Over a decade ago I purchased a copy of Koestler's The Act of Creation. The shifting interests of the day have led me to continually skip this book whenever I choose something new to read, and to this day it remains unread. Beyond the brief blurb on the back of the book I could not adequately describe what the book is about. However, I can clearly remember what I hoped to find it in when I made that initial purchase. Imagine my surprise when I discovered an exploration of the act of creation in what presents itself ostensibly as a film book: The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film by Michael Ondaatje. While the book is in fact a series of transcribed conversations, it is so much more than the subtitle indicates.
Walter Murch is predominantly a film and sound editor who has worked on numerous landmark films including The Godfather trilogy, Apocalypse Now, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, and The English Patient, where began his friendship with Ondaatje. I know that film making is a collaborative effort but I have typically placed an overwhelming emphasis on the director. Through this work I was immediately struck by the level of autonomy the editor has in crafting the final result. Far from a superficial treatment, Murch goes into detail on how he made editing choices that have produced elements on films that stand out in the public consciousness. He originated the idea for the sampan massacre scene in Apocalypse Now, mixed the music for the horse head scene in The Godfather, among countless other classic moments. To read the thought processes he goes through to ensure that each editing decision has to be related to the final whole, how he manages the relationship with the director, how he ensures consistency with the source material, both script and if it was based off a novel that work as well, is utterly fascinating.
Where it goes further than a discussion of film editing is because the book is not about the technique of film making but about the artistry. Like anyone who sees more than mere entertainment value in film and realizes that each element is based off of very specific decisions and has asked, "why this choice/approach and not something else?" Murch opens up his thought processes that led to the whole. It also goes further than a one-sided question/answer format because Murch poses questions to Ondaatje regarding his craft, Ondaatje draws parallels between film creation and novel writing, and Murch shows how outside elements have formed his approach and vice versa (he has also taken up translation of Curzio Malapart's novels and describes how his translation technique has links to his editing technique). It is not just about creating film, but the act of creation on a grand scale, and it is both exciting and riveting.
I bought this book to further my interest in film. I have come away with a deeper understanding of film making in general, but also with an increased respect for the editor as artist as well as a preemptive appreciation for Michael Ondaatje, whose work has graced my bookshelves but not yet my eyes.