glossing-over of classical Hollywood achievements in favor of current causes celebres. Still, film buffs and general viewers alike will find much to enjoy when pic preems in December on Starz, with video release through Warners scheduled for 2005.
A longtime dream project of the late editor and documaker Arnold Glassman (to whom pic is dedicated), “The Cutting Edge” has clearly been conceived in the mold of “Visions of Light,” the 1992 study of cinematography co-directed by Glassman, Todd McCarthy and Stuart Samuels. But whereas that film benefited from a relative ease of construction — the work of cinematographers being visible — “The Cutting Edge” is beset by a far trickier proposition: How to show the work of craftspeople whose best efforts are supposed to go unnoticed by even the attentive filmgoer’s eye.
To some extent, Apple has solved this dilemma by incorporating it into the finished film. Early on, she presents excerpts from films by the Lumiere brothers and Thomas Edison, in which the only “cuts” were those created by the stopping and re-starting of the camera.
Then, segueing to the likes of “The Matrix” and “Cold Mountain,” she slows down and replays scenes featuring cuts made on matching action, allowing the viewer to become conscious of the film editor’s work.
Of course, there’s a wealth of film-editing history between the brothers Lumiere and the brothers Wachowski, and “The Cutting Edge” makes an attempt to digest it, with sequences (narrated by Kathy Bates) that focus on the pioneering work of Edwin S. Porter and D.W. Griffith, innovations made by the Russian constructivist filmmakers and editorial practices during the Golden Age of the Hollywood studio system.
Yet “The Cutting Edge” remains strongly weighted toward the present, with most clips taken from pics of the last 30 years.
Then, when pic’s final stretch enters into an extended discussion of CGI and previsualization technologies, Apple seems more interested in the technologies’ “wow, isn’t that cool” value than the more practical, moment-to-moment ways they are expanding the editor’s lexicon. This unrelenting state-of-the-art-ness likely will cause “The Cutting Edge” to age faster than “Visions of Light,” which seems timeless today despite its omission of digital intermediates and computerized color-correction from its discussion.
Not surprisingly, the pleasure of “The Cutting Edge” derives from the indelible anecdotes offered by its army of interview subjects, as when Martin Scorsese recalls the jump cuts of Godard’s “Breathless” as being “too hip for me,” or when Steven Spielberg describes how the addition or deletion of just a few frames from certain scenes in “Jaws” meant the difference between pic’s animatronic shark being “something really scary and something that looked like a great white floating turd.” Amusement of a different sort stems from director Rob Cohen describing his editing style in “XXX” as “cubist.”
Pic is at its strongest when it delves into specific examples of how editors and directors collaborate, with longtime Bob Fosse collaborator Alan Heim discussing how he inspired Fosse to cut 20 minutes from the end of “Lenny” and Walter Murch describing the creation of the entire opening sequence of “Apocalypse Now” from bits and pieces originally intended for use elsewhere in the film.
Too often, though, “The Cutting Edge” prefers to tell us (rather than show us) about editing, maintaining an academic distance from its subject and never fully delving into the messy myriad of possibilities that can be cooked up in a cutting room. Only once — when a sequence from volcanic disaster pic “Dante’s Peak” is shown both with and without an accompanying musical score — does it truly come close.
Meanwhile, pic’s early suggestion that Murch will take us through the construction of an entire sequence from “Cold Mountain” ends up as little more than an elaborate tease.
Interview segs have been crisply lensed in HD video by John Bailey, while film clips are all taken from the highest quality elements.