Review: ‘The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film’

"To watch Murch at work is to see him delve into almost invisible specifics," writes Michael Ondaatje. This series of talks between the Canadian novelist and the American film and sound editor offers a treasure trove of nitty-gritty particulars about how movies are crafted.

“To watch Murch at work is to see him delve into almost invisible specifics,” writes Michael Ondaatje. This series of talks between the Canadian novelist and the American film and sound editor offers a treasure trove of nitty-gritty particulars about how movies are crafted. Walter Murch offers vivid, step-by-step explanations of the thought processes behind editing choices in such films as “The Godfather” (he did sound for all three), “Touch of Evil” (he edited the 1998 re-release that restored Orson Welles’ original cut), and “Return to Oz” (his underrated 1985 debut as director). The discussion reminds us that moviemaking, at least as Murch and his collaborators practice it, can be a carefully reasoned and highly self-conscious art.

Though it’s not a biography, the book also reveals a good deal about Murch’s personality and artistic ethos. Highly intellectual and formidably well-informed about everything from classical music to quantum physics, he studied art history in Paris at the height of the French New Wave in the mid-1960s, made student pictures with George Lucas at USC, and joined the rebels at Zoetrope in 1969. He created and mixed the sound for “The Rain People,” “THX 1138,” and “American Graffiti,” then added film editor to his job description for “The Conversation.”

Outside the Zoetrope family he’s worked with Fred Zinnemann, Philip Kaufman, Terry Zwigoff, and Anthony Minghella. This is not a guy who cares much about popcorn movies, even if he did edit “Ghost” and “I Love Trouble.”

Murch edited film and sound for the movie version of Ondaatje’s novel “The English Patient,” and they became friends. The author proves an ideal interlocutor to spark the editor’s reminiscences and analyses. The two men share a zest for concrete physical details combined with an almost mystical belief that by eliminating extraneous details you can discover “the emerging organic form” of an art work, which in their depiction seems to exist independently of its creators.

“It’s like pruning trees in a landscape,” remarks Ondaatje. “You’ve got 15 trees and you take out numbers three and seven and nine, and once they’re gone you realize …” — “You see a whole different thing,” interjects Murch, in a nice example of their conversational back-and-forth.

It’s the film editor’s job, Murch asserts, to “search for patterns, at both the superficial and ever deeper levels.” When Ondaatje wonders is this means the editor has “a finer sense than the director of subliminal details and hidden structures in the film?” Murch replies firmly, “A talented director lays out opportunities that can be seized by other people (and then) protects that communal vision by accepting or rejecting certain contributions. The director is ultimately the immune system of the film.”

Of Coppola, with whom he’s made six films (seven if you count the bizarre “Captain Eo.”), he remarks, “One of Francis’s great strengths (is) finding ways to get his films to tap into his own personal experiences.” When he can’t make that connection, Murch adds, “it tends to become a more technical exercise.”

The first conversation in the book took place while Murch was re-editing “Apocalypse Now” for the 2001 re-release that incorporated three major scenes cut before the film premiered in 1979, as well as minor additions that amplified the characters and made the film less episodic. (Not necessarily an improvement.)

The editor’s reflections give an intimate portrait of the creative process in media res, when the final shape is by no means clear: “We’re grafting these branches onto a tree that already had an organic, balanced structure,” Murch says. “At this point, I don’t know what the result will be.” They also provide a sobering reminder (if any viewer of “Apocalypse Now” needed it) that even the most gifted people can go astray. “This is the funny, sexy, political version,” the editor declares — an opinion that will not be shared by those who found that the new Playboy bunny scenes, the interlude at the French plantation, and more pontificating by Kurtz made “Apocalypse Now Redux” longer without solving any of the original’s structural and thematic problems.

Neither Murch nor Ondaatje is a pretentious man, but they take their work seriously, and the tone of their discussions is high-minded, albeit rooted in down-to-earth details. Despite an abundance of famous names and good stories, this is not a book for devotees of celebrity memoirs or inside-show-biz histories. For anyone deeply interested in the art of film, however, “The Conversations” is a must-read.

The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film

Knopf; 384 pgs.; $35)


Michael Ondaatje
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