The Importance of Narrative Ellipsis In Editing

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Jun 13, 2020 1:38 AM
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Martin Scorsese famously said, “Cinema is a matter of what’s in the frame and what’s out”. However, narrative ellipsis- the subject of this article- primarily concerns “what’s out”. What filmmakers and editors choose to leave out of their film is equally as important as what they choose to keep. Actually, it may even be more important. Because ellipsis tells us (even if “tell” is a funny verb here, since ellipsis is intrinsically about not telling us anything) what the filmmaker decided not to include in the story. What need not be witnessed visually or included in the storytelling.

It’s a kind of omission. Have you ever read through a shooting script and noticed the “OMITTED” notations? During rewrites and/or production, the writer uses this appendage to replace scenes that fail, to move the story forward or align with the director’s storytelling method.

For an editor, these types of omissions have their place. For example, if you have a character answering a knock at the door, it would probably – but not always – make sense to cut from whatever that character was doing at the time of the knock (say, having dinner, reading the paper) directly to that same character now answering the door. This example falls under a conventional method of elliptical storytelling: cutting out extraneous, mundane details in order to skip ahead to the next relevant plot point. It’s like what Alfred Hitchcock said: “What is drama, but life, with the dull bits cut out.”

When a narrative ellipsis occurs, this is the way it occurs in the majority of Hollywood motion pictures (what many might call “conventional movies”). Ellipsis serves its most literal purpose: to omit the very scenes that would bore and turn off the mainstream moviegoer who’s expecting pure escapism.

But there are exceptions to every rule: David Fincher, director of many commercially and critically successful films, will cleverly keep in the “dull bits” in order to show the causality of an individual’s actions. As film critic Ignatiy Vishnevetsky observed about Fincher’s movies: “causality takes precedence over the usual business of plot”. Take Mark Zuckerberg’s (Jesse Eisenberg) long jog back to the Harvard campus in The Social Network or all the eating, smoking and walking that’s deliberately woven into the crime yarn of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (editors: Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall)?

The Social Network’s “anti-ellipsis”, i.e. adding information that isn’t necessary to tell a conventional story but in this case, wouldn’t be the same without it.

Fincher doesn’t necessarily need to show these bits, but he does. He’s showing the relationship between the dull bits and the un-dull bits, and he subverts the audience’s expectations to sweeten things without, I’d argue, boring it. Furthermore, this point merely illustrates that not all of Hollywood’s releases follow Hitchcock’s aphorism. Though, however interesting this technique may be, it is not “narrative ellipsis”. It is not the interesting elimination of information, but the interesting addition of information that in the hands of most directors would come off as obviously extraneous and unnecessary. But Fincher has the skill and nerve to pull it off.

Narrative ellipsis does not always come down to eliminating excess and mundane activities, or (all us overly protective artists will be happy to learn) killing your darlings. The filmmaker can use ellipsis premeditatedly in order to convey profound meaning. Many directors – the best of them – have done this and made it one of the key devices in their stylistic toolkit: Stanley Kubrick; Yasujiro Ozu; Robert Bresson; Paul Thomas Anderson; The Coen Brothers; Jean-Luc Godard, among many others.

Elliptical editing dates all the way back to D.W. Griffith, a pioneer of modern cinematic storytelling methods. Before Kubrick leaped ahead eras in his bone/spaceship match cut in 2001: A Space Odyssey, Griffith advised his audience to (in the words of John Osborne’s “Radical Larkin: Seven Types of Technical Mastery”) “mind the gap” when he cut between 4 different historical eras – ancient Babylon (539 BC), the Crucifixion of Christ (27 AD), the persecution of the French Huguenots (1572), and modern-day America (c. 1914). Griffith had not only discovered cinematic montage (what would later be expanded on by Soviet filmmakers Lev Kuleshov, Sergei Eisenstein, and Vsevolod Pudovkin), but a type of elliptical storytelling that could seamlessly leap to and from centuries through a succession of cuts.

Still, Griffith’s use of ellipsis, as much as a breakthrough as it was, falls under our more “conventional” grasp of this subject. The reason being that this technique served a pragmatic function: Griffith leapfrogged centuries quite obviously for the sake of time management, and plausibility (as well as the possibility) to tell a story and convey ideas, chief among them that “intolerance” has persisted and spread throughout the ages couched in the deeds of people belonging to many, seemingly different civilizations.

