Jump Cut: Godard and the New Wave

By: Ned Casey
By: Ned Casey

 

First came the shot. Then came the edit. At the start there were no edits. It was enough to see the world projected onto a screen. The magic of this phenomenon was enough to keep audiences riveted.“Look! A train pulling into a station!” “Oh my goodness! People walking along a boardwalk! How amazing!” But once the novelty wore off, audiences needed something more. That would be editing. Butting one shot up to another begs for some kind of interpretation. Our minds try to fashion some sense of it. A shot of a ball rolling down the street followed immediately by a shot of a cocktail party crowd might seem like a non-sequitur (I like peanut butter. Can you skate?). But we want it to make sense. We’ll wait to see if some kind of sense is forthcoming. If a character from the cocktail party walks into the street and the ball rolls by our patience is justified. Next we want to know how these events are connected and we might wait a little longer to find out.

 

 

The Lumiere brothers recorded a train pulling into the station at La Ciotat in 1895. The story (possibly apocryphal) goes that spectators fled the theater thinking the engine would mow them down. By 1927 editing helped convey the excitement of the chariot race in the first screen version of General Lew Wallace's epic, Ben Hur.  Audience members remained seated while silent film stars Francis X. Bushman and Ramon Navarro discussed a disagreement over lane violations.

 

It’s not unlike writing or telling a story. There are events, causality, actions and reactions. We have an expectation that the words “Once upon a time…”,  “Sing O muse…”, “It was a pleasure to burn…” or “Call me Ishmael” will lead to something that will make sense, will tell us a story. Classic Hollywood editing, often referred to as continuity editing, exists to help fulfill those expectations.

 

Editing for film and television makes use of rules in the way grammatical and style rules provide direction for sensible writing. All editors working within narrative genres learn the basic rules: the 30 degree rule, the 180 degree rule, eyeline matching, shot-reverse set-ups, learning to cut on action or motion. These rules conspire to create and maintain a space and time that seem to have an authenticity to them; that are believable to viewers. Directors and cinematographers construct scenes and shoot them with these rules in mind. If done well the machinery disappears. Disbelief is suspended and the audience is pulled into the scene. Film theorists often refer to this kind of editing as a suture system because it stitches the audience into the scene. We won’t review the ideological arguments surrounding this process except to say that it works. (If it didn't ideology wouldn't matter.) It creates a logical and believable world which, for the purposes of mainstream Hollywood (narrative) films, is what you want.

 

The jump cut changes all of that. The jump cut takes those rules and throws them out. In its early days it was the definition of defenestration. Cutting on action? Forget it. I’ll cut HERE (in the middle of a motion and then pick up long after the motion has been completed). The effect is disjointed, disorienting, jarring, and, when done well, exhilarating. The concept of jump cuts existed before Jean-Luc Godard began work on his first film, A Bout de Souffle (Breathless) in 1959 but it was typically counted as a mistake. What not to do. Godard uses it to jolt the viewer out of their continuity-induced coma. He’s making a point not only about the story he’s telling but about the process used to tell it.

 

 

Jean-Luc Godard. Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg on the streets of Paris. A Bout de Souffle (1960)

 

Like harmonic progressions in music which resolve “correctly”, certain film texts (traditionally edited narrative films) achieve a comfort level and sense of pleasure by fulfilling their promise of familiarity and delivering a certain level of phenomenological reality. This level can vary with the style of shooting and editing (long take vs. montage) but either of these general styles--if used in a mainstream manner and within the bounds of standard editing rules--will prove acceptable and comfortable when telling a story on screen.

 

It’s all about creating some kind of unity of time, space, and narrative development. We crave unity. Our brains are wired to fill in the blanks and complete the broken circle. Optical illusions prove this. We see things all the time that aren’t there because our brains convince us it’s so. For centuries sky watchers have found their way around the heavens by connecting stars into complex images. Cognitive scientist and psychologist Steven Pinker in his book The Language Instinct points out that humans listening to a telephone transmission drenched in static can understand what the person on the other end of line is saying. With only minimal information we can re-construct the sense of the message. Our brains with just a few auditory clues fill in what we don’t hear.

