The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film by Michael Ondaatje

Every Academy Awards ceremony seeks to explain the less well-known jobs in movies, including Director of Photography, Production Designer and ADR Mixer, to name only three. This is because few moviegoers read the credits of any film and because fewer still understand the responsibilities therein named, leaving a gap in public understanding of the craft of motion pictures.

To clear this up, Oscar night sketch comedy often tries to make plain what isn’t. After a few laughs, care of Whoopi or Billy, and through explanations of vague specialties that result in the bestowal of golden statuettes, most moviegoers remain wholly unable to describe anything more than the responsibilities of actors and actresses (characters), composers (music) and directors (the boss).

Enter film editing, as described in Michael Ondaatje’s re-released The Conversations, a brilliant illustration of moviedom’s most marginalized primary craft, next to screenwriting. At book’s center is the thesis that editors are uniquely powerful because they discard or include images and sounds at will. Sure, there’s oversight in the form of directors and producers, but the editor is tasked with sifting mountains of material to glean the best possible instant of action for every scene of every sequence of every film.

So editors make or break movies, inasmuch as largely anonymous people frame glorious superstars, backlit by klieg lights and smoke. Which is why Ondaatje’s investigation into the career of Walter Murch, one of the great film editors and sound technicians of the last 30 years, is such a pleasure to read.

Not content to simply champion an overlooked art form, The Conversations offers the give-and-take of two friends talking about the nature of every movie-going experience. They hit on highlights of Murch’s career, consider landmarks in film history, touch on the philosophy of meaning making, and return, again and again, to the details of an editor’s craftsmanship. In so doing, Murch reveals the discipline, method and spiritual sensibility he’s lavished on various movies, including Gimme Shelter, THX 1138, The Godfather I-III, American Graffiti, The Conversation, Apocalypse Now, Return to Oz, Ghost, The English Patient, The Talented Mr. Ripley, and Cold Mountain.

For would-be filmmakers, The Conversations is a must read. It offers guidelines about shot length, ideas about the best way to cut on action and directions for balancing three-dimensionalizing sound effects with static images. Then there are ideas about how to approach a day’s work, as in Murch stands to edit and lies down to write, along with remarks on how to heighten emotion through subtle sound manipulation, or the realization of how to create thrilling performances, even if those performances are built from actions snatched from across days or even months of principal photography.

But the hook for many will be the fact that Murch participated in the Second Golden Age of American Film. That was the 1970s when Hollywood shifted away from the staid forms of storytelling and confined subjects of the old studio era to instead explore the times, including Vietnam, Civil Rights, the Women’s movement, and political corruption. New technologies emerged, new themes were born, old censorship rules died, and brilliant careers began.

Through the influence of the movie brats, but perhaps most notably Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas, both of whom have employed Murch over the years, the 1970s were a time of incredible risk, exploration and excitement. Great movies were released to extraordinary box office success and still greater movies flopped. For Murch, these are footnotes to his life and career, a preamble to the simple fact that he grasped the rules of combining sound, music and image to advance the demands of story and theme, and to bring motion pictures to life.

With dozens of photographs, production stills and snapshots, The Conversation is to film editing what Francois Truffaut’s Hitchcock was to unveiling the role of film director. Both describe, through interviews with acknowledged masters, the entirely complex curricula of the modern film school and both are engaging for people who know movies or who want to begin their study.

In short, Ondaatje makes film editing sexy and respectable. At the same time, and instead of turning the craft of editing into a boring exploration of assembly-line-like work habits and digressions about cut, cut, cut, Murch’s example reveals how art is actively created through engagement with raw materials, which are transformed, for good or bad, into the stuff of dreams.

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