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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
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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.