To Be Discontinued

How film editing has changed to suit an increasingly incoherent world

“Cinema was first made for thinking,” Jean-Luc Godard says in his sprawling memoir cum lecture, Histoire du Cinema. For centuries, Godard argues, art had been premised on the idea that “inner reality was more subtle than the cosmos.” In film, the cosmos became newly visible as an actor in its own right. No longer was it just a backdrop, a conspiracy of matter and mechanics. The universe gained a romantic pathos equal to that of any of its characters. Movies didn’t just tell stories; they romanticized the way the universe worked, creating a sense of wonder through a chain of actions and consequences that came tumbling across their character’s unsuspecting bodies.

In its earliest forms, cinema combined discontinuously produced images and sounds into a continuous thread of events and gestures. Sergei Eisenstein described cinema as the practice of “combining shots that are depictive, single in meaning, neutral in content — into intellectual contexts and series.” Each cut removes detail from an event — for example, collapsing the distance between a baby carriage at the top of a staircase and the face of a woman watching it from afar — creating an association that baits an immediate reactionary judgement. By design, the cut raises questions that viewers are invited to reason out for themselves: Was the imperiled child a metaphor for a worker’s revolt? A symbol of how cruel the response to it was? A heroic turning point? Or just an affective form of emotional distress? The movie, by design, only takes you so far.

Movies don’t just tell stories; they romanticize the way the universe works

This ideal of continuity wasn’t inevitable or natural, though. Continuity editing was developed to help make cinema viable as an industry, making films not only legible and replicable for disparate audiences but offering also an aesthetic logic for centralized production. Early in the industry’s history, the economics of the medium encouraged both continuity editing and linear narrative, working in tandem. Since the cost of film stock, processing, and editing made it expensive to shoot a lot of unusable footage, and because mass-producing and distributing copies of a finished film was also dauntingly expensive, the industry gravitated toward the most straightforward type of product that could be sold to the broadest of audiences. Continuity in the service of a linear narrative fit this bill, fabricating a visual idiom of insinuation and plot conveyance that was as transporting in St. Louis as it was in New York City. It helped connect distant points and peoples on the map into mass audiences.

Continuity as an ideal demanded a conservative approach to production. Directors were forced to express themselves through technical and economic thrift, which made even the most lavish and spectacular stagings seem palpably deliberate, careful. In Making Movies, director Sidney Lumet, whose career spanned from the 1950s to the 2000s, described his parsimonious methods, organizing the day’s shots by the wall of the room that characters were to be filmed against. Only when every scene and shot that would need to show “wall A” in the background was finished would he reset for wall B, wall C, and wall D. “The reason for this,” he wrote, “is that whenever the camera has to change its angle more than 15 degrees, it’s necessary to relight. Lighting is the most time consuming (and therefore most expensive) part of moviemaking. Most relighting takes minimally two hours. Four relightings take an entire day!”

This approach rarely evoked the kind of lush extravagances of nature one might stumble on by accident. The sense of staging begins to creep into the most disordered environments, making the audience question not only what they are seeing but also the intention behind it. Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samouraï famously opens in a dark and cramped apartment that one presumes is empty until the motions of cigarette smoke drifting up from the bed give away the fact that the small landscape of bed sheets is actually a human body. In David Lean’s enormous desert tableaus, there is a similar shock of discovery not in the setting so much as the appearance of life in it. 

In shots composed for continuity, the camera becomes a witness to extraordinary and mysterious events, and the editor, like a prosecutor on cross examination, must bring out the reason for those events by excluding all the irrelevant details and emphasizing the handful of hidden giveaways that reveal the diegetic truth of an event, what Gilles Deleuze in Cinema 1 called the “chain of relations, which constitutes the mental image, in opposition to the thread of actions, perceptions and affections.” Through a bloom of sympathetic identification, audiences became jurors’ attempting to objectively evaluate how an event came to pass, and whether the ends of its primary agents, no matter how relatable, justified their means.

As the reach of movie houses and television towers spread across America, this cultivated instinct for moral deduction through spectatorship became a feature of advertisements as well, which began to rely less on pseudo-empirical proofs of an item’s utility and instead relied on viewers to intuit the same sort of “chain of relations” that linked, say, a new brand of cigarette to a new you. The logic of continuity didn’t affirm a linear experience of time and life so much as make it second nature to think in these relational terms, to both react to the superficial constellation of associations other people presented on the surface and to think conspiratorially about what other qualities might be hiding beneath it. We learned to see ourselves as perennially incomplete, custodians of a revolving collection of tantalizing new selves reflected in goods, but we also learned to enjoy seeing those identities peeled away in an unending process of revelation through association.

