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The Art of Conversation, and Vice Versa

The English Patient's author talks with Coppola's film editor in a book that puts My Dinner with Andre to shame.


It's funny how conversations get started sometimes. Sri Lankan-born and Canadian-bred novelist Michael Ondaatje, author of The English Patient, was on the set of the swank Miramax film in 1996 when he met the film's editor, a fellow Canadian named Walter Murch. The two fell into a conversation whose intellectual and artistic depth and breadth so impressed Ondaatje that he sat Murch down for a series of five long, digressive conversations in a variety of locations over the course of a year. Those conversations became the basis of Ondaatje's new book, The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film.

The resulting book is, unsurprisingly, a bit of a ramble on one hand. On the other, it's an endlessly absorbing read, a volume that can be opened and read at random, for both edification and pleasure.

What seems to have drawn Ondaatje to his subject is the realization that Murch's work as an editor of film is closely related to the work of a novelist. After completing a rough draft of a novel, Ondaatje observes, "I start eliminating the wrong notes, the repetitions, the trails that go nowhere. I start merging and tightening the work [...] At this stage three scenes can become one. I take this process as far as I can." This, of course, is exactly what a film editor does.

The book begins with Murch recounting a happy childhood among a family of musicians, artists and missionaries. His parents encouraged his childhood creative endeavors, and gave him audio recording devices with which he made sound collages. His early interest in soundscapes earned him the nickname "Walter McBoing-Boing," after a popular cartoon character who spoke only with onomatopoeia. We call young Murch's work "sampling" today, but back then, no one had named this nascent art form.

After putting aside such childish things in his later adolescence, Murch found himself caught up in the excitement of French New Wave films like Truffaut's The 400 Blows and Shoot the Piano Player. Murch began film studies at the University of Southern California, where his classmates included George Lucas. Reflecting on that fateful decision and where it got him, Murch notes, "I've found that your chances for happiness are increased if you wind up doing something that is a reflection of what you loved most when you were somewhere between 9 and 11 years old."

The rest of the book is a far-ranging discussion of topics often quite removed from the cinema. Ondaatje and Murch spend considerable time discussing the ways in which human senses receive stimuli, and the different modes of artistic expression these lead to.

As we rapidly discover, Murch is much more than just another film guy living on a farm north of San Francisco. Ondaatje reveals him to be a Renaissance polymath, a Leonardo da Vinci type who draws very little distinction between a scientific discovery and an aesthetic one.

In addition to his film work, Murch is a composer whose works are based on a tuning system he invented, one keyed to the relative positions of the planets in our solar system. At one point in his conversations with Ondaatje, Murch describes a pet project--thus far unrealized--of measuring the wave frequencies in San Francisco Bay and setting them down as music.

As their conversation develops, we learn why Murch believes the three fathers of cinema are Edison, Beethoven and Flaubert. We hear of an illuminating encounter Murch had with Bach's St. Matthew's Passion. We learn how to play Negative Twenty Questions, and how it relates to the job of film editing. Murch describes his notion of how the I Ching could be applied to a scientific notation of cinema. And we also discover that, in his spare time, Murch is translating the memoirs of Curzio Malaparte, a fairly obscure Italian political figure from the mid-20th century, into English verse.

In such brilliant and diverse turns, Murch often seems less like a revered film professional than the world's most awesome sixth-grade teacher.

For all this, film devotees need not fear: Though the interlocutors venture far and wide, which makes The Conversations such a splendid read, when Murch and Ondaatje return from their fascinating detours into planets, waves, motorcycles and Egyptian art, they talk about movies, movies and movies.

Much of Murch's fame rests on a series of very famous, richly textured and deeply influential films he collaborated on with Francis Ford Coppola, a figure who looms large over these conversations. Between 1972 and 1979, Coppola made The Godfather, The Conversation, The Godfather II and Apocalypse Now. Murch began his association with Coppola as a sound mixer, eventually becoming his principal film and audio editor.