But let’s venture somewhere current, from a point of familiarity: AMC’s new show, Better Call Saul (don’t worry, there are no spoilers here). In the second episode of the first season, writer Peter Gould and editor Kelley Dixon show a violent scenario from a few distinct point-of-views. It’s not exactly “The Rashomon Effect”, but combining a singular incident from various perspectives- some privy, some naive to the central act of violence- in order to include the details that the storytellers deemed important for the viewers to witness. In this case, the storytellers (mostly) eschew any graphic violence and remove aspects of the dramatic incident only to emphasize its aftermath.

It’s a brilliant method of elliptical storytelling, because it keeps audiences complicit and, yet, totally unaware of the true nature of the situation. Gould and his writing partner Vince Gilligan hopefully would not deny that this is a tactic of The Coen Brothers, another talented writing team that wrote and directed (and also edited under a pseudonym) the work of consideration, No Country for Old Men. That film, based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy that also deals with the (with slightly fewer curlicues of comic irony) brutality and injustice of crime in America, administered most of its violence off-screen and omitted the explosive moments typical of most crime movies that, in their explicit violence, tend to inadvertently reinforce the very malice through the heroism of the lead.

Ellipsis in No Country and Better Call Saul eliminate sensationalistic information to, on a simpler level, keep the audience guessing and use their imagination and, on a deeper level, show that the causality of violence is a grey area and what we’re left with after the bullets have flown is only a hazy, unresolved understanding of the injustice.

What makes this elliptical narrative intriguing is that it’s not necessary to tell the story. Like Fincher, the storytellers did not need to tell the story this way, but they did – and that is what counts. As an active viewer, we should wonder why. But more importantly, as an editor, we must know why. It requires a different depth of thinking, because this form of narrative ellipsis serves a metaphorical function as opposed to a literal one. Instead of using ellipsis for the sake of economy, this approach uses it to construct an idea and a very particular storytelling sensibility.

The films of French auteur Robert Bresson will help shed light on this matter. Bresson, a forefather of the French New Wave, had an elliptical style of his own that no filmmakers can successfully imitate (they’re welcome to paddle behind him though, if they get a second wind). Throughout his long-but-not-exactly-prolific career, Bresson’s style was known for its rigour and severe discipline (with the religious implications in his works, one might call his style “pious”). Bresson was firm in showing action by basically taking it all out. There’s an old story of Bresson telling Italian producer Dino de Laurentiis, who wanted the director to make a movie about The Book of Genesis, that he wouldn’t show any of the animals on Noah’s ark – only their sand footprints. Bresson was immediately fired.

This story alludes to the nature of Bresson’s elliptical style: the filmmaker used gestures, impressions, and sounds of the environment, to define the essence of a dramatic action. The finest example of his elliptical narrative is his 1956 POW film, A Man Escaped; but the most textbook one (which I will reference here) is his 1974, Lancelot du Lac (edited by Germaine Artus). On a pragmatic level, Lancelot du Lac eliminated much of the original events from the Arthurian legend (particularly pertaining to King Arthur’s death), but Bresson wasn’t making some excessively traditional historical fantasy epic.

While this is not the same jousting sequence from Lancelot du Lac, this scene of knights mounting their horses will give you a clear idea of Bresson’s elliptical editing style.

There are many instances of ellipsis in Lancelot du Lac, but the best comes from a jousting sequence where Bresson shows the rounds of the contest by repeating the same few notes from a bagpipe, the raising of a different flag, and then the joust ensues with us only able to see the horses’ legs. Bresson boils the joust down to a sort of ritual of exchanges – the bagpipes setting up the fight, the flag cuing it, and the horses’ lower limbs suggesting it. As Kristin Thompson wrote that this sequence “concentrates our attention […] rather than on the excitement and glamour typically associated with battles in classical historical epics.”

Above all, by not affording your audience certain bits of information and omitting details that conventional wisdom may deem important, you have the opportunity (but not the guarantee; the skill is always up to you) to instil your work with mystery, because ultimately, the suggestion of mystery is what the most unique movies supply. Ellipsis is a device that is used in every film, it’s just some filmmakers happen to use it in more interesting ways than others. This article has aimed to offer a few of those ways and it is now up to you as the editor to explore what’s out of your frame and how it can affect what you decide to leave in and make available to the eyes of the beholder.