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editing: beyond intuition

anna dzenis: karen pearlman, cutting rhythms

Anna Dzenis lectures in the Cinema Studies Program at LaTrobe University.

Karen Pearlman Karen Pearlman
photo Kyle Powderly © Physical TV
“IF EDITORS CANNOT ARTICULATE WHAT MAKES EDITS, EVEN ‘INVISIBLE’ ONES, GOOD, THEN THE JOB OF EDITING MIGHT AS WELL BE DONE BY SOMEONE CHEAPER, FOR EXAMPLE THE DIRECTOR’S BROTHER WHO IS GOOD WITH COMPUTERS.” KAREN PEARLMAN

There are some great books on editing. There is The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing, in which Michael Ondaatje interviews the smart and passionate Murch on his work as a film and sound editor. There is director Edward Dmytrk’s On Film Editing where he discusses the essential craft and practice of editing from a filmmaker’s point of view. There is also Sam Rohdie’s Montage and Jacques Aumont’s Montage Eisenstein, which are poetic studies of the aesthetics of editing in the work of filmmakers as diverse as Renoir, Antonioni, Kitano, Fuller, Rivette, Resnais and Eisenstein. So what could a new book on editing offer? Well, actually, quite a lot.

Cutting Rhythms: Shaping the Film Edit is an insightful new book written by Dr Karen Pearlman who is Head of Screen Studies at the Australian Film Television and Radio School, co-director of the Physical TV company, a professional film editor, dancer, choreographer and lecturer. Pearlman combines her knowledge, skills and experience from her different creative and educational practices in this book. In fact, it is her work as a dancer and how it informs her thinking about editing that makes this book such an original and refreshing contribution to the literature.

Pearlman tells us that one of the first things that motivated the book was the mysticism and vagueness that surrounds the way so many editors talk about their craft. She cites editors who have described their approach to editing as “magic” (Sheldon Kahn), as something that “feels right” (Carl Kress) and something that is “exclusively in the realm of intuition” (Merle Worth). The repetition of these responses led Pearlman to the central questions of her book such as, “How is this intuition developed or acquired and how is it actually working in the process of editing rhythms?” The book, based on her PhD dissertation, goes a long way towards answering these questions.

In the first section Pearlman unpacks and demystifies several key concepts as well as discussing her own particular approach. She begins with a fascinating discussion of the mysterious notion of intuition, making good use of Guy Claxton’s work in The Intuitive Practitioner. Claxton proposes that intuition consists of six types of thinking: expertise, implicit learning, judgment, sensitivity, creativity and rumination. Pearlman uses these ideas to try to understand intuition, arguing that it is, in fact, something that can be learned and developed through “practical and theoretical experience and education.” She brings together the poetic observations of the filmmaker Tarkovsky with the work of neurologists and physiologists to establish a foundation for “rhythmic intuition” that is based on the knowledge of the human body. In the case of the editor, she says that intuition can and should come from knowledge of the world, knowledge of the editor’s own body and knowledge of the cinema and its actors. She suggests that editors need to sensitise themselves to these different kinds of knowledge and bring this to their practice.

The central concept of rhythm is something that Pearlman goes on to explore at length, examining the many ways in which rhythm can be shaped, and what its function and role in our experience of the cinema might be. For Pearlman, editing is the art of shaping movement, and movement is the material that the editor works with to create rhythm. This art of shaping movement is something that she has developed in her work as a choreographer and dancer. She describes choreography as “the art of manipulating movement: phrasing its time, space, and energy into affective forms and structures.” She links this in compelling ways to editing which she argues is also a form of choreography, and suggests that “dance and dance-making processes might provide craft and inspiration for editing.” The connections between choreography and editing as arts that both manipulate movement lead Pearlman to some surprising techniques.

In the second section of the book Pearlman provides an extended examination of different kinds of movement and rhythm and discusses how they work in the process of editing. Each chapter involves an account of key concepts like physical, emotional and event rhythms that are then followed by case studies as well as activities to illustrate and demonstrate these concepts. There are instructive case studies of films as diverse as The Godfather (1972), Goodfellas (1990), The Great Train Robbery (1904), Snatch (2000), Requiem for a Dream (2000) and Gone with the Wind (1939), to list just a few. Pearlman writes about films as a practitioner with a passion for understanding the way that images work together to move and engage an audience. Her analysis takes us beyond narrative and characters to energy and movement and the experience of movement and rhythm.

Possibly the most interesting case study in the book is the one in which Pearlman examines the final dance scene of Thursday’s Fictions (2007), a film made by her own production company and which she also edited. The Physical TV Company productions are stories told by the body, and there are parts of the film where the entire story is “carried by the physical.” She explains that her job as an editor was “to re-create not the precise choreography, but the feeling of the choreography.” Pearlman defines the processes she uses to “shape the physical rhythm” of a scene in terms such as “re-choreographing,” “physical storytelling,” “dancing edits” and “singing the rhythm.” She then demonstrates and elaborates on them through close analysis of a scene from the film.

This is a very readable book, written in an accessible style that should appeal to a broad cross-section, including editors, teachers of editing and film enthusiasts.

For those who might be interested in looking further at how Karen Pearlman has put her own theories into practice, she has recently edited Jeni Thornley’s marvellous documentary Island Home Country (2009, available on DVD), which is definitely worth chasing up.


Karen Pearlman, Cutting Rhythms: Shaping the Film Edit, Focal Press, Burlington US, Oxford UK, 2009

Anna Dzenis lectures in the Cinema Studies Program at LaTrobe University.

RealTime issue #100 Dec-Jan 2010 pg. 17

© Anna Dzenis; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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