A good bit of rewarding shop talk ensues about creative decisions in these films. Murch relates how the absence of sound enhances the atmosphere of dread in the restaurant scene in The Godfather where Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) commits his first murders. After Michael kills two men, the sounds rush in, including noise from an unseen train. Murch's detailing of subtle elements in scenes like this will surely prompt some visits to the video store. In a Sopranos-like vein, Murch recounts how real-life mobster Salvatore Gravano was so impressed by the "realism" of this scene--the sound mixing choices Murch made--that he was inspired to kill at least 18 people.

The movie that really gets Murch's and Ondaatje's juices flowing, however, is The Conversation. In it, Gene Hackman plays Harry Caul, a professional sound guy who works in espionage, planting bugs for unsavory clients. Made in 1974, this relentlessly subjective film was one of the more successful narrative experiments of the New Hollywood era. However, as Murch modestly notes, Coppola abandoned the project and went off to shoot Godfather II, leaving The Conversation about 15 minutes short of a movie. Murch had to pick up the pieces in the editing room. The film he stitched together won the Palm d'Or at Cannes, and was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, alongside Godfather II.

The Conversation's obsessive attention to the craft of a technophile obviously holds great appeal to both Murch and Ondaatje, but they don't let their geek enthusiasms swamp the narrative. (The book does contain, however, several arcane bits of jargon that should been clarified by footnotes.)

While Murch is unfailingly polite, and generally loath to gossip, he does offer a couple of interesting bits of inside dope. Probably the most startling morsel involves George Lucas, who originally held proprietary rights to the John Milius script that became Apocalypse Now.

After making his bones with American Graffiti in 1973, Lucas seriously considered directing Apocalypse Now, but decided against it because the war was still going on. In this new book, Murch reveals that Lucas finally decided that the themes of Apocalypse boiled down to "the ability of a small group of people to defeat a gigantic power simply by the force of their convictions. [...] Star Wars is George's transubstantiated version of Apocalypse Now."

In recent years, Murch has been known for two different high-profile restoration projects. Last year saw the release of Apocalypse Now Redux. This director's cut was considerably longer than the version the world had known since 1979. "Director's cut" is a bit of a misnomer, however, because it was Murch who recut the film, a process that involved making creative decisions about how best to integrate previously excised footage. Murch's description of the problems confronting the inclusion of the "French plantation scene" is particularly illuminating.

Perhaps the greatest labor of love of Murch's career came when he was asked to recut Orson Welles' Touch of Evil in 1998. Welles lost control of the film's final cut, one of many disappointments in his career, and he disavowed it as a result. But in the mid-1990s, a 58-page memo penned by Welles came to light. This detailed and impassioned document was written in a single night after the only time the director was allowed to view the studio cut.

Murch re-edited the film according to Welles's instructions--many of which concerned the deployment of sound--and produced a film much closer to Welles' original conception. With this project, Murch got to collaborate with a man he never met, a man who is probably his spiritual godfather in Hollywood.

However, it's a little disquieting to observe that Murch's most recent noteworthy projects have been restorations of classics. And there's a hermetic quality to these conversations that suggests an unwillingness to acknowledge the dumbing-down of mainstream cinema.

The glorious pop art of The Godfather has now largely given way to loud, dumb movies like Die Another Day or, barely better, such pretentious and phony exercises like Road to Perdition. Coppola now seems content to merely make wine.

Nowhere in the book is there any indication that our conversants have ever seen Pulp Fiction, The Matrix, Memento, Fallen Angels, Fireworks, JFK, Waking Life, Mulholland Drive, Being John Malkovich, The Limey or Magnolia. Not everyone will agree that all of these films are good, but they are definitely complicated films of our cultural moment. Indeed, in places it seems that the only films the two have seen in the last 10 years are The English Patient and The Talented Mr. Ripley (which Murch also directed). In fairness, Murch does occasionally surprise, such as when he suddenly points out the 1998 film Election contained four narrators--an observation that cues a disquisition on convergent and divergent points of view.

The great Welles himself once told Cahiers du cinema, the French magazine of film criticism, "For my style, for my vision of the cinema, editing is not simply one aspect. ... The whole eloquence of cinema is that it's achieved in the editing room." Murch is too modest to claim such brazen sentiments as his own, but he must agree with them. He recites them, from memory, in the course of the conversations in this remarkable book. EndBlock

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