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Art of Editing Corner: United 93, Part 2

Only published comments... Jan 01 2008, 07:05 PM by Avid Community Team


United 93

Edited by Clare Douglas, Richard Pearson, and Christopher Rouse
Directed by Paul Greengrass

In Part 1, I explored how parallel editing is used to structure the film. In Part 2, I’ll discuss Cinema Verité and some techniques used to somewhat disorient us and at the same time keep us connected to the action and the characters.

The film’s style has been described as Cinema Verité, and I know that used today the term is associated with a sense of immediacy caused by hand-held camera movement.

But I want to go back to the early days of the Cinema Verité style, and see what United 93’s style has in common with it.  I went back to a classic CV film, Primary, 1960, by Robert Drew, to check out the relevance of the association. (The camera people on that film were future star documentary filmmakers Albert Maysles (Grey Gardens, Gimme Shelter), D. A. Pennebaker (Don’t Look Back), and Ricky Leacock.)

By 1960, portable cameras and sound equipment freed documentary filmmakers to follow events without interference, and without asking people to pose or re-enact events. These filmmakers believed that truth arises from the minutia of daily life rather than from grand events. So even when shooting the 1960 presidential primary race between John Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey, Drew’s photographers film small events: from Humphrey taking a cat nap in a car to Jack and Jackie Kennedy shaking a multitude of hands after a rally (caught in a signature long shot: Jackie flexing her hand between handshakes). The takes are often long, letting us see how a scene plays out. And the handheld camera is held steady; the cinematographers took pride in their ability to hold on a scene without using a tripod.

United 93 maintains some of the impulses of Cinema Verité, particularly in shooting long takes (but unlike in Primary, the long takes are rarely retained in the edit).  In Primary, a terrific long take with hand-held camera close behind John Kennedy as he goes through hallways to enter a rally makes us feel like a privileged witness: we feel the excitement of moving through the crowd, strongly identifying with the eye of the camera as it moves through space.  

Like other dramatic films and TV shows that want to create a documentary feel (24, Oz, Celebration), the camera’s erratic movement creates a sense of excitement, but does it really call attention to the camera as participant-observer as the traditional Cinema Verité film does? It seems to me that the focus is all on what’s happening in front of the camera.

There’s another difference with traditional Cinema Verité films: the hyperactive camera is used to shoot static subjects; it’s not just used to “keep up with” moving subjects. It energizes and animates the relatively static scenes in the ATC centers.

The term Cinema Verité has by now been largely (unfortunately?) freed from its specific historical context. It has come to be used, interchangeably with “documentary feel,” to describe dramatic narrative films with shaky camera movement and hyperactive editing. Ironically, these same stylistic features have been adopted in some documentary films to give the same “documentary feel” (see Born into Brothels).

The hand-held camera movement in United 93 is the perfect visual approximation of the anxiety that increases throughout the film. Many other tactics join this one in creating a sense of disorientation: jump cuts, quick cuts, mismatches, swish pans, people blurred out, moving across the frame inches from the camera, asynchronous sound (dialog of one person overlapping visual of another). All of these tactics contribute to creating a world where you have to work to get your bearings, as exemplified in this series of shots from the United 93 DVD, Chapter 8. They are six consecutive shots (in 20 seconds) of Ben Sliney (playing himself) at the National ATC center. He’s just been told they’ve lost a plane, and the film cuts to him in all parts of the frame, from all angles, in a hugely discontinuous, and dramatically key, moment.













United 93 article on avid.com

Post by Ellen Feldman

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