With the New York Film Critics Circle set to vote on December 1, the unofficial commencement of awards season is only six short weeks away, and the Motion Picture Editors Guild and American Cinema Editors have joined forces to request a place at the podium. They deserve one.
The NYFCC is one of the organizations mentioned by name in the joint ACE/MPEG petition, along with Sundance and several other film festivals, who the petition asks “to help get recognition for film editors by asking these organizations to add the Film Editing category to their annual awards.” Also on the list is the National Society of Film Critics, which I’ve belonged to since 2006. During that period the NSFC has several times considered adding an award for editing, and the proposal has been voted down every time. (Indiewire’s annual poll also lacks an editing category.)
The argument that’s been advanced in the NSFC’s meetings is that we don’t know enough about the editing process to confidently (or competently) recognize one editor over another, and while I suspect this line of reasoning is mainly a proxy for “The voting meeting is too long already,” it’s not without merit. The problem is that if you follow it through to its logical conclusion, critics’ organizations would hardly be able to award anything at all — although If you’re weary of the awards glut, that might not actually be a problem.
It’s true that in order to judge an editor’s work you’d have to know what he or she had to work with in the first place: How performances were shaped in editing; how much of the film’s structure was devised in the edit, and so on. But in spite of the fact that they’re usually awarded to a credited individual or individuals, awards, especially the ones bestowed by people outside the film industry, don’t recognize the process but the final product: That’s why it’s Best Editing, not Best Editor(s). Short of conducting an extensive investigation for each nominated film, there’s no way of knowing whether the credit for a bravura tracking shot should go to the director, the director of photography or the camera operator, yet few awards-bestowing bodies balk at handing out an award for cinematography, because everyone knows when a movie looks great.
Apart from Best Picture, which is self-explanatory enough, all awards are approximations. You vote on Best Director without knowing what he or she did on the set; on Best Screenplay without investigating how much the finished film resembles the script (or debating the extent to which that matters). With rare exceptions, critics organizations and film festivals follow the template set by the Academy Awards, which began as a way for the movie industry to honor itself. But the industry has its own biases, favoring degree of difficulty over subtle craft, which is why the acting awards favor roles that involve physical transformation and the sound awards tend to go the loudest movies rather than the most sonically inventive. It’s also why critics sometimes say that the Best Editing Oscar should be renamed “Most Editing,” even though knowing when not to cut is a huge part of an editor’s job.
Before he won his Oscar, the composer and songwriter Randy Newman used to say that only a handful of people in Hollywood knew the difference between a score that made a movie better and one that merely provided catchy themes to accompany the action, and if that’s true within the industry, it has to be moreso outside it. But figuring out why movies work is what critics do, and if they’re not paying attention to editing, they need to start.