Walter Murch and Modern Day Editing
If a call for a film editing figurehead were sent out, someone to lead the key-tapping-keen-eyed masses, most in the industry would say that space had already been filled by Walter Murch. After reading “In the Blink of An Eye: A Perspective on Film Editing”, the novelization of a speech Murch gave in 1988, I would be inclined to agree. Referencing moments from his personal and professional history, Walter Murch walks through his approach to editing. He also touches on the basics of pulling a film together, and the relationships that exist between an editor and director, his or her material, and the “methods and machines” one might use to achieve both. All this while bending prose to make editing film sound like the most elegant and tantalizing part of the industry…and who is to say it isn’t.
Walter Murch is a lover of metaphor and master of the keystroke. Having worked as an editor on iconic features like Apocalypse Now (1979), The English Patient (1996), The God Father I, II, and III (1972-90) and many others across multiple decades, he has also developed a singular approach to cutting films.
Some of Murch’s tactics are super simple and even goofy–snipping out tiny figures and pasting them to his screen, always standing while he cuts to harness his own energy–but always effective and in service to creating a stellar interpretation of every story that moves across his screen.
The ‘Rule of Six’
In “In the Blink of an Eye”, Murch talks about prioritization of certain criteria. He calls is “the rule of six” and it seems to be the main crux of his methodology for making a “good cut.” 1. Emotion, 2. Story, 3. Rhythm, 4. Eye-trace, 5. 2-D plane of screen, and 6. 3-D space of action. Four, five, and six are concerned with visual continuity and the audience’s attention within a frame, number three, rhythm, is about flow or the sometimes indefinable “rightness” of the cut. Number two is about preservation of narrative and the all-important number one, emotion, asks if a cut is safeguarding, or even progressing, the emotional impact of a scene.
“When you come right down to it, under most circumstances–emotion is worth more than all five of the things under-neath it” (Murch, 19), and so a cut must always satisfy number one, emotion, and then address the other items in descending order. Never in the opposite direction.
An Editor’s Role
At its barest and most simplified, the editor’s role in any production is to assemble a film, analogically or digitally, into one homogenous and, hopefully, memorable or pleasing movie to watch. On a deeper level though, the editor is the proverbial “(wo)man behind the curtain.” Often times not seen, heard, or spared a thought by audience members–which classical “cutters” would say is very much the point–editors are the ones who place the penultimate signature on what we end up seeing in theatres or on our small screens (the very last belonging to audiences themselves upon interpretation, the “final creators” (Murch, 52)).
An Editor’s Impact
To know the impact of an editor, you have to know what editing is. Explained very well by Walter Murch in his book as “the discovery of a path” (Murch, 4), editing is being pointed toward veritable mountains of footage, handed a script, and then sent on your way to find the story in amongst the wilds. An editor’s walking stick?
The cut–a joining together of different pieces of film to make a shot, shots to make a scene, scenes to make a film. Editing, the cut, “…is a language that can transport us in the blink of an eye from the vastness of the desert to the mysteries of the human face…bridge millions of years…[and]slow down time or speed it up” (Starz). Without joints, a man can’t walk. Without cuts, a film’s narrative has little to no momentum. Editing is what captures the mind and creates an emotional impact.
Hollywood Style vs. New Wave Editing
In the Classical Hollywood Style of building a narrative, the idea was to edit for continuity. It was all about the smooth, natural movement of one shot into the next. A lot of editors call this “masking the cut.” According to Craig McKay (e. Silence of the Lambs) “the more invisible [a cut is] the better we’re doing our jobs.” It was all about the easy linear progression of the story.
On the flip side, you have editing tools ushered in by the French and American New Waves. Auteur filmmakers, writers, and editors who sought to break away from conventional tools used to build A begets B begets C-style narratives started to instead utilize post-production devices like montage, jump cuts, extra close ups, and the deemphasizing of continuity.
New Wave editing is more artistically driven, kinetic, and places specific emphasis on different parts of a scene. A good example is editor Dede Allen’s Bonnie and Clyde. In one scene, juxtaposing close-ups move from a woman’s intrigued face to a man’s gun. It’s held close in his hand, while the woman reaches out to touch it. The quick cutting from each of these images to the others injects a higher level of tension and eroticism. A moment that could have been relatively mundane becomes memorable.
All of this is to say, editing is what guides the momentum and mentality of a story. A good cut holds the audience’s attention, and keeps a film from becoming listless (Starz).
An Analysis of the ‘Good’ Cut
Leaning into Murch’s Rule of Six is a great way of analyzing editing in other films. It becomes easier to recognize editors who fumbled one through three in favor of strait-laced continuity. You also start to notice those who clearly serviced emotion and story first. That can be at the cost of the last 50% of the six or in conjunction with them. In terms of the former, I think of Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody (2018), edited by John Ottman.
The film itself is a joy to watch. However, there is one scene where the band, Queen, are meeting a big-time music producer. It’s their big break–it should be exciting and emotional to watch because we, as viewers, are invested in the characters. Instead, the scene causes whiplash with an outrageous number of similarly framed cuts, capturing every line, every reaction, repeatedly, ad nauseum. Here, Ottman preserves continuity, but you’re so aware of his hyper-cutting that the emotional resonance of the scene is sacrificed.
