Author: Michael Ondaatje
Publisher: Knopf (1999)
The Conservations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film by Michael Ondaatje has a candid introduction and then progresses through five interviews with Mr. Murch, which took place between 2000 and 2001. In the first conversation Murch talks about working with Francis Ford Coppola and in particular the DVD re-edits of Apocalypse Now. In the second conversation the focus is on sound design and some of the films Murch worked on over the years, the Italian writer Curzio Malaparte comes up. In the third conversation the focus is on The Conversation and Murch’s re-editing of Welles’ Touch of Evil. In the fourth conversation Murch theorizes (something on the Negative Twenty Questions game) and they talk about Fred Zinnemann and astrology. In the fifth, and last, conversation the subject ranges from I Ching and Rilke to Murch’s own writing and his directorial work on Return to Oz, which was inspired by Wisconsin Death Trip. One is fortunate as Ondaatje is interesting, which isn't the case for all interviewers, and there is an enthusiasm in the responses, each participant wants to share their craft and working methods, they also bring up their perspective on each other’s work.
Ondaatje met Murch during the filming of The English Patient* (1996), when Murch was editing the film. They became friends. Ondaatje would appear on Muriel Murch’s radio show on KPFA in Berkeley, California as part of a three-way conversation, which sparked Ondaatje's interest to explore Murch and film-editing as a preoccupation. After Ondaatje finished Anil’s Ghost (2000), which took seven years, and the book tour ended, he wanted to sit down with Murch to start this series of interviews. It is interesting to note, as the interviews progress, it seems like Ondaatje is absorbing the importance of sound, he starts including more descriptions of it in his own writing.
Ondaatje mentions that Murch likes to quote Robert Bresson on how a film is born three times, here it is, from Notes on the Cinematographer, “On two deaths and three births. My movie is born first in my head, dies on paper; is resuscitated by the living persons and the real objects I use, which are killed on film but, placed in a certain order and projected on to a screen, come to life again like flowers in water.” It’s a nice thought, and I think Bresson is also relevant to the discussion of Murch by what he has to say about music, “The noises must become music.” And, “Be sure of having used to the full capacity all that is communicated by immobility and silence.” It seems like Murch also arrived to this conclusion as in his sound-designs he builds numerous layers of tracks, all with different sounds, to give off the feeling of being trapped within a cave-like room. Murch even provides sounds taking place outside the room, while he also leaves the soundscape room for silence. Here is Murch on the subject, “Music functions as an emulsifier that allows you to dissolve a certain emotion and take it in a certain direction. When there’s no music, the filmmakers are standing back saying, simply, Look at this. Without appearing to comment.” One of Murch’s tricks is the insertion of a metaphorical sound, an intimidate noise that will anticipate an important event. In The English Patient there is a distant bell before the patient eats a plumb, “It was to hint at a memory opening up.” Or in The Godfather, before Michael Corleone performs his first murder, there is the subway train screech from outside the Bronx restaurant.
In describing his childhood, Murch brings up a certain cartoon character that went by the nickname Gerald McBoing-Boing “who spoke in sound effects instead of words.” Murch would adopt 'McBoing-Boing' as a nickanme. Some terms that are relevant to the trade of a sound designer are: acoustic envelope, worldizing sound, atmosphere sound, musique concrete, the aphasic, the Avid, and Dolby Stereo. While some important composers include David Shire, John Cage, Miles Davis and Glenn Gould. And some renowned sound designers and effects guys include Randy Thom, Les Hodgson, Alan Splet and Leslie Shatz. And on the exaggeration of sound in film, it seems like it were the cartoons by the Fleischer brothers and Walt Disney during the advent of the Talkies that had the biggest impact on its early metaphorical uses, with an influence on people as diverse as René Clair, Cecil B. DeMille, Fritz Lang and Sergei Eisenstein.
One thing the book tries to highlight are the marginalized editors of film history, some of the famous editors that are brought up, and others, include Dede Allen, who worked on Robert Rossen’s The Hustler and some Arthur Penn films; Anne Coates, whose career spanned Lawrence of Arabia to Erin Brockovich; Cécile Decugis, who did a lot of the French New Wave stuff; Richard Chew, who did Star Wars; Gerry Hambling who mostly worked for Alan Parker; Thelma Schoomaker who works with Scorsese.; Ralph Rosenblum’s who did Woody Allen’s early stuff, and gave the films their shape; and others like Richie Marks, Barry Malkin, William Chang, Margaret Booth, and Steve Rotter. And on the subject of film-editors it is worth bringing up editors-turned-directors like Donald Siegel and Robert Wise, Larry Fessenden and Monte Hellman. David Lean also started out as an editor and continued to work on the editing of the films he directed, though he never took credit.
