In film school, the editing suite was one of my favorite places on the Temple University campus. And not just because that’s where smart / gorgeous Alyssa interrupted my cutting one day to ask me out on a date.
More often, the editing suite was where, hunched over the Moviola (I think it was a Moviola) and surrounded by strips of celluloid, my fellow film student and I attempted to make something resembling cinema out of flickering images wrought by our dubious scripts, shaky camerawork and the acting talents of our friends.
We did our best.
Around that time, I read with fascination Ralph Rosenblum’s book When the Shooting Stops … the Cutting Begins. Rosenblum edited most of the early, funny Woody Allen films, as well as A Thousand Clowns, The Pawnbroker and The Producers, and, thanks to his book, I learned that editors could have as much influence on our movie experiences as directors. Annie Hall wouldn’t be what we know of as Annie Hall without Ralph Rosenblum.
Since then, the idea of the director as auteur has always carried an asterisk in my mind. From Rosenblum’s book and from my limited time splicing, I knew that editors deserved more credit then they usually received. (I had to look up the last few Oscar winners for Best Editing. I’m pretty sure you don’t know, either.)
In the decades since that time, though, I’ve read a stack of books about directors but haven’t found another book that made as strong a case for film editors as major creative forces … until now.
Paul Hirsch’s A Long Time Ago in a Cutting Room Far, Far Away … (Chicago Review Press) isn’t just a worthy companion to Rosenblum’s book. This breezy-but-thoughtful book from the man who constructed a couple of Star Wars films, the original Carrie, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Ray and many more is also a fun, fascinating ride through the last few decades of Hollywood blockbusters.
A Long Time Ago … neatly balances anecdotes and insights, whether that’s building the final Star Wars battle or figuring out how to get people to stick around for the final “Bueller” joke. He’s upfront about trying to save troubled films (as with King of the Gypsies as well as finding the right, tone-setting opening for Footloose.) There’s a wonderful “save” regarding Planes, Trains and Automobiles, fascinating moments with film score composers and even some compelling justification for test-audience screenings.
Hirsch is humbler than Rosenblum, careful not to take credit away from the A-list directors he’s worked with, but he’s also open about the challenging nature of the director / editor relationship and the challenges inherent in the film editor’s version of the gig economy. Even with an Oscar, Hirsch is often uncertain where he’ll find the next job. And, sometimes that led to such less-than-boastworthy projects as Date Movie, The Adventures of Pluto Nash and I Love Trouble. In Hirsch’s book, the stories behind the failures are as interesting as those behind the successes.
Given the quality of his film work, perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised that Hirsch is able to weave together these strands into a coherent, entertaining whole. After all, that’s what he’s done for nearly 50 years.
(Side note: I hope Alyssa is out there somewhere still editing films. And I hope she’s getting proper recognition for her work.)