Unreal Nature

August 29, 2008


Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 6:43 am

This first version is usually thirty to forty minutes longer than the final film. At this point in the process I begin to pay more attention to the rhythm of the film, the internal rhythm within a sequence and the external rhythm between the sequences.

That’s from On Editing  by Frederick Wiseman in The Threepenny Review: Spring 2008. He’s talking about the last stages of making a documentary film.

Rhythm is a key component of art, but is it documentary? Isn’t the sequential rhythm added value put there by the artist via creative editing?

To back up, he begins:

… I have no idea before the shooting begins what the events, themes, ideas, or point of view of the film will be.

…. The purpose of the filming is to accumulate scenes, material from which a film can be edited. During the shooting I simply try to gather sequences that interest me for whatever reason—i.e., they are funny, sad, tragic; they reveal an aspect of character, illustrate an aspect of the division and exercise of power, point out the gap between ideology and practice, or show the work of the various professions, clients, or publics represented. The decision about what to shoot is always based on a shifting combination of judgment, instinct, and luck. After six to twelve weeks, I typically have eighty to a hundred and twenty hours of film from which a film has to be edited.

Then, at the end, this is the full paragraph from which I took the lead quote:

This first version is usually thirty to forty minutes longer than the final film. At this point in the process I begin to pay more attention to the rhythm of the film, the internal rhythm within a sequence and the external rhythm between the sequences. For example, a sequence as originally edited may have a beginning, a middle, and an end. When it is placed in relation to other sequences, the beginning may no longer be necessary because the same information (about character, physical location, or time) may have been suggested in a more appropriate form in another scene. The external rhythm is related to the shots that link the major sequences: that is, it may be necessary to have a minute of relative quiet after a very emotional scene, or several shots will need to be linked to suggest the passage of time or a change in location. The choice of shot, the direction of the movement within the shot, the time of day, the information conveyed by the people or objects—all these have to be evaluated both in relation to each other and to the sequences that come before and after. This, of course, is true for the internal as well as external editing of a sequence. Each sequence or group of related sequences has to be assessed in this way and it is also necessary to know the overall structural connection between all the sequences in the film (for example, the relationship between the first ten minutes of the film and the end). I have learned over the years to pay as much attention to the thoughts at the edge of my head—my associations to the material I am watching and hearing—as I do to the more overtly logical and deductive aspects of making editorial choices. Following these seemingly peripheral intuitive thoughts can lead to more startling and original combination of sequences with unanticipated benefits for the content, form, and structure of the film.

I applaud Wiseman for injecting his interpretation into his work — as I do for still photographers — and I can’t imagine any good photograph or film that doesn’t make an effort to be harmonious. But it is necessarily transformative of the work.

I wonder how this sits with the purists who expect a documentary work to be, as nearly as possible, simply a conduit or window to what happened.




  1. Interesting and thoughtful. I went through several revisions of my initial instinctive response, and am now left thinking that I don’t know and will have to mull it over a while before I know what i think.

    Thinking aloud, without the faintest idea what the answer might be…:

    Whatever the medium (film, photography, sculpture, whatever), do rhythms have to be imposed, or do they emerge from the material? This strikes me as particularly relevant to documentary film.

    If they emerge from the material, is there necessarily (or ever, perhaps) a dissonance between on the one hand editing form to bring out inherent rhythms and on the other being a truthful “conduit or window to what happened”?

    Dunno … needs thinking about.

    Comment by Felix Grant — August 29, 2008 @ 8:55 am

  2. I have a terrible urge to use the word, “resonate” that, for some reason, I am allergic to.

    A scene or sequence (film) will resonate (*gag*) with each artist in some particular way. That resonance originates in the scene, but requires all those gag-inducing artsy metaphors about musical instruments, signals/receivers, etc. etc. selectively responding to etc. etc.

    None of which answers my question about how this affects the meaning of a documenatary film or photograph.

    Probably films or photographs made in the extremity of emotion are the most truly documentary because the scene’s native rhythm will be unquestionably there — not searched for after the fact.

    Comment by unrealnature — August 29, 2008 @ 11:51 am

  3. I see your point.

    I shall have to abandon my usual pupation habits and go of to resonate on a higher level in the hope of finding my own inner harmonic on this subject…

    Comment by Felix Grant — August 29, 2008 @ 12:47 pm

  4. [sheilding my eyes in horror so as not to see Felix’s inner harmonic after he has abandoneded his pupation habit]

    There will be *no* streaking in my blog!

    Comment by unrealnature — August 29, 2008 @ 2:10 pm

  5. Wheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee….[thud]

    Comment by Felix Grant — August 30, 2008 @ 3:41 am

  6. (Ray Stevens)

    Hello everybody, this is your action news reporter
    With all the news that is news across the nation
    On the scene at the super market
    There seems to have been some disturbance here
    Pardon me sir, did you see what happened?
    Yeh, I did…I was standing over there by the tomatoes
    And here he come
    Running thru the pole beans, thru the fruits and vegetables
    Naked as a jay-bird
    And I hollered over at Ethel…Isaid don’t look Ethel
    It was too late, she’d already been incensed…

    Here he comes, boogie-dy, boogie-dy
    There he goes, boogie-dy, boogie-dy
    And he ain’t wearin’ no clothes
    Oh yes, they call him the streak
    Fastest thing on two feet
    He’s just as proud as he can be
    Of his anatomy
    He’s gonna give us a peek
    Oh yes, they call him the streak
    He likes to show off his physique
    If there’s an audience to be found
    He’ll be streakin’ around
    Invitin’ public critique…

    This is your action news reporter once again
    And we’re here at the gas station
    Pardon me sir, did you see what happened?
    Yeh, I did…I was just in here gettin’ my tires checked
    And he just appeared out of the traffic
    Come streakin’ around the grease rack there
    Didn’t have nothing on but a smile
    I looked in there and Ethel was gettin’ her a cold drink
    I hollered…Don’t look Ethel
    It was too late…She’d already been mooned
    Flashed her right there in front of the shock absorbers


    He ain’t rude, boogie-dy, boogie-dy
    He ain’t lewd, boogie-dy, boogie-dy
    He’s just in the mood to run in the nude

    Oh yes, they call him the streak
    He likes to turn the other cheek
    He’s always making the news
    Wearin’ just his tennis shoes
    Guess you could call him unique…

    Once again, your action news reporter in the booth at the gym
    Covering the disturbance at the basketball playoffs
    Pardon me sir, did you see what happened?
    Yeh, I did…half-time, I was just going down there
    To get Ethel a snow cone
    Here he come right our of the cheap seats
    Dribblin’…right down the middle of the court
    Didn’t have on nothin’ but his PF’s
    Made a hook shot and got out thru the concession stand
    I hollered up at Ethel, I said don’t look Ethel
    It was too late…She’d already got a free shot
    Grandstanded…Right there in front of the home team

    Here he comes…look…who’s that with him?
    Ethel, is that you, Ethel?
    What do you think you’re doing?
    You get your clothes on!

    Ethel, where you going?
    Ethel, you shameless hussy
    Say it isn’t so Ethel

    Comment by unrealnature — August 30, 2008 @ 4:48 am

  7. [helpless laughter]

    Suzanne Vega, The Queen and the Soldier:

    “Your highness, your ways are very strange”


    Comment by Felix Grant — August 30, 2008 @ 6:34 am

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