November 15, 2007

VIVA LA VIRAL! Cut Like a Hammer

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One cold morning nearly a century ago, D.W. Griffiths took some time off from being one of History’s Greatest Bigots* and sat down to invent a system whereby he could establish a “parallel action” between two concurrent scenes by moving back and forth between those scenes through cutting. And while this might not sound like a big deal, it is. Nowadays we call what he invented the “crosscut.”
Perhaps the most famous example of how crosscutting works is the “Fire Rescue” scene. Shot in the pre-crosscutting style, each conflict plays out sequentially, one after the other. In this style the camera would remain within the space of the apartment. The woman reacts to her house being on fire, gets hysterical, and then the fireman comes in the window and rescues her. Then there is a cut to the outside of the apartment and we see the fireman roll up, scale the ladder, and rescue the woman — all without ever returning to the perspective on the woman. If this scene was to be filmed in the modern style, a parallel action would exist: the woman would react to the fire, cut to outside where the fire department would show up and race to find a hydrant, cut back inside to where the woman would become hysterical, back to the fireman scaling the ladder, back inside to the fire just about to asphyxiate her, and then finally to the fireman saving her, etc. In this example it is easy to see how the parallel action keeps the viewer involved: during each of the two conflicts they’re wondering what’s going on in the one the film has just cut away from.
Just think about how stupid all the fancy-shmancy visual effects would look today if no one had ever bothered to invent cutting between two scenes. Here’s the classic pitch for this type of film’s shot list: “OK, for the first half of the movie these people run around this crazy jungle island, and then —get this — in the second half dinosaurs chase something we never show around the very same island!” Spine tingling.
While David Wark Griffiths certainly takes the prize for the most nefarious use of crosscutting (two things D.W. loved cross-cutting were stereotypical and savage images of black sharecroppers and glorified images of the KKK), there are many who decry the kind of visual system cross-cutting has evolved into in on an aesthetic basis. This system values quick and numerous cuts, which fine tune the introduction of tension into very tiny and discrete visual packets. Who is responsible for this? Michael Bay, of course. Bay is the Queen of Quick Cutting. Though it might seem that he’s just continuing action in each scene (or might seem like nothing at all because he cuts so damned fast), if you break down major fight scenes in movies like Transformers there are very discrete conflict-solution arcs which play themselves out in parallel action. E.g. Tyrese calls in air strike on Megatron, Starscream tears up some jets, something explodes, and … uh … something transforms, Megan Fox bends over, explosions, transforming, breasts.
You know, cross-cutting.
Anyways, a lot of critics see this as a sort of ADHD injection into viewers’ brains, preventing them from maintaining any active engagement with the movie. Instead they are beaten savagely by the cutting like a philandering butcher’s wife might beat him about the face and neck with a raw lamb shank. Another argument against quick cutting is that film, as a recording of the real world in time, has an obligation to represent the temporality of its subject. Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky is known for the significant length of time that passes in each individual shot. In film terms, this is called a “long take.” (Not a “long shot,” which refers to a framing and not duration of the shot.) To be fair, it’s safe to say that if Bay was to be strapped down for a screening of one of Andrei Tarkovsky’s films, he’d surely shit the proverbial Allspark Cube.
But is there really such a split between popular media’s quick cutting, and the intellectual highroad of long takes that go on forever?
One sign that this might not be the case is to be found on YouTube. Most videos on that site are short — maybe 30 seconds long — but are usually only comprised of one shot. This is surely a byproduct of the low production values, and the fact that a lot of the videos happen to be little more than someone just happening to catch some disaster (emotional, natural and redneck) at the right time with a camcorder. One has to wonder, though, whether this provides a counter-conditioning to viewers who are becoming accommodated to the quick flicker of Bay movies and tire commercials. The clip might only be 30 seconds long, but remember that a television commercial can easily comprise 40-50 shots and last for the same amount of time.
Also interesting is the way that certain YouTube videos —and these mostly fall in the “disaster” category — include the same shot several times, slowed down so one can see the skateboarder knocking their teeth out, boy blowing up his hand with a dry-ice bomb, helicopter crashing into the arctic sea, in ways that one couldn’t see with the naked eye. This hearkens back to pre-cinematic days of the motion picture, when men like Lumiere used the temporal/visual aspects of slow and reverse motion to extend human visual perception to phenomena that could never before have been seen.

Don’t know what Matt’s talking about? Google it, silly.

* He would eventually find a way to meld both his pioneering spirit in film with his acutely disturbing racism in The Birth of a Nation.