Meet The VelociPastor, the (joint) best edited film of 2019.
There are very few pieces of cinema and television I’d happily argue are faultlessly edited. Most of these are modern, and range from more abstract, elliptical and emotional works— read that as anything by Jean Marc Vallée, Lynne Ramsay, or Satoshi Kon— to the kings of a more traditionalist style, of rhythm, tempo and clarity. Of the latter, I’d place the final episode of The Bridge’s third season, and from 2019, Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite. The hypnotic satire is host to balletic editing and flow that allows it to dance between different beats, emotions, even genres without any lag or stumbles. It may just be the very ultimate example of classically edited cinema, and if given the opportunity, I could easily expend thousands of words on it. But, there is one other film released in 2019 (albeit, appearing in festivals since 2017) that I’d place on my editing “GOAT’s” list, one that exists as burgeoning cult fare, far from the spotlight afforded to an Oscar winning arthouse sensation. A film that plays its editing in a diametrically opposite manner, but still with a clear eye of intent.
The VelociPastor, brainchild of Brendan Steere, is at once exactly what you expect and don’t expect it to be. A so-lo-fi-it’s-no-fi tale of a pastor, cut on a dinosaur tooth as a missionary in China, becoming a vigilante Were-Dinosaur fighting pimps, spiritualists and ninjas while falling in love with a prostitute? Of course. A clear-eyed and kind-hearted pastiche on the high-concept, low-budget monster films that populate “bad movie” discourse; with a stoner’s humour and a genuine understanding of these films to allow it to at once simulate, praise and absolutely leather that which it is parodying? Okay, that’s unexpected. Or at least, I wasn’t expecting it when I first saw it.
It sets its stall early, with a VFX joke so spectacularly silly that it immediately informs you of it’s self awareness. This is key. If the film fully understands how it wants to be read by an audience, you have to take notice of what’s being presented. Sudden technical faults and failings maybe aren’t that, but something deliberate that can’t be written off. And it’s immediately after this joke that the editing starts to get strange. The camera tilts from our hysterical protagonist smoothly upwards—not really to anything, just away— and then the camera wobbles off its axis, the image dizzy, aimless, pointless. And it doesn’t cut away. It lets us revel in the badness for just long enough before launching into the next scene.
Underneath everything, editing has two inherent purposes— narrative clarity and emotional evocation: one in service of the other. Traditionally, a films editing should be logical—should allow the audience to view the property undistracted, in order to hold engagement, and to ensure the emotional impact of the film is fully felt. As for the latter effect, editing is a key factor in how emotion is presented to the audience: flow, pace, calmness, choppiness, contrasting of images and holds on spaces of the screen all part of the overall design to direct attention, to indicate what we ought to feel, when we ought to feel it. In a film like Parasite, the pacing and interaction with sounds and music is cut to perfection in order to drag viewers deftly across emotional jumps. At the end of a farcical montage undercut with a raucous score, a woman kicks another down the stairs. The pace, the sheer entertainment of the sequence causes us to laugh at this climax. Then the music stops, the woman falls, a thudding crack reverbs through the screen and the camera lingers: on her, motionless; on a witness, shocked and scared. We stop laughing. That elegantly sums up the sheer power of emotional impact editing can inflict.
There are rules, and codes and formats that most follow, but— as goes a common saying— understanding the rules and knowing how to break them can produce much greater dividends. Kon constructed his works around match cuts, close-up establishing shots and temporal, spatial jolts, all in the name of building disorientation and thematic pairings. Vallée’s works allow characters thoughts to permeate the image through touted “thought cuts”, with the editing dictated by the emotion of the scene—transitions usually based on characters similar thoughts and experiences. These rule-breaks are elegant, and bracing, all aimed at confounding the viewers expectation and emotions. In The VelociPastor’s case, the rules broken are... Well, all of them. Rules of technical acceptability, of clarity, of common sense. And the emotional and thematic payoff for doing so is pretty simple: comedy, and a meta show of love to its inspiration.
