Cutting through Time, Space and Reality
Discontinuous editing from Intolerance to Inception
By Kirsten Kieninger
| PDF Version |
Cinematic reality is an illusion constructed by skilful montage and editing, and that illusion can be shattered again at any time by a single cut. The "rules" of this game with time, space and reality have evolved over the course of film history.
There are cuts that can turn our entire perception of a film upside down. Such a cut often appears no more remarkable than any other cut within a scene, and yet that one cut changes everything. Nothing is as it seemed before – what we took for the present is revealed to be a dream, a flashback or a preview of the future. A few cuts later, things may turn out to be different yet again. This narrative game, most recently seen by a wider audience in Inception, artfully uses editing and montage to play on our notions of space and time, of reality, illusion and dream, and it is not new. It has been played and has continued to evolve from the very earliest days of motion pictures, and countless variations on the theme have been developed since then.
D.W. Griffith's Intolerance was greatly acclaimed by critics when it hit the big screen almost 100 years ago, with one even calling it "the world's greatest film" (Julian Johnson in the magazine Photoplay, 1916). In the film, Griffith uses parallel montage to interweave four different stories into a complex narrative over great gaps of time and space. The individual narrative strands are introduced with captions at the beginning, after which the film cross-cuts back and forth between the stories over 50 times in all, more and more rapidly towards the end. Johnson called Intolerance "the most incredible experiment in story-telling that has ever been tried." Well, today's viewers have seen far more incredible than that. The four stories in Intolerance are discontinuous, but they nevertheless follow a linear chronological sequence. Discontinuous editing can do much more: It is constantly redefining and pushing the limits of how time, space, reality, causality and point of view are manipulated in film. But the liberties contemporary films take with narration and form when it comes to narrating the present, flashbacks, recounting memories, flash forwards, dreams, hallucinations and virtual reality are something filmmakers and audiences had to work up to gradually.
Editors have explored various ways of conflating different realities from the earliest days of cinema. In one shot from a French film from 1901, we see a man who is having dinner with an attractive woman and is about to kiss her – dissolve – the same man wakes with a start to find himself lying in bed with his ugly wife before the title gets right to the heart of the matter: Rêve et Réalité (Dream and Reality). Dream sequences both then and now frequently conform to the definition of "... embedded sequences that are related to the context in which they are embedded through the deliberate use of parenthesis" (Hans-J. Wulff). Put more simply, a dream sequence, for instance, is explicitly introduced in the narrative or placed in perspective by means of a cut (to the person dreaming). Thus in Inception, for example, each new dream level is prefigured in the dialogue. And Terry Gilliam's Twelve Monkeys is a highly complex film exploring themes ranging from time travel to mental illness, yet the sequences in which Bruce Willis is dreaming are always unambiguously linked to him through the rather conservative means of close-ups to ensure that viewers don't get lost.
Dreams were a prominent theme in the surrealist films of the 1920s. At the time, filmmakers were primarily interested in structural analogies between dreams and films, and works such as Un Chien Andalou obeyed the ambiguous logic of dreams.
Classic Hollywood movies, on the other hand, are primarily concerned with telling stories, and avoiding narrative ambiguity is the cardinal rule in their approach to constructing cinematic reality. Films in the continuity style (in which "invisible" match cuts are preferred within a scene) try their best to make cuts "inconspicuous" so that viewers are not consciously aware of them and the illusion of cinematic reality remains as intact as possible. When such films do stray from the linear time-space continuum by means of flashbacks or dream sequences, these isolated departures are made (overly) obvious and are thus easily identified as such by viewers (cf. Vincent Assmann's essay "Montage und Erinnerung 2" in Schnitt No. 49). This also applies to Citizen Kane, in which Orson Welles used multiple perspectives and subjective flashbacks to relate the story and thus ventured into new narrative territory.
A number of auteur films in the 1960s and '70s set about challenging the expectations of increasingly sophisticated audiences. Juxtaposing representations of real events with imagined or remembered sequences without making the transitions explicit, films like Last Year at Marienbad and Belle de Jour explored the power of suggestion and how we construct our own subjective realities and fantasy worlds.
