Saturday, June 30, 2007

Walter Murch and the Long View of Film

Walter Murch was the film editor and/or sound mixer for American Graffiti, Apocalypse Now, Ghost, the Godfather, and Cold Mountain, to name a few movies you might know. I know him from a book, The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film by Michael Ondaatje (author of The English Patient, the film version of which Murch edited).

The book is a series of conversations between Ondaatje and Murch about filmmaking: the techniques, stories, and people behind the scenes. Along the way, we get two Renaissance Men’s worth of eclectic digressions and connections, weaved together by Ondaajte in his role as editor of the text.

To give you a taste, I’ll excerpt from two passages that interested me because of Murch’s “long view” perspective on film’s development as an art form.

We look at ancient Egyptian painting today and may find it slightly comic, but what the Egyptians were trying to do with the figure was reveal the various aspects of the person’s body in the most characteristic aspect. The face is in profile because that reveals the most about the person’s face, but the shoulders are not in profile, they’re facing the viewer, because that’s the most revealing angle for the shoulders. The hips are not in profile, but the feet are. It gives a strange, twisted effect, but it was natural for the Egyptians. They were painting essences, and in order to paint an essence you have to paint it from its most characteristic angle. So they would simply combine the various characteristic essences of the human body....

That’s exactly what we do in film, except that instead of the body of the person, it’s the work itself. The director chooses the most characteristic, revealing, interesting angle for every situation and every line of dialogue and every scene....It may be, five hundred years from now, when people see films from our era, they’ll seem “Egyptian” in a strange way. Here we are, cutting between different angles to achieve the most interesting, characteristic, revealing lens and camera angle for every situation. That may appear perfectly normal to us, but people 500 years from now may find it strange or comic.

If that sounds unlikely, think an eventual future where “film” = holodeck.

On to the second passage:

I think cinema is perhaps now where music was before musical notation—writing music as a sequence of marks on paper—was invented. Music had been a crucial part of human culture for thousands of years, but there had been no way to write it down. Its perpetuation depended on an oral culture, the way literature’s did in Homeric days. But when modern musical notation was invented, in the eleventh century, it opened up the underlying mathematics of music, and made that mathematics emotionally accessible. You could easily manipulate the musical structure on parchment and it would produce startlingly sophisticated emotional effects when it was played. And this in turn opened up the concept of polyphony—multiple musical lines playing at the same time. Then, with the general acceptance of the mathematically determined even-tempered scale in the mid-eighteenth century, music really took off. Complex and emotional changes of key became possible across the tonal spectrum. And that unleashed all the music of the late eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries: Mozart, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Berlioz, Brahms, Mahler!

I like to think cinema is stumbling around in the “pre-notation” phase of its history. We’re still doing it all by the seat of our pants. Not that we haven’t made wonderful things. But if you compare music in the twelfth century with music in the eighteenth century, you can clearly sense a difference of several orders of magnitude in technical and emotional development, and this was all made possible by the ability to write music on paper. Whether we will ever be able to write anything like cinematic notation, I don’t know. But it’s interesting to think about.

While these excerpts typify Murch’s erudition, they are more abstract than most of the book, which often is about how specific scenes in movies achieved their affect: how a distant, quiet sound ended up being more powerful than a layered mass of loud sounds in George Lucas’ first feature film, THX 1138; how the framing of a scene in The Godfather tells the audience the character is lying; how a specific technique for recording and mixing crickets led to a “hyperreal” soundscape in Apocalypse Now; and so on.

If you read the book, you will not only know more about what makes movies tick, you’ll also feel like you know Walter Murch. And that’s a good thing.

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