“Like anything worth writing, it came inexplicably and without method.” –Karen Eiffel, Stranger Than Fiction
As kids, we all had at least one relative that we dreamed of running away to live with. Perhaps it was an eccentric uncle or a carefree cousin. The heartwarming movie Auntie Mame shows how an aunt (Mame Dennis, played by Rosalind Russell) and her nephew (Patrick) unexpectedly help each other through life.
What made me laugh the most about this movie was how extremely significant events – the death of a spouse or an engagement, for example – take place at the snap of a finger. One moment, Auntie Mame is climbing a mountain with her husband. We hear a yell that trails off, and in the very next scene Mame is dressed in black funeral clothes. In editing, a smash cut is defined as: “An especially sharp transition. This style of cut is usually used to convey destruction or quick emotional changes.” In a horror movie, it is used to shock the audience. However, in comedy I find it often emphasizes change to incite laughter. The examples I mentioned from Auntie Mame aren’t quite smash cuts cinematically, but they’re certainly smash cuts in relation to the story’s plot.
My favorite example of a smash cut in one of my own films is from Cloakless, which won Best Short Film at the Envision Film Festival in 2014. You can watch it here. At 4:18, the love interest reveals that she is a nun. Our team decided to smash cut to a flashback of the nun in a convent with chants echoing in the background, which only lasts about two seconds. Every time I watch the movie with an audience, they erupt with laughter at that part. I think it’s because so much changes so fast, both visually and in the audience’s knowledge about the character.
Sometimes we have smash cuts in life, don’t we? Real-life smash cuts can be heartbreaking, breathtaking, or hilarious. I’ve heard stories from friends who receive a phone call when a loved one unexpectedly passes away. Heartbreaking. New parents talk about what it’s like to hold their infant for the first time. Breathtaking. And then there’s those times when you remember an inside joke at the exact same second as your best friend. Hilarious. Each outcome is different, but all three scenarios have something in common…life changes in a moment.
To be honest, personal smash cuts make me a little anxious. It would be nice to start the day off by receiving a little message from God warning us about all the shocking, out-of-the-ordinary happenings of the day. But that’s not how life works; we have to find out as we go along. In the end, that thrill is what makes existence exceptional.
As it just so happens, that thrill is why we watch movies, too.