Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Musing Pictures: Quantum of Solace

A review of this film by Michael Sragow in the Baltimore Sun calls attention to the frantic pace of the editing in this latest James Bond installment. I'd like to expand on Sragow's complaint, and perhaps illustrate what the editing achieves (and what it doesn't).

In an opening chase scene that borrows as much from "Ben Hur" as from every other Bond flick, James (again, Daniel Craig, who does a good job of it) is being chased by suave hoodlums in nice, black cars. Although it's very easy to understand what's going on, we aren't really presented with sequential details. We get everything in very brief flashes. Some spike jams in to Bond's car. There's a truck up ahead! There's a roadblock! they're shooting! But the sequence doesn't really come across as a sequence. The usual vocabulary of the road chase gets truncated and interrupted by very quick, hard-to-follow shots. While watching the scene, I found myself wishing that certain shots had held for a bit longer, just so I could get my bearings, get a sense of who's where, what's the danger, where's the way out, etc.

There is a lot of good reason to pace chase sequences quickly, of course. Tight, speedy editing can really punch-up a good scene, can give it a dynamic edge. But a good scene, after all, has to follow an intelligible sequence of events, and the footage has to illustrate that sequence, and guide us through it, so that at every point we know everything we need to know to follow the action (without knowing too much, of course). Although there may have been an intelligible sequence of events in this film's first chase scene, the editorial choices undercut the flow of that sequentiality, and end up conveying "chase" without really outlining it or walking us through it.

For an excellent chase scene, take a look at another Bond film, "Goldeneye," When that James Bond steals a tank to get away from his captors. That scene, which begins with a wonderful shot of the tank barelling through a large brick wall, is very classically structured. If there is a twist, we are presented with it moments before it enters the narrative. If there is an obstacle, we are shown it with enough time to understand and sense Bond's jeopardy. Relative to the new film's first chase scene, the "Goldeneye" scene takes its time, and in a way, comes across as more suspenseful.

There is a keyword here: Jeopardy. If there is not enough time for, or not enough information for us to register a character's jeopardy, the scene won't be as suspenseful. As a result of the editing, "Quantum of Solace" falls in to this trap numerous times. It's not that Bond isn't in danger -- on the contrary, Daniel Craig's Bond is one of the most vulnerable in the francheis. But we just aren't given enough time to see and to process the danger before Bond is forced to react to it.

On the whole, I am a little surprised at this particular quirk of the film (which is otherwise a fine and often interesting film). The director, Marc Forster, has quite a few subtler, quieter, slower films under his belt (such as "The Kite Runner" and "Stranger than Fiction"). Even the editors should have known better. Matt Chesse (who also worked with Forster on several quieter films) and Richard Pearson (who edited for the outstanding Paul Greengrass on very well-paced films such as "United 93" and "The Bourne Supremacy") seem like the sort of editing duo any production would envy. Did their opposite experiences (one of quiet contemplation, one of intense action and drama) cancel each other out in some way? I'm not sure. Pearson, in particular, surprises me here.

They call this "MTV-style" editing, but I feel that it has gone farther than that. Music videos do not need to convey narrative in the way that movies do. Certainly, film editing has gotten quite choppy over the past few decades, but I wonder what has brought it to this point.

In order for film editing to really remain an effective and critical part of the cinematic process, editors have to bring their attention back to the storytelling, and to the idea that a sequence is not just a series of visceral moments, but a careful construction of elements to create and guide an audience's clear and lucid understanding of a chain of events.