18 December 2008

Walter Murch

[from Michael Ondaatje's The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film, Alfred A. Knopf, 2002]

I formulated this idea during The Conversation -- probably because we wound up taking so much away. It went from almost five hours to less than two.

As I began to eliminate things, I would have the feeling that I couldn't remove a certain scene, because it so clearly expressed what we were after. But after hesitating, I'd cut it anyway . . . forced to because of the length of the film. Then I'd have this paradoxical feeling that by taking away something I now had even more of it. It was almost biblical in its idea of abundance. How can you take away something and wind up with more of it?

The analogy I came up with was the image of a room illuminated by a bare blue lightbulb. Let's say the intention is to have "blueness" in this room, so when you walk in you see a bulb casting a blue light. And you think, This is the source of the blue, the source of all blueness. On the other hand, the lightbulb is so intense, so unshaded, that you squint. It's a harsh light. It's blue, but it's so much what it is that you have to shield yourself from it.

There are frequently scenes that are the metaphorical equivalent of that bulb. The scene is making the point so directly that you have to mentally squint. And when you think, What would happen if we got rid of that blue lightbulb, you wonder. But then were will the blue come from? Let's take it out and see. That's always the key: Let's just take it out and find out what happens.

So you unscrew the lightbulb . . . there are other sources of light in the room. And once that glaring source of light is gone, your eyes open up. The wonderful thing about vision is that when something is too intense, your irises close down to protect against it -- as when you look at the sun. But when there is less light, your eye opens up and makes more of the light that is there.

So now that the blue light is gone and the light is more even you begin to see things that are authentically blue on their own account. Whereas before, you attributed their blueness to the bulb. And the blue that remains interacts with other colours in more interesting ways rather than just being an intense blue tonality.

That's probably as far as you can go with the analogy, but it happens often in film. You wind up taking out the very thing that you thought was the sole source of an idea. And when you take it out, you see that not only is the idea still present, it's more organically related to everything else.

In Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment, the one thing that is never talked about is the reason, the real reason, that Raskolnikov killed the landlady. If Dostoevsky actually explained why he killed her, everything else would be minimized and it would not be as interesting and complex. It reminds me of something my father said when people spoke about his paintings. He related it to a comment Wallace Stevens made: that the poem is not about anything at all, the poem is what it is. It's not there to illustrate a point.

The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film

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