Friday, June 27, 2008

Walter Murch: standing tall

If you asked me which person working in the movies today I'd like to have dinner with, there's a good chance I'd answer Walter Murch -- editor and sound designer par excellence. Murch's artistry isn't performed behind or in front of the camera, but standing (he doesn't sit when working) in front of an editing bay or a mixing board. Since the early 70s Murch has been associated with a pair of California filmmakers that changed the face of Hollywood -- George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola -- and he's had fruitful partnerships with many other fine directors. But my admiration for Walter Murch goes beyond his accomplishments in cinema. Simply put, he's a gentleman and a scholar -- someone who's comfortable in a wide range of disciplines. Novelist Michael Ondaatje describes him as a "man whose brain is always peering over the wall into the worlds of scientific knowledge and metaphysical speculation." Ondaatje and Murch met during the adaptation of Ondaatje's novel The English Patient into what became the Academy Award-winning movie. He later conducted a series of interviews with Murch that were published as The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film. Rarely has a book given me as much pleasure. Ondaatje writes:

He is a true oddity in the world of film. A genuine Renaissance man who appears wise and private at the centre of various temporary storms to do with filmmaking and his whole generation of filmmakers. He has worked on the sound and/or picture editing of such films as American Graffiti, The Conversation, The Godfather (Parts I, II, and III), Julia, Apocalypse Now, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Ghost, and The English Patient. Four years ago he recut Touch of Evil, following Orson Welles's ignored fifty-eight-page memo to Universal. He has written and directed Return to Oz, an ambitious sequel to The Wizard of Oz. He has written In the Blink of an Eye, a sort of "Zen and the Art of Editing," as pertinent for writers and readers as it is for filmmakers and audiences.

But he is a man who also lives outside the world of film, the son of an artist whose theories and attitudes on art have deeply influenced him. He can sit at the piano and play "the music of the spheres," based on the distance of the planets from one another, translated by him into musical chords. And in recent years he has been translating the writings of Curzio Malaparte. He doesn't like to watch other movies when he is working on one himself, as he is ninety percent of the year. And he doesn't watch television, ever.

He is a low-key, gliding presence in a crowded and noisy room. He has a pair of ears that can pick up the hint of hum on a soundtrack, hiding within a twenty-track scene made up of gunfire, burning napalm, shouted orders, and helicopters. In the editing rooms of Francis Coppola's Zoetrope Studios, or the Saul Zaentz Film Center, he stands in front of an Avid editing machine, fine-tuning a cut that will eventually seem fluid but which is in reality a radical jump cut...to watch Murch at work is to see him delve into almost invisible specifics, where he harnesses and moves the bones or arteries of a scene, relocating them so they will alter the look of the features above the skin. Most of the work he does is going to affect us subliminally. (Introduction, pp. xiv-xv)

It's been said that editing is what separates film from other visual arts. It falls to the editor to take the hours of raw footage shot by a director and fashioning it into a coherent and compelling movie. No one understands the process better, or can explain it more eloquently than Murch. As in this comparison of the "spaghetti-sauce method" of editing a film and the "Procrustean" method.

Film travels at one mile an hour through its projector. So in Apocalypse Now, we shot over two hundred and thirty-five miles and reduced it all to two-and-a-half miles -- a ratio of just under 100 to 1. That's high, but not unique: Michael Mann's recent film The Insider had a similar ratio. There will be long stretches in the evolution of a film where nothing seems to fundamentally change -- plateaus.

And how you prune or chop will determine the very character of a film. There are two approaches to reducing the length of a film: There's what I call the spaghetti-sauce method, which is simply to put the film on the stove with some heat under it, and stir. You taste it occasionally and say, That's great! Now the carrots are working with the tomatoes in a good way, or, No, it's a little too thick, let's add some water! Gradually, organically, the volume of the film reduces to the appropriate level.

The opposite approach is more brutal. There was a brigand in Greek mythology, Procrustes, who lived on the road between Athens and Sparta. He had a cabin at a place where the road got very narrow, along the coast. Everyone who happened to pass his cabin was obliged to spend the night, and sleep on Procrustes' iron bed. While you were sleeping, he would either stretch you so that you were as long as the bed, or he would lop off things that stuck out, so that no matter how tall or short you were, by the time you left his cabin, you were the same length as everyone else who'd been there...in the end, we usually use some combination of both: the spaghetti-sauce method and the Procrustean. (pp. 136-140)

In this NPR interview Murch says the role of a film editor is "a combination of being a short order cook and a brain surgeon. Sometimes you’re doing incredibly delicate things, other times you’re doing the equivalent of flipping burgers." And he's quick to point out that both surgeons and cooks stand to do their work. Next Friday we'll take a look at his contributions to film sound.

1 comment:

redeyespy said...

He's long been one of my heroes. Nice to acknowledge that someone in Hollywood has interests outside of that bubble.