Hume and Classical Continuity Editing: Billiard Balls and Match Cuts

After our consideration of David Hume, I became very curious and sought out a copy of An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. I was shaken again by the absolutely destabilizing notion that as a fact, we do not perceive causality and all inference/perception of causality is linked to a compendium of memories and past experience. Hume gives an example of two billiards balls and suggests that when Ball A strikes Ball B, precisely what we do not see or experience is the casual link that suggests to us that Ball B will be propelled forward. Likewise, there is nothing in either of Ball A or Ball B that unto themselves contains their relation to each other in this action. Though surely reductive to present this as the only proposition in the work (I’ve only begun to dig into his philosophy), it seems as though it is the core problem from which Hume develops his often very interesting provisional solutions.

Now that we have arrived at the cinema unit, I thought I would note an interesting parallel to Hume’s philosophy. Sam mentioned during his discussion of Hume that it seems as though cinema is kind of the perfect proof of Hume’s argument: when we infer continuity (in the broad sense of the term) we are ourselves active producers of meaning. If the perfectly rational man with no a priori knowledge that Hume imagines were to enter a cinema (assuming of course he knew what a cinema was; I suppose that’s another problem…) he would be confounded by the series of images passing before his eyes. However when a spectator enters the cinema, not only do they have a lifetime’s worth of experiences, but also a lifetime’s worth of cinematic experience, much of it constituted by the style of editing most suited to emulate the inferred continuity of perceptual existence, that style is “continuity editing” or perhaps more apropos in relation to Hume: “invisible editing.”

This style of editing as codified with the arrival of synchronized sound is predicated on maintaining a continuous, “understandable” cinematic space in which all actions and reactions are explicated and made to appear natural, unquestionable. Combined with a narrative arch that places all actions onto a centripetal curve to an inevitable climax, “invisible editing” constitutes much of commercial/narrative cinema to this day. What is interesting is thinking about Hume’s notions of perception and causation in this respect. Take the example of a match-action cut, in which a figure in medium framing sits downs. In Shot A he is seen beginning to sit down. In the middle of the motion, we cut to Shot B in which he completes his motion and sits in the chair, in a tighter framing. Precisely what is being aimed at here is concealing the cut which binds two discreet shots into one seamless action. What is actually occurring here if not a practice of Hume’s claim? There lays a chasm of unknowable depth between the two – a year could have passed between the two shots, any number of events could have transpired, this man may not even be the same person. Like the billiard balls, there is nothing specifically in Shot A that contains within it Shot B and vice versa. I am not referring here specifically of the content of the shot – of course we perceive someone who appears be same person, completing the action we just saw begun. Precisely what this cut masks though is the chasm of potentiality that lays between the two cuts: according to the rules of this montage style, the cut should not call attention to itself precisely because what we are supposed to be paying attention to is Jimmy Stewart or Humphrey Bogart as they continue their conversation with whomever joins them in their sensory-motor schema. So in a way, the same continuity we produce ourselves between discreet events which in themselves produce no objective relation, is now mirrored on the screen. Everything proceeds through graphical common sense: the 180 degree rule, the eye-line match, the match-action cut, the shot-reverse shot, etc. This is the world that Hume warns against in his writing, a world in which everything is somehow given and nothing is questioned, examined, experienced, verified. Of course, Hume’s discovery is a double edged sword: we shouldn’t reject everything we perceive to have a cause-effect relationship and live our lives like animals, but rather this essential ambiguity should serve as an ever-present reminder of the danger of the human imagination unchecked. So in continuity editing, what we have is basically a closed territory, which demands that a cut be anything but that: “don’t worry about that, can’t you see that this is explained for you? Carry on with Mr. Bogart!”

It should be noted that all cinema in which there is more than one shot there is always a sort of continuity that is inferred. As an audience, we expect there to be some sort of relation between the images we are viewing. Continuity editing simply assumes these relations be made invisible so that ostensibly the “story” of the film may be easily understood and followed. It’s not hard to see why this style fit into an industrial mode of filmmaking in which labor was divided so that by the time the script arrived, there was a certain mold to pour each story into. This is not to say that directors didn’t find ways to usurp this mold and inflect subtext to a work but this was an exception, not a rule. As Deleuze and Guatarri note: a territory is never completely closed and there always exists the potential for a line of flight. Alfred Hitchcock and Douglas Sirk are exemplary here, as what lays beneath the surface level of story/narrative is another layer, waiting to be excavated by those for whom a certain cut or camera movement constitutes a disturbance in the given. Above all, Hume asks that we be vigilant against anything that seems obvious or immediately apparent in our perception. For cinema which is an art and not an empirical science, perhaps we should remain open to the expressive potential of montage and not assume that its only function is to serve as an analogue to other narrative-based art forms.


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