Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film, Part 2

This is a continuation of last week’s discussion of the book The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film. This sort of nuts-and-bolts stuff is endlessly fascinating, so let’s get back to some quotes from the book:

M: 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.

… there’s a delicate balance between the time line of a film’s story – which might take place over a series of days or weeks or months – and the fact that the film is only two hours long. You can stretch the amount of time somebody is in the same costume because the audience is subconsciously thinking, Well, I’ve only been here for two hours, so it’s not strange that he hasn’t changed his clothes.

Page 162

This makes me wonder about films where characters are constantly changing outfits. Is there a point where, if you change costumes often enough, the disadvantages boomerang back to being flexible because every scene has a different costume anyway? Probably not entirely, but maybe there’s something to that…

M: I guess I am drawn to stories where you have to get under the skin of rather unlikely and sometimes unlikeable characters.

How you do that, as an editor, ultimately comes down to selecting the shots, and moments within shots, where the character looks appealing yet problematic at the same time – conflicted, in other words. If you have a choice of seven different shots, which one shows that conflict best? There are many tiny but telling details the editor includes or eliminates in order to make the audience aware of the deeper aspects of character.

For instance, if you are wearing a hat, as soon as you tip the hat slightly back on your head, it gets noticed – you’re sending a message via the angle of the hat: I’m a happy-go-lucky guy. Or if you ram the hat down on your head, you’re saying, I don’t want to talk to anybody. Or if you tip it forward, you say, I’m aggressive…. But if you’re trying to be earnest, the tipped-back hat doesn’t quite send the right message.

In film there are endless versions of this, where a look, an aspect, an attitude, a gesture is fortuitously correct or incorrect, and either amplifies or contradicts the message the filmmakers want to convey.

I’m using “hat” as a metaphor: one moment is always going to be the most revealing, in the best sense, of the inner character, at that point in the film.

Page 174

Sometimes when you read criticism of a movie, people read a lot into the smallest detail and there are certainly times when that sort of extrapolation is inaccurate, but then you read stuff like the above and it isn’t always as far-fetched as it might seem.

Gene Hackman and an Air Freshener in The Conversation

They reference a scene in The Conversation where Gene Hackman’s character blows on a little air freshener – it’s a tiny moment, but revealing.

M: There’s a wonderful quotation from Goethe – he must have been frustrated at some point about the difficulty of communication. He said, “Utterly futile trying to change, by writing, someone’s fixed inclination. You will only succeed in confirming him of his opinion, or if he has none, drenching him in yours.”

O: There’s a poet in Vancouver who said, “I’ll see it when I believe it!”

M: Exactly. I’m sure Goethe didn’t think that way most of the time, otherwise he wouldn’t have kept writing. He was talking in black-and-white terms: Agree with me or not! The richest zone of communication is in the grey area, around things like your staircase, where the reader is somewhat receptive to what the author writes but also brings along his own images, and ideas, which in a creative way do violence to the author’s vision and ideas. A synergy results from what the writer presents and what the reader brings. That communication, initially present in neither the sender or the receiver, is greater than the message of the writer alone or the thoughts of the reader alone.

Page 209

There’s a lot here that’s relevant to the current state of discourse in the world. That rich zone in the grey area is obliterated by most of what passes for discourse these days. Everyone’s so afraid of being misinterpreted that the sort of synergy that Murch is referring to here becomes difficult. A lot of people complaining about making things “too political” are talking about this sort of thing. It’s not that politics exist that’s the problem, it’s the lack of potential synergy…

M: There’s a great game… Negative Twenty Questions. … It was invented by John Wheeler, a quantum physicist who was a young graduate student of Neils Bohr’s in the 1930s. … he thought up a parlour game that reflects the way the world is constructed at a quantum level. It involves, say, four people. Michael, Anthony, Walter, and Aggie. From the point of view of one of those people, Michael, the game that’s being played is the normal Twenty Questions – Ordinary Twenty Questions, I guess you’d call it. So Michael leaves the room, under the illusion that the other three players are going to look around and collectively decide on the chosen object to be guessed by him – say, the alarm clock. Michael expects that when they’ve made their decision they will ask him to come back in and try to guess the object in fewer than twenty questions.

Under normal circumstances, the game is a mixture of perspicacity and luck: No, it’s not bigger than a breadbox. No, you can’t eat it… Those kinds of things.

But in Wheeler’s version of the game, when Michael leaves the room, the three remaining players don’t communicate with one another at all. Instead, each of them silently decides on an object. They call Michael back in.

So there’s a disparity between what Michael believes and what the underlying truth is: Nobody knows what anyone else is thinking. The game proceeds regardless, which is where the fun comes in.

Michael asks Walter: Is the object bigger than a breadbox? Walter – who has picked the alarm clock – says, No. Now, Anthony has chosen the sofa, which is bigger than a breadbox. And since Michael is going to ask him the next question, Anthony must quickly look around the room and come up with something else – a coffee cup! – which is smaller than a breadbox. So when Michael asks Anthony, If I emptied out my pockets, could I put their contents in this object? Anthony says, Yes.

Now Aggie’s choice may have been the small pumpkin carved for Halloween, which could also contain Michael’s keys and coins, so when Michael says, Is it edible? Aggie says, Yes. That’s a problem for Walter and Anthony, who have chosen inedible objects: they now have to change their selection to something edible, hollow, and smaller than a breadbox.