 

    

Optical illusions demonstrate the mind's proclivity for filling in the blanks. On the left in the grid illusion you see black dots at the intersection that aren't really there (don't you just hate that?). How many triangles can you count in the illustration in the center? Of course there are none. This is called the Kanizsa Triangle and is used by psychologists to illustrate gestalt theory which describes how we create wholes and patterns out of pieces of information.  Creating the detailed shape of a complex organism like a crab from a handful of random stars is just one of the many amazing feats of visual imagination achieved by our star gazing (and probably incredibly bored) ancestors.

 

Editors take advantage of our need for unity which helps us ignore the ellipses or gaps that take place in edited scenes. Two people are having a conversation, each person inhabits their own shot. This type of thing is often constructed in what’s called a shot-reverse. One shot followed by the reverse of that shot. For instance, a conversation cuts from one person to the other. We see person A in a shot and then cut to person B in the reverse shot.  This is not how we experience a conversation in the real world but we “get it”. If one of these individuals happens to look somewhere off camera we instinctively wonder what he or she is looking at and we expect that the editor will show us. That’s the rule. (This is called eyeline matching.) The next shot shows us someone or something across the room. Our brains make the leap for us. We get it. Editing rules, combined with our internal wiring organized to seek out unity and ignore ellipses (dropouts in space or time), are what make continuity editing so successful in imagining a realistic world on screen. Our expectations are raised up and nicely fulfilled.

 

But ignoring that desire for unity, for a limited whole, is not always a bad idea. British philosopher Iris Murdoch, writing about art and unity in her book Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals, suggests that the “defeat of presupposed expectations may also be pleasurable”. Thus, the surprise of a jump cut vitalizes even as it vitiates. It violates (or at the very least, questions our assumptions about) the standard function of the edit. But it has the power of revitalizing and kick-starting our pleasure responses to cinematic storytelling by jarring our sensibilities and forcing us to confront what exactly is happening up on that screen. It isn’t, after all, reality. It’s Godard saying “Hey people, this is a MOVIE”. Although Murdoch writes primarily about the role of art and our relation to it as both critics and consumers, the thread of her thought can be tied to the style of narration chosen by Godard and the way in which his aggressive editing decisions push the viewer into a place demanding something more than passive engagement.

 

 

Irish-born British novelist and philosopher Iris Murdoch. As a novelist interested in the artistic process Murdoch was uniquely qualified to delve into the function of narrative and the ways in which cultures define themselves by how they use art. Godard checks a shot through the viewfinder of his 16MM Beaulieu.

 

The brash confidence of the French New Wave makes the stylistic changes they introduced seem unavoidable. Perhaps it was not inevitable that a change was coming but the form it took was never predetermined. Demythologisation however, breaking down a system to see how and why it worked and diminishing its ideological power, was a favorite past-time in certain late 50s continental circles practiced by the likes of Jacques Derrida and Roland Barthes and the jump cut was just what the docteur ordered. Pull it apart and see how it does what it does. And then question how it affects the way we interpret the world. It sounds awfully high falutin’ for a simple edit but the stakes were high in 1959 and the times they were a-changin’.

 

   

The French New Wave crested at a time of philosophical upheaval in France. Jacques Derrida, Roland Barthes (center), and Michel Foucault (right) were in the vanguard of the structuralist-semiotic-deconstruction movements. Much of their work sought to look under the hood, as it were, at the processes that underly the way we look at the world, and how meaning is derived from aspects of our culture that we take for granted.

 

There have been a number of competing theories as to the origin of Godard’s use of jump cuts in A Bout de Souffle. Some claim he was trying to sabotage the film for personal reasons. Others, that he didn’t have enough film stock. The reasons don’t much matter. What matters is the affect on the viewer. Those who saw the film when it was released in 1960 certainly took notice. The estimable Bosley Crowther, New York Times film critic, suggested that those easily shocked should stay away. He described Godard’s style as “pictorial cacophony”. Unfortunately it’s nearly impossible to recover the impressions of first viewings years after the fact, especially since the jump cut is no longer new and exciting. It has become one of many hoary editing effects used to summon an edginess that too often now feels canned and pre-fabbed.

