Bad Cuts Are Sexy

By Robert Hargreaves

I once told an editor I really liked a cut he had made in a film. It turned out the cut was where the distributors had taken five minutes out of the film and he didn’t like it. Whoops. But for me it had been a fantastic cut. Whereas all the other cuts had pushed the story forwards, this one had made it leap, it had set up ideas in my head that the others hadn’t, it had made me work and make connections which the other more predictable cuts hadn’t, and it remains to this day a pleasure.

I once told a director that I liked not knowing what I was doing when I was editing. I got job. And then I wished I hadn’t, as the director didn’t know what he was doing. I realised I hadn’t really meant what I had said. I did like knowing what I was doing, and the more the better. But at times I still like to stop being in control when I’m editing, and see what happens, to make a cut not knowing why I am making it.

After I had cut my first film, I thought I had it all sussed. I used the same ideas to cut the next film and it looked a mess. I realised that each film had its own rules. Now I enter every film thinking I have to learn how to edit all over again. If that process does not happen, then there must be something wrong. Either it’s a bad film or it’s time I gave up editing.

So what is editing? I have never known, and nobody has ever managed to tell me. In concrete terms, it consists of splicing shots, keeping sync and not losing trims – quite simple really. In practical terms, there are the rules of not crossing the line, matching eyelines, establishers to mid-shots to close-ups, keeping the colour tones even, cutting on the beginning or end of actions, matching text and image, plus all the conventions of continuity of action, movement, clothing, place, etc. – which are the basic grammar of film language.

But in real terms, it seems to be about telling a story. I have to find out what the story is to tell, and to tell it as simply as possible. For me it is that finding out of the story, whether it be documentary or drama, that tells me where to make the cuts; for to move a cut would be to tell another story.

How I find that story partly comes from the actual editing process. There are editors who will sit down and work it all out, but I like to start cutting immediately, and let the material talk back to me. For me, each film has its own line, or route – maybe rhythm or rhythms is a better word – which is to do with the character of the material rather than its story. I am always amazed at how differently people will see the same film, but as long as the line it makes works for me it is likely to work for other people.

But what I find most difficult in editing is a particularly English disease: the ‘good’ cut. I was taught to make ‘good’ cuts, they were ‘correct’. They follow the logic of the action and the script, they must be right. But these ‘good’ cuts are in their very essence predictable, because in their very reason can be proven. They don’t break new ground. They are made by people looking at films in terms of how they should be made, not by people watching a film.

But then what is a ‘bad’ cut? A director and I once cut a film by trying to make ‘bad’ cuts. We would choose what we thought would look wrong, cut next to the last shot, and cut it in. We mixed up the colours, the political interviews with the personal. Either it would do nothing, possibly look horribly wrong, but more often than not it would look really good, making connections we had not imagined. Somewhere in what we thought would be ‘bad’ cuts were new thoughts. Maybe the fact we thought it wouldn’t work was a connection in itself. This gave the film a liveliness and energy that was very refreshing, and a place in the BFI awards.

I prefer now to cut a whole scene in one run, not looking at the cuts as I make them, and then go back and look at it afterwards. It really seems to highlight what is and isn’t important. Sometimes I get caught by what I think is a bad cut: it isn’t ‘smooth’. But after a time I can re-look at it and see that it does work. It’s very ‘not working’ can be what makes it work, because it is pushing me and making me think while I am watching the film.

I’ve always wanted to make a film that was totally illogical on the face of it but which, like chaos theory, would leave the viewer with a complete experience. When I switch on the television at random and flick channels I stay with a programme until I can work out what it’s on about. I stay longest with those I can’t fathom, but have a sense of going somewhere. It is this balance that I would like to strike; that of the viewer remaining curious throughout, amazed even, by the journey he/she was on, but never feeling that he knew what it was ‘on about’. I have come close, but there has always been pressure from somewhere, the censor of authority, for it to ‘make sense’, be logical. But life, like sex, is not logical.

As I have thought about this over the weeks I have had to write this article, which is like the weeks I have to cut a film, I have been thinking about the subtext of an image. I can take the storyline of a wedding; it unfolds as the people arrive, through the ceremony, the photographs and on to the reception. But while watching this story, I will be thinking about a whole lot of other ideas. I will think about growing up and falling in love, about marriage and families, about the pomp of the ceremony, about where the place is, about how the people are dressed, about who the individuals concerned are. By cutting on the subtext rather than the storyline, it is easier to get the viewer to think about these ideas.

But these thoughts can be followed in various ways. I can follow the line, say, of marriage and cut to a shop, with another ritual of exchange; cut to a worker soldering, with its control and confinement; to Waterloo station, with all the people filing in and out. But I could also cut across them by cutting to somebody diving into a wave, for the pomp and ritual of the ceremony may have become so overwhelming that escape is really the answer. And there is a lot of pleasure in recognising the viewer’s libidinous desires.

I am inspired by many excellently cut American films which deliberately break the rules. When I stop to look at the cuts in Scorsese’s films, I think: how does he get away with them? They word on the unconscious in a way that cannot be justified. When I was watching the film I wasn’t looking at the cuts, I was following the story. Now I am always looking out for the good ‘bad’ cut, the connecting of the unexpected, to see what it produces, to see what works, what it may add to the film I am working on. It is the ‘bad’ cuts among the good cuts that make a good film, they enliven the film for, rather than working cerebrally, they work on the libido, and make it sexy.

As an editor I can only make a film out of what I am given, so I cannot make the film into what I haven’t got. But is that true? More and more I believe there is a magic in editing, of making people believe in things they have not seen. When watching pop promos there are always those infuriating short glimpses of people, but if I ever stop a frame, their gloss disappears and there seems to be nothing there. And maybe that lies in the cuts where time has been cut, lies in the imagination.

When I cut time in a film, it often makes it longer in the mind. For the mind will fill that missing gap in the action with its own ideas. This also applies to the shots, the ‘spaces’ that are shown.

The collection of shots I put together controls the space that the viewer sees, but it also leaves him free to fill the outside space with his own ideas. By not showing all the action, I can let the viewer fill in the gaps, and he may do that better than I could by showing the action that is off-screen. As long as the mind has been routed then it will fill the scene with ideas. And that, for me, is what timing is all about.