1 Examine how editing constructs time and space in any ONE film we

1. “Examine how editing constructs time and space in any ONE film we have studied during this module.”

Editing is what makes cinema an art form. The cinematic medium enables storytelling by juxtaposing two images to create an emotion, hence a reaction from the spectator. Andre Tarkovsky once wrote1 that every cut in editing is “sculpting time” in that it enables the filmmaker to compress time and expand time, fitting several years into 60 minutes, for example. It is a language that aims to be understood by the spectator, as with only a single cut, the spectator is transported to another dimension, another time zone.

In Inception, time and space are controlled very particularly through numerous devices and editorial techniques as different worlds, dreams, and atmospheres are created in parallel. The purpose of editing is to assemble different camera shots in order to create specific atmospheres and emotions. The quote2 from the playwright and novelist Jean Genet, “ideas don’t interest me so much as the shape of ideas does” is representative of the intentions behind editing, as the attention is mainly focused on assembling camera shots in order to create not only logical story lines but interesting ones as well.

Christopher Nolan uses camera shots, lighting, music and special effects in order to construct time and space in his movie Inception. We will examine this through two major sequences in the film where the editing is particularly creative and impactful.

The film Inception tells the story of an “extraction team” that works with the subconscious.

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The team, composed mainly of Cobb, Arthur, and the architect, has a mission to implant an idea into Mr. Fisher’s subconscious by entering his dreams. However, as the story unfolds the dream worlds add up, making the team enter into dream worlds within dreams, which rapidly manages to confuse the spectator. This confusion is due to an excessive amount of information that accumulates as the plot thickens. Cobb often asks the subjects to try and remember how they got into the situations they are in, and as the characters take a step back to think, the director makes a point of shifting the music to let the spectators realize that they don’t really know either. At that point, the audience starts paying attention to what the previous scenes and cuts were, until it is clear that they have been transported to a different world. This subtle surprise effect is repeated several times along the course of the movie by distracting the spectator with background images or dialogue.

The First Sequence: Inception and The French Caf? Scene

The first sequence that will be examined takes place in a caf? in Paris. (which starts at minute 26.) In this scene, Cobb, the project manager, introduces the architect to the idea of shared dreaming, and the possibility of creating and building an artificial world. The scene starts with a man arranging equipment as Cobb’s voice is heard in the background explaining theories to the architect. The first shot of them is a medium shot focused on the two main actors sitting in a cafe in the street in Paris. As the actor explains his concept, the shot goes from his face to the paper he is writing on, then alternates between the two people. He explains they are currently in a dream, taking her by surprise. The audience sees her realizing the situation, the camera very slowly, subtlety zooms in closer on her face, creating a sense of claustrophobia and anguish. Then the camera cuts to a wide shot of the two of them, but only for a brief three seconds before returning to a close up of her face. The contrast between the open space of the street and the return to her face – seemingly trapped in the frame – makes the spectators sit on the edge of their seats, waiting for her to panic.

Nolan uses visual effects in this scene in order to draw the spectators in and intrigue them.

At this point in the sequence, the audience realizes that the focus has mainly been on what the man was explaining, rather than the atmosphere around the characters. As with large-budget projects in the film industry, it can be said that music plays a major role in creating an atmosphere. This was extremely important as Nolan points out: “Let the music take over everything …the momentum of the film is entirely defined by the structured of music.”3

The theme song4 is playing, making what Cobb is saying seem even more critical. The music then changes from the theme song to more stressful, sharper notes. As the woman starts to lose control the sounds of chairs moving, glasses and coffee cups clinking are heard, as if suddenly bringing the spectator back to the atmosphere of the street. The music stops as he tells her to stay calm, and a close up on the cafe cup shaking as she panics starts to make the scene veer away from a dream and closer to a nightmare. A wide shot of the street gives the audience a split-second image of the skylight, changing the lighting before the stores start to literally explode around them. At this point, the dream world becomes real to the audience, as our senses and logic lose their grounding in reality. The editing makes it seem like the explosions are in slow motion, while the people move at a normal speed, nobody seems to notice the explosions as the waiters keep serving, enhancing the dream atmosphere where the impossible becomes possible. As the explosions go off all around them, the characters, as well as the spectator, don’t move, while the architect starts realizing how real this all seems. From a close-up on her face showing the broken glass and flying papers flying behind her, the shot cuts to a street angle showing them in the middle of the explosions as dramatic new music starts. These explosions were shot on set, firing air and paper and were later electronically enhanced to add intensity and danger to the scene so that the actors would not be put in danger by actual flying objects. Then, in a fraction of a second, the speed of the explosions returns to normal, interrupts her question and knocks her out of her seat and into the next shot. The fact that the montage interrupts her mid-sentence and that the sound of the exploding glass suddenly stops makes the scene transition even more aggressive. The transition is further strengthened by the ending of the sequence which uses a jump-cut to take the spectator out of the dream world and into a new space with an extreme close-up of her eyes opening.

As the film goes on, flashbacks between different dream worlds and different present realities recur with more frequency. The shots go back and forward between several time zones and situations that gradually fill in the intentional plot holes. This, for instance, is the case in the second sequence that will be examined.