 

But isn’t this the fate of artistic innovation? Late 19th century Impressionist painters were denied access to the Academie by members who considered their work degenerate (a much favored slur for assaults on any ancien-regime). But the paint on Claude Monet’s famous water lilies was barely dry before Picasso unleashed Les Demoiselles D’Avignon and shattered Impressionism into Cubist shards. The Beatles’ work was derided 30 years after their first appearance on Ed Sullivan as elevator music by REM’s Michael Stipe (by the way, where is REM today?). Louis Armstrong’s electrifying brand of jazz was considered hopelessly un-hip—even a bit Uncle Tommish--by Be-Bop cats. But Be-Bop today sounds ready for a minivan commercial, our ears having long ago accommodated its vertiginous virtuosity.

 

  

Jean-Leon Gerome's paintings (left) were standard fare in French Academie salons before being inundated by Impressionism, represented by Monet's water lilies (center). Impressionism in its turn was exploded by Picasso's Demoiselles D'Avignon. Picasso's cubist masterpiece was painted the same year as this version of Monet's water lilies, 1907. Avant-garde movements disappear as soon as they are no longer avant.

 

 

The Beatles' work was casually dismissed as "elevator music" by the great artiste Michael Stipe thirty years after they stunned America on the Ed Sullivan show. The young Louis Armstrong, arguably the single most important figure in early jazz was considered old hat by the time Charlie Parker (right) picked up his famous alto sax and propelled Be-Bop into Birdland, the eponymous New York City jazz club.

 

We can never recapture the feeling of hearing a piece of music for the first time, relive our first love or regain the shock of the new. The French New Wave, expanding outward from the epicenter of Godard’s jump cuts, guerilla filmmaking and breezy approach to a form of cinema that revered Hollywood iconography but disdained its rules, would suffer a similar fate once its ride was over but not until it blew a few holes in the status quo. It was moviemaking for a younger, hipper, more self-aware generation; ironic without being too detached (staccato but also appassionato). Tolstoy declared that each generation must destroy all previous art and start again, staking out their own aesthetic claims. The Nouvelle Vague (New Wave) directors,  Francois Truffaut, Alain Resnais, Eric Rohmer, Claude Chabrol, had too much love and respect for the milestones of American cinema to eviscerate it but they had no problem making their own mark by questioning the ruling structures of film narrative. Godard was there at the birth.

 

   

Claude Chabrol, Francois Truffaut, and Alain Resnais. Charter members of the French New Wave. Resnais must have forgotten his cigarettes that day.

 

The French New Wave erupted out of the theories and precepts promoted by Cahiers du Cinema (Film Notebooks), a film magazine founded by, among others, influential film critic Andre Bazin whose theoretical writings, notably Qu’est-ce que le Cinema? (What is Cinema?) can still be profitably read by even a casual student of film. The movement prized a highly personal style of film writing and editing that upended the standard narrative styles of traditional Hollywood films, especially the use of montage editing. The New Wave directors and the Cahiers writers, although critical of some stylistic rules of Hollywood films had a great admiration for and knowledge of American film. Directors like John Ford and Alfred Hitchcock ranked high in their pantheon of auteur directors (directors who took complete control of the creation of their films—who were the Authors of their films).

 

   

The first edition of the influential and legendary film journal Cahiers du Cinema features a cover photo of Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard. Cahiers was the breeding ground for many New Wave directors. Eminence grise of Cahiers was Andre Bazin whose book Qu'est-ce que le Cinema? (center) established new benchmarks for film criticism. The Cahiers writers emphasized the works of American directors they considered especially influential auteurs. One in particular was the brilliant but curmudgeonly John Ford, shown here kicking back on the set of The Horse Soldiers (1959).

 

Francois Truffaut, one of the New Wave founders, published a series of lengthy interviews with Alfred Hitchcock in which the Master of Suspense dissects many of his greatest films. It’s a treasure trove for any fan of Hitchcock. Jean-Luc Godard, writing about American director Nicholas Ray, claimed that "Le Cinema, c'est Nicholas Ray", an indication of his appreciation for Ray's work. (the reason for such admiration becomes clearer when one recalls how Ray played with standard storylines and hollywood conventions, turning them inside out. Has there ever been a stranger western than Johnny Guitar? Or an odder love story than In a Lonely Place?) Godard also dedicated A Bout de Souffle to the small American studio Monogram Pictures. He wanted to show that, like Monogram, he could make a picture “that was both interesting and cheap”. Godard spent about $120,000 making that film. That same year Stanley Kubrick spent $12 million shooting Spartacus.

