City of God (2002)


The use of editing to generate ideas and emotions is on striking display in the opening sequence of City of God (2002), Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund’s kinetic chronicle of life in the streets of a tough Rio de Janeiro neighborhood. Flashes of a knife being sharpened against a stone in extreme close-ups are intercut to a rapid percussive beat with details of the preparation of an outdoor meal, including a chicken about to be slaughtered. 

The chicken stares out at the audience and we stare back, similarly overwhelmed. The tension mounts until the chicken escapes and a massive chase through the streets begins. In the quick shots of groups of boys running with guns drawn, we grasp a situation of pathos and precarious existence. The manipulation of time, space, and point of view convey the neighborhood’s powder- keg energy and the imminent threat of violence. Largely without dialogue, editor Daniel Rezende sets the scene and the emotional register of this gripping story.

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ilm editing is the process by which different images or shots are linked together. As we move through the world, we may witness images that are juxtaposed and overlapped: in store windows, on highway billboards, on our desktops, or on television when we channel surf. But editing offers a departure from the way we normally see the world. In our everyday experience, discrete images are unified by our singular position and consciousness. 

There are no such limits in editing. And unless we consciously or externally interrupt our vision (such as when we blink), we do not see the world as separate images linked in selected patterns. Thus editing may emulate ordinary ways of seeing or transcend them. The power and art of film editing lie in the ways in which the hundreds or thousands of discrete images that make up a film can be shaped to make sense or to have an emotional or a visceral impact.


▪ Understand the artistic and technological evolution of editing.

 ▪ Examine the ways editing constructs different spatial and temporal relationships among images.

 ▪ Detail the dominant style of continuity editing.

 ▪ Identify the ways in which graphic or rhythmic patterns are created by editing.

 ▪ Discuss the ways editing organizes images as meaningful scenes and sequences.

 ▪ Summarize how editing strategies engage filmic traditions of continuity or disjuncture.

Many film theorists and professionals consider editing to be the most unique dimension of the film experience. This chapter will explore in depth how film connects separate images to create or reflect key patterns through which viewers see and think about the world.

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A Short History of Film Editing Long before the development of film technology, different images were linked sequentially to tell stories. Ancient Assyrian reliefs show the different phases of a lion hunt, while the 230-foot-long Bayeux tapestry chronicles the 1066 Norman conquest of England in invaluable historical detail. In the twentieth and twenty- first centuries, comic strips and manga have continued this tradition in graphic art: each panel presents a moment of action in the story [Figures 4.1a–4.1c]. In cinema, a storyboard sketches out each shot of a film in similar fashion.

(a) 4fig1a

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(c)4.1 a–4.1c Storyboard: telling stories through images. Ancient Assyrian reliefs (a), the eleventh-century Bayeux tapestry (b), and comics (c) resemble storyboards in cinema. 4.1a: Gianni Dagli Orti/Corbis; 4.1b: Erich Lessing/Art Resource, NY; 4.1c: François

PERRI/REA/Redux Juxtaposed images have been used symbolically, sensationally, and educationally as well as to tell stories. Religious triptychs convey spiritual ideas via three connected images. The magic lantern was used by showmen to project successive images and create illusions of the supernatural. By the late nineteenth century, illustrated lectures using photographic slides became popular. Such practices have influenced film editing’s evolution into its modern form.

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1895–1918: Early Cinema and the Emergence of Editing Films quickly evolved from showing characters or objects moving within a single image to connecting different images. Magician and early filmmaker Georges Méliès at first used stop-motion photography and, later, editing to create delightful tricks, like the rocket striking the moon in Trip to the Moon (1902) [Figures 4.2a and 4.2b]. While basic editing techniques were introduced by other filmmakers, Edwin S. Porter, a prolific employee of Thomas Edison, synthesized these techniques in the service of storytelling in Life of an American Fireman (1903) and other early films. One of the most important films in the historical development of cinema, Porter’s The Great Train Robbery (1903) tells its story in fourteen separate shots, including a famous final shot of a bandit shooting his gun directly into the camera [Figure 4.3]. By 1906, the period now known as “early cinema” gave way to cinema dominated by narrative, a transition facilitated by more codified

practices of editing. 4fig2a 4fig2b 4fig3

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(b)4.2 a and 4.2b Trip to the Moon (1902). In a famous shock cut in his ambitious early science fiction film, Georges Méliès linked the launch of the rocket to its impact on the face of the moon.

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4.3 The Great Train Robbery (1903). Edwin S. Porter is credited with advancing the narrative language of editing in this and other early films. The film’s last cut is used to enhance the shock effect of the final image rather than to complete the narrative.

