Dede Allen died Saturday.
There’s something about editors, something mystical. Maybe it has to do with their openness.
I always wished, back in my film school days, that I had more patience in the editing room; that I could allow that period of not-knowing to linger, and that I could get comfortable with the idea experimentation. My problem was, I always wanted it done. But the editors I saw were different – they relished incompleteness. They loved swimming around in the possibilities, and like Zen masters, always managed to muster more openness for more possibilities.
Dede Allen must have been like that. To come up with some of those moves in The Hustler and Bonnie Clyde, she surely submitted herself to not-knowingness. Her best work turned on the idea of surprise, so it isn’t too much of a leap to think she probably surprised herself all day long in the editing room.
The thing about Bonnie and Clyde is that it’s playful without being frivolous. Unlike the French New Wave directors, from whose films Dede Allen was said to have taken inspiration, Bonnie and Clyde never flaunts its technique. Even in the famous shootout sequence – which unfolds over and over, from all sides, like a cubist death dance – we are never spoon-fed bright ideas. Never once do we think of Allen and her assistant (Jerry Greenberg) laboring over a Moviola, trying and re-trying, as they surely must have to get to where they did.
Look at Allen’s work in The Hustler. Ebert wrote that her editing “implies the trance-like rhythm of the players. Her editing ‘tells’ the games so completely that if we don’t understand pool, we forget that we don’t.” In that sense Allen was a translator; she used film to elucidate sensations that we would never understand otherwise. Their experiences repackaged for our comprehension. Simply, this is Expressionism on film.
But today’s Hollywood endeavors less to express than record. Where editors were once responsible for testing uncharted visual languages, for exploring new means of evocation, I fear they are now urged to step back, and subordinate their imaginations to the literal-minded hunger for rigorous, rational objectivity. Thus the inevitable “and then and then and then” quality that weighs down most mainstream American films. These pictures do not set out to show the invisible, as Dede Allen did. They merely show the surface and move onto the next shot, the way a court reporter writes down only what is said and nothing more. Establishing shot, wide shot, medium shot, over the shoulder, over the shoulder, close-up, close-up: This is not always the formula for human experience, this is Hollywood caught in its own gears. A screenwriter’s dream, maybe, but a cineaste’s nightmare.
As always there are exceptions, but by and large, Dede Allen’s acolytes – and there are many, thank God – are losing their voice. It makes the loss of Dede herself that much sadder. She probably tried everything.