February 26, 2008
Another Oscar Travesty
For a second time the Academy has seen fit to rob venerable film editor Roderick Jaynes of his just reward. Nominated for his editing work on No Country for Old Men, a film which, as Mr William Crystal might have said, apparently edited itself, Mr Jaynes was again denied an opportunity to be recognised, however orthogonally, for his contribution to the cinematic arts and to share with an industry audience some part of his accumulated understanding of their craft, perhaps helping to arrest, if only temporarily, its continuing decline.
In this spirit I extract in its entirety Mr Jaynes' introduction to the published screenplays of Miller's Crossing and Barton Fink in which he recounts how he came to work with the brothers, and explains in some detail his filmic philosophy. It will hopefully be illuminating.
When Joel and Ethan Coen first approached me in the autumn of 1983 to cut Blood Simple, it had been almost thirty years since I had last worked in film. That was on a largely forgettable entertainment called The Mad Weekend with Alistair Sim and Basil Radford and directed by Geoffrey Milestone. Geoff was a small man both in stature and talent and was known, rather uncharitably, both at Ealing and at Rank, as "the wee McKendrick." Still, he seemed pleased enough with my work and introduced me to a friend of his, the American director George Marshall, who was about to begin shooting Beyond Mombassa.As the book in which this essay appears is now, unsurprisingly, out of print, I would hope Mr Jaynes has no objection to my reprinting it here. Second-hand copies of the scripts are available from most reputable on-line book traders should you wish to own Mr Jaynes' thoughts in a more concrete form - or to peruse the screenplays themselves, the full versions of which are often a useful
At George's suggestion I moved to New York, took an apartment, and worked for less than a week on the picture before Marshall decided that my cutting was "too damned Prussian" and replaced me with Jack Tuttle. Due to a union rule my name remained on the film while Jack went on to make a mess of things; he was a dear man but no editor, and this brings me back to the Coens. They were huge fans of Beyond Mombassa and wanted me to cut their first picture. I explained my involvement in the Marshall film and didn't hear from them again for several weeks, when Ethan called to inform me that Jack Tuttle had passed away in 1962 whilst cutting another Coen favorite, Operation Fort Petticoat. The boys glumly reiterated their offer.
I decided to accept, with mixed feelings due to the circumstances, and under two conditions: that I be left alone in the cutting room, and that I not be asked to read the script before starting in cutting. Since, throughout my career, this second condition has been the subject of some contention, I shall try to explain it here.
I've never thought much of the motion picture scenario. It has its uses, I suppose, as a rough sort of guide to the actual shooting of a movie - and of course the thesps need a vade mecum from which to memorize their lines. But beyond this, the utility or interest of a motion picture script seems nil. It is not a literary artifact, not having been written for publication and therefore never attracting the grade of author who would merit it. Scenarists are inevitably amateurs, boobies, and hacks. Their scripts are invariably shoddily bound and shot right through with errors of spelling and punctuation - not to speak of the lapses of taste. At best the scriptwriter is a student of writing rather than a writer per se; he is like a child scraping away at his scales on the violin. No sensible person would listen to this grating chatter by election, and I am far too old to feign enthusiam for such recitals. As for whatever information is required for film editing, the script contains no more than the footage itself - less, in fact. The footage will sort itself out for the discerning editor, and those of us who understand the art of the image juxtaposed need not concern ourselves with the original intent of the chap - frequently a nephew of the producer - whose scribblings give us, at many times remove, our raw material. No, it is the organization of moving images that is the very art of cinema, and true authorship resides in the hand that wields not the pen, but the razor.
Given a free hand on Blood Simple, I was rather proud of my first cut, but when I screened it for the lads they responded to the action scenes with silence and to the dramatic scenes with their alarming asthmatic laughter. They took the picture away and, along with a friend of theirs named Don Wiegmann, made rather a mess of things I'm afraid, but due to union rules my name remains on the picture.
I didn't hear from them after the screening and had to see the finished film two years later at the local cine in Hove, so I was surprised to get the call to cut their second effort, Raising Arizona. It was from Joel this time, who went to great - one might say sickening - lengths to assure me that they had got on with me personally and respected me professionally, but this time their offer was conditional on my reading their script before commencing work. The script might give me, Joel said, a fix on which characters were central and which peripheral, and a firmer grasp of the order of the individual scenes. Michael Balcon had given me much the same speech before booting me off The Bells of Rhymney's and it had sounded no more persuasive then. So once again an opportunity foundered upon this point which I still considered a matter of principle; I turned down the lads' offer and also their next, for Miller's Crossing, which bore the same condition. No regrets.