D. W. Griffith, who began making films in 1908, is a towering figure in the development of the classical Hollywood editing style. Griffith is closely associated with the use of crosscutting, or parallel editing, alternating between two or more strands of simultaneous action, a technique that he used in the rescue sequences that conclude dozens of his films. In The Lonely Villa (1909), shots of female family members isolated in a house alternate with shots of villains trying to break in and then with shots of the father rushing to rescue his family. 

The infamous climax of Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915) uses crosscutting to portray the film’s white characters as victims of Reconstruction and the Ku Klux Klan as heroes. Griffith cuts from black soldiers breaking into a white family’s isolated cottage, to a mixed-race politician threatening a white woman with rape, to the Ku Klux Klan riding to the rescue of both [Figures4.4 a–4.4c]. The controversial merging of technique and ideology exemplified in Griffith’s craft is a strong demonstration of the power of editing. After the success of Griffith’s

The Birth of a Nation, feature filmmaking became the norm, and Hollywood developed the classical editing style that remains the basis for many films today. 4fig4a

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(c) 4.4 a–4.4c The Birth of a Nation (1915). In this sequence of images, Griffith’s white supremacist views are supported by the use of parallel editing, which encourages the viewer to root for the Ku Klux Klan to arrive in time.

1919–1929: Soviet Montage Within a decade after The Birth of a Nation, and in the wake of the 1917 Russian Revolution, Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein’s first film,Strike (1925), influenced the craft of editing in a different, although equally dramatic fashion. Eisenstein’s films and writings center on the concept of montage, editing that maximizes the effect of the juxtaposition of disparate shots. 

For example, to depict the mass shooting of workers in Strike, Eisenstein interspersed, or intercut, long shots of gunfire and of the fleeing and falling crowd with gruesome close-ups of a bull being butchered in a slaughterhouse [Figures 4.5a and 4.5b]. This juxtaposition is an example of what Eisenstein called intellectual montage, through which an independent idea is formed in the mind of the viewer based on the collision of different shots. 4fig5a 4fig5b 

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(b) 4.5 a and 4.5b Strike (1925). The workers’ massacre is compared to the slaughter of a bull through the use of intellectual montage.

Eisenstein and filmmakers Lev Kuleshov, Vsevolod Pudovkin, and Dziga Vertov advanced montage (they used the French word for editing) as the key component of modernist, politically engaged filmmaking in the Soviet Union of the 1920s. One of the most fascinating self-reflexive sequences in film history is the editing sequence in Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (1929), which features the film’s own editor, Elizaveta Svilova, cutting film that the cameraman has been shown gathering. Images shown on the strips of film seem to freeze before our eyes, only to be reanimated to startling effect. Other avant-garde movements in the 1920s and thereafter continued to explore the more abstract and dynamic properties of editing employed by the Soviets.

1930–1959: Continuity Editing in the Hollywood Studio Era With the full development of the Hollywood studio system, the movies refined the storytelling style known as continuity editing, which gives the viewer the impression that the action unfolds with spatiotemporal consistency. The introduction of synchronous sound posed new challenges, but by the early 1930s editors integrated picture and sound editing into the studio style.

Beginning in the 1940s, cinematic realism achieved new emphasis as one of the primary aesthetic principles in film editing. The influence of Italian neorealism, which used fewer cuts to capture the integrity of stories of ordinary people and actual locations, was evident in other new wave cinemas and even extended to classical

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Hollywood. For example, Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place (1950) emphasized imagistic depth and longer takes, cutting less frequently between images [Figure 4.6].

Incorporating these variations, the continuity editing style would remain dominant at least until the decline at the end of the 1950s of the studio system, whose stable personnel, business models, and genre forms lent consistency to its products and techniques. In many ways, its principles still govern storytelling in film and television.

4.6 In a Lonely Place (1950). Postwar cinema tended to explore the depth of images, cutting less frequently between them to achieve a heightened realism.

1960–1989: Modern Editing Styles Political and artistic changes starting in the 1960s affected almost every dimension of film form, and editing was no exception. Both in the United States and abroad, alternative editing styles emerged that aimed to fracture classical editing’s illusion of realism. Anticipated to some extent by Soviet montage,

These new more disjunctive styles reflected the feeling of disconnection of the modern world. Editing visibly disrupted continuity by creating ruptures in the story, radically condensing or expanding time, or confusing the relationships among past, present, and future.

The French New Wave produced some of the first and most dramatic examples of modern styles of editing. Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless (1960) innovated the use of jump cuts, edits that intentionally create gaps in the action [Figures 4.7a and 4.7b]. In the 1960s and 1970s, American filmmakers like Arthur Penn and Francis Ford Coppola incorporated such styles within classical genres to contribute to the New Hollywood aesthetic.