still from I Am Not a Flopper

Public Engagement Flash Talk Reflections: Tom Danon on Mario Garcia Torres

For his talk in December on Mario Garcia Torres's I Am Not a Flopper, Emmy-nominated editor, producer and filmmaker, Tom Danon, considered the peculiar live-editing techniques used by Garcia Torres to imbue the work with a constructed quality while addressing the idea of failure and film-making. Hammer Projects: Mario Garcia Torres closed on January 4, 2015.

Editing is a hard business to define: is it an art, a craft, a science?  It’s all those things, and a pretty boring technical process, too.  One typical assumption about editing is that the editor’s job is just taking out the bad parts.  To most editors this is a profoundly annoying assumption.  Not just because it is 100% wrong, but also because it’s pretty much right, too.

Like a lot of arts that, when done well, are meant to be transparent and weave seamlessly into the fabric of a larger piece of work, editing is under appreciated and often misunderstood.  It’s also very hard to explain to your brother-in-law, Scott, at Thanksgiving dinner, for fifteen years running.  Without sounding a little indignant and a lot pretentious, anyway.  I’ll try to illuminate the process a bit in this blog, and to offer a perspective on how to view Mario Garcia Torres’s film I Am Not A Flopper. And I’ll try not to get too indignant or pretentious about things.  But no promises.

still from I Am Not a Flopper
Mario Garcia Torres, 
still from I Am Not a Flopper, 
2007-14

Garcia Torres has been described as using non-traditional editing schemes in his work.  This is especially obvious in the format he has chosen for this piece – the format of a kind of mock-TED Talk or Steve Jobs keynote address.  In the real world this format is a very rigid and clean.  Black background, flat lighting, shot multi-camera so there’s always at least one “good” camera covering the action.  The action being a lone man or woman, in business casual attire, speaking to an off camera audience.  In this format the medium is never the message: the message is the message.  All “we” care about is what the body on stage is saying.  It’s a medium that neither allows nor encourages any creativity from the director or the editor, and where the production and the editing are meant to be entirely transparent and unnoticed.  But what Garcia Torres does in this piece could never be considered to be transparent.  Not only do his edits call attention to themselves, they’re almost all just plain bad, in a formal sense.  We see cameramen walking through shots.  We see the jib arm floating into frame, coming between the active camera and its subject.  The actor sometimes clears frame leaving us to look at a black screen for several seconds before Garcia Torres cuts away to pick him up in another angle.  The edit points are often strange and awkward, happening a few frames after the camera starts repositioning for the next angle, or before the camera has settled.  And there are these strange insert shots of the actor’s hands, shots that are off-putting because the camera isn’t “ready” and because the gestures are possibly slid a beat out of sync with what the character is saying.  It’s interesting that in a film about a filmmaker discussing and arguing against his failure as a filmmaker, Garcia Torres has surrounded the guy with technically terrible editing.  Terrible in the formal sense, that is.

To explain a bit about what I mean by “formal” editing, I’m going to get a little film school on you, and give you a couple examples of what editing can do, what it should do, and maybe what it shouldn’t. 

Motion pictures really aren’t all that old, they haven’t been around for too much more than a century.  Editing, of course, is slightly younger.  Early filmmakers started experimenting with editing and there was this sense of untapped potential in their hands.  Think about the internet 20 years ago: there weren’t really web pages.  15 years ago there were, but they weren’t very good.  The user base and the technology, and the understanding of how the new medium could be applied, were still all being figured out.  That’s must have been what it was like to be working with the new medium of film, and exploring the even newer craft of editing.  Just this sense of potential…

At first there was a widely held assumption that you couldn’t ever cut from a wide, head-to-toe shot of a guy to a close up of the guy’s face.  Audiences would be sickened, the reasoning went, literally nauseated, and would run for the doors, burn the theatre to the ground, etc., etc.  Of course all it took to disprove this was for someone to try it.  Big surprise: it worked.  Now they had to answer the question, why did that work?  The reason it works is the same reason that film itself works.  Something happens in the human brain that we call the Persistence of Vision.  When we see two images in rapid succession, our brains make a connection and fill in the ellipses between the images.  Film and animation, after all, are nothing but a rapid series of still images that only appear to be fluid in our perception of them.  Another bit of weirdness in the workings of our brains is the tendency to recognize patterns, and often invent them where they do not already exist.  This tendency towards pattern recognition/generation is part of why art exists in the first place.  It’s also why we see faces in clouds. 

