Steven Spielberg is a pure visual storyteller. You can watch most of his movies on mute, and figure out the plot via the meticulous composition of each shot and how it flows into the next. Since the advent of sound, the number of directors capable of or interested in crafting a film in this manner has gradually dwindled. Movies nowadays are generally dialogue delivery systems. So we must savor our Spielbergs, and, if this style of filmmaking interests you, learn from them.
Framing and mise-en-scène are critical elements, but guiding your audience from shot to shot is every bit as important. Cutting from the master to a close up or whatever angle most clearly conveys the story is an art in itself. So while Spielberg will always cite David Lean's "Lawrence of Arabia" as "the film that set me on my journey," he feels equally indebted to a filmmaker from roughly the same era, primarily due to his facility as an editor.
The Editing Efficacy Of John Frankenheimer
As far as Spielberg is concerned, no one cut a film with more invigorating flair than John Frankenheimer. The director of such classics as "Birdman of Alcatraz," "The Manchurian Candidate" and "Seconds" had an innate feel for how a movie should play rhythmically. Speaking to Sight and Sound in 1977, Spielberg observed, "His editing often has more energy than the content of the story. When I saw 'The Manchurian Candidate,' I realized for the first time what film editing was all about."
Spielberg took what he learned from Frankenheimer's masterpiece, and applied it to the short films he was crafting as a teenager in the 1960s.
After that, I made a number of 8mm films at home and began to experiment with cutting and juxtaposing scenes and tricks in the cutting room. I learned all the negative things, the things I try not to do in movies, from television. One thing I learned from TV was that there was nothing worse than a close-up that's from the chin to the forehead. I remember watching 'Paths of Glory' and realizing how few tight close-ups there were, but when Kubrick used a closeup it meant something.
From Television To Trainwrecks
Interestingly, Frankenheimer, like Sidney Lumet, got his start in television, directing over 100 productions for live theatre showcases like "Playhouse 90" and "Climax!" Though few critics or viewers took note of his visual style at the time (the words were what principally mattered), film historian Stephen Bowie hails Frankenheimer for employing "material and visual strategies that expanded the boundaries of what could be done in live television."
Frankenheimer quit live television in the late 1950s, and took to filmmaking like he was born to it. If you're searching for a tangible example of how he influenced Spielberg as an editor, look no further than the masterfully cut trainwreck sequence from "The Train," where you'll get to see Burt Lancaster and Albert Rémy orchestrate a catastrophe on a real, moving locomotive. The bit where they incapacitate the engineer and separate the cars will no doubt call to mind Spielberg's cutting of the truck chase/fight from "Raiders of the Lost Ark." It's marvelous stuff.
Frankenheimer burned himself out a bit in the 1980s and most of the '90s, but he returned to form in a big way with 1998's "Ronin," which features one of the greatest car chases ever filmed. The physical stunt work is mind-blowing, but it's the editing that has you tearing the stuffing out of your armrest. Spielberg learned from the very best.
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