A film I believe adheres perfectly to the Rule of Six is Celine Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire, a French film released in 2019, edited by Julien Lacheray. What really stands out is a scene in which the leading women are gazing into each other as one, Marianne, paints a portrait of the other, Heloise. Each cut is in service for moments of breath. Where the women’s eyes hold, tension and heat build. Here, the story wades over the barriers that were barring Marianne and Heloise from embracing their growing intimacy. All of this while preserving rhythm, special continuity, and being extremely easy on the eye.
Fabricated Stories Lead to Very Real Emotion
Simply put, editing is the manipulation of a filmed story. At its best, though, it’s also the careful guidance of an audience’s emotions. A “good cut” pulls people into a narrative while a poorly chosen one tears a viewer away from feeling, disrupts rhythm, distracts from the story and acts as a stumbling block to continuity. Editing can make or break a film, enhancing, or detracting from the effectiveness of an image. In the words of the great Steven Spielberg,“editing for [feeling] is the difference between something scary and something foolish.”
Cutting for emotion can create “breath, air, pauses”. Giving moments space allows time for contemplation or the steady build of a heady or sorrowful gaze. An editor can also cut during amid movement to engender urgency, anxiety, tension, or fear during action or horror sequences. Again, from Walter Murch, “When you cut off a shot, you also cut off the thinking about that shot.” Additionally, when you let a shot hang for too long, thought becomes protracted and your audience loses the vital thread of a scene–its emotion.
There are moments in real life that pass slowly and others that go by too fast. Many of us, if given the choice, would cut out the boring parts and hone in on the “scenes” that feel most precious or vital. That is exactly what editing can do for a film. Our breath catches amid snappy cuts during the great white’s first appearance in Jaws (1975). A long shot hovering above Noah and Allie’s death bed in The Notebook (2004) allows us to fully feel the loss of the characters. And the opening sequence of All That Jazz (1979) makes it clear that a neatly-edited montage is sometimes all you need to become invested in the wellbeing of a protagonist. These feelings are the things we carry with us out of the theater. These feelings are created through editing.
Cultural Significance in Anthropology
Historically, an editor’s reputation started as that of a grunt worker. The cutting itself–first analogically by “cutting and sticking” physical film in 1895–was done mostly by women and other lower caste peoples. No one saw it as an art or a craft as we do now. Until the mid-1920s, editing was purely a mode of assembly–the last pit stop on a filmmaker’s road to distributing their movie. It should be pointed out though that the post-production sector of the film industry, though still dominated by men, employed more females than almost any other industry in Europe or abroad. When the job of an editor became more respected, many films were cut by editing teams made up of a husband and wife duo.
Because women got a foot in the door early, there are hundreds of ” posthouses” staffed and run by women today. In fact, it is now a predominantly female field. Women’s perspectives are more present in film post-production than ever due to early female editors like Viola Lawrence (editor for Orson Welles), Margaret Booth (editor for D.W. Griffith), Verna “Mama Cutter” Fields (editor for Steven Speilberg) and many more. They make it possible for me to do my work.
Editing: Many Modes – Many Reactions
Film editing is anthropologically significant in a number of ways. One good example is the cutting of propaganda features and shorts. A propaganda piece is something used to further a group’s political agenda by spreading specific imagery. Leni Riefenstahl was a German female film director whose seminal work Triumph of the Will (1935) became one of the world’s most well-known propos.
At 100 minutes long, Triumph of the Will documents the four-day long Neurenberg Rally held by the Nazi party in 1934. Pulled together from over 60 hours of footage, Reifenstahl captures the enormous scale of the event, framing Hitler as a lauding leader of the masses. When it premiered in 1935 at the Berlin Ufa Palace Theatre, it garnered over 3million USD at the box office.
A few years later, in 1941, a British filmmaker named Charles A Ridley produced a movie called Doing the Lambeth Walk or The Panzer Ballet. The catch? Ridley’s film is edited entirely from footage out of Leni Reifenstahl’s Triumph. It was a comical satire, cut to make marching men look like jesters and the feurer’s speeches a musical farce. The first film made Hitler look like a god, amassing supporters for his cause and inciting revolution. The second film, using identical footage, effectively makes the man look like a fool.
Cultural Significance in Anthropology
Similar stories apply to German filmmaker Seirge Eisenstein. He coined the “Eisenstinian” method of montage editing in his 1925 drama Battleship Potemkin. The film documents the mutiny of a Russian battleship crew that took place in 1905. It ended up banned from the Soviet Union for fear that it would insight revolution. In fact, Eisenstein’s film inspired decades’ worth of small-scale rebellion in Soviet-ruled nations as well as creating a blueprint for the future of film editing.
Well-edited films, those that begin with emotion and end with continuity, create an awesome amount of emotional resonance. We walk away from them with new meaning. Desire for political action, love for a new cause, having developed new fears or joys or reasons for moving through the world as we do. Moreover, his art form has a rich history that laid the groundwork for the establishment of a female-dominated profession. There in its ripple effect lies the cultural and anthropological significance of film editing.
Cited In Text:
Starz Encore Entertainment (2004). The Cutting Edge: The Magic of Movie Editing [Film]. United States.
Murch, W. (2001). In The Blink of An Eye: A Perspective on Film Editing. Silman-James Press.