The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film
by Michael Ondaatje
A review by Chris Bolton
Was it fortuitous chance or circumspect fate that put an uncorrected proof of The Conversations into my hands as I began editing my first short film? (Actually, it was my boss but what unseen hand of destiny guided him?) I’ve spent my summer alternating between piecing together raw footage and devouring the sage advice and insight of Walter Murch, the Oscar-winning editor and sound designer of the Godfather trilogy, The Conversation, and Apocalypse Now, among other films.
When shooting wrapped last December, I dreaded the work ahead: editing seemed an arduous task at best; at worst, a tedious chore. I longed for the money to hire an editor and have it done with. Only when I sat down to actually assemble the footage into a cohesive whole did I begin to discover the true art of editing. That’s when Michael Ondaatje’s book-length conversations with Murch fell into my lap and opened up a world of possibilities.
Ondaatje was introduced to Murch during the editing of Anthony Minghella’s film adaptation of Ondaatje’s novel, The English Patient. Watching Murch at work intrigued and inspired Ondaatje. Murch didn’t just paste together scenes as dictated by Minghella or his screenplay; he created his own pastiche, based on a technique of feeling. Murch puts his rough assembly together without sound, "as a piece of silent film," concentrating not on the dialogue but on the sense of visual completion. He finds his cut where the shot feels complete whether or not it actually is complete:
"Every shot is a thought or a series of thoughts, expressed visually. When a thought begins to run out of steam, that’s the point at which you cut. You want that to be the moment at which the impulse to go to the next shot is at its strongest, so you are propelled into it."
Film editing and sound design are art forms that hold hands. The repetition of key sounds, Murch explains, creates (often unconscious) associations for viewers, as in The English Patient when the distant ringing of a bell on the soundtrack as the Patient eats a plum subliminally heralds his first flashback a minute later. Similarly, overlapping sound from one scene into the next creates an aural association in a thematically linked sequence.
Some of these are lessons one would pick up in any film school editing class or in Murch’s excellent In the Blink of an Eye. The Conversations is so much more than a textbook, however. Murch’s vast knowledge of film and editing encompasses the entire history of film, and even before. He puts forward a convincing argument that narrative film could not have existed without nineteenth-century literature.
Nor is this merely a reference book for film lovers and students. Ondaatje provides insights into his own creative process as a poet and novelist and Murch possesses a great many interests outside of film editing, among them music and poetry (he is currently translating the writings of philosopher Curzio Malaparte into verse). The book contains a wealth of perspectives into the creative mind.
Assembled in an informal question-and-answer format reminiscent of My Dinner with Andre, and packaged by Knopf in a handsome design similar to the sublime Conversations with Wilder, The Conversations probably won’t be of interest to the casual weekend renter at Blockbuster. (Although it would make a lovely coffee table book.) But to those who love film not merely as escapist diversion but as an art form that crawls into their minds and refuses to relinquish its hold on their imaginations this is an invaluable book – one to read and reread, savoring the pleasures that unfold with each fresh visit and the perfect inspiration for one’s own editing endeavors.