 

  

Joan Crawford, eyebrows and rictus firmly in place, plays Vienna, a pistol-packin' momma in Nicholas Ray's take on the western in Johnny Guitar (1954). Gloria Grahame really, really, really hopes that new beau Humphrey Bogart didn't kill his last girlfriend in Ray's In a Lonely Place (1950). Ray was a great favorite of New Wave directors Godard and Truffaut.

 

From whence comes artistic innovation? Did Godard’s use of jump cuts arise from a lack of film stock as some claim? Was it a response to technical limitations? If any of these theories are even partly true it wouldn’t be the first time an artist made more with less. Seventeenth century German composer Heinrich Schutz began his career as an acolyte of the great Italian polyphonic master Giovanni Gabrielli. His work was dense, sonically rich and filled with multiple interwoven lines and shifting harmonies. His late period compositions are notable for their stark simplicity and ascetic purity. Why the change? Perhaps Schutz had some kind of aesthetic epiphany. Or maybe the fact that his later work was written during the Thirty Years War played a role. Not only were musicians (and musicians-to-be) routinely slaughtered in vicious, unending rounds of battles, but raw materials, especially wood, were at a premium. No wood, no instruments. And even if you had the instruments you only had a handful of musicians around to play them. Sounds like a good time to strip down the composition style. Or maybe it was a combination of both.

 

   

German composer Heinrich Schutz drastically scaled back his early composition style perhaps with the realization that the bloody havoc wreaked by the Thirty Years War (1618-1648) left him no choice. Pragmatic considerations have now and again called upon artists to improvise

 

There is no clear way to answer these questions or any answer that is entirely satisfactory. Iris Murdoch suggests that many artists, like animals who can sense the coming of natural upheavals, pick up on subtle signals in the Zeitgeist, the general culture, and can turn their work to ride and even abet these cultural earthquakes. Godard’s work in the 60s benefited from and most certainly influenced the artistic, social and political changes of that time. Today we see remnants of the New Wave in mainstream commercials, television and films, a kind of cinematic cosmic background radiation still ringing from the Big Bang of the 60s. Shows like Homicide: Life on the Street, The Shield, and films like Scorsese’s Goodfellas and the Jason Bourne series make use of jump cuts all the time to give these works an edgy, staccato feel. Nobody flinches anymore though. No one blinks and asks “Hey….what just happened?” The use of jump cuts as a tool for deconstructing the film process is long past. It lives on as a stylistic choice.

 

 

Director Martin Scorsese used jump cuts in Goodfellas (1990) to convey the psychological mayhem surrounding paranoia-infected mobsters. Jump cuts appear on television all the time especially in action shows like The Shield. Vic Mackey and crew (right) look like they're getting ready to do a little jump-cutting of their own. What began as a device for deconstructing film processes has been downgraded to a stylistic choice.

 

Many of those old rules are broken regularly. Stephen King in his book Danse Macabre recounts a moment of some embarrassment as a rookie director. He was directing Maximum Overdrive,  based on his short story Trucks, when he asked the crew to shoot an action in a scene from a different angle. The crew shuffled their feet and looked sideways at each other, not wanting to embarrass the writer. Finally the director of photography took him aside and told him about the 180 degree rule. This rule holds that action taking place in an arc of 180 degrees from the position of the viewer should stay on that side of the 360 degree circle. In other words, flipping the camera to the other side of the circle would make it difficult for the viewer to figure out where the action is headed. The action is going right to left and suddenly everything moves in the opposite direction. It just isn’t done. Well, okay, WASN’T done. That was 1986. Today there isn’t an action picture around that doesn’t break that rule at least seven times in the first five minutes. So much for spatial logic. That rule is trashed mostly in the name of all-out, psycho action. Who cares where the action is coming from or where it’s going? It’s more fun to freak out the audience. Stick them in a box, shake ‘em up and roll “em out. And sometimes that works. But when you watch a beautifully staged and executed action scene like the ten minute car chase in the unfairly forgotten gangster thriller The Seven Ups, you can appreciate the dramatic benefits of some of these rules. The point here is not that rules shouldn’t be broken. Break ‘em all you want as long as it serves the work.

