Unreal Nature

December 4, 2014

Path or Link Between Strangers

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 6:04 am

Enough was there so that they completed it in their own way, [ … ] the film is ambiguous in the right places …

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

[ … ]

Ondaatje: In writing, especially in poetry, you are always trying to find ways to forge alliances between unlikely things, striking juxtapositions, finding the right shorthand for ideas, metaphors. You see it in the influence of Spanish poetry, what in the West we call “leaping poetry” — those sometimes surreal, sometimes subliminal connections that reveal a surprising path or link between strangers. The way a pun or even a misprint can work on a simpler level. There’s a story about Auden writing the line “The poets know the names of the seas” in a poem. It came back from the typesetter as “The ports know the names of the seas,” and Auden realized that the misprint was better, and kept it.

Murch: That’s how Harry Caul got his name. Francis was reading the novel Steppenwolf at the time he was writing The Conversation, and he transformed Steppenwolf‘s hero Harry Haller to “Harry Caller.” Then he thought, No, that’s too much, too literal — since Harry was a professional eavesdropper, bugging telephones, et cetera — and he shortened it to “Harry Call.” then his secretary accidentally typed “Caul.” And — it was exactly as happened with Auden — he thought, This misprint is much better. “Caul” sounds like “Call,” but it gave Francis a visual metaphor for the film, of a man who always wears a semi-translucent raincoat, which is a caul-like membrane, and whenever he’s threatened or something bad is going to happen, he retreats behind pieces of plastic or rippled glass. In several scenes, Francis has Harry spell his name out, C-A-U-L, so we get the point.

O: And that led to —

M: It led from the costume to a way of acting, a way of being: Harry Caul is a man who has a membrane between himself and reality. The film is about the shedding of that membrane, and how painful it is for this character.

[ … ]

M: … As rich as films appear, they are limited to two of the five senses — hearing and sight — and they are limited in time — the film lasts only as long as it takes to project it. It’s not like a book. If you don’t understand a paragraph in a book, you can read it again, at your own pace. With a film, you have to consume it in one go, at a set speed.

But if a film can provoke the audience’s participation — if the film gives a certain amount of information but requires the audience to complete the ideas, then it engages each member of the audience as a creative participant in the work. How each moment gets completed depends on each individual person. So the film, although it’s materially the same series of images and sounds, should, ideally, provoke slightly different reactions from each person who sees it.

Even though it’s a mass medium, it’s those individual reactions that make each person feel the film is speaking to him, or her. The fantastic thing about the process is that they actually see their own version on the screen. They would swear that they saw it, but in fact it wasn’t there. Enough was there so that they completed it in their own way, but as it’s happening they don’t stop to think: That’s just me completing it. They really see something that appears as authentic to them as anything else that’s actually physically in the film.

How does this happen? It can only be because the film is ambiguous in the right places …

My most recent previous post from Murch’s book is here.

-Julie

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