Since the 1990s we have seen more and more films in which the reality of the world the protagonists inhabit is first established as coherent only to be subsequently called into question. Discontinuous editing is increasingly becoming a key element for the construction of meaning in mainstream narrative cinema. Many colourful names have been coined to describe the movies that play with our expectations in this way: "puzzle movies", "modular narratives", "mind-game films" – even "mind-fuck films". Meanwhile there are so many variations on the theme of the discontinuously edited, non-linear film that this is a topic in itself. Some tell their stories from an authorial perspective and have more or less convoluted time structures (e.g. Pulp Fiction and Iñárritu's films), and a few even go so far as to present events in reverse chronological order (Memento, Irreversible ,Five Times Two). Others, like Open Your Eyes and Jacob's Ladder, take viewers on extremely disjointed rollercoaster rides that lurch back and forth between reality and dream, memory and hallucination. Yet others, like The Others and The Sixth Sense, play with our assumptions and perceptions. And not to forget those films that tell their stories from the perspective of a truly warped mind, like Fight Club, A Beautiful Mind, and Shutter Island (with The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari from 1920 an early example) – and this is by no means a comprehensive list of the many kinds of films using modular editing.
FAIR PLAY IN NARRATION
It seems that as far as directors and audiences today are concerned, the game with cinematic realties cannot be complex enough. The unknown variable in the equation is always the overall picture, which comes together bit by bit and is only fully revealed at the end of the film. Viewers constantly have to adjust their hypotheses depending on what fragments are presented to them (and how these are edited) for the (re)construction of cinematic reality.
But filmmakers using discontinuous editing are playing a dangerous game by withholding important information from viewers or presenting it ambiguously. Or at least, they would be wise to adhere to one basic rule: Viewers may not understand right away how all the pieces of the puzzle fit together, but they trust that the narration is "fair" and everything will make sense in the end – otherwise they feel deceived. Even Hitchcock managed to alienate viewers with his "lying" flashback in Stage Fright, which the film initially sells to the audience as objective truth. The Usual Suspects uses a similar "trick" to fool viewers, leading them to believe there is a subjective point of view in the key scene that ultimately does not really exist. Fair play requires a clear separation between subjective and objective (auctorial) narration; no matter how discontinuous and complex the narration, there must be a discernible narrative point of view that audiences can rely on (or alternatively, that they have learned they can rely on only up to a certain point), that serves as a basis on which the film is logically constructed. Films that play with meaning on a formal and thus a meta level, are a different matter. In this case the narration can take much greater liberties in terms of point of view and the narrative framework without viewers feeling cheated out of an easily deciphered story, since in films like those by David Lynch, that isn't really the point, anyway.
Christopher Nolan has clearly studied film history carefully and has launched his own successful experiments with convoluted narration and discontinuous montage, in particular with Following, Memento and The Prestige. For all its complexity in terms of the story's content – or rather, perhaps precisely because of this complexity – Inception is for the most part surprisingly linear and conservative in the way it is told and edited. Christopher Nolan adeptly builds his work on foundations and uses cinematic techniques that in some cases were established decades before. Thus he resorts to one tried-and-true method already employed by Griffith nearly a century ago: Just as different tints helped the audience distinguish the four different plot strands in the original copy of Intolerance, the individual dream levels in Inception are clearly differentiated by distinct colour palettes. And indeed, otherwise many viewers might well get lost in Inception's complex plot, in which four dreams are nested inside each other like Russian matryoshka dolls and time slows down more and more with each successive level. While the film is chronologically linear in the way it cuts back and forth between the different layers of dreams, there are also sudden cross-cuts within some scenes, brief flashbacks to earlier events the protagonists are referring to at that moment. The film begins with a non-linear sequence that looks ahead to the future, but proceeds along a continuous timeline after that. The narrative unfolds in the cinematic present, which could, however, just as well be a dream, as the last scene suggests. Nolan cleverly plays with the two major themes that are inherent to the medium of film – time and dream. While the game is by no means new, it has rarely been played as explicitly and analytically as it is in Inception.