Something to Talk About

Matthew Ondaatje investigates film editing with its most distinguished practicioner

We don’t usually think of editors as artists. Technicians, yes; craftsmen, sure; but artists? That glorious epithet is reserved for creators and visionaries—not for the underlings who touch up their work.

However, in his new release The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film, Michael Ondaatje makes it his mission to disillusion readers of this unfair prejudice. According to Ondaatje, who spoke about the book last Monday at the Harvard Book Store, Murch is one of the great unknowns in the art world today. Besides editing the screen adaptation of Ondaatje’s novel The English Patient and winning multiple Oscars, Murch has worked on The Godfather Trilogy, Apocalypse Now, The Talented Mr. Ripley, and Ghost.

It’s heartening to see a major novelist like Ondaatje devote so much time and labor to promoting another’s work. Ondaatje, who typically spends four years or more on a novel, clearly identifies with Murch’s technical obsessiveness, which often keeps him in the cutting room for dozens of hours to produce one or two minutes of film. But more impressive than Murch’s work ethic is his creative power to shape a film in new directions not always intended by the director. In the double-murder scene in The Godfather, for example, Francis Ford Coppola had only one demand: no music. In response, Murch independently recorded the sound of an elevated train to accompany the silent footage. By slowly raising the volume of the train’s screeching, he mirrored Michael’s psychological anguish as he strengthens his resolve to kill. The scene is infinitely more effective with this subtle innovation than if it had been left silent as filmed by Coppola.

Through extensive interviews with Murch, Ondaatje reveals a man whose intense perfectionism and extra-keen powers of perception have helped produce some of America’s greatest films. What does this imply about the role played by Ondaatje’s own editors? When asked by an audience member how he felt when before handing over his manuscript to his editors, Ondaatje said “terrified.” But he admitted that writing is far less collaborative than film. With the whim of his pen, a writer can transform Turkey into China—and then potentially change it back if dissatsifed with the alteration. But in film, an editor’s cuts are much more final.

As a first-hand look into the making of significant films, The Conversations would be of interest to cinema-lovers only. But as a passionate love-letter to creativity in its subtlest forms, it appeals to anyone interested in what we nobly call Art.

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