If you want to win the Oscar for best actor, so the saying goes, play someone disabled. Failing that, maybe a much loved cultural icon. Eddie Redmayne obviously didn’t want to take any chances, so he played both at once.
Sometimes, a film just stacks the decks in someone’s favour. It doesn’t matter how good a production designer you are, you’ve got a better chance of being recognised if you happened to work on The Grand Budapest Hotel rather than Fifty Shades of Grey. But does this devalue the work in any way, the fact that the project itself has handed you somewhat of a golden ticket? Not in my opinion; rather it emphasises that filmmaking is a team sport, and makes the cult of celebrity and individual awards seem even more ridiculous than usual. The Grand Budapest Hotel deserves recognition for its production design, but surely a lot of this must go to the people who devised the story in the first place, perhaps some to the cinematographer for how it was captured, the sound designer for bringing the world to life etc. etc.
In cases like this, when the artist and the art itself are both pushing and emphasising a particular aspect of filmmaking in tandem, there’s the chance to elevate the craft to a whole new level, creating something that would otherwise be out of reach. It’s an opportunity to showcase what that aspect of filmmaking is capable of, to push its boundaries rather than support those of others. It's not often though, that a film comes around whose form dictates that it be editing that's pushed to the fore and allowed to shine so prominently. That is what makes Whiplash so special, and what to my mind makes it a modern classic.
I’m not normally one to remember specific cuts, to fetishise over the transition from Shot A to Shot B, as some do over the cut from bone to spaceship in 2001: A Space Odyssey, or the match to sunrise in Lawrence of Arabia. These moments are powerful, but I find editing more interesting in a broader sense, as a way of exploring complete stories rather than individual moments. However, there’s a cut in Whiplash that truly grabbed me, in such a strong and powerful way that it can’t go un-mentioned, especially as it happens to be the very first cut of the film.
5 seconds in the audience is already on the edge of their seat, hearts pounding from the force and violence of the foregrounded drumming, followed by the startling smash cut to silence. This is such an engaging way to open a film, not just on a visceral level, the edit giving you whiplash from the off, but also in terms of how much story is being told here. This is a film about drumming. It will be an exciting, intense, edge of your seat thriller. And the key to the story will be found through contrast. Fast and slow. Loud and quiet. Jump cuts and long shots. Rushing and dragging. Not a bad way to start a movie.
The scene that follows, as Andrew plays for his mentor for the first time, is simply a masterclass in the ‘modern style’ of editing. So much ink has been spilled criticising the ’speeding up’ of cutting, the incessant commercial-inspired-editing-for-the-sake-of-it, so often derisively attributed to MTV. This scene though, is how it should be done. The pace starts fast, compared to a ’normal’ film, setting an already frantic baseline, and then builds up to a climax. There is not a second, indeed a frame of silence; we never wait for the next phase of action, it is simply ongoing and captivating, exposing not just the rhythm and pulse of the musical performance but the beginning of the fraught dynamic between teacher and pupil. In the real world the action of the scene would have taken place over at least 5-10 minutes, here it lasts 90 seconds. That’s how mainstream cinema works today, and when done right it’s all the better for it. The scene ends, as all moments of high pressure should, with a release. Here it’s punctuated by a joke, as Fletcher re-enters the room to collect his jacket. You’re hooked.
The filmmakers love using perspective and subjectivity, both through cinematography and editing. In the next scene, as Andrew leaves the school, the traditional collage of New York City inserts are cut as frenetically as the music sequence that preceded it; we are seeing things from Andrew’s perspective, his mind moves to the beat of his drums. As in a piece of music, there’s a sort of call and response set-up as each cutaway effectively answers the other, the angles inverted. This similarity is not incidental.
Andrew then goes to the movies to buy popcorn, look at how the sequence is cut:
Tom Cross has this to say:
The editing works harmoniously to enhance character, theme and story, and it does so while at the forefront of the audience’s attention. We are meant to notice, consciously or not, the speed, the rhythm at which things are taking place.
Of course though, if everything is at a high tempo then nothing is, peaks are nothing without valleys. Scenes with Andrew’s father, his family and his girlfriend are consequently slowed to an effective standstill. We hold on silences, on looks, on discussions over the value of Maltesers. The purpose of this is two fold: Again, we are drawn into Andrew’s view of the world, everything is dull and slow outside of his life as a musician, nothing else matters. It also serves to emphasise the difference when we are ramped back up again, speed only has meaning when it is taken away.
The film is ultimately one about characters, or more specifically two characters. How does editing work to further their development? In the above sequence J.K. Simmons enters the room, his 2nd appearance in the film, and you immediately get the sense of his personality, his position at the top of the pyramid, but this has little to do with the actor’s performance. It comes entirely through how the scene is orchestrated; the quick cut to his shoes, the punch into Andrew followed by the reaction shots of other band members. It is editing as much as acting that throughout the film shapes this character and ultimately wins Simmons his Oscar.
Take a look at the film’s most (in)famous scene. The one it will be remembered for:
The performance is exceptional, but as the tension builds, editing is what makes this moment special; the speed of the exchange is captivating. The cuts go back and forth this way and that, intentionally crossing the line over and over, disorienting the audience in just the right way. Don’t try this at home, you’ll cut yourself into pieces. The performances are elevated into something that will be remembered for years.
It becomes all the more interesting, as things usually do, when you hear from the editor himself:
Of course, the challenge when cutting something this tightly, this maniacally, is to not lose sense of the characters, the heart of the story. It would have been all too easy for the film to descend into a blur of symbols and trumpets. But you only have to look at the incredible last scene of the film to see the deftness with which these pitfalls are avoided. Here though, I will refrain from going into detail. This film’s life is still young, and to spoil its crescendo would be to do it a disservice. Suffice it to say, you should go and see for yourself if you haven’t already. Immerse yourself in it, then watch for a second time and pay attention to the editing. This is craftsmanship at a high level.
Chazelle said he wanted the film to be '‘an editor’s showcase’', and it is of course, there's no doubt about that. If you were to handpick a film to cut to hang your career on, it would be one like this, where rhythm and cutting bleed through every narrative beat, begging to be admired. However, an opportunity that presents itself still has to be taken, and here it has been to exceptional effect. The editor took up the challenge with the same aplomb as the film’s main character, and in doing so became its star.