With continuity as an ideal, the sense of staging begins to creep into the most disordered environments, making the audience question not only what they see but also the intention behind it

Just as a few coercive, continuous cuts could turn a hero into a villain, the everyday Joe into the center of a sublime adventure, so too could the foreshortened narratives in ads turn the viewer from one type of self into another. Yet, at the movies, to make them long enough to justify the price of admission, the transformation process was emphasized and elaborated, suspended ideally between the plausible and the impossible. The commercials and videos that developed in the wake of television had neither the space nor the need for process. These came to favor surprise, creating sequences that were revelatory instead of explanatory, and so encouraged the audience to think not in terms of purpose but possibility, engendering an acquisitive restlessness with the present, a hunger for one more layer to be peeled away, for one more unexpected persona to intrude into the timeline.

In movies, people do things to each other. In commercials, things happen to people, fundamentally changing our perception of their character each time. Their short-running time (and the fact that no one paid to see them) left ad shoots with radically smaller budgets than films, but shot-for-shot, and second-for-second directors were expected to produce the same sense of awe and intimacy. They had to reach their audience quickly or risk losing their attention. Commercial directors learned to depend on impulsiveness and improvisation and trusted that the brevity and the pace of edits would make lapses in continuity register as style.

Tony Scott, who got his start with commercials and went on to direct such films as Top Gun, True Romance, and Man on Fire, describes how his ad work prepared him differently for feature films: “We’re practiced in shooting on tops of mountains, underwater, with actors and non-actors, with models — we’ve created our craft, because we get to try things all the time.”

The ethos that commercial directors developed became a virtue to film financiers. As studios became corporatized in the 1970s and 1980s, their projects became subject to the detached scrutiny of accountants who compared the return on a year’s worth of releases against what other investment strategies might have brought. Movies have become obsessed with proving a larger than life status at the same time ticket sales have flatlined. In 1995, 1.3 billion movie tickets were sold around the world. In 2016, there were still only 1.3 billion movie tickets sold globally, despite the global population having increased by almost 2 billion.

The visual impulsivity and dissociative associations favored by commercial directors became desirable to help distinguish films in an entertainment marketplace that appeared to be reaching saturation. At a certain point, the advertiser seemed better able to reach into the audience’s unconscious than did the auteur. If the purpose of every new movie was ultimately to promote the film industry as a whole, and ennoble its hold on strip malls and parking lots and video rental shops and summer jobs at popcorn counters, who better than a commercial director to make movies?

No one has embraced that ethos more definitively than Michael Bay, who pioneered the assaultive style of cinema that now dominates the American film industry: Kodak-colored chase scenes and shootouts that seem to unfold in a cubist alternate reality. Every new camera placement seems to create its own isolated dimension that never quite matches with any of the others, which energizes the mind with difference and then exhausts it with relentlessness.

When Bay was offered Transformers, a series he knew nothing about when it was pitched to him, he embraced it as a mission, according to former Paramount president Adam Goodman, to “make the most pop, commercially successful movie he could.” It’s not possible to work in the film industry without occasionally accepting assignment for the money, but Bay turned that shameful necessity into a form of joyous vanity, a chance to make statement movies about his own shamelessness and the transformative power of money. It is as if the business model behind these movies — to prove their competitive status in a stagnant market through a brazen investment of money and time — has become sentient and begun defending its own self-interest independent of what any of the people involved in making them believe.

This style of filmmaking seems to have subsumed cinema, blanketing moviegoers in a ceaseless montage that makes it hard to distinguish characters, objects, settings, and sometimes entire movies from one another. There may be differences between The Avengers: Age of Ultron, Transformers: Dark of the Moon, 13 Hours, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, Star Wars: Rogue One, but describing them seems futile. They seem less like new rousing adventures than propaganda for a production pipeline that has uncoupled itself from the physical limitations and emotional identifications that shaped its earlier products. The film industry now appears convinced that the only way it can turn a profit is to burn money on stage and charge more for admission than it has earmarked for destruction.

Unlike the canvas or blank page, the camera is a tool of exclusion: Its frame and focal field subtract from an already existing scene. Continuity builds a rhythm of storytelling that strains toward encapsulation

Bay began his career not breaking onto studio lots as Steven Spielberg had nor by caravaning from town to town with his own film reels as John Waters had. He grew up white and well-taken care of in the Los Angeles suburbs and got an internship with Spielberg at 15 through nepotism. Then he studied film at Wesleyan and the Art Center in Pasadena before getting a job just a few months out of school at Propaganda Films, a hybrid production company and advertising agency that made the bulk of its money from commercial and music video shoots. Two weeks later, he was offered the chance to direct a Donny Osmond video, “Sacred Emotion,” with a $165,000 budget.

