The Blog

The Kindest Cut

From the September 22, 2002 Washington Times: A new book on film editing finally gives the great Walter Murch his due.

12:00 AM, Sep 26, 2002 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

THE MOVIE INDUSTRY is peculiar for many reasons, among which is this: The least important and most interchangeable artists in the community (actors) are the best known and rewarded, while the most-skilled and least replaceable artists (writers and editors) are virtually anonymous. To wit: Everyone in America knows who Adam Sandler is. He has starred in such pleasant and forgettable fare as "Happy Gilmore," "The Waterboy," and "Big Daddy." He earns $20 million per movie.

Few people know Anne Coates, who has edited nearly 50 movies, including, among others, "Lawrence of Arabia," "Murder on the Orient Express," "In the Line of Fire," and "Out of Sight." Whatever she is paid, it isn't enough.

By the same token, you have probably never heard of Walter Murch. Murch pioneered the art of sound design and editing before moving on to film editing. He has edited a number of seminal pictures, including "American Graffiti," "The Conversation," "The Godfather" trilogy, and "Apocalypse Now." He is a serious intellectual who spends his spare time translating the works of the Italian writer Curzio Malaparte. And he is the subject of Michael Ondaatje's wide-ranging and engaging The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film.

Ondaatje and Murch met during the filming of "The English Patient"; Ondaatje had written the novel and Murch was editing the movie. They became fast friends and Ondaatje decided to conduct a series of interviews with Murch and turn them into a book about his craft.

In "The Conversations," Ondaatje sheds all manner of light on the nuts and bolts of the editing process. For example, film travels through the projector at roughly one mile per hour, and on average, 25 times as much film is shot for a movie than is used in the final cut. So, to construct a two-hour movie, editors normally have to wade through about 50 miles of film. Occasionally, a movie will shoot much more film than that--"Apocalypse Now" famously had a ratio of 100 to 1, which Murch edited down to a manageable 153 minutes of running time.

Murch estimates that an average movie has 1,000 edits--cuts from one camera angle to another. Part of the editor's job is to help carry the audience through this jostling without them noticing it. "After each cut it takes a few milliseconds for the audience to discover where they should now be looking," he says. "If you don't carry their focus of interest across the cut points, if you make them search at every cut, they become disoriented and annoyed, without knowing why."

Along the way, Murch explains many secrets of the trade. He likes to cut shots when the actor blinks; he thinks that movies with a single point of view have to run under two hours (because "a symphony can be longer than a sonata"); and he believes a small wardrobe can help a movie: "In film there's a costume department interested in showing what it can do --which is only natural--so, on the smallest pretext, characters will change clothes. The problem is, that locks filmmakers into a more rigid scene structure. But if a character keeps the same clothes, you can put a scene in a different place and it doesn't stand out."

And the job of the editor isn't merely to string together scenes. The editor often rearranges the entire structure of the film. It is, as Murch properly calls it, "film construction."

A good deal of time in "The Conversations" is spent discussing the use of music in film. Most movies made today have a nearly continuous soundtrack, where every dramatic moment is foreshadowed or augmented by background music. If the beautiful blonde is about to be attacked by someone from the shadows, you know beforehand because of the rising strings. Murch has always eschewed this sort of emotional manipulation.

"Most movies use music the way athletes use steroids . . ." he says. "It gives you an edge, it gives you speed, but it's unhealthy for the organism in the long run." The correct use of music he believes, "is as a collector and channeler of previously created emotion, rather than the device that creates the emotion."

For example, in a tense scene in "The Godfather," Michael Corleone shoots and kills Sollozzo and Captain McCluskey in a crowded restaurant. There's no music during their exchange. Even after Michael fires the fateful shots, there's silence. Only after he drops the gun does the grand, operatic music come in, and Murch masterfully uses it not to create a sense of drama, but to channel it.

The most intriguing insights in "The Conversations" come when Murch and Ondaatje discuss the metaphysics of film. Murch observes that in 1889, August Lumiere called film "an invention without a future." And indeed, Murch believes that film might have petered out into irrelevance instead of becoming the dominant art form of the day but for the work of the men he calls the "Three Fathers" of film: Thomas Edison, Gustave Flaubert, and Beethoven.

Edison made film technically feasible, but half a century before him, Flaubert prepared the ground by making realism an acceptable method of artistic expression. And before him, Beethoven helped audiences become accustomed to emotional dynamism, to having art play at their passions. As Murch says, film is a perfect amalgam of these two sensibilities, it's "a medium ideally suited to the dynamic representation of closely observed reality."

Murch observes that there is a certain mathematics to film: that an audience can only process 2.5 thematic elements at a time, that there are 14 cuts per minute in sustained action scenes, that the first rough cut of a movie should be only 30 percent over the final runtime. But he supposes there may be more to this math: "These are perhaps just islands above a larger submerged continent of theory we have yet to discover."

This undiscovered theory fascinates Murch. He argues that cinema is now where music was before musical notation. "But when modern musical notation was invented in the eleventh century," he says, "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."

It will be interesting to see whether or not Murch's suspicions will be born out (his best guess for cinematic notation is a system derived from the I Ching).

The wider world will never appreciate Walter Murch's contributions to film. But "The Conversations" pulls his considerable talent and intellect out of obscurity and onto the public record, if only for a brief moment. Movie lovers should take note.

Jonathan V. Last is online editor of The Weekly Standard.