Disappointed, is how Director Sam Mendes must be feeling when 1917 failed to pick up Best Picture at the 92nd Academy Awards. However, history was made when Writer/Director Bong Joon Ho won Best Motion Picture of the Year for Parasite. It’s the first foreign film to win an Oscar in this category, which also won Best Foreign Film.
It’s unlikely to be disappointment film editor Lee Smith will be experiencing today, but more likely surprise. 1917 was not even nominated for Best Achievement in Film Editing, however, it did win Oscars for Cinematography, Sound Mixing and Visual Effects.
Like many, I too am surprised by this outcome. I believe, 1917 deserved an Academy Award for Best Cinematography. Roger Deakins has undoubtedly created a visual masterpiece, but from a film editing perspective, Lee Smith has achieved a great deal more than Ford vs Ferrari.
Ford vs Ferrari is an insightful story coupled with thrilling, adrenalin pumping on-the-edge-of-your-seat excitement, but what Smith has achieved in 1917 compresses events through the performance on-screen without any appearance of interruption by cuts. It’s certainly not the absence of editing that disqualified 1917 from a nomination. “There are lots of cuts in the movie,” said Lee in an interview. “We spent the entire post-production burying the edits so deep that no human could spot them” he continued. 1917 is acclaimed as being a one-cut movie, alongside Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope and Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s Birdman. Like 1917, these films have the appearance of one-cut (see here for a list of actual one-cut films).
The question is why is this important? Could 1917 be a better movie with more fast-pace cuts or was this just a clever way of covering-over what is a weak script, as some have criticised? Was this just an over-indulgent way for Mendes and Lee to pick up more accolades? I think film should be and often is at times, innovative. We see this in other more obvious techniques like visual effects and animation, and less obvious places like Sound Design and Editing. However, in this particular example, I believe it is the collaborative design of Director, Cinematographer and Editor to use complex techniques to keep audience emotions high without sacrificing story and rhythm. On reflection, the premise of the story is simple however this lack of complexity does not create a lack of emotion or rhythm. Lee was also the editor on Dunkirk and The Dark Knight. All three of these films achieved what I call heart-thumping rhythm. 1917 is no exception. Editing is not only about the unnatural technique of cutting events to increase action and compressing more story outside of realtime into 90 minutes, but the central question that drives the story and determines the cut is, as Walter Murch describes, is “How do you want the audience to feel?”
Walking out of 1917 I felt the emotional loss of human relationships and the despair of war. The simplicity of the premise gave space for 1917 to take me through the sodden, slippery, rat-infested trenches and the emotion of depravity created by the wars we wage against one another. This illusion achieves its purpose in making me feel there could be no end to this insanity and hopeless longing for intimacy. The film editing achieved great things for 1917 and while this was not recognised by those at The Academy in the form of a small golden statue at this year’s ceremony, it is in my humble opinion, worthy of our hard-earned cash at the movie theatre – so rush along as it’s a must-see on the big screen.