So a complex vortex of decision making is set up, a logical but unpredictable chain of ifs and thens. To end successfully, the game must produce, in fewer than twenty questions, and object that satisfies all of the logical requirements: smaller than a breadbox, hollow, et cetera. Two things can happen: Success – this vortex can give birth to an answer that will seem to be inevitable in retrospect: Of course! It’s the ______! And the game ends with Michael still believing he has just played Ordinary Twenty Questions. In fact, no one chose the ______ to start with, and Anthony, Walter, and Aggie have been sweating it out, doing these hidden mental gymnastics, always one step ahead of failure.

Which is the other possible result: Failure – the game can break down catastrophically. By question 15, let’s say, the questions asked have generated logical requirements so complex that nothing in the room can satisfy them. And when Michael asks Anthony the sixteenth question, Anthony breaks down and has to confess that he doesn’t know, and Michael is finally let in on the secret: The game was negative Twenty Questions all along. Wheeler suggests that the nature of perception and reality, at the quantum level, and perhaps above, is somehow similar to this game.

Pages 210- 212

Murch then applies this to filmmaking and the collaborative process of constantly adjusting due to various aspects of the production. This sort of collaboration can be precarious, but Murch argues that it’s preferable to a monolithic vision.

M: One of the reasons I lobby for the increased collaboration of everyone who can have a voice on a film is that through collaboration you add facets to the work. The work is going to be seen by millions of people, over many decades and under very many different circumstances, and even though the film is a fixed thing, you want it to be multifaceted so that different people will see different things in it, and come away rewarded.

The best, easiest way to get that multifacetedness is to allow the collaboration of lots of people, as well as Chance, which is sometimes Fate in costume. Each of those moments of collaboration, each contribution by someone other than the director, adds a slightly different perspective to the work, some chisel mark slightly at an angle to the central vision. And each of these moments, these facets, has the potential to make the work “sparkle” in a creative sense, and make it more accessible to a greater variety of people over a longer period of time.

If, instead, the film is a single, monolithic vision, the viewer has no option other than to submit to it on its own terms, bow down to it, or turn away from it.

Page 242

Easier said than done, for sure, and you’re inviting that catastrophic failure element from Negative Twenty Questions, but when it works? Seems worth it.

M: In film, at the moment of the cut you are juxtaposing one image with another, and that’s the equivalent of rhyme. It’s how rhyme and alliteration work in poetry, or how we juxtapose two words or two images, and what that juxtaposition implies. Either by emphasizing the theme or by countering it, modulating it, like an invisible Greek chorus. What’s being stated may be one thing, but by juxtaposing two different images at the moment of the cut, and makin them as striking as possible, we can say, Yes, but there’s something else going on here.

The trick is to make that flow an organic part of the process. Editing is a construction, a mosaic in three dimensions, two of space and one of time. It’s a miniature version of the way films are made, which is an artificial, piece-by-piece process.

Page 268

Murch has being doing this long enough that he says he knows when to cut because he almost involuntarily flinches when watching a shot, and he knows that flinch moment is when to cut. He apparently does this down to the frame (i.e. 1/24th of a second), which is astounding and seemingly tedious.

M: … what he meant was, How are you doing? … So I answered, Oh yeah, I’m very happy. Things are great! But later that evening I kept mulling over that question, thinking, What I said was the right social response, but what’s the real response to that question – from one director to another? The closest I came was, No, I’m not happy, but I would be absolutely miserable if I were prevented from doing what I’m doing now. Don’t stop me – I’m miserable, but don’t stop me. I’m miserable in the amazing, cosmic way that a director is miserable.

There’s a phrase from something Martha Graham once said about that process. She calls it “blessed unrest.”

Pages 282 – 283

That’s a great phrase and gets at a core contradiction of the human condition. It reminds me of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. The “flow” state is difficult to get into and often involves very hard work that doesn’t seem like it would be enjoyable, but once you get there, you lose track of everything else and never want to leave. “Blessed unrest” seems like a good descriptor of that sort of thing.

M: … films, when they work, are functioning at a complex level of harmonic interaction – of sounds and images and acting and costume and art direction and photography and on and on. At the beginning we have a script which, complex as it may be, is like a simple melodic line, but we don’t yet have an orchestrated score. The director – who is the closest we have to the conductor of the piece, visually speaking – doesn’t have a way of orchestrating all these things except through talking and instruction by example and sometimes, it seems, through some kind of divine intervention. If every decision that had to be made on the film had to be articulated, spelled out in detail, the film would never get done…

O: But surely on one level, the lack of rules and codes,and the lack of a too pre-meditated theory is what keeps film alive. Obviously film is an art form and it’s a made form, but what’s wonderful about film is how it also catches an uncontrolled reality. There’s the chance of the accidental, which then can be selected, chosen, and shaped by the director and the editor. But to begin with something too controlled… it’s why I cannot stand cartoons, which are a hundred percent premeditated, totally manipulative, and therefore completely artificial.

Pages 306 – 307

Alrighty then, I think I’ve mined this book enough for now. though there’s lots of other fascinating topics discussed throughout (for example, I didn’t even get into Murch’s attempts to develop a sorta Movie notation like music has, based on the I Ching). Suffice it to say that it’s a highly recommended book for anyone interested in how film actually works.

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