Making the Cut

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When film editor Richard Chew took to the stage of the Detroit Film Theatre on June 11, 2011, he might have felt a sense of honor and accomplishment. Here he was, sharing the lessons of his life’s work, with a sophisticated group of film lovers, in the beautifully restored DFT.

“I think there may be a misconception among many people as to what an editor does, like, does an editor just take out the bad parts, take out the mistakes?” Richard remarked. “But really, editors do not do substraction. We’re kind of linear, we do addition, and what I mean by that is, we build a film.

“So, how do we build a film? Basically we deal with, in my view, we deal with performance, we deal with structure, we deal with style, and we deal with pacing.”

Richard was a special guest of the DFT 101 series that started in 2010, and which has become a great promotional tool for both DIA members who’ve never visited the film theater and DFT filmgoers who’ve never been to the art galleries. He was hosting a double feature of movies—one that influenced him, and one that he worked on. He will make four such appearances this summer, in conjunction with his work at nearby Wayne State University.

Because of the power outage that hit many parts of Detroit, including the DIA, Richard’s first scheduled appearance on June 9 was postponed until a later date. At that June 9 appearance, he had planned to show The Bicycle Thief and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (on which he worked). Those films were meant to demonstrate a more traditional style of film editing than the movies that were screened on June 11—Breathless and I am Sam (which he edited).

“Thursday’s power outage prevented me from showing you the before grammar…so I’m going to show you first the after grammar before the before grammar,” Richard carefully said, drawing laughter from the audience. “The after grammar is what is illustrated by Breathless.”

He explained, “Breathless, made by Jean-Luc Godard in the late 50s, advances a revolutionary film grammar. With jump cuts, it violates the continuous real-time continuity. It creates, or it violates the real-time world, and it replaces that conventional film grammar.

“It’s the film grammar equivalent of saying, you don’t need to complete sentences, you don’t have to punctuate, you don’t even need subject-predicate sentences. You can go from subject to verb, and jump from verb to verb, back to subject and then to another verb.”

The movie I am Sam was chosen as the second film because Richard said it gave him the chance to use editing techniques similar to what were used in Breathless. In this 2001 film, Sean Penn plays a mentally handicapped man who fights for the custody of his daughter (Dakota Fanning).

“The story, in a way, not only allowed for it, but kind of required that. I was able to use this film grammar because the character who had a mental disability, I was able to apply the sequences that were much more subjective, so it became kind of a subjective frame of mind, and there are especially several sequences that you see in the courtroom, there’s several, there’s a hearing room and there’s a courtroom.

“These were different sequences where I was able to apply this kind of jump-cut technique to illustrate his mental disintegration, his psychological disintegration.”

Between films, Richard took many questions from the audience, giving further insights into the editing process. He explained that he assembles footage into the first version of the film. The director then creates his cut of the movie, which is then turned over to the financing end of the business (producers and others) for the final editing work.

On what turned out to be the opening event of the DFT’s summer film season, the afternoon with Richard Chew ended on a friendly note with the audience applauding his name in the final credits.

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Copyright © 2011 by Robert Hollberg Smith, Jr.

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