Cut for the stars

The Conversations
July 4, 2003

At a certain point in this book Walter Murch conjectures on why cinema developed its own language so quickly - within ten to 15 years of its birth. He refers to Edison, Flaubert and Beethoven as three fathers of the medium. In the case of Flaubert, Murch points out that he and other writers invented and explored realism in the novel long before it became the foundation of cinematic expression.

Flaubert agonised over his craft and felt that words, his raw material, were desperately inadequate to convey the thoughts, ideas and emotions he wished to express. He said: "Language is a drum on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to, when all the while we wish to move the stars to pity."

Most cinema is music for bears, but the people who work in cinema and take it seriously always imagine, like Flaubert when starting a new novel, that each next film will be the one to "move the stars to pity". Murch is one such man - driven, obsessed and always passionately believing in the possibility of a special kind of cinema.

Michael Ondaatje, author of The English Patient and Anil's Ghost along with books of poetry and about his own background, is also a film buff. If you read Anil's Ghost you will find references to John Boorman's Point Blank that illuminate a facet of the central character. It is therefore not surprising that these two men connect. From their first meetings, when Murch was cutting Anthony Minghella's film of The English Patient, they appear to have developed an affinity. It comes partly from their respective methodologies. Ondaatje can spend up to two or three years researching the subject that is central to his next project. When he is ready the book will shape by itself, though not without the pain of finding the right form.

Similarly, Murch needs to organise the material for a film into what he calls the "geophysical map of the terrain" before he can feel free to explore all the options that editing can offer.

Murch is certainly someone who has been involved in his fair share of special movies. From Francis Ford Coppola's The Conversation through The Godfather and Apocalypse Now (including the recent recut), Fred Zinnemann's Julia to Philip Kaufman's The Unbearable Lightness of Being, and the re-editing of Orson Welles' Touch of Evil, according to the memo left by Welles after he was removed from that picture. He is now working with Minghella for the third time, on Cold Mountain. Minghella describes Murch as, among other things, "brittle, brilliant, baffling, curmudgeonly, wise and wonderful". Murch has also directed ( Return to Oz ) and has won Oscars for both best soundtrack and best editing.

This book of conversations also examines his considerable range of interests, from quantum physics to metaphysics, from architecture to poetry, and the ways in which each of these interests connect with the work of a film editor. There is no false modesty, but neither is there any attempt to make outlandish claims for the craft of editing. The work and the films speak for themselves. For example, more than 20 pages of the script of The Conversation were never shot and Murch had to find a structure from within the available material that both compensated for what was missing and confronted the complexity of the main character. This is just one example of his innate ability, allied with a dogged belief in pursuing the best movie that can possibly be excavated from a given set of rushes.

Late in the book we learn something of Murch's father, a painter who came from a musical family. The roots of Murch's own journey can begin to be discerned. He is not unique in having begun by exploring the world of sound, but it makes his perception of the relation between image and sound very special.

By the end of the book, I wished there had been more discussion on the relation between film and literature. Ondaatje is almost too reverential.

Clearly there are levels of The English Patient as a novel that were not attempted in transposing it to the screen. This is even more true of The Unbearable Lightness of Being and perhaps author Milan Kundera would have probed in other ways. Even Flaubert's realism has resisted attempts at effective transfer: Claude Chabrol and Isabelle Huppert hardly breathed life into Madame Bovary. Yet there are other kinds of cinema, especially in Europe, that are about a lot more than effective storytelling, and the editing of such films is often the most crucial craft.

However the depth of Murch's exploration of the medium is wonderfully conveyed in this book, and I recommend it to all those for whom cinema is a vital form in our society. We must be grateful for Ondaatje's curiosity and generous appreciation of another craft.

Roger Crittenden is director of the full-time programme, National Film and Television School.

The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film

Author - Michael Ondaatje
ISBN - 0 7475 5774 8
Publisher - Bloomsbury
Price - £25.00
Pages - 339

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