I believe it’s safe to say that a film’s narrative is more than the sum of its parts. If all you had to do to make a hit movie was film a couple high-action scenes and record some dialogue, there wouldn’t be a complex business surrounding the industry. The single most important factor in the way we interpret the sequence of images on our screens is, the presentation.
Once the film producers of old realized they could cut and reconnect strings of film, the door to endless possibilities opened up. It might seem trivial, but from a narrative point of view, editing allowed films to begin to approach their own distinct level of sophisticated storytelling that already existed in the medium of novels. Using the written medium, if the story needed to progress three months forward, it could be done in a matter of seconds. As many great films were written as adaptations for popular stories of the time, there was a great need to be able to do things such as this in the alternate medium, and thus, continuity cutting found a foothold in the industry. Certain blurs and transitions made it possible to imply the passing of time, and this became a well known technique we often overlook today.
Similarly, film editors such as D. W. Griffith were able to develop a plethora of techniques that created new narrative constructs, such as parallel editing; a scene would switch back and forth with an alternate series of events, essentially showing two story lines at once. Often, these would converge into a single outcome. A perfect example of this is one of the final segments in the film noir Laura (1955), adapted from a pulp fiction novel of the same name. Three segments are occurring simultaneously: Laura is readying herself for bed, Waldo is sneaking around and retrieving the gun, and the cops are talking outside. Waldo’s scene eventually connects with Laura’s, and shortly after the cops enter the apartment and merge once more. The scene in the book was still tense, but it could not live up to the intensity of the switching back and forth from hectic cops to a calm psychopath having his “last” conversation with his chosen target.
Film quickly caught up to the imaginative creativity of wordplay with the advent of special effects, the most basic of which can be seen in Bringing Up Baby (1938). The movie features a tiger named Baby that brings a great deal of hysteria to the film, and as it turns out, a second tiger joins the fun later on. Some of the actors were, as one would be, extremely afraid of the tiger and could not stand the idea of filming with it in the same shot. As such, the director shot a scene first with just the tiger’s movements, then with just the actor. In post-production, an editor would be able to overlay the negatives to create the illusion of the two being in the same scene together. As someone who watched the film myself, I nearly couldn’t tell at first that this had been done, which was extremely impressive to me upon learning this. As a frequent moviegoer, I’ve learned to appreciate the great length our predecessors went to to perfecting the art of the narrative in film, since these days no one seems to have time for books anymore.
Cousins, Mark. The Story of Film. Pavilion, 2015.