Bay’s shooting pace and ability to generate an enormous amount of footage for comparatively low cost won him his first feature-directing job: the buddy-cop film Bad Boys, in 1995, originally planned as a vehicle for Dana Carvey and Jon Lovitz. “He pushed really hard — the first day of filming, he did like 40-some setups. A normal director — you get 10, if you’re lucky,” producer Jerry Bruckheimer remembered. Bay, who regularly prefers to work as his own camera operator, refuses to storyboard scenes in advance and won’t watch early assembly cuts to see how the movie is coming together. “I just want to see scenes,” he admitted on his own website. “My action takes a lot of cutting. I’ll do 60 to 70 setups in a day. Everything is very much in my head.” Calvin Wimmer, who worked on the Transformers movies, said Bay’s working style is a chaotic mirror of his films themselves. “All the words are English, but you have no idea what it is he’s talking about,” he told GQ. “And you gotta go find the people that were nearest around him at the time and try to figure out: ‘Okay, so this is what he said — what does this mean?’ Because it comes so fast.”

When Bad Boys was released, Bay’s work on the film seemed miraculous. He made the tepid, tired cop movie seem vibrant and contemporary on a budget of $18 million, about half the average studio production budget at the time. Unable to spend on spectacular set pieces, Bay made a movie in which every frame is filled with destabilizing movement that helps the mundane settings — a house in the suburbs, a police station, an apartment — vibrate with hidden meaning. Light poles, palm trees, smokestacks, and high rises all move against one another in parallax layers, while frame inversions or haphazard violations of the conventional guidelines for camera angles (like the 180º rule) make tedious dialogue-driven scenes feel volatile and uncontained, as if they were on the verge of spilling into some new space we hadn’t yet been shown. Action scenes play out in a claustrophobic montage of close-ups and isolated gestures whose spatial relationships are never clarified, while the only wide shots are B-roll footage of Miami. The quickening pace of edits intensify the sense of momentum that supersedes the story or characterization.

Film editor Walter Murch’s famed Rule of Six offers six ranked criteria that every edit in a film should meet. Story, rhythm, eye-trace, two-dimensional plane of the screen, and three-dimensional space of action should all be conserved and respected in each cut, but all five put together were less important than the sixth: emotional conveyance. “There is a practical side to this,” Murch argued, “which is that if the emotion is right and the story is advanced in a unique, interesting way, in the right rhythm, the audience will tend to be unaware of (or unconcerned about) editorial problems with lower-order items like eye-trace, stage-line, spatial continuity, etc.”

Because Bay doesn’t storyboard and prefers to use many different camera setups in a single day’s shooting, he gives his editors almost no choice but to violate the first five of Murch’s rules, preserving some emotional coherence with scenes that jump from close-ups to action shots where cars or bodies or explosions jump around the frame with no apparent logic. Bay makes films as an extension of the camera rather than as an administrator overseeing the composition of a story. Character sightlines change by the second, actors are moving left in one sequence and right in another, the enormous braid of cars chasing one another across a bridge shifts haphazardly, making it hard to know how close anyone is to the target. Murch wants the tools of filmmaking to be limited in such a way that the audience can hold onto a mental image, to orient them so they are not simply watching but they come to inhabit a constructed space that exists mostly in their imagination. Bay uses the tools of filmmaking to make such space impossible, forcing the audience to depend on the screen instead of draw from it.

In the aesthetics of discontinuity, the cinema has preserved the energetic cruelty of the avant-garde and waited for its politics to bleed out, leaving behind only the exclusionary mechanism of the camera and its frame

This approach can be seen in an early scene in Bad Boys, when Martin Lawrence’s character, a Miami police detective, wakes up in bed with his wife, played by Theresa Randle. The scene is a cliché, meant to illustrate a marriage that has lost its sexual energy after years of built-up resentment, but Bay’s off-kilter staging transforms it. Each new edit disorients more than it clarifies. It starts to feel as if the room has one too many walls, or maybe the bed has been repositioned five feet to the left in one of the camera setups. I had to watch the scene a second time before I realized what was happening: The frame was reversed in every other edit. In the opening shot of Lawrence’s hand slamming the alarm, he’s on the left side of the bed, but in the medium shot that shows him in bed with Randle, he’s on the right side, as is the nightstand with the alarm. On a third viewing of the scene, it becomes clear that the reversed positioning — not just of the actors but the entire room — is coming from a reflection in a mirror, whose rounded frame is just visible in the top right corner of the frame. Somehow figuring all this out makes it make even less sense.

Often in Bay’s films, the emotion a scene seems designed to convey becomes overwhelmed by objects, as in Armageddon when Liv Tyler’s character speaks her final words to her father, played by Bruce Willis, through a video uplink from space. Willis’s face is broadcast across more than a dozen screens as he prepares to die, making the scene less about grief than the experience of being overwhelmed by a network of machinery, an inescapable array against which every movement of the spirit or body is measured.

