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Editing by Jo Ann Kaplan
Orphee, Jean Cocteau

Orphee, Jean Cocteau

Here are 8 “magic” cuts. By “magic” I mean cuts or edits, or sequences made therefrom, which make my heart stop and my mouth open in suspension of disbelief, amazement, and excess of feeling.  

1. Meshes of the Afternoon (Maya Deren and Alexander Hamid, 1943)

The first cut in the film, a jump cut, from the shot of the dummy hand holding a poppy descending towards a pavement, to the same shot with the poppy left on the pavement, the hand having disappeared.

2. Don’t Look Now (Nicholas Roeg, 1973)

In the opening sequence of the film Don’t Look Now (at 4:21), cut from ext. young girl in red raincoat throwing a ball left/right to int. man (Sutherland) throwing cigarette pack right/left to woman (Christie) who catches it – a perfectly matched action cut across different spaces and characters uniting them in an eternal moment.

3. Dog Star Man: Prelude (Stan Brakhage, 1961-64)

There are several, all of them seminal for me then as now, and they are almost impossible to separate out from the flow of the sequence/chapter as a whole.  They showed me editing for the first time, as something made:

  • 1’15″ – cut from dull red pulsing to white flash to swaying white light which goes off frame right.  This is about abstraction.  There is no need for me to understand what it is I am seeing in “reality.”
  • 3’09″ – cut from dull red superimposed shots to close-up of moon left frame superimposed on red flashes, in a sequence which contains much closer-up shots of parts of smaller objects.  This is about scale and distance and how one can confuse and articulate them at one and the same time.
  • 10’38″ – brief superimposition of a few frames in transition from a wide shot of snowy trees – heavily textured and barely recognisable on first viewing – to a mid-shot of a female nude with red spots superimposed – both shots are predominantly very blue.  This is about the recognition of something suddenly shown in a heretofore-abstract sequence, as photographic reality.
  • 12’59″ – cut from a shot of green and black soft vertical “stripes” with white pinpoint “holes” to a red hexagonal soft spot mid-frame on black with pinpoint “holes” superimposed near end of shot.  This reveals the materiality of the film’s surface punctured, in suspension with the photographic ILLUSION held in its emulsion.
  • 14’44″ to 15’38″ – a ”pink sequence” apparently seamless but perhaps with superimpositions and at least one cut – a long rest in an otherwise furiously cut and dreaming film.

4. Sherlock Jr.  (Buster Keaton, 1924)

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The famous sequence (from 3:43) in which Sherlock Jr. falls asleep on the job in the projection booth of the cinema, and wakes in his dream to walk into the theatre and through the screen to become the film itself and back out again.  Pure magic, even if or because the matching cuts are all too visible to self-consciously naked and post-modern eye.

5. Ran, (Akira Kurosawa, 1985)

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Near the end of the film (at 5:45), this is not a cut but a camera move which functions as a cut:  a 3-shot of Lady Kaede seated centre frame with two soldiers standing either side, only their legs visible – the camera pans left and tilts up as the soldier left draws his sword and strikes Lady Kaede now off-screen below – a huge spray of blood/red paint hits the silver-leafed wall behind.  Brilliant mise-en-scene which understands how to cut without cutting.

6. Stalker (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1979)

Near the end of the film (at 2:2:21) and like the choice from Ran, partly a single shot as jaw-dropping mise-en-scene, and completed with an actual cut of heart-stopping poetic beauty: after The Stalker and his party have returned to the café from The Zone, a close-up shot on the exterior of the young girl who has been established at the beginning of the film as unable to walk – the camera holds her centre frame for nearly a minute as it follows her moving left to right, then as the girl appears to descend and move away,  the camera tracks back and left to reveal the girl carried on the Stalker’s shoulders and with the Woman and the Dog walking along the edge of an expanse of water, a derelict and smoking factory and landscape seen across it.  As the family group slows and turns, there is a cut to a very dark interior and a close-up a wooden bowl into which creamy white milk is poured, splashing over the edge of the bowl – a female hand briefly brushes across the split milk and the Black Dog drinks noisily.

7. Orphee (Jean Cocteau, 1949)

At about 17’10″ into the film, a sequence of three shots and two cuts:

  • from a close-up front shot seen from the “behind” a mirror of Marais/Orphee with hands raised and laid against the surface of the “mirror”/glass, falling against the glass and sliding down, cut to
  • reverse angle from behind Marais/Orphee to his reflection as he slides down the glass, dissolve to
  • close-up high-angle Marais/Orphee hands upraised, asleep on sand, face reflected in pool of water/mirror.  He wakes.

Like the sequence from Sherlock Jr, and all of Meshes of the Afternoon, a beautifully orchestrated series of shots which take us through the looking glass.

8. On the Town (Stanley Donen, 1949)

Contemporaneous with Orphee and no less magical – the Empire State scene in On the Town in which a group of cops are questioning two of the sailors and their girls, as the third sailor is held over the edge of the Empire State Building – the angles of the shots and the backgrounds match perfectly even when the two sailors holding the third lose contact – a perfect and perfectly knowingly gag, in an All-American eighth wonder.

Editing glossary:

edit (verb):  to prepare material for a film, recording or broadcast.

cut (verb):  to make, shorten, remove or divide with a sharp implement; make or design  (a garment) in a particular way (as an impeccably cut suit); reduce the amount or quantity of something; go across or through (as cut through an alley); stop filming or recording; move to another shot in a film; make a sound recording (as cut a record)  (noun):  a piece of meat cut from a carcass; a share of profits; a version of a film after editing (as the director’s cut).

abstract (adjective):  relating to ideas or qualities rather than physical things; (of art) using colour and shapes to create an effect rather than attempting to represent reality accurately  (verb):  to take out or remove something  (noun):  a summary of a book or article; an abstract work of art  (origin): from Latin abstrahere to “draw away”.


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