The bizarre camera-tilt breakdown of the opening gambit feels designed as both a joke and a moment that deliberately takes you out of the film. An unusual tactic, but one that works, directing particular attention to these off-handed comedic technical lapses— which Steere plays out consistently through the film. We next see a conversation sequence shot in a three-way, split-screen overlay hybrid, with each character as singles on either side of a wide two shot. Better still, the singles and master speak completely out of time with each other. ‘Why?’ you would ask of a more serious film, but the answer is obvious: this madness is the kind of thing overzealous editors and directors would place in a monster z-movie like this. There are too many of these moments to count, but they always hit the mark. An actor forgets to add a few unnecessary words to the end of a line, and there is no attempt to cut it out for clarity. The scene goes: “Can’t you see... Father Stewart!”, gloriously followed by a split second reaction shot of no real reaction, and as if the audience is not already being spoilt, it all ends with a fade to black... that fades back into the same scene. If there is a shot with no real importance, expect the camera to hold cut away to be delayed. There is a prevalence for shots to start early, the camera flailing to reach its start point with the ‘action’ already called. As the protagonist learns of his dinosaur transformation, there’s a sudden flash cut to a close up of his crotch and back again. (This particular technique recurs far more than I could have ever expected.) As he questions his entire existence, there are errant out of focus moments and sharp zooms in to settle on the needed frame. There’s just so much going on, and the real beauty of it is, the last mentioned scene is in fact edited pretty competently to start with. The ability is there, but the will to subvert and have fun is just too devious to pass up on. It is gently anarchic, feeling designed and enacted to genuinely enjoy the quirks of the parodied low-of-quality, big-of-heart films.
The editing is dialled to eleven for the montage sequences. Wild beasts of things, the first such passes as a simple training montage: a combination of shots of prayer, flirting, gleefully smashing it at the gym, murdering criminals as a dinosaur, researching his condition, and all of it bookended by the only two shots that really matter for the narrative— the two leads sitting on a bench, and the same, but with the two arm in arm. (This then ends with an ‘anti-match-cut’ of a far too long pan up and a far too quick pan down.) All of this isn’t simply cut together, but mangled in a sequence of would-be bad taste, of ADHD split screens, wipes and flashes.
The emotional arc, such as it is, first explored in this montage comes to a head in the films editing magnum opus, the expectant sex scene between male and female lead. A mainstay of the 80’s featured in the likes of James Cameron’s The Terminator (and its many derivatives), there’s a sultry montage: longing looks, intimate camerawork, soft rock music. And then it all goes berserk. Continuity cease to exist in any form. The split screen comes back, and mutates into something inexplicable: so baffling it just has to be shown—
Yes, that is a war statue nestled in there. It needs and receives no explanation. It gets even stranger, with a rapid-fire montage-within-a-montage that is like a A Field in England on even more acid, literally shuffling through the entirety of the film frame by frame in between shots of the main characters just staring at each other— the best moment a sudden flash of an old title card: ‘CHINA.’ It is astounding. It is hilarious. And it demonstrates just how important editing is to screen comedy— that even its own meta usage can become an hilarious set piece.
The VelociPastor excels at glorifying and lampooning it’s own comedic pastiche through editing, but my opinion of it being on a par with some significantly bigger, more prestigious productions says a lot about editing as a cinematic art form. Editing is arguably one of the more simple aspects of filmmaking— despite its difficulty to truly get right. ‘Simple’, if you consider final quality being a result of skill plus spending— with editing allowing the gap between those two to be lessened in comparison to say, production design or VFX. Those aspects falter on The Velocipastor due to its low budget nature. (Granted, it is canny enough to turn those into advantages.) Steere supposedly has the means to utilise editing more freely, and creates something that feels consistently purposeful, effective, and built on the films core emotional concern: having giddy, wholesome fun revelling in the style of the bad films people hate to love. A film that is editing lightning-in-a-bottle, but doesn’t need to be— a technical bastion for the low-budget guerrilla filmmakers, that could teach films with much greater resources about editing with intent and acuity.