(This week’s observations stem from Richard Barsom’s Looking at Movies, “Chapter 6: Editing,” a viewing of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and a personal account of family feud.)
I’m fascinated by the ways we, as humans, make meaning from images. Whether presented on their own, in a pair or a group, the story often changes when contextualized by what surrounds that central image. If anyone has ever done scrapbooking, you know that three well placed images on a page, and not necessarily in chronological order, can epitomize an entire event, whether it be a child’s birthday party, a wild night out on the town, or a child’s wild birthday night out on the town.
Welcome to the opening montage of Terry Gilliam’s 1998 film, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. A series of black and white images flashes before us: a helicopter, a Vietnam protest, and other faded war time images alternating with a repeated black screen covered with thick, wet and vibrant spattered blood. We immediately think of fresh death, destruction and civil unrest.
Once in that frame of mind, we’re hit with the jarring contrast of a long shot showing a pristine, cherry red convertible flying down the straight and narrow highway. Who is driving? Cut to a humorous image of drug induced driver/journalist, Raoul Duke (Johnny Depp) and passenger/lawyer, Dr. Gonzo (Benicio Del Toro). We not only see the main characters, and I do mean characters, we also enter their LSD induced world as our view of them is contorted through the distortion of a fish eye and barrel lens. Next, Duke repels his invisible bat hallucinations with a fly swatter. The scene then cuts to a real bat casualty lying dead in the road. The audience has just left their own sense of reality and specifically entered that of Duke’s. Welcome to the 70s.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas employs some seriously interesting editing, particularly in the drug scenes. At the same time, because the images are so surreal, it becomes difficult to find the faults. I read the two following facts at IMDb.com:
Just before Dr. Gonzo pulls out the hunting knife room service sent up, Duke’s sunglasses instantaneously change from the purple-tinted pair that he wore in the previous scene to the yellow-tinted ones he wears throughout most of the film.
In the scene in the Mint bar at the beginning of the movie, Duke inspects Gonzo to make sure he is not a monster. In the medium close-up, he turns his right shoulder towards the camera, while it should be his left shoulder like in the full shots.
While each might read as a product of the film’s constructed hallucinations, the sunglasses glitch is probably the easier of the two to gloss over upon first viewing. The second, a break in continuity in regard to human positioning, is something we are more likely to pick up on since our constant assessment of body language is second nature and important to our social survival.
On a more personal note, I learned a great deal about the importance of editing this past Christmas. My husband and I paid to have 8 reels of 8 mm family films transferred to DVD prior to their disintegration. The years spanned from 1947 through 1968 and it was a treasure-trove of lost footage unseen for decades. I couldn’t wait to share copies of it with Tim’s six siblings. Until…
The running joke in my newly acquired family is that the oldest brother Walter has always been his father’s favorite. (Let’s just call this brother Walter for this public post – as in the fictional Walter Mitty, who, according to Wiki is “a meek, mild man with a vivid fantasy life: in a few dozen paragraphs he imagines himself a wartime pilot, an emergency-room surgeon, and a devil-may-care killer.”) Walter can do no wrong and his father holds everyone to this standard. Unfortunately, viewing the video rendered the joke painfully true. Every scene involved Walter in some way, even if it was just him shoveling the walk for 7 minutes. When holding his newborn twin siblings, the camera’s focus was on Walter’s face. One full reel was dedicated to Walter’s scout campout, an event that involved his entire family yet featured only their backs as they all watched Walter. Look! There’s Walter waterskiing! There’s Walter fishing! Aw, Walter is on the ferry. Look how cute.
I think Walter, viewing with everyone from the family patriarch down to the youngest grandchild, was ready to crawl under the couch. At 6 feet 2 inches, not only would this have been an amazing trick, it would have backfired by drawing more attention to what else Walter can do exceptionally well. Additionally, If his father then had his way, all of us would have had to crawl in under the couch following Walter’s example… and I just don’t think twenty three of us could fit under there.
So, since this year’s holiday drama was inspired by my failed attempt to bring joyful memories to the forefront (welcome to the family), I have begun to edit the series in order to offer equal sibling representation and far less boring detail for next year’s gift. Perhaps this will heal the reinforced rift that some initial editing could have nipped in the bud.
Under these circumstances, cutting the average twenty feet of film for every minute seen sounds about right, although more could be required. I also find that the ellipses that occurs when I use my software’s dissolve feature gracefully suggests the passing of time while disguising my attempt at revisionist history. Another interesting and unexpected effect is that the music, which I can’t seem to replace, creates a new and interesting soundtrack with each overlap of the dissolve. Maybe I’ll try some different match cuts and wipes just to shake things up a bit. Maybe a split scene could show the constant images of Walter in the third panel while everyone else occupies the first two. Then again, calming effects are probably more appropriate for this project. The good news is that, since the editor is that person behind the scenes who tends to fade into the likes of Hunter S. Thompson’s ether, perhaps my family faux pas will do so as well.