[29 September 2010]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Any death is senseless, given the vitality and life of the individual losing same. The shock reverberates as the memories start to fade. But in the case of Sally Menke, Oscar nominated editor and primary collaborator with directing wunderkind Quentin Tarantino, the loss could be insurmountable. Reports have the 56 year old out hiking this past Monday, 27 September, and when she didn’t return, a manhunt ensued. Her body was eventually found at the bottom of a ravine. Many blame the record heat wave bombarding LA at the time (temperatures hit a record high 113 that day) while others merely question the taking of such a valuable artist.
None are more distraught right now that Tarantino, however. In an interview for the Death Proof DVD, he argued that Menke was his main aesthetic guide for his films. “I write by myself,” he says early on, “but when it comes to the editing, I write with Sally.” Indeed, while almost always crafting his screenplays alone, he has always considered his good friend as a vital part of the “final draft” process. Of course, since she worked on every one of his films since the beginning, it’s as if part of the QT dynasty is dead now too. One of the many questions being asked now - along with the mandatory, miserable “Why?”- is what will Tarantino do now that Menke is gone? She’s been there from beginning, reading Reservoir Dogs before it was produced and celebrating when she eventually got that gig.
In a recent New York Times piece, longtime Tarnatino producer Lawrence Bender said “Out of everybody, bar none, who’s worked with Quentin, Sally was the closest to Quentin. Every movie, morning noon and night together, the two of them in that edit room. And he would go so far as to say, ‘O.K., well, I’m not going to shoot the movie until she’s available.’ If she wasn’t available, he wouldn’t shoot. But when you’re shooting, she’s not there. But she’s there in spirit.”
If you don’t believe in their bond, just take a look at YouTube under the “Hi Sally” search term. There you will see a couple of examples of QT’s unbridled devotion. As part of the production, goofs and gaffs were meet with a friendly greeting to the isolated editor, the director instructing his cast to send word back to Menke as she sat alone in a production cubicle cutting the film together. As part of Death Proof and Inglorious Basterds we see everyone from Kurt Russell and Rosario Dawson to Mike Meyers and Denis Menochet sending Sally their salutations. It was an in joke, a private bit of mischief. And now, without warning, it’s all gone.
It remains an intriguing question. What does a filmmaker do when a essential part of his moviemaking mechanism is suddenly missing? Can he or she survive, and what will the new version of his or her cinematic strategy look like. Remember, we have never seen a Tarantino film without Menke’s imprint. She was instrumental in Dogs’ dynamic, took the unstructured storyline of Pulp Fiction and gave it circularity and closure. Kill Bill would have never survived without Menke’s input, her work on the seminal House of Blue Leaves sequence instrumental in its Shaw Brothers meets Playstation sizzle. Even in the quieter moments, as when Christoph Waltz interrogates a French farmer over the whereabouts of some undocumented Jews, Menke’s touch gave Tarantino’s words punch and panache. He may have shot the images, but she helped them make sense.
At the moment, it seems impossible for Tarantino to survive such sadness intact. It’s a perfect storm of given grief. He is without a certified safety net for the first time in 18 years, Menke’s meaningful contributions part of his celebrated post-modern meaning. Imagine The Beatles circa Revolver suddenly losing John Lennon, or Martin Scorsese making a movie without Thelma Shoonmaker (whose been there ever since Raging Bull). The creative gap left behind seems far too wide, far too gaping to be ignored. But this isn’t just about Tarantino. Though her work outside of QT was limited (she only edited a handful of films outside of said relationship), it argued for a talent unsurpassed. While she excelled in partnership with Hollywood’s reigning maverick, she was clearly an artisan in her own right. This makes the loss even more depressing.
Some of the more cynical in the bulging blogsphere are suggesting that, all grieving aside, this might be a good thing for Tarantino. For them, the taste of sour grapes and their schadenfreude side effects are just too pungent, and they have to paint any tragedy in a way that makes them seem superior and sentient. Arguing that a man whose made at least a couple of career “classics” needs an injection of new blood is like dancing on a grave before it is dug. Even worse, to tie your own personal opinion to the otherwise unconnected fortunes of filmmakers and their partners is pathetic. It suggests a smugness that comes from a lack of real perspective capped off with a lack of accountability on all the parties involved.
Of course, none of this lessens the impact of Menke’s death. She is still an important figure in the growth of independent film in the ‘90s, guiding a new approach to narrative and cinematic reference. Granted, it was Tarantino who came up with the initial ideas, but without her voice and her vote, he would never have seen them realized so well. Could movies like Pulp Fiction or Jackie Brown have worked without Menke’s contributions? Certainly. Would they be the same? That’s a tough question to answer. For her part in his process, for what she meant to the man as both as ally and an antagonist, there was much more than a meaningful working relationship. Even in the middle of creative chaos, Tarantino was sure to always send his Sally a shout-out. Sadly, their subject can no longer hear them.