The difference between a movie and a novel is…
… a movie can dictate its own pace.
I suppose it’s time I come clean to you all: I’m an editing fetishist. Motion picture editing is perhaps the part of production with the highest ratio of importance to mystery. Special effects are very important nowadays, but you can tell if they’ve gone wrong within a heartbeat of seeing them. The same goes for acting, fight scenes, cinematography, direction in most cases, production if it’s particularly obnoxious. But where a movie can be killed entirely dead in the water without anyone knowing exactly what was wrong with it is in the editing.
I suppose it says something about the humble Hollywood editor that as of this writing, my tribute to Sally Menke–gifted editor and collaborator with Quentin Tarantino–has five views. That is literally a handful. Sally Menke might be one of the most gifted people to ever touch a film, but either I hang out with people who aren’t as big into motion picture editing as I am (very likely) or no one recognizes the true genius that a good film editor is (… totally more likely). Her hand was so skilled, so precise and so invisible in the final product that it’s only after her passing that people start wondering who the real master of dialogue was: Tarantino or Menke?
I should probably go back to the beginning of my passion for film editing and structure. I don’t know where exactly it all began. I do know that even in my teens, I was telling people that Star Wars forever changed the way North American movies operate in comparison to their foreign counterparts. It’s in considering this that I started thinking about film’s structure itself. How is a movie different from any other media? What makes film unique as a device for storytelling? The answer wasn’t exactly clear or forthcoming. I knew that if you wanted to see what made comic books (or les romans graphiques if you want to be taken seriously) different from both movies and novels, the best place to start was by reading Watchmen. Alan Moore wrote that book specifically to demonstrate the ways that comics were different from both movies and novels as a storytelling medium. He used that story to show how some techniques and narratives are better suited to a visual media that can be consumed at ones own pace.
Alan Moore is a particularly ornery sort. (This gets relevant soon, I swear.) He detests every adaptation of his work into another medium than the one it started in. He famously had his name removed from any adaptation of his work after the V for Vendetta fiasco. When asked why he did this for Zack Snyder’s interpretation of his most famous work, Watchmen, he said:
Things that we did in Watchmen on paper could be frankly horrible or sensationalist or unpleasant if you were to interpret them literally through the medium of cinema. When it’s just lines on paper, the reader is in control of the experience – it’s a tableau vivant. And that gives it the necessary distance. It’s not the same when you’re being dragged through it at 24 frames per second.
And I knew he was right. I knew that in that instance, in that way, he was right. Movies keep you going at their pace and hold you to that with a permanent force. There is no way for you to receive the story but the way they want you to take it. And this is why editing is what makes film unique from every other medium. It’s a particularly large single-serving medium–the largest you can reasonably be expected to digest in one sitting or less. Short stories, blog articles are both single-serving, but are much smaller than movies. Even the shortest novel takes longer to ingest than the shortest feature length film. If you can find someone who can read Hitch-Hiker’s Guide faster than I can watch Primer, I’m game.
Therefore, it’s the pace at which movies drag you along at 24 frames per second that makes them different and unique from all other media. Before Star Wars, this pace was most akin to a novel, and in most developed nations in the world, it still is. Movies are seen as long media, to be paced comfortably and evenly throughout and to end with a satisfactory, if not exciting, conclusion. However, in North America, after Star Wars, something different started happening to our movies. Our movies gained this nifty little thing called “structure”, where the pace and tempo and rhythm of the movie would pick up with each scene until even the most pedestrian of actions is fraught with tension by the conclusion.
Possibly my favourite example of the medium of film dictating narrative structure is Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. It’s an anthology film told out of chronological order not to make for an exciting or tense conclusion where you don’t know how all of the facts go together. Its anachronic order is simply to make the movie fit a conventional movie structure. You watch the slow beginning, the miniature climaxes in the first two stories–act two even takes a decidedly down turn if you’re following the chronological events. And it all comes together in act three to have our heroes emerging triumphant from the final confrontation. Except that confrontation is really right at the beginning of everything and the rest of the movie you’ve seen before it has actually been following it in reality.
A friend of a friend of mine recently said that “movies don’t always have to be ‘structured'”, and I began my reply by saying “No. No, but frequently, they’re better if they are.” Movies play better when the editor has a good grasp of where to trim dialogue, where to heighten tension, where to speed the pace up. However, what said friend of a friend also missed is that all movies are structured, whether they want to be or not. They all have the structure that they ended up with. It’s just up to someone in the editing booth to make sure that structure doesn’t make the effort feel like a colossal waste of time.