I must say, however, that in watching that picture I was struck that the lads had matured somewhat. There was less of the bellowing and rum carryings-on that had so branded Raising Arizona the work of amateurs; the actors had been issued proper suits, the settings had been designed with a measure of restraint, and the characters spoke in a normal tone of voice and were sensibly covered in medium shots instead of the leering close-ups I had been given on Blood Simple. There were even frequent over-the-shoulder shots. I like an over-the-shoulder; it lets you know that the other fellow is still in the room and hasn't wandered off to do God knows what. Yes, all told the lads' third picture seemed a step up, if from an abysm.
I'm not sure why the Coens called me on their fourth picture, Barton Fink; our last conversation had ended with sharp words on both sides. At any rate, they were still asking me to work on condition of reading the script, which was still an impossibility; at this juncture, however, I made the concession of allowing them to tell me the story of the picture before I started work. This left them satisfied if not pleased, and they proceeded to narrate a tale which, to my mind, seemed crushingly tedious. I kept my impressions to myself though, as I attach little importance to scenario, and agreed to do the job, the more since I learned that their cinematographer would be Roger Deakins. Deakins I knew to be an able chap of good family in Chiswick (I had the good fortune to be acquainted with his gran) and I assumed that under his steadying hand the Coens would carry on with restraint.
T'would not be so. The footage I was given marked a return to the Borstal sensibility of the boys' earlier efforts - entire scenes covered without a proper camera angle, tattiness of setting and wardrobe, and actors once again encouraged to bellow and banshee. I made what sense I could of the footage, of which more later, but the strange sequel to my relationship with the Coens was that they asked me to write this introduction to the published scripts of Miller's Crossing and Barton Fink. I accepted only when they agreed not to review my remarks prior to their publication here. This I demanded on suspicion that they were soliciting my thoughts merely because they found it amusing to have their scenarios introduced by someone who had never read them, and if such were the case, I intended to disappoint them. For I then judged it a matter of principle to read the scripts, it being absurd to comment upon them otherwise, however banal I might precognosce them to be. Upon dancing through the two scenarios, though, I was surprised to discover something of interest.
Certainly neither manuscript caused me to revise my low opinion of the scriptwriting form. However, what is odd and even unique in the case of the Coens' scripts is that, inept though they may be, in my judgment they prove superior to the films based upon them. The malformed thoughts contained in the scripts that follow are at least here intercepted prior to their being mucked about by the silliness of the Coens' camera work. The Miller's Crossing scenario, whilst unable to propose concrete solutions to the problems of mobsterism and the bootlegging of alcohol in the 1920s, at least raises those challenging issues. And Barton Fink contains clever insights on certain artistical and Semitic themes. Pity that these somewhat promising beginnings should be so brutally strangled by their own parents. And by, I might add, the palsied hand of the film editor.
But I did not complete my account of my work on Barton Fink. At the outset the Coens were once again as good as their word, leaving me alone to impose what order I could on their unruly footage. But when I showed them my first cut, the screening ended in silence, and finally all they could find to say was that they'd been hoping for an editing style more along the lines of Beyond Mombassa. I gritted my teeth and explained to them - again - the nature of my involvement in that film. Perhaps my irritation showed; I am a film editor, after all, and not a diplomat or nuncio. At any rate, after the picture was taken away the Coens fiddled it with a friend of theirs, Michael Berenbaum. Perhaps the lads just wanted a bit more of the Hebrew point of view. I myself don't care for what they've done, and don't recognize much of my own in the picture now, save for my name in the credits - the good old rules and regs.
Hayward's Heath, Sussex
indication of the efforts film-makers go to in constructing scenes on the page, and often on film, before realising they needn't have bothered.
If you also wish to read Mr Jaynes' recounting of his attempts to assist the Coens during their difficulties in determining a title for The Man Who Wasn't There, you may access it here, courtesy of The Grauniad. I suspect this is the introduction for the published script of that film, and a hard copy should be easily available to those of you who enjoy whiling away an hour or two rummaging through remaindered bins.