Aesthetics of Walter Murch

I’ve been reading The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film by Michael Ondaatje. It’s a dialogue between novelist and filmmaker, with lots of insider’s knowledge to producing films. Every single page is full of gems and insights. Murch, if you recall, was involved in The Conversation, The English Patient, Julia, American Grafitti, Godfather I and II, Unbearable Lightness of Being, Apocalypse Now, etc. He won 2 Oscars and received several nominations.

The point at which you decide to end the shoot usually has very little to do with the grammar of the scene around it. You do not end a shot at the comma, so to speak. You end a short sometimes right in the middle of a word, and go on to another shot with the dialogue hanging over. But the architecture of these shots, and where you choose to end the line, has to do with the rhythmic balance of the material up to that moment.

The book talks not only about editing/filmmaking, but also the art of collaboration, the visual syntax of movies, the influence of other genres on film (and vice versa) and the intrinsic musicality of filmmaking in general. He has lots of examples he’s been personally involved with;  how about the time he synchronizes an Edison sound recording with the video? Or the time he reedits Touch of Evil according to Welles’ original notes? Or….or….

Walter Murch’s In the Blink of an Eye is a classic tome of film editing, but the Conversations book is an interesting amalgam between a celebrity tell-all, a technician’s how to, and a philosopher deliberating about the meaning and power of his art. Highly recommended.

Here’s a review of Walter Murch’s book by Garrett Chaffin-Quiray. And a Transom “lesson on sound editing” narrated by Walter Murch himself. Here’s Murch’s own words about reediting Touch of Evil. And egad… is the revelatory ending to In the Blink of an Eye book (which stunned me when I first read it). It covered much of what I was trying to say in an essay I wrote 15 years ago, but Murch said it 10 times better. Darn, and horray!

Some of the greatest, if not the greatest triumphs of European pictorial art were done in fresco, the painstaking process whereby damp plaster is stained with pigments that bond chemically with the plaster and change color as they dry. One need only think of Michelangelo’s frescoed ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, the pictorial equivalent of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.A great deal of planning needs to be done with fresco, and the variables — like the consistency and drying time of the plaster — have to be controlled exactly. Artists needed a precise knowledge of the pigments and how they would change color as they dried. Once the pigment had been applied, no revisions were possible. Only so much work could be done in a day before the plaster applied that morning became too dry. Inevitably, cracks would form at the joins between subsequent applications of plaster, so the arrangement of each day’s subject matter had to be chosen carefully to minimize the damage from this cracking.

There was more, but it should be clear that for all these reasons, fresco painting was an expensive effort of many people and various interlocking technologies, overseen by the artist who took responsibility for the final product.

The invention of oil paint changed all this. The artist was freed to paint wherever and whenever he wanted. He did not have to create the work in its final location. The paint was the same color wet as it would be dry. He did not have to worry unduly about cracking surfaces. And the artist could paint over areas he didn’t like, even to the point of re-using canvases for completely different purposes.

Although painting in oils remained collaborative for a while, the innate logic of the new medium allowed the artist more and more control of every aspect of the work, intensifying his personal vision. This was tremendously liberating, and the history of art from 1450 to the present is a clear testimony to the creative power of that liberation — and some of its dangers, which found their ultimate expression in the 19th and 20th centuries, with the emergence of solitary and tortured geniuses like Van Gogh.

The nature of working with film has been more like painting in fresco than oil. It is so heterogeneous, with so many technologies woven together in a complex and expensive fabric, that it is almost by definition impossible for a single person to control. There are a few solitary filmmakers — Jordan Belson comes to mind — but these are exceptional individuals, and the films they make are geared in their subject matter to allow creation by a single person.

Filmsound keeps a collection of online essays on/about/by Walter Murch. Here’s another amazing interview in a poetry magazine.

He cites Robert Bresson:

“Your film: three lives and two deaths. It is born in your head, it dies on paper; it is brought to life again during shooting, where it is killed on film; and then resurrected in the editing, where it opens up like flowers in water.”

Murch adds to this:

I think what he meant by “kill” is not so much destroy but rather trap, although as every writer knows, a certain amount of destruction occurs in getting something from your head to the page; the idea must first undergo an imprisonment in words on paper if it is to have a separate existence in the reader’s imagination. The text is then interpreted and brought to life by the actors; the camera, in turn, “shoots” it, trapping it onto film. Then, in the editing room, the footage is dismembered, carefully rearranged, and transubstantiated into a third life. This astonishing, sequential death and resurrection must happen for the film to be truly alive; if you think you can get from the original concept to the finished film without destroying something, you’re mistaken. But there’s hopefully a value gained at each stage that more than compensates for the losses. Finally, I would add a fourth “life” to Bresson’s list: The film is resurrected again when shown to audiences. They frequently bring things to the film-emotions, reactions, experience, insights – which the filmmakers would never have expected, and the film itself changes as a result.

My god, here’s a piece about sound and visuals:

This reassociation of image and sound is the fundamental pillar upon which the creative use of sound rests, and without which it would collapse. Sometimes it is done simply for convenience (walking on cornstarch, for instance, happens to record as a better footstep-in-snow than snow itself); or for necessity (the window that Gary Cooper broke in “High Noon” was made not of real glass but of crystallized sheeted sugar, the boulder that chased Indiana Jones was made not of real stone but of plastic foam); or for reasons of morality (crushing a watermelon is ethically preferable to crushing a human head). In each case, our multi- million-year reflex of thinking of sound as a submissive causal shadow now works in the filmmaker’s favor, and the audience is disposed to accept, within certain limits, these new juxtapositions as the truth.

Sidenote: As good as interview/dialogue pieces like this are, let’s dispense with the pretense that it is a rough transcript between interviewer/interviewee. Presumably there was an oral interview, then it was typed out and conceivably the interviewee could have totally rewritten everything.

These are milestone essays, and my head is still spinning from them. (I’ve been reading the Murch/Ondaatje essays for the last 2 weeks). At this point, I just gobble them up excitedly in the hope that months later they can be half-digested. Alluding to them now, discussing them later.



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