Films That Inspire: EditfestNY 2012 Ponderings

Editfest lunch in Central Park

This June, I was fortunate enough to be able to attend Editfest NY. It was my first time visiting New York City (spoiler alert: holy freaking crap it’s everything I ever wanted), and I even won a free ticket from the generous Manhattan Edit Workshop through #postchat. It was a fantastic weekend filled with NAB-reunions and meeting new-old friends as well as Hollywood editors, learning about the craft from said working editors, and hanging out in NYC. Editfest is a great foil to NAB — after a week spent mostly talking gear, it’s great to focus 100% on the art of it all. Refreshing, inspiring, and incredibly helpful. And nice. Very nice.

The first session held Friday night was a panel moderated by Norman Hollyn with editors discussing the scenes, sequences or films that inspired them to edit. As I sat in the audience, I tried to think of what sequence I’d show. I was coming up blank. I’ve been inspired by a lot of films in different ways, but which one was really the ultimate, and which ones were superficial? I thought this would be an interesting topic to explore instead of an Editfest recap. To be honest, so much of the information is abstract and personal advice, a recap would be a snooze-fest of “and then this and then that” topped off with me being overly excited by the amount of fruit stands in the city. Fruit stands!

My first instinct was Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring. It came out at a pivotal time for me. I was a sophomore in high school and had recently discovered that editing was even a thing that people were paid to do, and that I wanted to be one of those people. I saw Fellowship of the Ring and my 15 year old mind exploded right in the theater. Lord of the Rings is a blog post for another day entirely, but as I was thinking about it, I realized it wasn’t really what inspired me to be an editor, specifically. What inspired me about Fellowship (and the subsequent films) was the immensity of it all. It was the fact that this entire world was somehow built and engineered for my enjoyment. Things like reminding myself that Rivendell is 100% made up inside a computer, or seeing the management of so many characters, or watching the way the story carefully unfolded are what blew me away. For me, Fellowship wasn’t specifically a “I want to be an editor” moment, it was more of a push (or huge shove) toward the creative arts because it showed me what was possible when someone imagined something. It was confidence in my path. And it gave me and my nerdy friends a collective experience to share throughout high school, as I believe Return of the King came out when I was a senior.

(I’ve seen Fellowship of the Ring over 75 times. But seriously, that’s a post for another time.)

So if not Lord of the Rings, then what? I was looking through an old journal today trying to find a completely unrelated post I remembered writing, and I saw that I wrote this little bit:

August 8, 2002

Next time you’re at the rental store, rent Dancer in the Dark. No matter how sad, boring, or frustrating it is, watch it to the end and see how you feel about life afterwards.

Before I get into Dancer in the Dark, let’s have a moment of silence for rental stores.

Anyway, I happened to scroll past this post and suddenly it clicked: Dancer in the Dark, directed by Lars von Trier. It was released in 2000 and won the Palme d’Or at Cannes that year (not that it matters), and I saw it in 2002. That’s the one. That’s the inspirational film. And it’s not that I watched a crazy sequence, stood up, took my shirt off, and declared I was an editor as a lightning bolt struck. Those moments happen sometimes to all of us, I’m sure. But the triggering moments that matter to me are the ones that get in your head and stay there forever. That’s Dancer in the Dark, for me.

If you aren’t familiar with it, Dancer in the Dark is film about Selma, a Czechoslovakian immigrant living in Washington state in the early 1960s. Selma has a degenerative eye disease that is causing her to go blind rapidly, and she came to the United States in order to get surgery for her son who will suffer the same fate.

Oh, and it’s a musical.

But not in that way where people suddenly start dancing and singing in the streets (not that there’s anything wrong with that.) The musical sequences are introduced to us as Selma is rehearsing her role as Maria in The Sound of Music. Throughout the film when things take a horrible turn, she retreats into musical sequences within her environment as a manner of escaping the situations in her mind.

Oh, and Selma is played by Bjork.

Until I saw Dancer in the Dark, I had always seen pretty “standard” films, in my opinion. I mean, I was pretty young and not really into thinking about film critically just yet. Dancer in the Dark introduced to me the cinema verite style, and the jump cut. It showed me a darkness in storytelling I didn’t know people sought. It showed me pacing as the film’s tone and cinematography changes completely when we enter Selma’s musical mind. It showed me careful painting of whole scenes, as Selma’s normal mostly blind life is slow with a muted color palette, while her fantasies are wildly colorful and fast. It introduced me to the idea of using cuts to pace the emotion of a scene. It showed me how the edit can toy with the audience, how an extra millisecond held on a person’s face can make all the difference in what we infer from that person’s relationships.

(And if you aren’t familiar with von Trier’s work, I really recommend looking into the behind the scenes on this film. Many of the scenes were shot with multiple cameras – some scenes with even 100 different cameras rolling.)

While Lord of the Rings showed me that the sky is the limit as far as my imagination is concerned, Dancer in the Dark helped me realize that there IS no limit when storytelling is involved. It showed me the benefit of risk, bending the rules, and doing something wildly different. It was the point where I truly began to understand the language of film.

Today, I realized I never knew who edited the film so I looked it up. Funnily enough, it’s a female editor named Molly Malene Stensgaard (as an aside, considering all the allegations of sexism toward von Trier, it’s interesting a woman has cut almost all his films) who also edited my second favorite von Trier film, Melancholia. I happened to find a brief interview with her where she said this great quote:

“For me, it’s very important to try and create moments on the screen. Moments that feel truthful; authentic. But also the shift between that to something that feels like it’s moving forward, feels efficient, is actually the great dynamic of filmmaking. That’s very important to work on in the edit: to make time stand still, and then to make it really move.”

(–Berlinale Talent Press, February 13, 2012)

That’s really the ultimate take-away from Dancer in the Dark for me, as a teenager who had only just begun trying to edit. It’s all about truth in moments. Moments that make you feel something.

Dancer in the Dark opened up my mind as an editor because it showed me that the edit can have just as active a voice as any other part of the storytelling, if it’s appropriate to the story being told. The structure of the film enhances the story in this film. Not everything is linear or reality, not everything is happy, and not everything plays to the audience’s expectations. I always loved that, and it’s become a huge part of who I am as an editor.

And you know what’s interesting? I’ve only seen Dancer in the Dark 3 times in the last ten years. The story is pretty difficult to experience. It’s not a flawless film, but man. It does something.

So basically, if anyone ever wants me to be on their panel, I’m probably going to bring the saddest scene I’ve ever seen in a film.

I’m curious what others would say – what inspires you?