Film-making, it is generally acknowledged, is a collective endeavour but normally the director is singled out as the person responsible for the finished product, the writer for the quality of the story and the cinematographer for whether it looks like an old master or a dog’s breakfast. Editing is the dark art, where reclusive cataloguers hang up strips of celluloid marked with arcane chinagraph marks, and is rarely the ‘topic du jour’ of the academic or critic. It often only becomes notable when the film has "magically" been edited by its director (the Coens edit their own films and Robert Rodriguez is also an advocate of the "hands on" approach). But more often than not, it is the editor who dictates the pace and feel of the film.
Perkins and Stollery go some way towards redressing the balance by looking at the position of (specifically British) editors and their ways of working. Crucially they also go to some lengths to insist that they are not debunking the auteur theory, but demonstrating the genuine creative input that editors can bring to the
film – either as collaborators with the director (some even being allowed on-set) or as highly paid film ‘doctors’, breathing life back into potentially disastrous projects. This last function is revealed as a speciality of the British editor – years of hands-on experience and a job based upon apprenticeship and progression rather than a few terms at film-school have provided Hollywood with an overseas talent base of meticulous craftspeople.
The impact of non-linear editing is also examined – recent advances in computer based editing systems allow greater freedom for the editor but this freedom is also shown as limiting in its own way. On the plus side it allows simple storage of multiple versions of a film, removes the need for elaborate cataloguing systems of physical celluloid and can show effects like dissolves on the fly rather than having to wait for costly process lab work to be undertaken to see the effect. On the negative side the quality of the takes themselves can be difficult to determine on a monitor rather than a dedicated film editing system, and the ability to shuffle clips effortlessly around can render the original intention confused.
Many of the editors interviewed seem to view modern editing as a double-edged sword (some, like Ken Loach’s editor Jonathan Morris remain committed to editing entirely on film) pointing out that more recent editing has tended to incorporate more shots than necessary not for narrative cohesion (take the work on The Birds or Psycho as a perfect example of coherent but fast cutting) but because it is relatively easy to do. This lack of eye-line and shot matching has given modern editing a visually arresting impact on the viewer but sometimes at the expense of the narrative. Both the authors and their subjects seem to realise that technology is a necessity of modern cinema editing but that the balance between coherence and technique needs to be maintained.
An extensive set of appendices covers the works of many key British editors with a helpful selected filmography (so you can too spot trends in editing style), sections on the role of the female editor and a useful glossary of editing terms – you can now find out what a KEM or a rubber numbering machine are. The text throughout is clear and thoughtfully written, intelligent but never overly academic, which makes it suitable either for those studying film or simply the enthusiast. A highly recommended text that will undoubtedly encourage more study in the field.