Cinema is unique from other art forms because one has the ability to cut through time and space, connecting images to create new meanings. Editing strategies are often discussed as part of a director’s overall vision, which makes it hard to decipher – without background knowledge – how an editor aids, influences, and sometimes even reinvents the original intentions of the material.
Which brings us Anne V. Coates, whose death on Tuesday capped a 70-year career – stretching from England to the U.S., through a long and varied list of great directors at turning points in their careers. Viewed as a whole, they illustrate a string of shrewd editing strategies that is unparalleled in film history. It’s also a career that didn’t go unrecognized – she won an Oscar for “Lawrence of Arabia” and honorary Oscar in 2016 — but few people can speak to the specifics of her skills.
Coates’ strengths fells into two key areas: identifying and accentuating a film’s internal rhythm (especially in terms of a star performance) regardless of the filmmaking trends of the day; and strengthening the audience’s emotional understanding of the characters’ internal state.
This example from “Unfaithful” is pure Anne Coates:
One stellar example of Coates’ work, and the one that best speaks to her larger contribution to the medium as a whole, is a sequence from Steven Soderbergh’s “Out of Sight” when straight-edged cop Karen Sisco (Jennifer Lopez) and expert robber Jack Foley (George Clooney) take the risk to spend one night together. The scene intercuts a dialogue scene of the two flirting in the hotel bar and a non-dialogue scene in which they’re intimate in the hotel bedroom.
Coates first cut the two scenes straight, separating as they had been in the script, but then she and Soderbergh started playing with them and discovered the alchemy of overlapping the two. Allowing the audience to simultaneously feel both the mounting sexual anticipation, the story beats of the Elmore Leonard dialogue, and the sexual act itself creates more than just a stronger piece of storytelling — it imbues the film with a unique tone that still distinguishes this sexy, melancholic screwball adaptation to this day.
Of course, the cross-cutting sequence — along with the film’s freeze frames — is a technique closely associated with Soderbergh’s body of work. From the start of his career, right up today with his his inventing a whole new form and technology for HBO’s “Mosaic,” Soderbergh has been pushing the boundaries of conventional storytelling, trying to find ways to play with narrative that is more a collection of character moments free from the confines of plot. One might say that Coates helped him discover this ongoing motif.
Coates has said that she wasn’t an inclined to use so much “trickery” as Soderbergh early on, and yet before their collaboration that is exactly what Soderbergh’s playful editing felt like: arty gimmicks. He was reaching for something, and he certainly knew what he wanted, but getting there had been a learning curve in which the seams were in plain sight. With “Out of Sight,” his most commercial film to date by far, he had finally figured out a way to create his unique brand of cinematic exploration – uncovering depth underneath George Clooney’s cool charm, while delivering on the breezy fun of a Leonard adaptation. For the first time, Soderbergh’s attempt to deconstruct the continuity of space and time felt both fluid and emotionally resonant.
Soderbergh would work again with Coates, letting her edit “Erin Brockovich” essentially on her own, but it was “Out of Sight” that enabled Soderbergh to find the style he needed to keep moving forward. His next film was one of his masterpieces, “The Limey,” in which the bold elliptical editing structure create a stream-of-conscientious quality with the emotional texture of a memory that reflects the internal state of the protagonist (Terence Stamp).
Soderbergh, who now exclusively edits his TV shows and movies – often the same evening he shoots the footage – was always headed down the path he continues to blaze. But it’s hard to consider Soderbergh’s career in terms of his output before Coates’ involvement and after it. The content and style was belonged to his vision, but she unquestionably helped him realize it at a pivotal moment.
It’s one of countless examples of how Coates made many movies not only better, but often allowed them to exist on a higher plain and unlock their potential.
Below, watch Coates talk about “Out of Sight”: