on September 22, 2002
Someone once said, "Film editing is a wonderful arcane art, like
mosaics. I love to watch it being done, but editors hate to be
watched." Just as editors like to work away from the gaze of
would-be supervisors, we in the audience are often not aware of
the important the work of these people behind the scenes. How
many times have you seen a review comment on the editing, and
if it praise or belittles the way the film is cut, how often is the
responsible editor named? In his new book "The Conversations,"
author Michael Ondaatje has transcribed a series of talks with
Walter Murch, considered by many to be without peer in the
profession. The 59-year-old Renaissance man, as involved in
trying to prove the Titus-Bode theory on the spatial intervals
between planets and a translator of Italian poetry, has been
instrumental in creating the sounds and the cuts of films such as
"American Graffiti," "The Conversation," "The Godfather I,II, III,"
"Julia," "Apocalypse Now," and "The English Patient."
In introducing this seminal work on Walter Murch, Ondaatje
informs us that Murch, like other editors, is concerned with a
film's pace, of course, but even more with the moral tone of a work
which has to do with speed, background noise, even how the
antagonist may turn away from a conversation. Recall how many
films have the editor cut away from a character before he finishes
speaking. This could be because the editor encourages the
audience to think only about the face value of what the character
has said. If on the other hand the editor allows the audience to
see from the expression in the actor's eyes that he is probably not
telling the truth, he will linger on the character after he finishes
Words and sounds are not all. Murch at times pulls all the
sound out of the scene so that there is complete silence. This
often means that something terrible is about to happen. And
when sounds take place outside the room (as in the street sounds
when Michael Corleone commits his first murder in "The
Godfather"), we get the feeling that we are inside a cave-like room.
Murch tosses in his personal theories about the nature of
viewing a movie, among the most inciteful being this paradox:
"One of the things about watching a video is that it never feels
private. I'm always conscious of others in the room, so I become
self-conscious during an erotic scene. But it never feels that way
in a cinema, even at a comedy with people laughing around me."
On a note more technical than philosophical he states, "....a
sustained action scene averages out to 14 new camera positions
When I used to take a class of tech high school students on a
field trip to a Broadway show, I found that they were more
interesting in discussing the big sound-mixing machine in the
back of the orchestra than in chatting about the way Hamlet's
vacillations were dealt with on the stage. "The Conversations"
won't tell you how to work the editing machines, but Ondaatje
does give you solid insight into the world of the editing profession
in a reader-friendly, flowing style.
on June 23, 2003
Like the reviewer below, I was skeptical of the Q&A format - an approach that often tends to elicit fairly superficial dialog in the realm of film (with some notable exceptions, including the classic Hitchcock/Truffaut book). This is fine for a magazine article, but potentially painful for 300+ pages. That said, this book really surprised me - and within only a few pages I was totally hooked. Ondaatje manages to spur on a delightful conversation filled with some very profound insights on editing, filmmaking, and the creative process itself (with many interesting detours along the way). I think this book can be enjoyed by both amateur film enthusiast and cynical cinephile alike. To be honest, I found the book to be a better articulation of Murch's ideas than his own "In the Blink of an Eye" -- though I would still recommend that as a secondary text to Conversations. I would also suggest that anyone reading this try to see Murch's major works first: The Conversation, Apocalypse Now, the Godfather I & II, and the English Patient - as they are all referred to in fairly significant detail throughout the book, and it will make for a more enjoyable read if you're familiar with them.
The film editor is the great unsung hero of the filmmaking process. After all, during the annual Oscar ceremony, the award for Best Film Editing seems to be hidden away between bad production numbers and some indecipherable technical award. As directors like Francis Ford Coppola and Anthony Minghella constantly receive praise for their creative visions, it is obviously the film editor's onerous task to make sense of that vision and capture the key moments and sounds that define it. Film editor and sound designer par excellence, Walter Murch, is the subject of this endlessly fascinating book, which chronicles a series of five extensive conversations he had with Michael Ondaatje, author of "The English Patient". They met on the set of that film, one of many fine films Murch has edited, and Ondaatje was so struck by his personality and methods that he decided to write this book. In fact, Ondaatje was bowled over by how Murch could draw lines connecting the most disparate things in the cosmos: philosophy, technology, science, music, literature, art, languages, sound theory. Murch can locate the impulse of a film in the symphonies of Beethoven or in the way he views painting and architecture. He knows of what he speaks as his track record is very impressive - "Apocalypse Now", all three parts of "The Godfather", "American Graffiti", "Julia", "The Unbearable Lightness of Being", "The Talented Mr. Ripley", and the list goes on.
