Thursday, September 23, 2010

Unsung Heroes: The Editing of 25th Hour

Hello again, Film Experiencers. Michael C here from Serious Film with another episode of Unsung Heroes. This week it is a tribute to one of my favorite of modern films and one of the most chronically under-appreciated of film professions.

Spike Lee's 25th Hour (2002) is a film that feels wired to the psyche of its main character. Working itself up into fits of rage and down into long, disconsolate sighs, it tells the story of drug dealer Monty Brogan's last day of freedom before turning himself over for a seven-year jail sentence. The filmmakers, including star Edward Norton and writer David Benioff, had the courage to leave a lot in the story unsaid, and it was editor Barry Alexander Brown who was there to have their back. He does such a masterful job evoking the mental state of the protagonist that at times it is like we in the audience are thinking Monty's thoughts along with him.

In Brown's hands, time stretches and contracts the way it would to someone experiencing the enormous stress of Norton's character. Shots stutter and double cut to express the way Monty is attempting to freeze moments in his mind, to make time stand still. When Monty brutally excoriates all of New York in the famed "F- you" sequence, the film coils into a tight ball of tension, if only so he can briefly push out all thoughts of how pained he is to leave it all behind. Probably the most poignant moment in 25th Hour is when Monty's interaction with the kid on the bus, probably the last human kindness he will know for seven years, ends all too abruptly. Brown is able in moments like this to underline the film's meaning without hitting us over the head with it.

Apart from carrying the film's thematic weight, there are moments during the course of the film when it seems Brown and Lee decide to bust out a virtuoso sequence just because they can. The dance sequence in the club is a show-stopper in the way so many similar scenes attempt and so few pull off. And the lengthy dream sequence that ends the movie is like the flip side of the "F- you" montage, a long, elegiac fantasy filled with an undercurrent of bitter rage at the inevitable reality approaching to wipe it away.

Late last year when the best of the decade polls started to accumulate, it was gratifying to see the frequent presence of 25th Hour on the lists. Overlooked in 2002 during the year-end glut of Oscar bait, it was dismissed by many at the time as a successful, if minor, entry in Spike's filmography. Now time has revealed its depth and staying power. But in all the accounts of the film's greatness not once did I read Brown's name. Why would I? When it comes to being overlooked who can beat the contribution an editor makes to a film's success? There is no evidence of his labors in the finished project that can't be credited to someone else. Yet when one looks at Brown's body of work it becomes clear that if the Spike Lee brand means anything to film lovers, then Barry Alexander Brown is a large part of that achievement.

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