The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film, by Michael Ondaatje. New York: Knopf. 334 pages. $35. BUY NOW


Let me get my petty objections out of the way first. The title of this book is misleading and self-important. An obvious, one-sided pun on the Murch-edited film The Conversation (1974), it implies that the book's contents more resemble conversations than interviews, which is untrue (and the definite article makes it pompous). Then the author's introduction stirs dread by announcing his intention to "realign the balance" of credit in filmmaking so that film editors get more of it. This reminds me of Pauline Kael's pro-screenwriter screeds. It took fifty years and all the relentless film freaks of Paris to verify the primacy of the director and fifteen more years to convince the public of it, and the moment that's achieved people have to start taking potshots at the idea and making inflated claims for every other job title in filmdom (producer, screenwriter, editor, makeup artist, duck wrangler . . . ).

The Conversations comprises interviews conducted by poet and novelist Michael Ondaatje with film editor, "sound designer," and director (of one film) Walter Murch. They became friends during the making of Anthony Minghella's film The English Patient (1996), which was based on Ondaatje's novel and which Murch edited. And while it's true there is a certain amount of Ondaatje-as-editor-of-his-novels comparing notes with Murch-the-editor-of-movies, this is the least enlightening thread of the book, and the discussions of The English Patient are overplayed too. Murch and his work are the subject of the book, and, as it happens, Ondaatje is a highly informed, smart, and interested (read: interesting) interviewer, and the book is marvelous. In fact, I suppose I'm committing Ondaatje's only sin by injecting myself into this too much. (Or maybe it's our editor's fault!) The book's glories far outweigh its shortcomings.

Murch was at USC film school in the mid-'60s when George Lucas was a student there too. Their soon-to-be collaborator Francis Ford Coppola was studying across town at UCLA. Shortly after graduating Murch would act as "sound designer" on Coppola's first great film, The Rain People (1969). In 1970 Murch cowrote Lucas's first feature, THX-1138 (1971), and worked on its sound. (The title "sound designer," incidentally, wasn't an attempt to pump up "sound editor." During the making of The Rain People, Murch wasn't a union member and was forbidden credit as a sound editor, so he just made up a new titleˇa minor instance of the many examples of Murch's ingenuity that fill the book.)

It was a spectacular time in American movies, and Murch was in the middle of it. He has worked most often with Coppolaˇafter The Rain People Murch supervised sound for The Godfather (1972), did "sound montage" on The Godfather, Part II (1974), and then was film editor and did sound work on The Conversation, Apocalypse Now (1979), The Godfather, Part III (1990), and Apocalypse Now Redux (2001). I'd rate Coppola the greatest American filmmaker of the last thirty years. Scorsese and Kubrick could go in the same class, but I can't think of anyone else, except maybe Matt Groening. In the context of this bookˇfocusing as it does on film (and sound) editingˇCoppola and his methods are especially germane because he brought from the cooperative filmmaking values of the '60s a directorial approach that gave a lot of latitude to what Murch refers to as the "heads of departments"ˇset designers, music composers, editors, etc.

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