Edited by Clare Douglas, Richard Pearson, and Christopher Rouse
Directed by Paul Greengrass
United 93 represents a complex editing feat, with a structure based on parallel cutting combined with an edgy, hyper-cranked “Cinema Verité” style, a style that disorients us but doesn’t prevent us from grasping lots of necessary exposition and identifying with many characters.
In the Art of Editing Corner, I’ll explore how both techniques are used in this film. In this issue, I’ll explore parallel editing, and in the next issue I’ll discuss Cinema Verité and some techniques used in United 93 to create a sense of dislocation.
Parallel cutting, or intercutting between scenes or locations, is one of the earliest film editing techniques, invented before continuity cuts with a scene. It was used from the start for last-minute rescues and for depicting simultaneous events. Later it was also used for building comparisons. Parallel cutting avoids the challenges associated with classical continuity cutting within a scene, which took years to develop and refine: following the 180-degree rule, cutting on a character’s action, maintaining continuity of time/place, and so on.
Parallel cutting gives the editor lots of freedom of choice. It enables the editor to move from place to place, creating a sense that multiple events are unfolding simultaneously, as they do in United 93. But the marvel of parallel editing is that you can use it to stretch or condense time while making the sense of time seem utterly continuous and “real.” While you’re on the current scene, the film “covers over” or “masks” what’s happening in the parallel scene. This may account for one reason that people watching United 93 say that the film takes place in “real time.”
In addition, parallel cutting is often considered an excellent fix for a scene that’s not working. “Let’s intercut this scene with another, and both become more dynamic,” is a frequent solution for a slow-moving scene. (To give one example, it was used in The Departed to enliven a too-static scene in the psychiatrist’s office.)
As anyone knows who has watched a Hitchcock film, parallel editing can be used to create tension and suspense, stretching time until the climactic moment. (In United 93, a Hitchcockian tension is created by cutting between unsuspecting innocents and either the perpetrators of violence or the people on the ground gaining knowledge of terrorism in action.) It can also be used to bring out the commonality of dissimilar events or characters (in M showing the underlying similarity between cops and underworld characters). And it’s used to bring out a darker reality below the surface (in The Godfather, between a Mafia wedding and planting a dead horse in an enemy’s bed; in Cabaret, between a decadent stage show and the violence of Nazi thugs).
Parallel cutting is used throughout United 93. In the beginning, it is used to differentiate between terrorists, unsuspecting passengers, and flight crew as they prepare on 9/11 to take the United 93 flight from Newark to San Francisco.
Then more poignantly, the film cuts between various centers on the ground as they move from suspicion to investigation and the people on United 93 going about their ordinary business.
Later in the film, parallel cutting is used to move between the primary civilian and military centers: the National Air Traffic Control Center (where Ben Sliney, playing himself, ultimately shuts down all air travel over the US) and the Air Defense Command Center (the military center where they quickly move from a military exercise to a “real world” event).
We continue in this vein, alternating between the air traffic centers and between the centers and United 93. The parallels form and reform throughout the film’s development.
At crucial moments, this basic structure is modified or violated.
For example, in the beginning of the film passengers and terrorists are presented separately until the passengers and terrorists both enter the airport waiting area. Then depth of focus and camera movement are used to join the two groups in single shots; their fates are now linked.
As another example, in the early scenes of the centers, they are quite distinct. Even so, there is a common theme threading through them all – that of disbelief as they hear that a possible hijacking may be taking place. (Also, as the film progresses, phones are used more and more to emphasize the links between all involved groups.)
When the second plane flies into the World Trade Center, for the first time we cut swiftly from one center to the other as we see the people’s reactions. In fact, it may be difficult to tell that we’ve cut from one flight center to another. The centers at this moment become a single organism.
For the film’s final act, we are back on the plane, where the passengers and crew are intercut with the terrorists. The passengers/crew attempt a last-minute rescue, and the film cuts between the body of the plane and the cockpit. The last-minute rescue, such a staple of film history, is typically used to invoke suspense and anxiety which is released by the success of the rescue. In this case, success is denied; the only positive outcome, and it’s significant, is the knowledge that the passengers fought courageously to thwart the goals of the terrorists, and to live.
For an article on the making of United 93 on avid.com, see this link.
Post by Ellen Feldman