If we are hard-wired to see patterns in nature, we are especially susceptible to them in edited film.  We are subjective creatures, and part of the director and editor’s job is to “force” a viewer’s subjectivity the way a magician “forces” a card.  In the least elegant examples this “forced subjectivity” is written off as “manipulative.”  In the best examples, no one has any time to write anything off.  They’re too busy feeling.

Back to the early days of editing.  About a hundred years ago, the Russian filmmaker Lev Kuleshov did a famous experiment that very effectively demonstrated the subjectivity audiences bring to viewing edited film, and how it can be manipulated.  In his experiment he took four pieces of “found footage” – footage that was shot with unknown intent, certainly not the intent he was using it for.  The first shot was of a well-regarded actor, in medium shot, staring at something off screen.  He was staring in that typically Russian, brooding manner that reveals absolutely no emotion.  Kuleshov made three copies of this shot, and edited it into 3 simple sequences.  In each sequence he used:

  • A shot of the guy looking at something out of frame
  • A cutaway of what the guy was looking at
  • A “reaction” shot of the guy, identical to the first shot

The only shot that changed from one sequence to the next was that cutaway in the middle.  When that cutaway was to a steaming bowl of soup, audiences very clearly saw “hunger” in the reaction shot.  When the cutaway was to a dead girl in a coffin, the otherwise blank reaction read as “horror.”  And when he seemed to be looking at a woman reclining on a sofa?  “Desire.”  So Kuleshov very effectively demonstrated both the subjectivity we bring to a piece of edited film, and how it could be “forced.”

When the director and editor are able to take an intellectual understanding of an idea or an emotion and then instantaneously transmit that into the viewer’s brain – and, better yet, when that idea or emotion is the same one that the character is supposed to be feeling on screen – well that’s a very powerful thing.  It’s why motion pictures across all genres have been such a dominant force in our culture for so long.

Another technique that will apply to Garcia Torres’s work can be seen in Frederick Wiseman’s 1968 documentary “High School.”  This was a fly-on-the-wall style documentary set in an American high school.  Obviously the late ’60’s were a time of culture war and social upheaval in America, so among the film’s theme’s are authority, oppression, and the struggles of the youth vs. the establishment.  So of course, many of the scenes take place in the disciplinarian’s office, or involve the teachers lecturing truculent students.  Any time you’re editing documentary footage (or if you have less self-respect, reality TV footage), you find you’re always looking for cutaways.  It turns out that most people don’t naturally speak in an off-the-cuff way that easily translates to film.  Part of the editor’s job is to make them make sense (or, in reality TV, make them say whatever the hell you want them to say), and so you’re always rearranging their statements and pulling out the bits that don’t make sense.  And every time you do that you need a cutaway to hide the edit, so as not to reveal that this all isn’t just happening “live.”  The problem is that it’s often difficult to find a cutaway that “makes sense.”  Because the viewers are pattern-recognizing creatures, a random cutaway feels like just that: random.  A classical documentary technique that Wiseman used in “High School” was to find a cutaway that he could elevate beyond the level of an editorial Band-Aid.  That cutaway was of the subjects’ hands: specifically, the teachers’ hands.  On repetition throughout the film these insert shots come to have some metaphoric value: you could say they represent strength, dominance, oppression.  So Wiseman takes the Band-Aid and makes it a motif.  He takes what is otherwise purely functional and turns it into something meaningful.  That doesn’t happen in one or even five repetitions of the motif, but happens over the length of the entire film.

