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In a Visual Art, He's Made His Mark With Sound

Movies * Oscar-winning Walter Murch will be honored by the motion picture academy for his work on films like 'Apocalypse Now.'

October 06, 2000|BILL DESOWITZ | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

For nearly 30 years, Walter Murch has advanced the art of sound in film by challenging and enriching the filmgoing experience. In particular, his contributions to "American Graffiti" (1973), "The Conversation" (1974), "Apocalypse Now" (1979) and "The English Patient" (1996) expand our awareness of sound in exciting ways.

"Walter inspired all of us to think hard about a precept we all believed in: sound is 50% of your picture--the clear sharing with image of the total effect of the finished film," director Francis Ford Coppola suggests.

Tonight, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will honor the Oscar-winning sound designer and film editor for his imaginative and cutting-edge talents with a tribute at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater. The sold-out program will feature appearances by two of his closest friends and collaborators, Coppola ("The Conversation" and "Apocalypse Now") and George Lucas ("American Graffiti").

Meanwhile, Murch, 57, will also participate in the first of two academy symposiums on sound, which take place Wednesday and Oct. 18 at the Goldwyn Theater.

Coppola, who's been re-cutting a new version of "Apocalypse Now" with Murch, says working with him again has been a renewed pleasure: "Walter is very thoughtful, methodical, really, about the way he arrives at solutions and decisions. I, on the other hand, deal in a process more like the combustion engine, in fitful explosions of ideas. So obviously, we do work well together."

For Murch, working with Coppola and Lucas up in San Francisco has been creatively stimulating and collegial. "We were all film school graduates in the mid-'60s," Murch recalls in a recent interview. "They couldn't handle the sudden influx of film students from USC, UCLA and NYU. They told us there wasn't enough work to accommodate us.

"Those of us who stayed in the late '60s found that Hollywood was in a down period. But we were drawn to the French new wave, Italian neo-realism, [Akira] Kurosawa and an independent spirit in American film. We were attracted to an odd take on things. We moved up to San Francisco to re-create the 'everyone can do everything' film school mentality. We didn't like the specialization that went on in the studio system. We were into multi-tasking, as it were. It exposes you to other disciplines out of necessity.

"What we started in San Francisco has come to pass in the industry as a whole, with the various guilds allowing you to cross-fertilize. It's a wonderful way to get a synergy going."

Influenced by French Music of the Street

Murch has been fascinated by sound ever since he got his first tape recorder as an early teen. He enjoys manipulating sound: cutting it up, running it backward, upside down, changing meaning and context. He was especially influenced by the French music of the street--musique concrete--from the '40s and '50s, which was renowned for its unusual tonalities.

"I wanted to fuse this music aesthetic with film," Murch adds. "I like the richness of manipulation, changing meaning and context for emotional and intellectual purposes. I try to push sound effects into the musical domain. I love the way sound flows below the radar of consciousness."

It's a philosophy that Murch has put to masterful use over the years. In "American Graffiti," he created a unique spatial depth of field through the use of rock 'n' roll on the soundtrack; in "The Conversation' (due Dec. 12 on DVD from Paramount Home Video), he conjured up a wiretapper's nightmare of sonic confusion; in "Apocalypse Now," he mixed the familiar and the exotic to surreal and surround effect; and in "The English Patient," he helped capture the inner turmoil of memory gone awry, taking home Oscars for both sound and film editing--a first.

But when Murch worked on the reconstruction of Orson Welles' "Touch of Evil" in 1997 (due Oct. 31 on DVD from Universal Home Video), he discovered that his philosophy was not unique. Welles had done it all before. Yet reinstating Welles' personal vision augmented his own way of making films.

"I found in Welles a kindred spirit," Murch says. 'He was a combination of everything I was interested in. His spatial approach was fascinating--an outgrowth of his experience in radio. I found ties to 'Graffiti' and 'Conversation.' I thought I was inventing something new in 'Graffiti' with spatial manipulation of music. All I did was reinvent that wheel. And 'Conversation,' where you follow people around with a tape recorder and have it come back to haunt you, was already done in 'Touch of Evil.' "

These days, Murch has returned to the past again, re-cutting "Apocalypse Now" with Coppola, and restoring the first sound demonstration in movie history at the right speed for the first time in more than 100 years (see sidebar).

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