' Cinema Romantico: Back to the Future: The Perfect Cut

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Back to the Future: The Perfect Cut

No one notices the cut.

Well, that’s not entirely true. Editors, I’m sure, notice cuts. After all, it’s what they do. Nitpickers notice cuts. “HEY! THAT KETCHUP BOTTLE WASN’T IN THE PRECEDING SHOT! THIS IS HORSESHIT! THIS WHOLE MOVIE IS HORSESHIT!” The age-old platitude in sports regarding the referees goes something like this: they’ve done a good job if we didn’t know they were there. Perhaps the same is true of pinpoint film editing? Perhaps the more perfect the cut, the less inclined we are to notice it.

There is just such a cut in “Back to the Future”, a film edited by Harry Keramidas and Arthur Schmidt. It occurs at the infamous Enchantment Under the Sea Dance at Hill Valley High. As you might recall, intrepid Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) has gone back in time (accidentally) to his hometown in the 50’s and essentially busted up his parents’ future marriage and is in the process of attempting to right this wrong by getting his future parents to the dance to kiss. On account of various hijinks Marty has been locked in the trunk of the car belonging to the band playing the infamous Enchantment Under the Sea Dance. The band gets him out, but the guitarist cuts up his hand. He can’t play. But he HAS to play, Marty explains.

“Marvin, you gotta play. That’s where they kiss for the first time on the dance floor. And if there's no music, they can't dance, and if they can't dance, they can't kiss, and if they can't kiss, they can't fall in love and I'm history.”

Marvin replies: “Hey man, the dance is over. Unless you know someone else who can play the guitar.”



Per the Internet, the fourth draft of the “Back to the Future” screenplay penned by Bob Gale and director Robert Zemeckis was the final draft, although maybe it wasn’t. Maybe there was a never-glimpsed fifth draft that hewed even closer to the final product. Nevertheless, in the fourth draft the above lines are followed by the following stage direction: Marty looks at Marvin and smiles.

That’s not how it looks in the movie. In the movie it cuts directly, precisely from “Unless you know someone else who can play the guitar” to Marty on stage playing the guitar, his face stricken with that classic J. Fox-ian franticness.

Film, goes the refrain, is primarily a visual medium, and so it is difficult to capture in words why this cut achieves inarguable flawlessness. It does not hang on to the preceding shot too long nor does it enter the following shot too soon or too late. Rather it hits the moment in exquisite cinematic lockstep, right on top of each other, “guitar”/guitar, boom!boom! You couldn’t even draw a proper breath in the time it takes to make the cut. Well, this is sort of why it’s perfect. Marty is on death’s door, on the verge of vanishing into the ether if his parents don't dance and fall in love and kiss. He doesn't have time to look at Marvin in smile. Are you crazy?! The cut perfectly underlines the urgency.

I perused Youtube and other outlets in an effort to find the footage to accompany this post. Alas, the only footage available begins with the shot of Marty onstage at the Enchantment Under the Sea Dance, conspicuously forgoing its breathtaking lead-in.

No one notices the cut.

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