I use the Wiseman film as an example because of the parallels with the insert shots that Garcia Torres uses in “I Am Not A Flopper.”  I don’t know that you’d call it a “motif,” but he returns again and again to these insert shots of the actor’s hands.  And they’re all just a little… weird.  The camera work is unsteady and the gestures seem to be a bit out of step with the actor’s speech patterns.  On top of that, they’re patently unnecessary.  This is a four-camera shoot after all, and a technically proficient piece of work.  Clearly, there’s a camera shooting at all times that “gets the shot.”  This is a live event, so: no need for an insert shot to cover your editorial tracks.  Furthermore, any editor will tell you that when you’re cutting an interview clip and the director shoots a bunch of inserts of the subject’s hands that he thinks you can use for cutaways… the director is wrong.  There’s almost never any reason to cut from a medium shot of the guy being interviewed to a close up of his hands flopping around in his lap.  This is something that Garcia Torres does repeatedly.  There’s one instance that sticks in my mind, where Garcia Torres cuts into a close up where the actor’s hands are curled into these odd monkey’s paw shapes, and he’s scraping at the palm of one hand with the thumb of his other.  Because we are subjective creatures, and because of the patterns we are hard-wired to detect, we can’t help but feel that these inserts are really revealing something.  Are they metaphoric?  Is Garcia Torres saying we’re just “scratching the surface”?  Is he revealing the hidden interior life of the character, is he gnawing at himself, anxious? 

Are these inserts a “subjective force”?  Or do we just view them that way?

I tend to view these inserts as being as un-insightful and as much of a cipher as the character himself is a cipher.  This character is a guy, a filmmaker, who spends 30 minutes talking about his life’s work without revealing more than the most surface details about himself or his work.  At one point he says, “I am not a filmmaker, I am a filmography.”  A very telling line that is borne out through the entire monologue.  In the entire half-hour just about the only details he offers of his films are the year of release, and the running times.  Not the most insightful or informational facts you’d expect from a filmmaker discussing his life’s work.  I’m reminded of the time my shrink yelled at me: “Yeah, you’re saying a lot of words, Tom, but I have no idea what youre trying to say!  And, similarly, Garcia Torres’s insert shots all look like they mean something, and seem like they mean something, and feel like they mean something, but actually add up to a big fat zero.  It’s more what we bring to the shots as subjective viewers than what they’re actually doing.  Which may be a motif in its own weird way.

So we’ve discussed the microscopic view of editing – the Russian example – and the macroscopic view of editing – the “High School” example.  Viewing “I Am Not A Flopper” on a microscopic, edit-by-edit scale, the film is a total failure.  Almost every edit feels “off” in some way.  (The character claims this film is being edited live by a guy in the production booth.  Don’t you believe it.)  But when you view the film on a more macroscopic scale, things get a little less black and white.  On that scale you have to start asking yourself, how does the cumulative effect of all these “off” or “bad” choices add up?  As demonstrated, subjectivity is something that can be forced, and indeed is the director and editor’s job to force.  When they don’t force the viewer’s subjectivity the filmmakers cede all control over their work to the viewer, whose brain is built to make connections.  Though leaving things “open to interpretation” sounds good in theory, in practice the feeling that an edited sequence is “open to interpretation” tends to be just that: only a feeling, as forced as the doomed-love montages in “Titanic.”  So I think the way to look at a more nuanced piece like “I Am Not A Flopper” is to view it while asking yourself, “what is the subjective experience that the filmmaker is trying to force?”

Well. 

Now that you’ve read 2,000+ words of the thoughts of a guy who thinks way too much about editing on a day-to-day basis, I hope I’ve done a slightly better job of explaining what it is an editor does than I typically do to my brother-in-law, Scott, at the Thanksgiving dinner table.  And hopefully given you a slightly different lens through which to view Mario Garcia Torres’s piece.  I was aiming to do it without getting too pretentious or indignant.  I think I kept indignant out of it, anyway. But, then, this is the internet, so I’ll leave the indignant part to you. 

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Tags: Mario Garcia Torres, Tom Danon, Hammer Projects, Exhibitions, Flash Talk, Public Engagement, Film