All my Eye and Aristotle: Editing European Films

By Roger Crittenden

man-who-loved-women-francois-truffaut.jpgThe Man Who Loved Women, 1977

“…I saw a Rohmer film once, it was like watching paint dry”. – Night Moves, written by Alan Sharp

European Cinema is different from Hollywood; we want to tell different kinds of stories in a different way. Stephen Cleary in his paper “How do stories work in Europe?” concludes that conventional Hollywood films function to encourage the audience to feel the same as their fellow Americans whereas European films support the notion that we are all different. Stephen clearly believes there is more to this difference but that it is hard to define. I very strongly agree with him.

The reason this question is exercising my thoughts at the moment is that I am writing a book based on interviews with European film editors and the difference between Hollywood and Europe is felt just as keenly in the edit suite as it is by screenwriters at their computers. Clearly independent American film makers often have more in common with European cinema than the dominant mode in their own country; indeed this is a measure of their independence, but they are not my concern here.

I believe that when an editor puts together the images that make up most European films he or she is contributing in some way to subverting the principles of Greek Drama according to Aristotle. On the other hand the standard Hollywood film consciously or sub-consciously embraces his rules unquestioningly.

trial-of-joan-of-arc-robert-bresson-1.jpgThe Trial of Joan of Arc, 1962

Whether this is true or not is only significant once we realise the differences between making a ‘Hollywood’ film and a ‘European’ one. Although at any given time in the history of Cinema you could find examples of films where plot, character and structure follow Aristotle in both Europe and Hollywood, I believe the inclination towards discursive narratives and unresolved plots has been ‘a certain tendency’ ever since La Nouvelle Vague. Indeed such a tendency can be identified in Europe as early as the twenties. It’s just that occasionally we lose our nerve and our cinema is dominated by tired imitations of conventional films and then we have to re-invent the form. Truffaut believed that when this happens we have to go back to our origins, not only to Lumière and Méliès but to those artistic precursors in the nineteenth century which laid the groundwork for cinema; from the novel to painting to the circus and music hall.

Not that all European film makers embrace open narratives, but if there is a way of identifying the difference between the way Hollywood uses cinema and how Europe refuses to, it is in this area of dramatic form. It is truly ironic that Robert McKee comes like an evangelist and re-presents Aristotle in new clothes to European writers producers and directors hungry to learn the secrets of Hollywood or at least a formula for writing successful screenplays. We might call this taking coals to Newcastle if the Aristotle seam hadn’t been worked out a long time ago.

Hollywood production functions to reinforce an image of society that such a polyglot nation constantly needs, just as drama in ancient Greece consisted of a ritual that acted as a representation of society as it was, is, or is meant to be. To encourage the melting pot which is still America to cohere around a shared concept of society an image has to be conveyed that is, in theory at least, the aspiration of all. In reinforcing a vision of citizenship both societies are conscious of the enemy within as well as without.

trial-of-joan-of-arc-robert-bresson-2.jpgThe Trial of Joan of Arc, 1962

Twentieth Century Europe which tore itself apart in two long savage wars has long preferred to explore the problems of individual existence rather than embrace the reassuring catharsis of resolution as the proper subject of cinema. Take one example: Lasse Halstrom has successfully made the transition from being an interesting and quirky director/writer in Europe to an effective teller of American stories. Yet the contrast between something like My Life as a Dog and The Cider House Rules or Chocolat is extreme, even if there are some superficial aspects which appear similar.

In the end, every character in Cider House serves a plot function. They only survive the film as individuals where the screen presence of the actor overcomes their mechanical existence. Otherwise they are simply pawns in an elaborate dramatic game. The outcome of the story and each twist in the plot is predictable enough for the audience to enjoy feeling clever about being ahead of the action.

My Life as a Dog, on the other hand, is totally unsatisfying on the level of delivering a well crafted plot. It is full of surprises and disconnected events. The characters survive the dramatic journey intact and we are not handed a simple resolution. Ironically the unknown cast seem more real and their fate more important. Did Halstrom need to learn how to write and direct effective narratives or has he swopped a commitment to the exploration of complex personal and social situations for a simpler message? Is it only the Miramax audience which would prefer the latter?

au-hasard-bathazard-robert-bresson.jpgAu Hasard, Bathazard, 1966

Where does the editor come into this equation? In a sense the British editor is the most insecure. The trouble is there is an easy security in the editing of conventional narratives, especially if they are embedded in recognisable genres, and more often than not British Cinema espouses the broad approach of Hollywood, which is why the money has been secured in the first place.

