of "The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing
Film" -- by Michael Ondaatje
most interesting thing about Walter Murch is not his resume as a
film editor and sound designer -- which is saying something, since
his credits include classics like The Godfather trilogy,
Apocalypse Now, and The Conversation. No, the most
interesting thing about Murch is that he works standing up at his
editing machine, like Virginia Woolf standing at her desk. "It's
very similar to gunslinging," says Murch. "That's the reason
I stand when I edit -- I'm fully engaged in my body." It's an inspired
notion -- the physical answer to what is, in many ways, the most
cerebral element of filmmaking.
Michael Ondaatje's novel The English Patient was adapted
for the screen, he had the rare opportunity to watch a master film
editor at work. As he writes in his fine new book of interviews,
The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film,
he felt not only a fascination, but a kinship: "When I watched Walter
Murch at work… I knew that this was the stage of filmmaking that
was closest to the art of writing." Ondaatje notes that, like prose,
editing is "a long intimacy", comprising months spent alone with
one's material, gradually discovering the work in its final form.
But these labors remain largely unknown to the moviegoing public,
a longstanding neglect that Ondaatje hoped to rectify. As Murch
points out, this oversight was once pervasive within the film industry
Many of the editors of early films -- back in the silent days --
were women. It was a woman's craft, seen as something like sewing.
You knitted the pieces of film together…
And the man is the hunter-gatherer, coming back with stuff for her
The men could bring it home, but they didn't quite know what to
do with it.
interviews in The Conversations took place from 2000-2001,
during which Murch edited various projects, including Apocalypse
Now Redux, the Harrison Ford thriller K19: The Widowmaker,
and finally, the restoration of a short film by Thomas Edison, believed
to be the first motion picture with sync sound. The squeezing of
this last curiosity into an otherwise big-budget schedule seems
emblematic of the Walter Murch who
emerges in these pages: an intellectual engaged not merely in the
insular mechanics of film, but in the disciplines of history, music,
literature, and science, all of which pollinate his work. When asked
to identify the fathers of film, Murch names, among others, Flaubert
and Beethoven, whose experiments in realism and dynamic musical
form would spawn the language of narrative cinema. And in his spare
time, Murch has been translating the prose of Italian writer Curzio
Malaparte into poetry, finding correlation between where to break
a line of verse and where to end a shot.
(and perhaps his book editor at Knopf) keeps The Conversations
moving briskly. Forays into theory are balanced with anecdotes and
specific examples of Murch's editing, in particular his groundbreaking
work in sound: when a scene in Apocalypse Now called for
the sound of crickets in a field, Murch recorded crickets individually,
at close range, then overlapped the tracks a thousand times, achieving,
in his words, a "hallucinatory clarity". The book offers also some
less eccentric, nuts-and-bolts advice on editing. Use music, Murch
says, "as a collector and channeler of previously created emotion,
rather than the device that creates the emotion… Most movies use
music the way athletes use steroids." On where to cut: try cutting
when the actors blink, since blinking often signifies the completion
of a thought.
In The Talented Mr. Ripley, for example, Ripley is sitting
on a beach and looks out to sea. There's a shot of the sea. How
long do you hold it? You hold it for as long as the thoughts you
imagine Ripley is thinking can be held while you are looking at
muses that cinema, only a century old, is like European music of
the tenth century, before the invention of musical notation. "When
modern musical notation was invented, in the eleventh century, it
opened up the underlying mathematics of music, and made that mathematics
emotionally accessible. You could easily manipulate the musical
structure on parchment and it would produce startlingly sophisticated
emotional effects when it was played." Could a system of film notation
be invented, he wonders? Imagine a filmmaker, like a musician reading
sheet music, glancing at a page and comprehending, in an instant,
not only the dialogue, but the lighting, rhythm, and tone of a scene.
The filmmaker of the future could write a piece of sheet music,
feed it into a machine, and receive back a finished film.
he finds the idea intriguing, it's also clear that Murch is no solipsist.
"Digital technology allows, more than ever, a single vision to work
itself out, and that carries a particular danger because you need
fewer collaborators." The editor may touch the picture last, but
he or she inherits the decisions of dozens of people -- the director,
the writer, the cinematographer, the actors -- now to be knit together.
Even "mistakes" may find a place in the final cut; for example,
the famous last line of The Conversation, the first film
Murch edited, was delivered accidentally during additional dialogue
do you cope with the authority?" Murch asks Ondaatje, during a discussion
of the differences between filmmaking and writing. "I'm always trying
to break up the authority of the film to allow other voices to be
heard -- chance voices."
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