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'Armageddon' Draws Cutting Commentary

Movies: Rapid-fire editing in the fast-paced asteroid film elicits strong criticism from some reviewers and reignites the debate of imagery versus storytelling.

July 07, 1998|JON BURLINGAME | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Despite its popularity with summer audiences, "Armageddon" has received some of the most blistering reviews of the year, many complaining about director Michael Bay's fast and furious editing style.

It's nothing new. Bay's previous film for producer Jerry Bruckheimer, "The Rock," was widely criticized as incomprehensible. But with a worldwide gross of $335 million, "The Rock" was also one of 1996's biggest hits.

With Disney's asteroid-disaster movie, which has grossed $54.2 million since its Wednesday opening (see box-office report, F4), the argument resurfaces. Variety's Todd McCarthy was among the most critical, denouncing the film as a "sensory pummeling" and Bay's cutting style as resembling "a machine gun stuck in the firing position for two and a half hours."

Bruckheimer, whose track record includes such MTV-influenced high-octane movies as "Top Gun," "Crimson Tide" and "Con Air," defends Bay (who was unavailable for this story). "He's a director who likes to use a lot of setups," he says. "A lot of times they're real interesting shots and he wants to get them all in. So in order to get all the setups in, you've got to make a lot of cuts."

Bruckheimer also cites the short attention span of younger filmgoers. "You have to give them something that moves along," he says. "If it's a scene where you want to convey a lot of kinetic energy, I think [the technique] is phenomenal. Cutting sometimes can convey an excitement."

Privately, many established filmmakers and longtime movie observers lament the success of these summer blockbusters as proof that audiences no longer care about traditional storytelling values, preferring the roller-coaster ride of films like "Armageddon."

Todd Boyd, professor in the School of Cinema-Television at USC, cites the impact of television and, more specifically, MTV, as the chief culprit. While such "traditional" films as "L.A. Confidential" are still being made, he points out that when it comes to the big summer blockbusters, story is no longer as important as it was back in the studio era.

"Many of the films we see today are not about story," he says. "They are about spectacle. The story is secondary to the style and look of the piece."

Bay's pre-movie background was in directing music videos and TV commercials. Boyd cites the influence of rock videos and the ever-growing importance of technology in the creation of entertainment essentially designed for young people.

"These movies are not geared for anyone other than an audience of children, and I mean that literally," says Boyd. "These are the individuals who will go to see a movie seven, eight, nine, 10 times. So the movies are geared toward their attention span, their imagination. They are the ones that bring in the big box-office dollars."

Film editors are divided about the trend. Paul Hirsch, who won an Oscar as one of the editors of "Star Wars" and is currently editing the remake of "Mighty Joe Young," points out that rapid cutting is nothing new, dating to "Bonnie and Clyde" and even "Citizen Kane."

"You have directors coming into the business who are trained in MTV, and that's how they feel stories are best told, in quick bursts," says Hirsch. "But I find that what usually is the most compelling to an audience is character and story. There are times when the emotion that a character is feeling requires some time to allow itself to be felt, in which case rapid cutting is antithetical to the emotion."

On the other hand, Hirsch notes, sometimes quick cuts are necessary to depict extraordinary events, "like asteroids crashing into the Earth. These are things that don't happen, but to create the illusion that they are happening, you may have to employ a lot of different angles."

How fast is too fast? "That's a very subjective kind of thing," Hirsch says. "Too fast is when you're confused about what has actually happened; you can't make out what you're seeing; if you lose interest in the movie."

According to Bruckheimer, the visual effects involved with "Armageddon" resulted in "a very rushed" post-production schedule that required multiple editors. "If the original editor put the rough cut together and was cutting another reel, another editor would work on the sequence. More than one editor cut just about every sequence."

To editor Paul Seydor ("White Men Can't Jump," "Tin Cup"), however, "you can't rush the experience of living with the story and learning--over a period of time and viewings and working with the material--how it flows most effectively."

Seydor, the author of "Peckinpah: The Western Films" and Oscar-nominated director of the documentary "The Wild Bunch: An Album in Montage," points out that in such Sam Peckinpah classics as "The Wild Bunch" and "The Getaway," the cuts are fast without sacrificing clarity because the sequences are "tied to character, structure and the overall meaning of the story."

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