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It’s not just the direction that makes Donnie Darko creepy

Most of us are accomplished watchers of TV and film, so we intuitively understand some of the concepts lurking in dense film-theory tomes. You won’t need them for Internet Film SchoolThe A.V. Club’s column about film and television. In each installment, we explore a basic element of visual composition and analyze examples to understand how the formal properties of film and television manipulate viewers. 

Outside of academic film theory, in which they have wielded godlike powers ever since Sergei Eisenstein sent a baby hurtling down the Odessa Steps, editors rarely receive popular recognition for their contributions to a finished film. Who won the Oscar for Best Film Editing last year? Who’s the most respected editor working today? Most people outside the industry can’t answer this, and for good reason: The only time anyone ever notices editing is when it’s poorly done. The editor’s function is to create continuity between shots in such a manner as to render their work invisible. If the dialogue is in the proper sequence, the eye-lines match, the mise-en-scène remains consistent, and the 180-degree rule isn’t violated, the editor’s thankless job is done. 

Editorial work is usually only noticed or praised when it’s deliberately bad, as with “Bad Lip Reading” videos like “Medieval Land Fun-Time World,” in which scenes from Game Of Thrones are spliced together and re-dubbed into a narrative about employees at a medieval-themed amusement park. All of the powers of the editor are present there, even if they are being abused: Reaction shots are created by moving shots from one scene and intercutting them with another, re-recorded dialogue is synched with extant takes, and so on. 

Only the rhythmic aspect of the editor’s job—that is, the patterning of shot lengths—is typically noticeable. Viewers intuitively differentiate between a Michael Bay movie and an episode of The Walking Dead. The latter “feels” slower because the original producer, Frank Darabont, still has his fingerprints all over it, and the average shot length (ASL) in a Darabont film is around seven seconds, whereas the ASL of a Bay film is approximately (and generously) three. That means that a given image is visible, on average, for four more seconds in a Darabont joint, and the cumulative effect of all those longer takes is what creates the impression of a film’s “speed.”

Even a casual browse of the Cinemetrics Database reveals that films have become increasingly “faster” in the past 30 years. For example, Francis Ford Coppola’s first Godfather has an ASL of 8.4, 18 years later Godfather: Part III has an ASL of 6.8. Obviously, the average length of a shot fails to tell the entire story of a film’s pacing—the film may contain long takes of dialogue-driven scenes interspersed with action sequences and end up with an ASL of 2.8, like Joss Whedon’s Avengers

An ASL is not an editor’s signature, exactly, but it does reveal some of what happens in the transition from the set to the cutting room. To grossly oversimplify, if a director wants a take to be long, and he or she films 50 seconds of it. For example—and because it’s almost Halloween, all these examples will come from the Richard Kelly-directed and Eric Strand-edited Donnie Darko (2001)—in this early scene, Kelly clearly indicated to Strand that he wanted it to take some time for Donnie to sleepwalk from his bedroom to the golf course. Strand cut the film so that it takes 11 seconds for Donnie to get from his bed to his bedroom door, nine to slowly walk down the stairs, another 12 to walk through the kitchen, and 10 more to make it out the front door, at which point (9:25) he is here… 

Twelve thrilling seconds later (9:37), and Donnie has made it all the way to here… 

So why did Kelly want Strand to force the audience to watch 12 seconds of a boy in pajamas walking down his front steps? Because the audience doesn’t know the reason, that’s why. Donnie Darko is, among other things, a horror film, and in the pre-torture-porn era, horror films depended on functional ignorance to create their horrifying effects. (Torture porn works in exactly the opposite way: It shows the audience absolutely everything, and bears the same relationship to actual horror as porn does to romantic comedy.) The length of this take is not intended to show the audience anything, but to compel its members to anticipate what could happen. 

Will someone fly through the yard and tackle Donnie as he walks toward the street? Nope. Will a car drive by at a hilariously high speed and take him out once he reaches the end of that hedgerow? Nope. What then?

It’s hard to tell. Kelly and Strand have switched from a long shot of Donnie from behind to an out-of-focus medium close-up of him from the front. The audience had been following him, but now he’s approaching something. The lack of focus mimics the audience’s ignorance, but that’s quickly rectified… 

As he slowly walks into the camera’s depth of field, he becomes crisper, but the background doesn’t. Viewers of horror films know that when the protagonist is shot in shallow focus and the background is a blur, that’s where the monster is. (The new show Sleepy Hollow uses this technique to great effect by doubling down on it, so to speak. The demon itself is out of focus, even when the space it occupies isn’t.) 

So the audience is searching the blur behind his shoulders for an unknown something, but because the take is a full eight seconds long, the audience has enough time to realize that there’s nothing behind him, look at his face, and discover that Donnie is looking behind their shoulders. Kelly and Strand have created a tension here. 

The normal audience-to-character relationship has been inverted, which is unsettling, because characters don’t typically have eye-lines that violate—or appear to violate—the fourth wall. While most people would suppress the urge to twist to the left and look over their shoulder to match that eye-line, the effect is still disturbing. Especially because Strand uses a dissolve to move to the next shot, which is a graphic match to the previous. A graphic match is when the purely visual elements of two shots bridge them together, so in this case… 

Kelly and Strand, knowing full well that the eyes of the audience are looking at Donnie’s, use the whites of his eye and general shape of his face to facilitate a dissolve to—what exactly is that? The entire scene has been predicated on creating a functional ignorance: The menace arrives from what the audience can’t see, not from what it can. And so as the screen dissolves from Donnie’s face to that thing behind it, the audience expects to see something understandable, but is instead presented with… 

The intense creepiness of the scene is magnified by the fact that, for the second time in less than a minute, this may be a point-of-view shot. (Earlier, when Donnie was walking toward the door, the camera panned up to the chandelier in what appeared to be a point-of-view shot. However, when it panned back down to the door, it was already closing, again, meaning that this wasn’t a point-of-view shot, but some strange sort of stalker-like following shot.) The audience is suddenly in Donnie’s head, seeing what he sees, which appears to be a giant rabbit with insect-like appendages for ears and a face that reflects far more light than even the shiniest of cute little bunny noses. The dissolve was further unsettling because it failed to match Donnie’s eye-line, which was clearly up and to the left, whereas this rabbit-beast is dead center. Moreover, the shot is deliberately asymmetrical: The flag on the right and the thing in the center are evenly spaced, but the screen-left area is empty, which makes the right side of the frame feel “heavy,” as if weighed down with content. 

The audience’s reward for patiently waiting for their ignorance to be cured is an even more profound ignorance. Now the audience can see something, but it still doesn’t know what it is or why it’s on a golf course. The pacing of the preceding shots created an anticipation of knowledge, but instead of sating the audience’s desire, Kelly and Strand conspired to provide an answer to a question no one could have ever thought to ask.