Yet this is not always the case. From Nic Roeg, (think of Performance or Eureka or Bad Timing) to Terence Davies (Distant Voices, Still Lives or The Long Day Closes) there have always been other sensibilities at work. Editing these films is like walking a creative tightrope without the safety net of conventions or rules. Indeed if you try to apply such rules the result is predictably disaster. I remember a case where an American editor was brought in to re-cut an English film that was running far too long as far as the producer was concerned. Over night he slashed twenty five minutes from the film. When the director appeared in the cutting room the following morning he was amazed; “but what scenes have you lost?” he said. “No scenes at all” he replied, “it was all in the pauses”. “But”, said the director, “that’s where the meaning is”.

So what does the British or indeed European editor have to bring to his or her work that is different or particular? It may be worth asking what Alan Sharp meant by his reference to Rohmer and the drying paint in his script for Night Moves that I quoted from at the head of this article. In an earlier draft it was Bresson that he referred to and I would love to know the reason for this change. Maybe Rohmer was an easier target or Bresson too obscure. No matter at the simplest level the films of both these directors are slower and less dramatic than the normal run of genre output from LA. But it is much more than that, and not just a question of pauses.

diary-of-a-country-priest-robert-bresson.jpgLe Journal d’un Curé de Campagne, 1951

One level of difference is the relation of cause and effect. It is here that the continued relevance of the Greek tradition is clearly evident. Two things are constantly ignored when the tenets of Classical Drama are invoked to support an analysis of how screenplays should work. Firstly that the Greeks believed that the subject of drama should be the retelling of significant events from the past which had lessons for the proper functioning of the state. The function of performance was to reconfirm the values which each citizen must adhere to. Thus the outcome of the stories was a given and known to every member of the audience. Just as the retelling of the story of Christ is represented throughout the Christian calendar. It is not a question of whether Christ will be crucified, it is the significance of why he died that matters. This is one of the reasons that Kubrick’s Spartacus is more effective as drama than Scott’s Gladiator. The nature of a man’s death can be more meaningful than his ability to survive.

Basing the mechanics of drama on unknown outcomes to plots is missing the Greek point and makes the reference invalid. Only the invention of genre and complete adherence to the rules creates a true reflection of the greek form. Thus the outcome is known; effect precedes cause. We are not supposed to be watching to learn the outcome, but to understand the cause or the process that leads to the effect. So when Bresson calls his film A Condemned Man has Escaped he is tacitly acknowledging this principle.

Bresson was adept at constructing his screenplays so that he conveyed an effect before revealing the cause. What he elided was the action in between. This is pure classical drama. For the other thing which we have to remember is that action, especially violent action was forbidden on the Greek stage.

my-night-at-mauds-eric-rohmer.jpgMa Nuit chez Maude, 1969

Since a high proportion of Hollywood popular film is dominated by violent action it is as well to remind ourselves why the Greeks forbade such action from their drama. They believed that the direct visceral nature of the effective representation of violence had too strong an effect on the audience and overwhelmed the message of the drama itself. Since the message was never to do with the value of violent action this was never central to their themes. For instance even if revenge was justified it was more important to demonstrate why than to exhibit the revengeful action as the climax of the drama. In other words cause and effect were the important motors not the action which connects the two.

Yet Greek drama was based, as much as anything, on the identification of a protagonist. Usually a hero whose actions precipitate the crucial events of the narrative, and with whom the audience is meant to identify. European film has often eschewed the protagonist, and this is especially true in films by women directors where the central character is female and not so much active as acted upon. It is notable that most if not all successful women directors in Hollywood have embraced the active protagonist even more wholeheartedly than their male counterparts. Yet in Europe some of the most outstanding examples of films without a real protagonist have been made by men. Bresson’s own Mouchette for example. Notably, Claude Goretta’s The Lacemaker demonstrates some clear evidence about this tendancy of European storytelling to eschew the protagonist.

In my opinion, the reason that The Lacemaker is so successful is that Goretta rethought the form which he needed to apply to a film which centres on a character who is unable to act on her own initiative, except to please others. This affected all aspects of the realisation. The camera had to see in a different way. Take the moment when Pomme, the central character, played hauntingly by Isabelle Huppert goes with her hairdresser friend to a dance. She is left on the sidelines and Goretta’s camera frames her wide so that we see the empty seat beside her. There is no zoom in. We understand Pomme’s isolation and crucially we feel her lack of a partner. The shot is held long enough for us to feel uncomfortable watching her. The cut respects the meaning of the moment. As Godard said: “What direction seeks to achieve in space, montage must achieve in time”.

It is clear to me that we should be careful what assumptions we make about the relevance of dramatic theory to our understanding of European Cinema. I know that the editors contributing to my book will have their own insights. At a time when the world’s obsession with globalisation threatens all particular cultures it is important that we try to know ourselves better. I think some people will be surprised how well editors understand the nature of our storytelling and how their work supports it.

Roger Crittenden is Director, Full Time Programme at the National Film and Television School and author of the BFI Film Classic on Truffaut’s La Nuit Américaine (Day for Night).