Politics, Technology, and Language

If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought — George Orwell

Audience, ambiguity, and the five stages of editing

Posted by metaphorical on 17 December 2006

First, a bit of background: This semester, my writing workshop is with Susan Bell, who’s an editor, not a writer, which is, I think, a unique circumstance in my creative writing program. The class is devoted to rewriting, that is, editing oneself. Bell recommended, but didn’t require us to read, the book “The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film.”

Walter Murch is a music and film editor. The movies discussed in the book include Apocalypse Now, The English Patient, The Conversation, and the Godfather movies. Murch also did all the editing for the re-cut of Apocalypse Now. He also edited the re-cut of Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil (which I’d like to see because the original release, which I’ve seen and didn’t think much of, was a result of a studio edit done without Welles’s involvement). Murch also worked on THX 1138, American Graffitti, Ghost, The Talented Mr. Ripley, and Cold Mountain.

The book is set up as as aggregated interview of Murch by Michael Ondaatje, who wrote the novel “The English Patient.” The similarities and differences between film and written work in general really interest me these days, so I’ve been reading the book pretty carefully and slowly. Murch is interesting on a thousand different topics; one of them is the involvement of the viewer (or reader) with the work.

Murch says that editing a movie is a multi-staged, multi-layered process.

Every stage leaves a residue of unsolved problems for the next stage—partly because the particular dilemma you’re facing cannot be solved in terms of the medium you’re working in right then. For instance, at the script stage there may be issues that have to be left undecided, so the actors can have a fruitful ambiguity to work with. It would be deadly if you did solve all the problems in the script—because then everything subsequent would be a mechanical working out of an already established form.

The acting, the shooting, the editing, and the sound may all blend into one another, but in fact there are five stages in a film’s life: the script stage; the pre-production stage, where you cast and choose locations; the shooting; the editing; and then the sound and music stage. Each is fateful in its own way.

Murch’s mention of music is particularly interesting. The modern style is to take a movie all the way through a fairly final edit before adding music. That doesn’t leave much opportunity for the music to resolve ambiguity, and Murch prefers a process where you can re-cut the music and sound, or even ask the composer to change things, during the final stages of the film edit.

Murch started out as a sound editor, so he’s particularly interesting when it comes to that particular layer. For example, he says that a studio executive, Robert Evans, didn’t like the music for the first Godfather movie and wanted to get Henry Mancini to write a new score. Murch found out that there was one scene in particular that bothered Evans, the one where a studio executive, Jack Woltz, won’t give Johnny Fontane a key movie role, and wakes up to find the head of his prize racehorse in his bed.

I thought he had a point. The music, as it was originally written, was a waltz and it played against the horror of the event. It was sweet carousel music. You were seeing all these horrible images, but the music was counterpointing the horror of the visuals. Perhaps it needed to be crazier a little earlier.[…]

Nino’s music for the horse-head scene had an A, B, A musical structure. That is to say, it had an opening statement, then a variation, and then a return to the opening statement. This structure allowed me to make a duplicate of the music, slip the sync of the second copy one whole musical statement, and then superimpose the two together… So it starts off as the same piece of music, but then begins—just as Woltz realizes that something is wrong—to grate against itself. There is now a disorienting madness to the music that builds and builds to the moment when Woltz finally pulls the sheet back.

Okay, with that background, here’s Murch on the key point about ambiguity and the audience.

One of the most fruitful paradoxes, I think, is that even when the film is finished, there should be unsolved problems. Because there’s another stage, beyond the finished film: when the audience views it. You want the audience to be co-conspirators in the creation of this work, just as much as the editor or the mixers or the cameraman or the actors are. If by some chemistry you actually did remove all ambiguity in the final mix—even though it had been ambiguous up to that point—I think you would do the film a disservice. But the paradox is that you have to approach every problem as if it’s desperately important to solve it. You can’t say, I don’t want to solve this because it’s got to be ambiguous. If you do that, then there’s a sort of haemorrhaging of the organism.

I keep thinking about it, and it’s a wonderful dilemma: you have to acknowledge that there must be unsolved problems at each stage. As hard as you work, you must have this secret, unspoken hope that one very significant problem will remain unsolved. But you never know what that is until the film is done. You can almost define a film by the problem it poses, that it can’t answer itself, that it then asks the audience to solve.

In writing classes, this is expressed as follows: It’s okay for a character, even the central character, even the narrator in a first-person narrative, to be confused about something. But the author can’t be confused about it. That doesn’t mean the author is always right; it doesn’t mean that a work can’t admit of different interpretations from the author’s. But the author can’t deliberately leave a work ambiguous, open to different interpretations—that way lies muddled, unclear, uninteresting writing, or writing that’s simply frustrating to read. You’re free to say that the relationship in the book, or movie, is just like your first serious relationship in college, or whatever. You’re not just free to; you’re entreated. And if you bring nothing to the work, it’s not going to be as interesting for you as it is for someone who does. It’s one reason the best creative works have universal themes, themes are doors through which you can enter a work.

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