 

  

Master of Horror, Stephen King, learned about the rules of editing during his initial foray into film directing. The benefits of editing rules, especially those created for maintaining spatial continuity and topographical logic, are displayed in the amazing car chase sequence of The Seven Ups (1973). The crew prepares a closeup of Roy Scheider inside his Pontiac Ventura (center). The great Bill Hickman (right) drove the car Scheider chases. Hickman was the stunt and driving coordinator for three of the greatest car chases in film history: The Seven Ups, The French Connection (1971), and the grandaddy of all chase movies, Bullitt (1968). He drove the black Charger pursued by Steve McQueen through the hills of San Francisco.

 

Godard understood that. The jump cuts in A Bout de Souffle give that movie such a fast-forward, kinetic thrust that you really do feel breathless at some moments. He uses it sparingly but when he needs it he pours it on. Jean-Paul Belmondo races out of Paris in a stolen car and the jump cuts perfectly convey his going-to-hell-as-fast-as-possible personality. You can see him being sucked into the void. His jump cut conversations with Jean Seberg illuminate their distorted and unbalanced relationship. The bedroom conversation jump cuts give those scenes a walking-the-tightrope-blindfolded feel. It’s exciting and dangerous.

 

Godard employed other means of demythologizing his work, of breaking down the wall between the film and its viewers—its consumers. His characters address the audience directly and printed or written words sometimes appear onscreen for emphasis. He was expanding film’s visual and psychological vocabulary. Because he began by writing about film for Cahiers he punctuates his work with arch and sometimes arcane references to other films, genres or actors. In A Bout de Souffle, the Belmondo character idolizes Bogart. He rubs his thumb across his lower lip, a small-time Parisian hoodlum trying to channel the spirit of Bogart. But what we also see is Godard using an actor, Belmondo, playing a character who pays homage to not just the man Humphrey Bogart, but to his film persona; to the body of his work. In the final shot of the film Jean Seberg, standing over the hoodlum’s body, enacts the same gesture--the thumb across the lips--while looking straight into the camera. This shot raises as many questions as it answers. Such referential elements operate on multiple levels and so provide the viewer with layers of interest and meaning. Sure it’s an exercise in irony but it avoids crass kitschiness because one can sense the respect that underlies the homage. Admiration wrapped in cool self-awareness.

 

    

Jean-Paul Belmondo as Michel in A Bout de Souffle seeks to embrace the tough guy mystique of Humphrey Bogart. Interestingly, although Michel is a slimy, two-bit hood, many of the gangsters portrayed by Bogart in his early days at Warner Brothers were not much better. This, of course, was before films like Casablanca and the Maltese Falcon solidified his "Bogie" persona. Godard and his cinematographer Raoul Coutard (right) shooting a scene for A Bout de Souffle at Orly airport in Paris. Coutard worked on a number of Godard films as well as Francois Truffaut's Jules et Jim (1962).

 

Film history seems at times to follow a nice straight linear progression. The film process is invented, sound is added, color comes along, it tells us stories, it engages us as an entertainment and as it matures it accommodates more challenging topics. The screen gets wider and the pictures get bigger even as the cameras get smaller and then we get people like Godard and Truffaut who pick up the baton and move the whole process along. Nice and neat. But as with any history, there is hardly anything linear about it at all. Thomas Kuhn’s groundbreaking work on the history of science The Structure of Scientific Revolutions points out the unpredictability underlying any progression. There are no straight lines leading from point to point. As concepts and ideas and the culture change, new ways of thinking become possible, ways not foreseeable. These changes take the entire enterprise in new and dramatically different directions. Kuhn called these transformations paradigm shifts. And that’s what the French New Wave ultimately became. It didn’t last long, perhaps 1959 to the late 60s but the new paradigm presented younger directors and actors with new ways to represent the world. The shift in their worldview broke from the past without completely rejecting what it offered them. They expanded what film could be used for and that’s perhaps the biggest jump cut of all.

 

Postscript

Thanks to Alan from Bowling Green for his suggestion to look at the New Wave. If you haven't had a chance to see any of these films, do look for them. How often do you get a chance to see a paradigm in mid-shift?

 

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