[(review date February 2003) In the following excerpt, Dunne examines Ondaatje's discussions with Walter Murch in The Conversations, detailing the contributions of Murch and other film and sound editors to the movie industry.]
What F. Scott Fitzgerald called the "private grammar" of film is so private and so little understood that it might just as well be written in Urdu. At the end of every movie there is an endless crawl of credits that sometimes seems longer (and more interesting) than the picture just seen--often 200-plus names. Outside the business, no one really knows what most of these people do; after more than three decades of writing scripts, I am still not certain whether the best boy works for the gaffer or the grip. Critics talk a good game about film as a collaborative art, but generally they buy into the cult of the director, which suits directors just fine. Even though Michael Mann, Jonathan Demme, and Ridley Scott have mined the Hannibal Lecter franchise with great skill, enormous success, and, in Demme's case, many awards, the latest Lecter incarnation, Red Dragon, becomes "A Brett Ratner Film." This is Ratner's best credit since his bio entry on The Internet Movie Database: "Ratner grew up in Miami Beach, the only child of a famous Jewish socialite mother. ... He lives in a $3.6 M house in Beverly Hills, and has four assistants."
A director is seen as Napoleon, the Sri Lankan novelist and poet Michael Ondaatje writes in The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film, a figure who is "sweepingly credited with responsibility for story, design, dramatic tension, taste, and even weather." But, Ondaatje adds slyly, "Even Napoleon needed his marshals." Many of these marshals of film--the editors, the cameramen, the production designers, the sound editors, the costume designers, the composers--are legends within the business, however little known outside it, and are in no small way responsible for the look, sound, and texture of the pictures on which they work. Any director would be well served marching into a shoot with Walter Murch as one of his marshals, as he would be with the cameraman Conrad L. Hall, and would have been with Richard Sylbert, the production designer, who died last spring at seventy-three, still too young. Among them they won seven Academy Awards (three for Murch, two each for Hall and Sylbert), and they worked with most of the signature directors of the last half-century--John Huston, John Frankenheimer, Roman Polanski, Francis Ford Coppola, George Roy Hill, Sidney Lumet, Mike Nichols, Hal Ashby, Anthony Minghella, George Lucas, Elia Kazan, Richard Brooks, Warren Beatty, John Schlesinger. And on and on. Their astonishing list of credits could be a history of the movies since the 1950s: Fat City, The Manchurian Candidate, Chinatown, the Godfather trilogy, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Pawnbroker, The Graduate, Shampoo, The English Patient, American Graffiti, Baby Doll, In Cold Blood, Reds, The Day of the Locust, among others.
The questions remain: How does...