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Walter Murch

     Even among the San Francisco techno-geeks surrounding George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola, Walter Murch reigns as Super-Brain. The sound designer/film editor is LA North's visionary-in-residence, his labor on prestigious studio movies (American Graffiti, The Conversation, Apocalypse Now, Ghost, etc.) catapulting him to wildly original conceptualizations of the world. For instance, staring into the filmed faces while editing The Talented Mr.Ripley, Murch made this discovery: "... (A) blink will most often happen when the actor is speaking a nonvocalized consonant, I think they're called frictative consonants: an s or an f, th, but not d-d has a vocal component to it. If somebody is speaking, the blinks tend not to happen on s's and th's-sounds like that."

     Where is film editing born? Murch locates the impulse (this is how his mind works) in the symphonies of Beethoven. "If you listen to ten seconds of the first movement of any Hayden symphony and then to another ten seconds halfway through. . . they resemble one another. . . . When you listen to Beethoven... and hear those sudden shifts in tonality, rhythm, and musical focus, it's as though you can hear the grammar of film-cuts, dissolves, fades, superimposes, long shots, close shots-being worked out in musical terms."

     What is the relation in movies between the people speaking and ambient sound? Murch frames his answer not cinematically but astronomically: "You pay attention to the stars on nights when there is no moon. When the moon is shining, all you can see is the moon. Dialogue is the moon, and stars are the sound effects."

     Writer Michael Ondaatje discovered Murch during Murch's edit of the film version of his novel, The English Patient. Ondaatje was bowled over by how Murch could draw lines connecting the most disparate things in the cosmos: philosophy, technology, science, music, literature, art, languages, sound theory. Ondaatje proposed a book in which the two of them would talk in a leisurely way about movies which Murch edited, but also which could open up to... who knows?

     The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film by Michael Ondaatje (Knopf, $35) is a beauty of design and content: lovely photographs on every page, impassioned conversation between probing, eloquent minds. Where I tuned out are the intricate discussions of the editing of The English Patient. (Tedious movie.) And there's too much about Apocalypse Redux, which Murch was editing at the time of his discussions with Ondaatje. (Although I did learn how Murch directed Martin Sheen, before a microphone, to perform those hushed voice-overs: pretend that you are speaking to someone on the next pillow.)

     On the other hand, there's great material on Murch's work on The Godfather films, on his combining documentary footage of Prague in Spring 1968 with the actors for The Unbearable Lightness of Being, and his inspired employ in charge of Universal Pictures' recutting and remixing of Touch of Evil. That's when Universal allowed him to freedom to implement Orson Welles's 58 pages of discovered notes about what was wrong with the studio version of his movie. Ondaatje asked what Murch found he needed to reject in considering Welles's instructions: "Nothing, nothing....In this case, every single one made the film better."

     Ondaatje, who knows his movies, carries his side of the conversation, and he has at least one filmic discovery that scholars should note: tracing Welles's fading in and out of Mexican music in Touch of Evil to a similar moment of sound in the dark town at the end of John Ford's Stagecoach, a film that Welles studied and studied before Citizen Kane.

     How did Murch become who he is? As a boy in New York, he entertained himself with a primitive tape recorder, holding a mike to a window and capturing randomly the city's sounds. Murch's wisdom: "I've found that your chances for happiness are increased if you wind up doing something that is a reflection of what you loved most when you were between nine and eleven years old."

(January, 2003)


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