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

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Murch is also a good match for Coppola in the way his scientific seriousness is the foundation for wild invention. As a film editor, Murch is so thorough and committed that he reads all the source material for a scriptónot only the novel, if it's an adaptation, but also any sources for the novel. As he watches the daily rushes, he keys in notes on his laptop describing his emotional reaction to shots; later, when he's about to assemble scenes, he adds a more technical note column with specific footage positions, "analyzing [the film's] joints and ligaments" (Murch is always seeing a movie biologically). As for his inventiveness, consider an audio problem on The Rain People: In one scene a phone call was to be made from a booth on the highway (it's a road movie), but including real traffic noise distracted too much from the speech; Murch had the idea of recording, from fifty feet away, the sound of a wrench dropping on polished concrete, and that sound was enough to convey the feeling of a roadside service area.

Murch is a visionary tinkerer, not unlike Coppola's car designer in Tucker (1988), always seeing new methods and fresh possibilities in his profession. Most people absorb the conventions, the received ideas, of their field so totally that they confuse their habits with reality, but Murch is compelled to tinker. This may be partly because he has a limited knowledge of film history but strong interests in science (biology, physics, astronomyóhe refers to a particular late dusk as "the exact level of light that is broad daylight on Saturn") and technology (at ten years old he was independently inventing musique concrète by recording ordinary sounds and splicing them into rhythmic patterns) as well as music and art history (he studied the latter in Paris before enrolling at USC, and his father was an interesting painter).

Murch's abilities have been especially important to Coppola because, unlike, say, Hitchcock, who preconceived all cuts and shot nothing extra, Coppola creates his films to a large degree in the editing room. For his epic movies, Coppola exposed a staggeringly greater amount of filmóin alternate angles, line readings, scenes, etc.óthan could ever be used in a final cut. And even on a smaller film like The Conversation, we learn, Coppola prepared for the artistic possibilities of the editing by having his actors dress in the same clothes throughout filming in order to be able to rearrange time sequences in the cut. (We also learn that production on The Conversation was shut down with fifteen pages of script still unshot, leaving holes that had to be repaired with creative editing.) Great directors as disparate as Orson Welles and Robert Bresson have stated unequivocally that the most important stage of filmmaking is editing, but it's implicit that they're steering the process themselves. Murch clearly states that his role is to serve the director, but this book demonstrates indisputably how much he brings to a film.

The Conversations provides fascinating insights into the technical and formal aspects of filmmaking, but it's also a pleasure to read, full of great anecdotes, with the same irresistible appeal as any backstage exposé. All in all I'd say this book is the most serious, exhaustive, and entertaining discourse with a master filmworker since Truffaut/Hitchcock, which is the finest possible company.

Richard Hell's latest book is Hot and Cold: Essays, Poems, Lyrics, Notebooks, Pictures, Fiction (PowerHouse, 2001).
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