The Director of Gone with the Wind, Victor Fleming, once said, “Good editing makes a Director look good. Great editing makes a film look like it wasn’t directed at all.”
So we thought we would start our series of professionally reviewed films from the point of view of the editing, something which Victor Fleming obviously thought was important, but which is totally overlooked by main-stream movies reviews. Where better to start than with the movie of the moment, The Avengers (or Marvel’s Avengers Assemble as it’s known in the UK).
In 1946, Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall starred in The Big Sleep, directed by Howard Hawks (bear with me - it’s relevant, honest). It’s a fantastic film, not least - in fact, mostly - because of the crackling relationship between Bogey and Bacall’s characters. The studio even wrote a new scene (which is pretty rude even now - it must have been shocking in 1946) just to play up that relationship. Bogey and Becall are wonderful - compelling to watch, cool, intelligent, resourceful, delightful, beautiful and brave.
The plot of the film, however, is nonsense. If I’m being kind, I would say that the film is about the process of being a detective, rather than about actually solving a case because, frankly, lots of things don’t really make much sense. Even Raymond Chandler, who wrote the book on which the film is based, didn’t know who killed the chauffeur.
And this brings me to my point - the first job of the editor is to make sure that the audience engages with the characters in the film. If they identify with the hero, love the love interest and hate the bad guy, then they will overlook pretty much any other problem with the movie.
This is why The Avengers looks set to be the biggest grossing movie of all time. In all the VFX mayhem, Joss Whedon and his editors Jeffrey Ford and Lisa Lassek never lose sight of their characters. The Avengers is, basically, a sequel - you need to have seen Thor, Captain America, Iron Man and The Hulk as no real back story for these characters is provided. And yet, the film gives each character time to show their personality. Even more crucially, it shows how these personalities clash - as Bruce Banner says, “We’re not a team, we’re a time bomb.” One extended VFX sequence is a fight between Thor and Iron Man, which is set up through crackling dialogue that would have made Howard Hawks proud.
A central segment of the film, aboard a magnificently realised Helicarrier, is a little odd, plot-wise. The bad guy (Thor’s brother, Loki) allows himself to be captured, and then is rescued a bit later by his minions. Sure, we get to look at some cool technology, and there’s some great action, but this section doesn’t really move the plot on. What it does provide is a point for the Avengers to assemble for the first time; we see that they really don’t get on, and that Loki can use this to defeat them. It’s only this realisation, and the death of an auxiliary character, that brings them together for the finale. If I had to criticise, I would have liked this auxiliary character to have been more central, to make his death as poignant to the audience as it is to The Avengers.
Oscar Wilde once said that you should never be afraid to counterpoint drama with humour, and, again, this is a point in which The Avengers excels. It’s a VFX driven action movie, above all else, yet the huge final battle is never allowed to become just a huge final battle. We return, every few minutes, to a quiet moment with each of the main (super) heroes. More often than not, these moments are funny. They help us to engage with the characters once more - indeed The Hulk’s character is only really shown here (and he gets the best joke in the film) - and it prevents a non-stop action finale from becoming wearying. Peter Jackson does the same thing in the battle scenes of Lord of the Rings - frequently returning to a central character to ground the action. As an editor it is almost counterintuitive, breaking the pace of the film as it accelerates to its conclusion, but it is vital - if you lose the characters you will lose the audience.
All this does result in a most extraordinarily paced film. Once or twice I wished that a moment had been allowed to linger a little longer (mostly those funny lines) but, in general, the roller-coaster rolls most satisfyingly. With so many characters to cover, the editors have done a great job of keeping the different, parallel story-lines going. Dialogue is sharp, which covers a few moments of confusing geography, particularly on the helicarrier when The Avengers first assemble.
I’ll confess that I had tired of action films. I’m afraid that endless explosions (often ramping to slow motion) and massive battles with no obvious personal involvement have a gee-whizz excitement when you first see them, but there is nowhere to go once the novelty wears off. The Avengers has changed all that (and, coincidentally, Kenneth Branagh’s Thor showed the way). I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s a thinking-man’s action film, but the film action was undoubtedly put together by a thinking editorial team. I saw the 2D version (as shot) but I’m going to head back to see the (post-produced) 3D version later this week. Money well spent.