February 10th, 2011 / 5:18 pm
Film & Power Quote

Arts, Process, Edit

In France*, cheese-making is really two processes. On dairies, milk is collected from cows, goats, or sheep, is cultured, maybe cooked, somehow molded. That is the first process. After that, an affineur¬†takes over. The whole job of an affineur is to age cheese. Keep it at the right temperature, rotate it, maybe dust it off from time to time. When you hear about cheese caves, that’s the affineur part. In the small-producer cheese world, the affineurs are the stars, the ones whose name you would know if you worked in that industry. Pierre Androuet, Herve Mons, Marcel Petite (O the Comte from the cellars of Marcel Petite!). One affineur might get wheels from several different trusted dairies, whose names never make it on the packaging (unlike in the US, where most cheeses seem to be branded by farm/dairy).

So it goes with films–the editing is done by someone else, not the director or screenwriter. Walter Murch was the editor and/or sound editor (he’s the only person to win Oscars for both) of Apocalypse Now, The Godfather II, The Conversation, and many many others. His work on ¬†The English Patient acquainted him with Michael Ondaatje. The two had a series of conversations/interviews (Ondaatje is asking the questions, primarily) that are collected in a book called The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film.

The book is a trove. I’ve been meaning to write about it here for over a year (!), but I’m still not all the way through it. Obviously, I’ve put it down a lot, but also I just really want to take my time with it because there is so much to learn and reflect on. I’m fascinated by how these two men, both of whose work I adore, find these nexuses between film editing and book editing. It’s a reminder of how much we as word-people have to learn from people who work in other media. The reason I started with the cheese example is that the big overarching thing the book makes me think about is the relationship between making and aging/editing/tending/revising. Below are a few passages that stood out for me. But really, you should have this book. It was assigned to me in grad school by the great Susan Bell, author of The Artful Edit, which, if a friend hadn’t made off to California with my copy, would get its own post. But with all respect to Bell and Stunk and White and the rest, The Conversations is the best writing manual (not that it’s trying to be) that I’ve ever read. So, here are some bits (O for Ondaatje and M for Murch):

M: It’s a stage in the process I call “editing with eyes half closed.” You can’t open your eyes completely, which is to say, you can’t express your opinion unreservedly. You don’t know enough yet. And you’re only the editor. You have to give everything the benefit of the doubt. On the other hand, you can’t be completely without opinion, otherwise nothing would ever get done. Putting a film together is all about having opinions: this not that, now not later, in or out. But exactly what the balance should be between neutrality and opinion is a very tricky question. The point is, if you squash this down, then you push the whole curve of the film down, whereas it might have righted itself by its own mysterious means. If you try to correct the film while putting it together, you end up chasing your own tail.

I find this incredibly instructive as an editor of my own work. The conventional wisdom is to be merciless as editors. But what if we pretended we were a whole different person? In what Murch is saying there is a degree of humility but also assertiveness He respects the raw material and treads lightly but decisively. Seems a good model.

O: The thing is, the structure in a book allows the reader a more meditative participation than in film. Because we are not bound in time. The reader can “investigate” the given story and look back and pause and qualify the material.

M: If you don’t understand a paragraph in a book, you can read it again, at your own pace. With a film, you have to consume it in one go, at a set speed.

Ondaatje and Murch are using permission words like can and allow when speaking of a book reader, and imperative words like must when speaking of a film viewer. Rightly so. But there is also something wonderful about being compelled through time, and, for the filmmaker, to create this experience. So, as a writer, I’m thinking about how I can enact that. Yes, a reader can always reread a paragraph, but is there a way to tighten, to compel, to urge in a more temporal way with words? I’m thinking beyond any kind of “page-turner” quality, and more along the lines of foreclosure. A movie forecloses the viewer’s experience with time passing. How can a book?

M: There are underlying mathematical influences that determine how a film gets put together, which are amazingly consistent, seemingly independent of the films themselves. Over the years, I’ve come to rely on these influences–navigation points–as I work on each film. For instance: 2.5–an audience can process only two and a half thematic elements at any moment; 14–a sustained action scene averages out to fourteen new camera positions a minute; 30–an assembly should be no more than thirty percent over the ideal running length of the film. But these are perhaps just islands above a larger submerged continent of theory that we have yet to discover.

This slays me. Some might call it formula but that implies that he created it, rather than discovering it. I’m in awe. He continues,

Actually, when you stop to think about it, it is amazing that film editing works at all. One moment we’re at the top of Mauna Kea and–cut!–the next we’re at the bottom of the Mariana Trench. The instantaneous transition of the cut is nothing like what we experience as normal life, which seems to be one continuous shot from the moment we wake until we close our eyes at night. It wouldn’t have been surprising if film editing had been tried and then abandoned when it was found to induce a kind of seasickness. But it doesn’t: we happily endure, in fact enjoy, these sudden transitions for which nothing in our evolutionary history seems to have prepared us.

