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The Art of Film Editing: Notes on Walter Murch

The Art of Film Editing: Notes on Walter Murch

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Published by: dkvyat on Feb 01, 2010
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“The Conversation”, 1974British Academy (BAFTA) Film Awards for Best Film Editing and Best Sound;“Apocalypse Now”, 1979Academy Award for Best Sound;Lifetime Achievement Award, Cinema Audio Society, 1994;“The English Patient”, 1996Academy Award for Best Film Editing and Best Sound,American Cinema Editors Eddie Award for Best Edited Feature Film,BAFTA Film Award for Best Editing;Maverick Tribute Award, Cinequest San Jose Film Festival, 1998;
Selected Films as Supervising Sound Editor/Re-recording Engineer:
 The GodfatherAmerican Graffiti The Godfather, Part IIApocalypse Now (+ ed) The Godfather, Part III (+ ed)
Selected Films as Editor:
 The Conversation The Unbearable Lightness of Being The English Patient The Talented Mr. RipleyCold MountainMurch expresses this traditional view when he says: "Out of the juxtaposition of whatthe sound is telling you and what the picture is telling you, you (the audience) comeup with a third idea which is composed of both picture and sound and resolves theirsuperficial differences."Murch's work on Coppola's The Conversation is both exemplary and instructive inthis regard. The film concerns the morally dubious activities of a professionaleavesdropper, a technician who is the film's self-reflexive image of its ownpreoccupations with the sound mix. Murch's effects are complicated here and takefull advantage of the fact that sound, unlike image, can be "located" both within thestory world and outside it, in the realm of narrative comment. The film's initialbravura sequence, justly celebrated, features a gradual zoom in to a crowded citypark where the actions and conversation of a "target" couple are to be recorded.While the camera has no trouble providing a more or less unproblematic series of images, the sound track is filled with audio bleeps, distorting noises, gaps, andinadequate levels. The spectator is disoriented by the montage of clear image trackand unclear sound, but this disorientation is soon revealed as "motivated," that is, weare seeing and hearing with the surveillers. Both image and sound are provided bydiegetic narrators, and the limitations of both are reproduced by the film's narrator. The subsequent editing of the recorded conversation is depicted and eventually leadsto the revelation that the eavesdropper has been used by his employers as part of a
murder scheme. The sound images of this conversation (and occasionally the visualones as well) also figure subjectively in the film, as part of the main character'sconsciousness and memory. Though the film has nondiegetic music (mainly a simplepiano melody which plays expressively, in the traditional way, over certain diegeticsound silent sequences), it has no music director. Murch is responsible, as sounddesigner, for the integration of music and sound. In fact, nondiegetic noise oftenperforms the traditional function of musical phrases. As the eavesdropper examinesthe motel toilt which, he thinks, may reveal the traces of the murder for which he ispartly responsible, we hear, louder than normal, the sound of the toilet valve on thesound track. Gradually, this diegetic sound is merged with audio bleeps reminding usof the recorded conversation, and this sound in turn is transformed into a very loudand grating nondiegetic synthesized noise (which resembles very squeaky trainbrakes). Though nondiegetic, this sound expresses the horror and becomes thenarrational correlative of the eavesdropper's discovery: as he flushes the toilet, itspills over with blood and bandages, revealing his fears to be justified. Murch hereappears to be developing further the use of "shrieking violins" in Psycho . He alsoanticipates much contemporary sound design where the distinction between music("organized noise") and other expressive nondiegetic sounds has beenproblematized.Apocalypse Now offered Murch a different kind of challenge: not creating analternate reality, but forging a hyperreality, an intersection between a dense world of aural experience and the subjectivity of those trapped within it. The most notableand typical sound image in this film is thus the aural equivalent of a fade out/fade in.As he lies in a Saigon hotel room in a drunken, drugged stupor, the film's protagonistdreams of a nightmare jungle, engulfed by flames, traversed by ghostly helicopters,their rotors beating a surreal, otherworldly "whoosh." He wakes and the whoosh"bleeds" into the whirr of the overhead fan. This is indeed an effect aptly termed amontage, and it demonstrates the incredible talent of Murch and the importance of his contributions to the art cinema of the Hollywood Renaissance.
The Godfather, Part III
, with its epic sweep and several complex sequences,challenged his sound editing and rerecording skills, as did
, with its need for
otherworldly visual and sound images; the success of both films is to be credited inpart to Murch's abilities. Even Murch's artistry could not save the dismal productionof 
First Knight 
from failure; yet it is undeniable that his effects create the proper auralambience for an Arthurian fantasy. The neo-noirness of 
Romeo Is Bleeding
unfortunately did not offer Murch a chance to recreate his stunning effects from
; even Murch's considerable skills as an editor were not up to the taskof rescuing director Medak's confusingly told story from tedium and, frequently,inconsequence. Murch was more successful in editing
The Unbearable Lightness of Being
, based on the complex and often obscure Milan Kundera novel; here Murch isable to articulate the intimate connection between erotic and political events through judicious cutting, though he proved unable to reduce the film to a manageablecommercial length (it runs almost three hours).Murch's most notable recent project, editing the film adaptation of surrealisticMichael Ondratjie novel
The English Patient 
, offered Murch even better opportunitiesto create meaning through the editing process, a task whose joys and discontents areexperienced by his closest fictional reflex, the harried private detective and soundengineer of 
The Conversation
. The novel's confusingly implausible, even absurd plotwas expertly trimmed by scenarist/director Anthony Minghella, yielding a stillcomplex story of bizarrely intertwined fates; Murch's contribution was to make surethe plot's intricately connected segments of present action and flashback madesense and did not appear to be simply disconcerting fragments. Despite theconsiderable challenge, Murch was extremely successful, making the most of Mighella's fine direction of a talented cast and John Seale's lushly poeticcinematography.
“The Conversaion” – Production notes (from Wikipedia)
On the DVD commentary, Coppola says he was shocked to learn that the film utilizedthe very same surveillance and wire-tapping equipment that members of the NixonAdministration used to spy on political opponents prior to the Watergate scandal.Coppola has said this is the reason the film gained part of the recognition it hasreceived, but that this is entirely coincidental. Not only was the script for TheConversation completed in the mid-1960s (before the Nixon Administration came topower) but that the spying equipment used in the film was discovered throughresearch and the use of technical advisers and not, as many believed, by revelatorynewspaper stories about the Watergate break-in. Coppola also noted that filming of  The Conversation had been completed several months before the most revelatoryWatergate stories broke in the press. Since the film wasn't released to theaters untilseveral months after Richard Nixon had resigned, Coppola feels that audiencesinterpreted the film to be a reaction to both the Watergate scandal and its fall-out. The original cinematographer of The Conversation was Haskell Wexler. Severecreative and personal differences with Coppola led to Wexler's firing shortly afterproduction began and Coppola replaced him with Bill Butler. Wexler's footage on TheConversation was completely reshot, except for the technically complex surveillancescene in Union Square.[4] This would be the first of two Oscar-nominated films whereWexler would be fired and replaced by Butler, the second being One Flew Over theCuckoo's Nest (1975), where Wexler had similar problems with Milos Forman.

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