Film acting is a difficult craft to judge. Actually, most film crafts are difficult to judge because they’re not usually very transparent. When you go to see live theater acting, you are certain you’re watching the extent of an actor’s performance. You’re directly witnessing their abilities. When you’re watching a film, however, you’re seeing the compilation of selected takes and a chopped-up performance. It’s more likely that a film director can get a good performance from an actor by perfecting every brief segment given in each brief shot and then constructing one out of those building blocks.
Typically I look at a film’s editing when judging its acting merits. Choppier films can seem an overcompensation for weaker acting talent, while long shots are more akin to theater and require strong actors to hold those uninterrupted scenes. A perfect example of the latter this year is Birdman, which is made to look like it’s almost entirely done in a single take. A perfect example of the former, one would think, should be Wild, as it seems to feature the most cuts in a Hollywood release this year outside of Transformers: Age of Extinction. Yet both the editing and acting in Wild are excellent, the first even better than the second. So why is Reese Witherspoon garnering all of the attention and buzz while editors Martin Pensa and “John Mac McMurphy” (director Jean-Marc Vallee’s pseudonym) are going ignored?
There are two ideas of film editing that are typically noted when awards season comes along and people voting on things need to be experts on crafts they’re not experts on. One is that the best editing isn’t easily recalled for recognition because good editing goes, and ought to go, unnoticed. Sure, there are instances where clever editing draws more attention to itself (see this year’s Oculus) but mostly films should flow seemingly seamlessly. The other is that a film’s structure is the same as editing, even if it’s the screenwriter who is truly responsible. Not to put down the late Sally Menke, but Pulp Fiction’s Oscar nomination for editing is widely accepted as being due to the film’s unconventional narrative scheme.
We shouldn’t forget about a method of editing that we don’t see a lot of with mainstream movies: Soviet montage, specifically the Kuleshov Effect. Through the latter, an editor can create a performance through the juxtaposition of shots. A close-up of a person’s face next to a shot of a bowl of soup or dead girl or beautiful woman can make that person appear to be performing expressions of hunger, sadness or lust. Wild does it with the juxtaposition of Witherspoon walking on the Pacific Crest Trail in the present and flashbacks of her times with her mother or her experiences with drugs or something else from her past. We rarely get a shot held on the actress’s face for longer than a few seconds, and any expression of emotion we see in those seconds is communicated in the context of what’s in the preceding shot.
One sequence in particular is striking in its Kuleshovian effect. Witherspoon, as Cheryl Strayed, is in her tent remembering back to a moment with her mother and brother when they had to shoot their sick horse. Not only does the montage put more in the actress’s face through the cross-cutting of scenes, but there are also other shots from other times of Strayed’s mother in health and while dying that link her grief about the animal’s death with that of her mother. Witherspoon is clearly acting in her brief seconds of close-ups during this montage, but it’s almost unnecessary on her part. She simply needs to put on a still, serious face, like Ivan Mosjoukine does in Kuleshov’s famous experiment, and the cutting does the rest.
Another brilliant editing sequence comes earlier when we return to the opening flash-forward moment when Strayed is in excruciating pain from having her toenail fall off and then, things only getting worse, loses one of her boots down the side of the mountain. This time it’s cross-cut with flashbacks to her mother’s death and to her later smoking heroin in her self-destructive mourning. It was a painful time that she responded to by making everything even worse. Back on the mountain, she throws her other boot down, seemingly making everything even worse in the fact that she now has no shoes. But finally we see her make new footwear in a positive conclusion to the the present ordeal. By paralleling past and present scenes through the montage they’re linked in order to show how she deals with pain and problems now versus then.
In all of that is definitely a strong performance by Witherspoon. One we can picture playing out behind all the cutting if we trust that Vallee shot the scenes that way and then broke them up in post-production. But there is a lot of what looks like her work actually accomplished in the editing and structuring of the movie overall, as well as in our mind through our comprehension of the performance between the lines of the juxtaposition and context. Other elements and craft also contribute to the performance, from Vallee’s direction to the music (specifically the repeated motif of Simon and Garfunkel’s “El Condor Pasa”) to the make-up department making the actress look dirtier and more mussed up than she really is. Also the voice-over by Witherspoon that sometimes makes literal the links made in the editing.
Filmmaking is a collaborative process, but so is film acting, and while Witherspoon probably should get an Oscar nomination for her performance in Wild, Pensa and Vallee deserve a nomination as well for their part in that performance and the total success of the film.