This intriguing book also explores the dynamic relationship between film editing and writing, which means Ondaatje is in a unique position to provide insight into his own methods. It becomes clear that Murch's descriptions of his editing offer Ondaatje new ways of understanding his own work as a novelist, and much of the pleasure derived from the book comes from Ondaatje's self-discovery process. Murch convincingly presents himself as both a physicist and a mathematician of cinema and suggests that we are in a prehistoric period, and that over time, we will eventually develop a system of notation for film much like musical notes. He sees it as his own destiny to uncover the underlying mathematics of cinema. Of course, Ondaatje provides perspectives of the filmmakers with whom Murch has worked extensively, providing accounts of Murch's importance in Hollywood by such figures as Coppola and George Lucas. Some films understandably get more attention than others. There is a lot of discourse on "The Conversation" and "Apocalypse Now", including the Redux version, as well as the "Godfather" trilogy, including his re-edit to make it one giant epic. Lots of revelations come out in these discussions. For example, one can now finally understand that Robert Duvall's absence (due to pay demands) is to blame for the lackluster "Godfather Part III" since the initial vision was to focus on the death of Tom Hagen, much as it was on the killings of Sonny in Part I and Fredo in Part II. He also has some interesting insight in the recutting and remixing of Orson Welles' "Touch of Evil". But he goes well beyond his own films, as he cites and discusses films of great influence to him like "King Kong" and Eisentein's "Alexander Nevsky".
An obvious intellectual with a nimble mind for data collection and synthesis, Murch has managed to combine technological and engineering know-how with artistic inventiveness. Not surprisingly, he is also a bit of an eccentric, a Renaissance man slightly out of step with his time. This book will greatly appeal to film buffs as it offers a real insight into how some of our most iconic films of the last quarter century were made. This is a pure delight chock full of interesting photos, probably the best such interactive collaboration since Francois Truffaut interviewed Alfred Hitchcock.
Walter Murch may be the greatest film editor alive, having cut classic works by Coppola (THE CONVERSATION, THE GODFATHER PARTS I, II, and III, APOCALYPSE NOW, THE RAIN PEOPLE), Minghella ( THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY, COLD MOUNTAIN), Kaufman (THE UNBEARABLE LIGHTNESS OF BEING) and Zimmermann (JULIA). The novelist Michael Ondaatje, whose best-known novel THE ENGLISH PATIENT was adapted by Anthony Minghella into another a film cut by Murch, had the fine idea of sitting down for a series of conversations with Murch to ask him about his little-understood, important, and intelligent art form. The result is one of the greatest series of extended conversations on film since Truffaut's interviews with Hitchcock. Part of the pleasure of the book is getting not only to see Murch's complex work described but also getting to know him as a personality: considered one of the most intelligent men in Hollywood, he comes across not only as exceptionally erudite but also unpretentious and honest. Ondaatje may be the ideal interlocutor for Murch because he is so beautiufully versed in film history and in Murch's work; his many asides about his own writings may allow him to come across at times as a bit self-enamoured, but they do allow the reader the multiple pleasure of having a major figure in world literature give insights into his own work as we also hear about Murch's. One of the best delights the book offers is ample illustrations of the examples Murch and Ondaatje discuss, which are drawn from literature and the other arts and humanities as much as they are from film: one of the best is when the book offers side by side comparisons of the first draft and final version of Elizabeth Bishop's great villanelle "One Art," which is itself a celebration of the art of editing. It is rare to see a non-academic book about film that takes its readers' intelligence for granted. As such, it is genuinely a book everyone seriously interested in film should own.
