On the Proper and Improper Use of Jump Cuts

The Fog of War, one of the only movies that uses jump cuts well.

Jump cuts have always been fascinating to me.  The entire idea of editing is fascinating, obviously.  It’s this whole thing of, ‘How can we make this look fluid?’  ‘How will these compositions work together?’  There is even editing happening in a long sequence without cuts, because the composition is changing.  Just think of the opening of Touch of Evil or Boogie Nights—there’s no actual editing, but the camera’s movement is editing as it goes along—it’s moving from one idea to another, and the varying compositions must fit together in a logical way.  Think about that great shot in Raging Bull where we follow Jake out to the ring.  There are no cuts, but the transition from intimate medium shot to huge, wide, crane shot is an editing choice within the same shot.

If you can intuit these principles naturally, you really have a leg up as a filmmaker.  Kubrick, Tarantino, Scorsese, Aronofsky, Lee, Zemeckis, Spielberg, the Coens—whether you like their movies or not, these guys all have a handle on how to construct a scene.  They have a handle on the principles.

For those that don’t take naturally to this, there’s a rudimentary system called coverage that pretty much anybody can be taught to follow.  Coverage is the paint-by-numbers of scene construction, and it’s the perfect thing for less visually aggressive filmmakers to utilize.  It’s basically a simple formula for ensuring that your scene will cut together without looking messy and distracting, by covering all the bases, all the shots you’d possibly need.

Neither school of thought—using coverage vs. designing your scenes—is ‘correct’ or ‘better’ or anything.  The twenty best movies ever made are really a grab bag of the two styles, from Rob Reiner’s low-key When Harry Met Sally to the Coen’s kinetic Raising Arizona (incidentally, both shot by Barry Sonnenfeld).

Above all else, the movie just has to look right.  It has to look appropriate for its story.  Fluid, and not distracting or grating to look at.

Cutting is one of the basic cinematic abstractions that I’m really interested in.  There aren’t really cuts in life.  I guess people blink, and one could say that information is stored in our memories as little movies.  But the eye is a very strange and very wide fixed lens.  Our eyes have an uncanny ability to focus on certain things, and in that way, we do kind of see in ‘cuts’—but, it can never be the same, not just because of our wider peripheral vision, but because life goes on and on for a really long time.  It’s not a truncated, 90-minute slice-of-life.

I’ve heard that Jean Luc Goddard made the jump cut popular with Breathless by accident.  Supposedly, the movie was too long, so he just cut some of the scenes up.  It sounds too glamorous to be true, but it could be.  In any event, that idea is interesting—it sort of deconstructs the whole idea of editing.

There are some people out there who despise jump cuts because they look too ‘jarring’.  I used to be one of those people about ten years ago.  The idea being that editing is supposed to be fluid—by being fluid, the editing is unnoticeable, and the viewer is able to be locked into the story.  This makes total sense, intellectually.

Imagine if in Star Wars, Luke said, “I wanna go with you to Alderman and learn the force”, and then there was a jump cut to him saying, “and become a Jedi like my father.” It would look wrong, and there’s really no better word for it than that.  It would go so against the grain, and for no logical reason.  You would suddenly not be thinking about the story, and be thinking about why the movie looked weird all of a sudden.  In that context, jump cuts look like mistakes.

But take for instance Errol Morris’ epic masterpiece The Fog of War, which is an Oscar-winning, two-hour interview with Robert S. McNamara.  Occasionally, there are jump cuts, and these jump cuts enhance the visual flow.  The same effect is used in James Merendino’s SLC Punk when Bob is ranting and raving about drugs.  In these cases, the jagged editing makes more sense than a traditional look.  The messiness works.

There’s also an interesting layer underneath that I don’t think many people pay any attention to:  if we all understand what editing consists of, which is selecting the best takes and trying to put them together in a logical and digestible way, then we can understand that editing is a decision making process where what we see on screen is considered to the best thing possible.  It’s a funny and interesting idea.  Think about any random movie that you like—in Fight Club, for instance, there are a bunch of other, unused, similar takes of Brad Pitt doing whatever.  So if you think about any given chunk of performance in the movie, that take, the one you are thinking of, was actually one of many.  Someone could cut an entire ever so slightly different alternate version of the movie, using different takes of every shot.  Since, in some cases, an actor’s performance can be saved, or ruined, in editing, this alternate version might be horrible.  You might think Brad Pitt or Edward Norton or whoever else were bad actors.

If we know that every shot selection, and every cut, suggests importance, then the immediacy of a jump cut suggests extreme importance.  If you’re looking at an interview, and suddenly, while the guy is speaking, it cuts to another bit of him speaking, that means that the filmmakers are insisting that you hear what he has to say in that specific way.  Any other way would be wrong, according to them.

This is what occurs in The Fog of War, and the immediacy and subtle instruction to the viewer makes what McNamara is saying seem all the more important.  Sometimes, Morris even uses the effect to keep in little bits where he’s stumbling over his words, or thinking out loud to remember his place.  These pieces are used to make him still feel human.  In a case such as this movie, the jump cut achieves reality, rather than destroys it.

Lately, in the last five or ten years, the jump cut has become quite acceptable stylistically.  So, in indie movies, you generally have a lot of jump cuts within montages.  The other day, I was watching some random indie movie on Netflix, and there was a scene of a girl driving her car, and it had jump cuts.  Remember what a jump cut does—it suggests that what you see on screen is important.  Was it important that we saw her driving while looking sad, and then suddenly touching her hair, and then suddenly touching her hair again, and then suddenly sighing?

What the filmmakers were trying to achieve was a sense of tension and urgency.  Editing in such a jagged way is meant to express the character’s state of mind.  But the reason it doesn’t work in an instance like this is because there’s no tension to express—quite simply, nothing is actually happening.  But the filmmakers are trying to make you believe something is happening, at least emotionally, by way of the jump cuts.  But it can’t work backwards—the story must dictate the style, not the other way around.  It’s why I constantly pick on Raging Bull—undoubtedly of the most beautiful stylistic movies ever made, but style smothered on top of lack of story.

What’s so interesting about a misused jump cut is how audacious it is.  It’s an amazing window into the mind of a filmmaker that thinks they can force feelings on you without earning them.  By seeing jump cuts like these, you’re getting a direct line into the aimless mind of someone who’s thinking ‘yeah, that part where she touches her hair, that needs to be on screen, people need to see that’.  It’s a completely absurd notion, that we would ever need to see three or four shots of a woman driving strung together in such a context.

A shot is a sacred thing.  It’s a unit of information—one of the smallest segments in the DNA of a movie.  And redundancy of information is a cancer—it eats away at a movie and kills it dead.  If we already know the the main character is a woman, and that she is driving, and that she is wistful, then we don’t need to see any more of it.  Showing us more just means that the director thinks we don’t ‘get it’, or thinks that the shot is so pretty that it would be impossible to decide what part of it to use.  It’s lazy, boring, indecisive filmmaking.

The reason there’s no scene in Back to the Future where Marty just sits and looks out a window, looking nervous, with sparse music underneath and jump cuts of his breathing, is because we already know he’s nervous, and to spell it out for us in such an overboard way would be unnecessary and boring—especially when there’s an important story to be told.  Lack of redundancy is a big part of what makes Back to the Future a real movie that people love.  If little indie movies ever want to stop sucking, they need to understand the power of editing—the power of the shot, the power of the cut.  Nobody cares about some dickhead sitting and thinking—especially not four shots of it in a row.

Unless you’re Errol Morris, ditch the jump cuts.

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