On editing Murch writes,
“You see them [actors] forwards, backwards, at twenty-four frames per second, at forty-eight frames a second, over and over and over again. You are studying them the way a sculptor studies a piece of marble before deciding to chisel it – here. So I have to know all the hidden veins and strengths and weaknesses of the rock that I’m working with, in order to know where best to put the chisel.”This goes to demonstrate to what extent the editor’s job is an intimate relationship with the source material and how they can play an important role in molding the final product. The two major approaches to reducing the length of a film, which are discussed, is the spaghetti-sauce method, gradually eliminate bits, and the Procrustes method, which involves larges chops. A comic aside, Albert Brooks in the terrific Modern Romance plays an editor and he demonstrates how editors are at the whim of directors, illustrates the repetitiveness of their tasks and shows their odd resourcefulness which goes into creating perculiar foley sounds - all of this for a goofy sci-fi film!
“What you do as an editor is search for patterns, at both the superficial and ever deeper levels – as deep as you can go.”
“The editor works at both the macroscopic and the microscopic level: ranging from deciding how long precisely each shot is held, to restructuring and repositioning scenes, and sometimes to eliminating entire subplots.”
On the early influences on the Cinema, Murch posits “The three fathers of film: Edison, Beethoven, Flaubert!”, which he further expands upon: Edison for the technical stuff, Flaubert for the idea of realism, and Beethoven for the dynamism he brought to music and the composition. This classicism in approach will seep into Murch’s own European filmmaking influences, which includes Godard, Kurosawa, Bergman, Fellini, Truffaut, and Pontercorvo. Murch is linked into film history, primarily due to his collaboration with the Movie Brats, but he runs deeper, much deeper. Murch was given the assignment of reconstructing a seventeen-second Kinetoscope recording that Edison made in 1894, apparently the first known recording of the moving-pictures with accompanied sound. Murch also collaborated with Rick Schmidlin on implementing Orson Welles notes towards the new ‘Director’s cut’ of Touch of Evil, one of the other great sound-recording films with Blow Out and The Conversation. And Murch worked with Fred Zinnemann on Julia, and he would make a short film, As I See It, on Zinnemann after he died. On Zinnemann, Murch writes, “He was a member of cinema’s second generation. First were the Griffiths and the Chaplins, the people who started making film just after the turn of the century. They were the ones who got him [Zinnemann] intrigued by cinema when he was in his teens. He started making with Billy Wilder in 1925, as a teenager, in Berlin. Then there was third generation – Welles, Kubrick, Stanley Donen, Arthur Penn – and I guess my generation was the fourth.” My only problem with this general and respectable approach to film-history is that it leaves out such eccentricities like Fernando Di Leo, Sean Cunningham, and the late Irvin Kershner (who pops up late in the book as The Conversation, which first appeared as an article in Life magazine, was brought by him to Coppola’s attention).While some of Murch’s contemporaries that are discussed include Michael Mann, Robert Parrish, Wong Kar-Wai, and Robert Duvall.
Finally, The Conversations offers much to savor. There are guest contributions by George Lucas, Francis Ford Coppola (that bearded filmmaking entrepreneur), Rick Schmidlin, and Anthony Minghella. Between Ondaatje and Murch they discuss their work with collaborators and peers and the differing working processes out there, which makes part of the book read like Sidney Lumet’s Making Movies. The two offer different perspective on a work of art – the difference between the interpreter and the creator where one is more interested in analysis and the other on the technical aspect. Their influences and knowledge derive from each other’s resumes and background. Murch has also worked on all of The Godfather’s, The Talented Mr. Ripley, American Graffiti, K-19: The Widowmaker, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, the late Coppola films, and also has another book on editing, The Blink of an Eye. – David Davidson
* Michael Ondaatje will be introducing The English Patient at the TIFF Bell Lightbox on Monday, May 9th at 7PM as part of the Books on Film club series.