on November 1, 2015
A really interesting meditation on editing and storytelling. I bought this expecting a more how-to book on editing. It is not that. It is very different than that. It's more round about and indirect. It's more about the principles around the moves you might make as an editor than any particular step by step move guide. But given that, it's really interesting to hear an acclaimed and accomplished novelist talk with a really talented film editor. It's really interesting to hear about their tricks for story telling and how they relate. It's more about how to tell a story in general than how to edit or write in particular. But as far as that goes it is completely memorable and very instructional.
on April 6, 2016
An excellent book for anyone interested in the king of audio in the movies. Walter Murch may no be a household name, but his movies are. I loved reading this book and the stories Walter would tell about how he discovered something or what drove him to try something. His passion really comes through in everything he says.
on February 4, 2003
I don't usually like Q&A-style interviews, but this book is a notable exception because it's more like eavesdropping on a private conversation between two very savvy colleagues. Murch has some original and intriguing things to say about the ways he approaches his art (like theorizing that movie music reinforces an existing emotion--rather than inspiring one). Here's looking forward to his next book--the one in which he posits his notational scheme for cinema. It sounds like a crackpot idea, rather like that musical I wisely never wrote in which each instrument corresponded to a different bodily function. I suspect Murch can deliver on his dream, if anyone can.
on May 9, 2013
Of all the books I have ordered about film, film making, cameras, story telling, etc, etc this one was the best. I was sad when I finished. Walter Murch is a legend and Michael Ondaatje is superb as a writer. Even if you are not passionate about the art of film this book is worth reading. If you ARE passionate about film and story telling then don't even think twice...order it.
on November 27, 2014
This is a wonderful book -- five stars for insight, not only about movie editing but about how a brilliant craftsman uses his broader knowledge to enhance his work. and as the record of a conversation, a pleasure to read. less than five stars for the quality of the paperback edition, however. the paper is cheap and the photograph illustrations, which do so much to clarify meaning in the hardback version, are blurred and flat in the paperback, a definite disappointment. i'm thinking of writing off my purchase and finding a replacement hardback.
on October 14, 2004
Film directors are like Napoleon, all-powerful and usually vertically challenged. "But even Napoleon needed his marshals," says Michael Ondaatje in this book, a series of conversations with leading US film editor Walter Murch. Although just one of hundreds of names seen in the credits when the crowd is filing out of the cinema, the film editor is crucial to turning the director's vision into a viewable reality. The film editor - and many of the greats have been women, like Anne Coates (Lawrence of Arabia, Out of Sight) or Thelma Schoonmaker (longtime Scorsese editor) - is one of the unsung heroes of the form; they can shape the mood, create the pace, make the story work.
It was when Ondaatje's novel The English Patient was being turned into a film that he befriended Murch, an intellectual as well as a craftsman. Murch's talent helped Francis Ford Coppola shape some of the most important American movies of the 1970s: the first two Godfather films, Apocalypse Now, and 1974's The Conversation. The latter gives this book its title, and was recently restored. Its very subject matter concentrates the mind on the aural side of film-making; it's about a sound engineer (Gene Hackman) and specialist in surveillance work who hears of a murder plot. Filmed on a low budget between the first two Godfathers, it encapsulates the issues Murch faces in his job. A simple matter like the clothing a character wears can make the editor's job easy or impossible. If the costume department insists on strutting its stuff, dressing the lead in a variety of outfits, that limits what an editor can do if the story has to be reconstructed at the editing desk.
Murch came to editing after being a sound editor, and he expounds on the use of music and sound in movies. His work on American Graffiti revolutionised the use of pop in movies. Now, most films have a relentless soundtrack, either telegraphing narrative punches, crassly manipulating the emotions, or inappropriately creating a merchandising tie-in. "Most movies use music the way athletes use steroids," says Murch. "It gives you an edge, it gives you speed, but it's unhealthy for the organism in the long run."
There's nothing subtle about mainstream movie making now, and The Conversations returns the audience to the basic craft, inviting them in so their experience is enhanced. It's the best book about filmmaking since Francois Truffaut's similarly illuminating Hitchcock.