The Second Sequence: Inception and Hotel Corridors

The second sequence is the one of the fight in hotel corridors which starts at minute 1:28:45. In this sequence, the audience has followed the characters into multiple realms and through the several cross-cuts. The director pulls spectators back and forth between dream worlds created by the character’s subconscious. They are thus traveling, in “a dream within a dream,” as the characters like to say.

In the second dimension, the team is fleeing dangerous guards in a moving van as the driver is repeatedly attacked. The team in the back of the van have been heavily sedated and have entered the “third dimension” together. The moving van hitting against walls creates gravity shifts in the third world, which exists within a hotel. At this point, some of the characters have already entered a “fourth world”, which means the audience is already traveling through a new dimension and struggling to keep up with these new places and time zones. In this sequence one of the men (Arthur) is fighting in a hotel room and being thrown around due to the second-dimension turbulence. He and the security guard are fighting and have to run on the ceiling due to the shift in gravity. In order to create the gravity effect, Nolan decided to use a rotating set so that as the set rotated the actors did too. This effect is often done later digitally in the editing rooms but here was done directly on set while filming. Adding to camera’s point of view swirling around hotel corridors, the editing goes back and forth between the different dimensions, intentionally confusing the audience’s senses.

In the hotel dimension, several close-ups of a gun sliding back and forth across the carpet due to gravity enhances the tension and danger within the scene. The camera also moves along with the actors during the hotel fight scenes or shoots the actors fighting at a 45-degree angle5, sometimes cutting the heads or hands of the actors from the frame which draws the audience into the scene, making spectators feel like they are part of the worlds and the action happening within them, standing in the middle of the room alongside the actors trying to avoid being hit.

Every time the van tilts in the second dimension the speed changes to slow-motion which shows the contrast between the second and third worlds and gives the spectator an entirely new perspective on the timing of the actions. Using parallel editing, the camera continuously cuts back and forth between both fight scenes, which also highlights the differences in lighting. The hotel is artificially lit yet the tone is warm, as the characters are in an inside setting. The second dimension’s lighting is colder as the van is speeding on a highway in the rain. Along with the lighting, the colour visually helps the spectator keep up with the very quick crosscut shots being thrown back and forth between dimensions; one is in the beige, orange tones and the other is in the grey and black tones.

Though the camera shots add to the construction of time and space, one of the most important details in the sequence is the music as it steadily adapts to the different actions. When the shift in gravity occurs at the same time as the shift to slow motion in another world, the musical notes lengthen, making the movements seem heavier, slower, and more impressive. Thus, the music increases the audience’s anguish. When the van gets pushed off the road, the driver’s screams are enhanced by the silence. Showing the difference between the van driver’s screams and the sleeping people in the back of his vehicle was a very intelligent way of raising the audience’s anguish to an even higher level as the contrast is frightening. During the sequence, not a word is spoken, all that can be heard is the sound of the crashes and screams. As the sequence comes to its end and the van is rolling on the side of the highway, the music slows down and the notes become more spaced out. When the van finally hits the post and stops sliding so does the fight in the other dimension. The sequence, as well as the music, ends with a gunshot from Arthur killing his opponent. By ending the music and the sequence at the same time, Nolan takes control over the viewer’s concept of time.

In conclusion, Inception is known for its special representation and invention of different spaces and timing using technology and artificial effects which exaggerate elements on the physical set. Nolan constantly blurs the line between reality and dreams with the intention of leaving the audience with endless possible alternatives to reality. The ambiguity is always precisely placed and constructed, and the director has purposefully never answered the clarifying questions. Throughout his different cuts, he drowns the spectator’s eye with knowledge and details so that there could be no possible way of grasping every element. Clues are constantly hidden like Easter eggs. The very specific style of editing used in the film is aimed at allowing the audience to understand what the characters are going through ( all people know what being in a dream feels like) as well as keeping them slightly confused and open to any surreal plot twist as happen often in a dream.6 Through his particular choices of shots, lighting, music and special effects Nolan manages to constructs unique, and unforgettable, alternative worlds.

Footnotes :

1 Quote from the cover of the book written by Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky.

2 “How to Read a Film”, chapter on form.

3 Quote from the director Christopher Nolan found in the making-of short movie.

4 Written by Hans Zimmer, then later electronically enhanced.

5 45-degree angle looking up to the character, changing from the classical long-shots

6 Idea pointed out in “The Cinema of Christopher Nolan: Imagining the Impossible.”

Bibliography :

Tarkovsky, A. (1986). Sculpting in Time: Reflections on the Cinema, trans. Kitty Hunter-Blair (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1987), 179.

Furby, J., & Joy, S. (Eds.). 2015.. The Cinema of Christopher Nolan: Imagining the Impossible. Columbia University Press.

James Monaco, How to Read a Film: Movies, Media, and Beyond. Oxford University Press, USA, 8 May 2009

New York Film Academy, Student Resources : Glossary of Film Terms

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1 Examine how editing constructs time and space in any ONE film we
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