Unreal Nature

November 20, 2014

The Bones or Arteries of a Scene

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:42 am

… And we, even if we don’t realize it as we sit in the theater, …

This is from The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film by Michael Ondaatje (2002):

… The most important considerations come with subtler problems. How to eliminate that slightly superior tone that has emerged in the central character, how to avoid a series of plot bottlenecks later, how to influence or “save” a scene in the fifty-third minute of the film by doing something very small in the seventh, how to double the tension by doubling the sense of silence or not cutting away to that knife at all. How, even, to disguise the fact that an essential scene was never shot. To watch Murch at work is to see him delve into almost invisible specifics, where he harnasses and moves the bones or arteries of a scene, relocating them so they will alter the look of the features above the skin. Most of the work he does is going to affect us subliminally.

[line break added to make this easier to read online] There is no showing off here. We tend not to discover how his devices are working on us. I remember seeing the film of The English Patient for the first time after he had mixed it [Ondaatje wrote the book]. I told him that I had heard a distant bell at the moment the Patient ate a plum. Aha, he said, quite pleased at my picking this up. Yes, we had put in the sound of a bell some distance away, about half a mile. It was to hint at a memory opening up. The Patient as he eats his plum begins to remember (in fact his first flashback comes a minute later). The bell we now hear signals the past for him; it takes over from the plum’s taste as the catalyst of that memory. Walter then also pointed out that the bell, hardly even heard by audiences, is the first positive sound of human civilization up to that point fifteen minutes into the film. Till then the only man-made sounds are of bombs and machine guns and crashing planes and trains.

[ … ]

For instance, by cutting away from a certain character before he finishes speaking, I might encourage the audience to think only about the face value of what he said. On the other hand, if I linger on the character after he finishes speaking, I allow the audience to see, from the expression in his eyes, that he is probably not telling the truth, and they will think differently about him and what he said. But since it takes a certain amount of time to make that observation, I cannot cut away from the character too early. … I hold until the audience realizes he is lying. [Murch]

Watching Murch edit a scene between Willem Dafoe and Julliette Binoche — the summer after The English Patient shoot — I saw how he would remove one-fifth of the informatin and “bank” it, so extending the hook of this scene’s unspoken knowledge to a later point in the film. When I saw Washington Square — a film Murch had nothing to do with — I understood what he was up to. In that film the edit was so competent, the scenes so articulate and so fully expressed, that every episode was complete in itself. The film progressed in a series of well-made, self-sufficient moments, and so it felt as if there was a wall between every perfectly articulated scene.

[ … ]

… I remember one astonishing take [from The English Patient] where the camera remained on Dafoe’s face all through the [torture] scene and stayed with him while he pulled the table to which he was handcuffed all the way to the back of the room to avoid the razor. When I saw the dailies, this was the moment that I thought most remarkable. [The film’s director] Minghella had taken another step forwards from the [four pages of] written screenplay with the shooting of the scene. Now he gave it to Walter.

Well, he had been reading the Italian writer Curzio Malaparte on the “Nazi character,” and he plucked from his reading the fact that the Nazis hated any demonstration of weakness. This idea was certainly not in my original paragraph, not in Minghella’s script, nor in any of the hundred minutes of footage that had been shot and that somehow had to be cut down to a nerve-racking three or four minutes. Every scene, every film, for Murch, needs to have a larger science of patterns at work within it, and this would be the idea or concept that governed how he cut the scene.

At one point Caravaggio / Dafoe says, before he even sees the razor, “Don’t cut me.” He says it once. Walter has the interrogator pause in his questioning when he hears this, extending the time of his response. He has threatened the spy with the idea of cutting off his thumbs, but only in a casual, not serious way. When Caravaggio says, “Don’t cut me,” the German pauses for a second, a flicker of disgust on his face. The interrogation continues. Walter found another take of Dafoe’s line, this one with more quaver in the voice, and decided to put it in again, a few seconds later. So Dafoe repeats his fear. And now time stops.

We see the look on the German. And now we know he has to do what he was previously just thinking about. To emphasize this, Murch, at that very moment, pulls all the sound out of the scene, so there is complete silence. And we, even if we don’t realize it as we sit in the theater, are shocked and the reason is that quietness.

-Julie

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