He goes on to theorize that it is dreams that prepare us for this. What follows from there continues to be great but is too much to quote. We throw around words like form and style and we do mean something by them, but Murch seems to be getting at something much deeper–he’s talking mechanics, grammar.

This makes me think about the word experimental. An experiment, really, is the attempt to discover. You hypothesize about how something works, or what it is or does, and then you try to find evidence of that. Yes, that will often lead to invention, but any invention must be grounded in discovery. What Murch is saying seems very true to that. He’s not saying film editing works because we’ve become accustomed to films, but because something within us is ready for those cuts. That’s why it works. I think the same is true in other arts. An experiment works if it starts with discovery, rather than starting with the desire to do something in a new way. Take an older artistic experiment, like Impressionism or stream of consciousness. Those artists did those thing because they seemed more true to how our minds worked, not because it was different. The Impressionists hypothesized that this is how we really perceive light, filtered through consciousness. And the Modernists postulated that our minds don’t move in a straight line, so why should a first-person narrative? Both were right, and so their experiments worked. Yes, they may seem dated now, but I would argue that that’s only because we have made further discoveries.

And then this:

One of the most fruitful paradoxes, I think, is that even when the film is finished, there should be unsolved problems. Because there’s another stage, beyond the finished film: when the audience views it. You want the audience to be co-conspirators in the creation of this work, just as much as the editor or the mixers or the cameraman or the actors are. If by some chemistry you actually did remove all ambiguity in the final mix–even though it had been ambiguous up to that point–I think you would do the film a disservice. But the paradox is that you have to approach every problem as if it’s desperately important to solve it. You can’t say, I don’t want to solve this because it’s got to be ambiguous. If you do that, then there’s a sort of haemorrhaging of the organism.

And to close:

Reality can only go so far and then you have to go beyond reality, beyond the frame. I’ve always found that I’ve underestimated how far I can push. It’s rare that I put a sound to film and it says, “Oops, no, that goes too far!” Usually it says, “No, do more!”

*And, to the best of my knowledge, Italy, and perhaps elsewhere, and to some degree in the US though things get very fuzzy very fast.

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  1. Kyle Minor

      I’m glad you posted about this book. You’re right — it’s full of treasure. Murch’s book on film editing is also beautiful (it’s as much an expression of his aesthetic philosophy as it is a book about the craft of editing for film), and if you like these, I’d also recommend John Berger’s Ways of Seeing, Berger’s essays, Lawrence Weschler’s convergences book, and the stuff that Murch and Weschler (and others) have done at transom.org.

  2. Amy McDaniel

      I love John Berger! I found him randomly in high school, when I was much more diligent about learning about art, and got hooked, then read Ways of Seeing in college. It’s time to revisit. I will def check out the other Murch and the Weschler. thank you!

  3. Sean

      This is fascinating and I found it informative, but I wonder about the jump cut thing, how it something jarring. I just feel contemporary viewers of film live their lives as jump cuts, as jump cut roles, as jump cut images, as jump cut thoughts, as edits from this to this to this. I do find the idea of “…one continuous shot from the moment we wake until we close our eyes at night.” as extremely soothing, but I usually only find it when deep in the forest, alone. It might possibly be why I like to go deep in the forest or down a river. I don’t get that at all in my day (and of course never online).

  4. Amy McDaniel

      thanks for reading! i agree, and I think if i had provided more you’d find that Murch is saying something similar…that, while objectively there are no cuts that sharp from one place to another as we go about our day, certainly that is how we subjectively experience the world, especially internally and in memory.

      for some reason this makes me think of something i read about hitchcock and dali collaborating on a dream sequence…hitchcock felt that while usually dreams are rendered in movies as all misty and ethereal, actually dreams are extremely vivid and sharp, and wanted to render them that way.

  5. Ken Baumann

      Thank you!

  6. Amber

      This is fantastic. Thanks for posting this, Amy.

  7. alan

      Thank you, I’m going to check this out.

      I would recommend along the same lines “When the Shooting Stops, the Cutting Begins: A Film Editor’s Story” by Ralph Rosenblum (“Annie Hall”) and Robert Bresson’s “Notes on Cinematography.”

  8. drew kalbach

      it isn’t a continuous shot, though, is it: the gaps in our vision, minuscule, when the neurons in our eyes have to reset in order to fire again which the brain fills in. constant microgaps, but gaps breaking up the continuity nonetheless.

  9. Amy McDaniel

      Yes, you’re right! He talks all about that. These are just excerpts but in the book he connects all that and more.

  10. drew kalbach

      i’m convinced. i’ll give this book a shot i think.

  11. seventydys

      Great recommendation. Thanks.

      ‘Berger on Drawing’ is also excellent, and highly relevant to writing in a not-so-mediated way – the moves between mentation, apprehension and rendering, altering and so on.

  12. Josephriippi

      Very excited to see this book up here. I’ve loved it for a long time, and aside from the occasional fellow Ondaatjephile, haven’t had occasion to comment on what a wonderful and colorful book it is.