The Academy Of Motion Picture Arts And Sciences has narrow, predictable tastes, which are chalked up to the stodginess of a voting body that skews older and overwhelmingly white (94 percent of the membership, as of 2012) and male (77 percent), but are more likely related to the AMPAS being a trade organization. For all their red-carpet glitz, the Oscars are a technical award show. The AMPAS voters like to demand physical and vocal transformations for acting, tightly coordinated digital/live-action hybrids for cinematography, and period pieces that require hundreds of hand-stitched gowns for costume design, because industry folk tend to favor technical and technological challenges of the “Can you believe how they did that?” variety. Imagine a union of carpenters and upholsterers voting for Most Comfortable Chair—that’s the AMPAS.
Academy voters still regularly nominate good-to-great movies; film is a creative medium, but also a technology and a craft, and doing meaningful, moving, entertaining work in it requires considerable effort and know-how. What it does mean, however, is that the AMPAS often sticks to a narrow definition of filmmaking that privileges scale and difficulty over result. In theory, critics’ organizations are supposed to pick up the slack but rarely do.
It’s not uncommon for Oscar-watchers to refer to the Best Film Editing award as the Most Editing prize—a pejorative that’s unfair, given that the AMPAS’ love affair with messy, spasmodic cutting (see: Oscars for Chicago, Slumdog Millionaire, and The Bourne Ultimatum) only fizzled out at the end of the 2000s. Above all, the AMPAS is a sucker for gimmicks and Herculean post-production workflows. The Social Network and The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo—which won Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall back-to-back Oscars in 2011 and 2012—are superbly machined movies, but they represent the end results of industry-innovative editing processes. Unsurprisingly, the odds-on favorites for this year’s Best Film Editing Oscar are Boyhood, which was cut together from 12 years worth of 35mm footage, and Birdman, whose hidden cuts help sustain the audiovisual equivalent of stream of consciousness.
Call me old-fashioned, but I think of editing as the art of constructing something piece by piece, relating one shot to another and then another until they form a chain of relationships and juxtapositions, which gain momentum through visual or thematic continuity and which the viewer experiences in real time as a movie. The most moving stuff is often the simplest: a reverse shot, a jump cut, an abrupt shift into a close-up. It’s no secret that I’m crazy about James Gray’s The Immigrant, and one of the reasons (of a solid dozen) why I’m inclined to think of it as a masterpiece is the amount of emotion and unspoken meaning that it invests into these simple cuts. And while editors John Axelrad and Kayla Emter aren’t doing anything that couldn’t have been done 40 years ago, few films in recent memory have asked their cuts to carry more weight.
A lot of this has to do with Gray’s sense of blocking and action within the frame. The cut that introduces small-time pimp Bruno Weiss (Joaquin Phoenix), for instance, is remarkably simple. It’s a classic reverse angle complicated by movement and mise-en-scène, which is easily defined as what a director chooses to put in the frame, the physical inventory of the shot. The sequence starts with a dolly moving past a bench of new arrivals at Ellis Island, and it takes a second to realize that the camera is actually following two figures, framed from the shoulders down. One sits down—Polish immigrant Ewa Cybulska (Marion Cotillard), introduced in an earlier scene. Her face occupies a tiny section of the frame, most of which is taken up with the people sitting on the bench in front of hers, but, because they’re out of focus, the viewer is forced to fix on her.
This is the fine-tuned detail that matters. The shot is held just long enough for the viewer to stop looking at Ewa the way they look at a screen, and begin to look at her the way they would a person sitting across the room. They anticipate the moment when she’ll make eye contact with the camera. And just as they think she’s about to do it, the reverse angle interrupts. But it’s not a shot of Bruno staring. Instead, an out-of-focus extra passes like a black smudge in front of the camera, meaning that a split second passes before the viewer sees Bruno settling into a bench, his eyes fixed on that point off-camera where Ewa should be. Through perfect timing—a matter of frames, really—this single cut immerses the viewer in Bruno’s perspective without them even knowing it, allowing them to spot Ewa just as he spots her. At the same time, the extra passing in the foreground allows the audience to discover Bruno.
Look closely, and you’ll see that the black smudge at the beginning of Bruno’s shot is actually the uniformed extra who passes in front of Ewa a few seconds earlier. Presumably, this is the original, intended cut point for the sequence; the edit would occur just as he passes through the middle of the frame, obscuring Ewa at the end of her shot and revealing Bruno at the beginning of his. Holding on Ewa just a little longer creates a cut that’s less smooth, but more immersive.
The Immigrant is assembled out of these kinds of edits: the cut from Ewa hiding behind a corner to Bruno being beaten by police; the slow dolly-in on Ewa in bed, cut with a close-up of her face as a tear rolls down the bridge of her nose, the lighting mismatched (silent-movie style); the opening one-two of the title card (simple serif lettering on a black background) dissolving out and then a slow zoom away from the Statue Of Liberty dissolving in, eventually settling on the shoulder of a man who second-time viewers may presume is Bruno. It’s simple, non-challenging stuff, the kind that doesn’t require digital mussing or custom-built Light Iron workflows. Like so many of the most basic tools of filmmaking—the close-up, the hard dolly, the lonely wide—it has a boundless potential for subtlety and feeling. Gray, Axelrad, and Emter work that potential for all it’s worth.