Bay’s most beautiful sequences are of submissive participation in these sorts of arrays, montages that capture a flow of events that makes individual pathos seem beside the point. In another scene from Armageddon, when the oil-rig roughnecks are given their first spacewalking lesson, Bay cuts between a series of redundant images — a camera lowers into a pool to find two divers swimming, Bruce Willis closes his eyes as his spacesuit helmet is adjusted, Ben Affleck pushes up into his suit, a group of trainees are led through the blue waters by divers, a crane lowers a man in a spacesuit into the pool, a close-up of Willis as he descends into the water, a point-of-view shot of divers and trainees swimming in front of him, a cut back to the earlier shot of a group of trainees being led deeper into the pool, a close-up of Steve Buscemi tilting his head joking about the pointlessness of the exercise: “So we’re going swimming on this asteroid? Is that what this is for?”

In Pearl Harbor, a similarly compressed montage plays out as the Japanese prepare to launch the famous attack. Pilots run across a runway, bombs are loaded, sake is poured into a ceramic glass, commanders observe from a tower, propellers spin, a deckhand helps secure a pilot in a cockpit, a plane takes off, and another, some fly screen left, others head screen right. The few wide shots in the scene convey no sense of scale or space, and most of the flow of images happens in decontextualized close-ups, isolated actions. It’s not simply a gloss on the habits and culture of the Japanese military structure; it’s a film attempting to prove its powers, erasing the limitations of representation and replacing them with an impulsive mania for capturing moments. The sequence is drab gray and drained of the sharp colors of the scenes of Americans, and it flows over with orientalist clichés. But it’s hard not to feel that Bay’s sympathies lie with the grandeur of these numberless isolated pieces being deployed toward a collective display of force. His movies are made to be survived, not internalized or, worse yet, interpreted.

Unlike the canvas or blank page, the camera is a tool of exclusion: Its frame and focal field subtract from an already existing scene. Motion picture editing and the logic of continuity is a check on this quality. Each new cut attempts to reintroduce something left out of the earlier shot, building a rhythm of storytelling that strained toward encapsulation, a poetics of constituent parts that could make sense only in relation to one another.

The idea of continuity mirrors the logic of 20th-century technologies: the illusion of connecting people across distances, from radio towers and telephone cables to movie theaters and sports arenas. We learned to be incomplete in ourselves and yearn for ways to reconnect with the distribution networks that had spread by promising to create a more unified whole, to give individuals more unassailable selves by allowing them to participate in creative consensus, something we had only to participate in but not create. During the same period, discontinuity was a refutation of this artificial consensus — the haphazard autofictions of surrealism or the disjunctive revelations of the French New Wave. In the aesthetics of discontinuity, the cinema has preserved the energetic cruelty of the avant-garde and waited for its politics to bleed out, leaving behind only the exclusionary mechanism of the camera and its frame, which always makes the first cut, opening the first unnoticeable incision between fiction and fact.

As the distribution and production modes for film shift away from discrete works to be studied in repetition and toward the serial, the infinite variation of the remake, the prequel, the reboot, or the season, the “spoiler” has become a proxy for our belief that the purest value of cinema today is our initial reaction to it — its ability to provoke a reaction. Like much of our media consumption, this feels gratifying in the short term and exhausting in the long term, which is perhaps why, like Bay’s movies, it can become grueling to watch despite the gloss it might offer.

Bay’s oeuvre of discontinuous dramas accepts the cruelty of exclusion built into the camera and plays up to it, refusing to connect frames to scenes or coherent spaces, indifferent to character motivation or meaning. He has ushered in an era of cinema as something uncertain and out of control, art that one survives instead of interprets or internalizes. He seems to have accepted his role as a node in a system. “I had a reporter here who said, ‘Would you ever date a girl who didn’t like your movies?’” he recalled in a 2001 Esquire profile. “I’m like, Yeah. Yeah. Um. Yee-aah. That’s, you know, you don’t have to like what I do. You know? It’s just something I like doing.” The suggestion of exclusion behind sentiments like these is central to his aesthetic, as if Bay’s lifework is just appendage, a distraction that has no bearing on anything else on his life.

This is the ultimate promise of discontinuity, of art that repels and disappears into a fog as we watch it. Most people are too much themselves, too trapped in the identity and modes of thought imposed on them by class and career, race and religion. Bay’s movies capture the world as a violent tide of objects in motion, over which ego and identity finally have no sway.

Michael Thomsen is a writer in New York and the author of Levitate the Primate: Handjobs, Internet Dating, and Other Issues for Men.