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Toward a Theory of Reel Time

THE CONVERSATIONS: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film, By Michael Ondaatje, Alfred A. Knopf: 384 pp., $35

September 22, 2002|JOHN BOORMAN | John Boorman is the co-editor of Projections and has directed such films as "Deliverance," "Hope and Glory," "The Emerald Forest," "Point Blank" and "Excalibur."

Jean-Luc Godard said to me, "You have to be young and foolish to make a film. If you know as much as we do, it is impossible." We were watching a first-time director blissfully pursuing his vision, protected from the complexities of the process by his delirious ignorance. Each time he was on the edge of disaster, the cameraman, the assistant director, the actors stepped in and caught him just before he fell. Later, he was lucky to find a good editor to help him shape these accidents and inspirations. Had he been very lucky, indeed, he might have got Walter Murch.

Starting out as the guru of the soundtrack, Murch has become one of the great film editors. He is a perfect foil for Francis Ford Coppola, who, while a consummate filmmaker, has always retained his belief in the primacy of chance and never lost his affection for chaos. Murch, while protecting the creativity, will find a mathematical structure to contain it. He compares the Coppola and the Alfred Hitchcock methods:

"It has to be said--both systems have their risks. The risk of the Hitchcockian system is that you may stifle the creative force of the people who are collaborating with you. The film that results--even if it's a perfect vision of what somebody had in his head--can be lifeless: It seems to exist on its own, without the necessary collaboration either of the people who made the film or even, ultimately, the audience. It says: I am what I am whether you like it or not. On the other hand, the risk with the process-driven film is that it can collapse into chaos. Somehow the central organizing vision can be so eaten away and compromised by all the various contributors that it collapses under its own weight."

I advise young filmmakers that the ideal is to carefully plan and pursue your vision but be open to the moments of inspired chance that can be contained within it. Very difficult. Akira Kurosawa describes how his films became more and more formally defined, shooting only exactly the shots he needed. This method makes for great intensity and concentration. The cast and crew know that every time the camera turns, the shot will be in the movie. In the cutting room he often found he needed to shorten a scene or wished he had a close-up for emphasis. However, he feared that to shoot extra shots of this and that, just in case, would compromise his method. His solution was to employ a second cameraman to shoot something on every scene on his own initiative. Kurosawa never printed his material unless he got into trouble in the editing. Then he would take a look. In this way he combined formality with the random.

The poet and novelist Michael Ondaatje, a man steeped in film history, became absorbed by Murch's views and methods during the making of his acclaimed book "The English Patient." "The Conversations" is made up of a series of conversations they conducted over a long period of time.

Ondaatje writes of Murch: "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.... 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 '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 [Italian prose] writings of Curzio Malaparte into [English poetry] ... as well as campaigning to revive the discredited theories of the 18th century astronomer Johannes Bode."

At first sight he seems absurdly overqualified for a job that is generally considered to be a combination of the mechanical and the intuitive. I have often written about the film process and described it as a language that everyone can understand but that is fiendishly difficult to speak. Whether in scripting, shooting or editing, we fumble and feel our way in a morass of trial and error, inspiration and correction. Our only guide--the rule of thumb. In moments of epiphany many filmmakers experience the insight that cinema will evolve into something we cannot yet imagine. We catch a glimpse of it when occasionally we achieve those rare heart-leaping cinematic moments when the elements transcend themselves into something ineffable. "The English Patient" achieved more than its share of those. Walter Murch has been developing a theory of what this future thing could be.

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