Saturday, January 19, 2013

Chance and intent: the Murch-Ondaatje conversations, The Godfather, Shanghai, Touch of Evil

One of the charges most often levelled at detailed film criticism is that of “over-analysis”. You’re reading too much into this scene, the critic is told. Or more gently: yes, I get your point, but did the director really intend that? The easy riposte to the latter remark is to quote D H Lawrence’s famous line “Never trust the teller – trust the tale”, which basically means a critic is under no obligation to consider what an artist consciously intended (or claims he intended). But this line of defence can sometimes mislead: it can be a way of overlooking how much deliberate thought often does go into the making of a film – even into the use of “technique” in scenes that on the face of it have nothing flashy about them.

To take an example from a hugely popular film: Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather is a cinematic classic, a commercial as well as a critical success. But a case can be made that even the film’s biggest devotees – the ones who have seen it multiple times, gasping in admiration at its many setpieces – don’t completely appreciate the extent of the collaborative rigour that went into its creation at a sequence-by-sequence level. In the book The Conversations, a fascinating series of exchanges between film editor Walter Murch and author Michael Ondaatje, there is a mention of one of the quietest scenes in The Godfather.

The scene involves a hotel-room chat over wine between Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) and his girlfriend Kay (
Diane Keaton). Michael, initially a young innocent, is on the verge of moving into a life of crime and distancing himself from Kay, and the first, more laidback part of the scene uses the classic film grammar of cutting back and forth between them, each person situated near the centre of the screen. But soon things become tense and Michael has to openly dissuade Kay from asking too many questions or coming with him. After he briefly gets up and sits back down, the framing has changed: he now occupies a space near the left edge of the screen, with a large empty space to the right.

Most viewers – including many professional critics – are unlikely to register this framing change at a conscious level, at least on a first viewing; and if they do register it, they might see it as a random camera-placement decision (or even as a “mistake” made by the cinematographer or director, working in a hurry). But as Murch puts it in his discussion with Ondaatje, it was a very deliberate choice by Coppola and his team – a subconscious signal to the viewer that something is off, that the terms of engagement between the young lovers have changed:

He is still looking at her, still facing her, but his framing is rejecting her. When the two shots are cut together, his image lands right on top of her, and there is a big empty space to the right of frame, the space into which Michael is going to turn when he leaves the room to go see his father. With that empty space, Michael’s family has made an invisible entrance into the room and is making its presence felt [...] he’s being pulled by something behind him, something that is going to take him away from her.
The Conversations contains many such insights into how the making of a good film can be a much more complex process than viewers realise. But as an editor, Murch was also well-placed to comment on the role that chance – or interference – can play in fixing a film’s legacy. In one of the book’s most poignant sections, he describes his work re-cutting Orson Welles’s great 1958 film Touch of Evil many decades after it was made, in accordance with the extraordinarily detailed memo Welles wrote to his producers (after just a single viewing of the butchered version of his movie). Murch relates how the removal of a one-second close-up of a character’s face late in the film has the effect of completely changing the viewer’s response to that character and the role he plays in the climax, and bringing the film closer to Welles’s vision (the original editors had left the close-up in). “Huge issues of character and story are decided by the inclusion – or not – of a single shot that reverberates throughout the film.” For any movie buff trying to grasp just how intense – and equally, how fragile – the filmmaking process can be, this book is a must-read.

P.S. Parts of The Conversations reminded me of something Dibakar Banerjee said during one of our meetings last year. A criticism directed at Banerjee’s Shanghai is that the two songs “Bharat Mata ki Jai” and “Imported Kamariya” were shot in a narrative-disrupting way that kowtowed to mainstream audiences but went against the general mood and look of the film; “Bharat Mata ki Jai” in particular has Emraan Hashmi’s Jogi practically stepping out of character to join the rambunctious dance. Dibakar told me that for the more minimalistic international version of the film, editor Namrata Rao cut the sequence to make it seem like Jogi was itching to join the dance but that he would probably not do so. “That was more effective than in the Indian cut, where he actually dances.” I haven’t seen the international version myself, but I imagine that the abrupt cut to the next scene leaves the viewer with an unresolved feeling that would fit very well with the overall tone of Shanghai.

[Also see: my Yahoo column about the relationship between film editing and performance. And related thoughts in this post about sound designer Resul Pookutty’s memoir]


  1. True Jai, appreciation of any art is an extremely composite cognitive process. Film making is tad more complex as both auditory and visual sensory perceptions are involved. Someone who is not aware of the technical grammar of the art, can enjoy sublime aesthetics but will not be able lay his finger on what went behind, to make it such a rewarding experience.

    Next obvious question is: would understanding of the technical grammar enhance the joy of aesthetic experience? The answer is both: no and yes. Artistic joys affect deeper part of the psyche, than the part involved in grasping the various factors, that go in to make the ingredients of the experience. In philosophical (vedanta) parlance Anandamaya kosha, bliss-apparent-sheath is more inner to Vijnanamaya kosha, wisdom-apparent-sheath. But cognitive process is not that simple. There is an 'intellectual' joy, born when there is also understanding of the technical grammar, which is distinct from 'aesthetic' joy of appreciating art, per se.

  2. But as an editor, Murch was also well-placed to comment on the role that chance – or interference – can play in fixing a film’s legacy.

    Another Welles film that was apparently "butchered" by the editors is ofcourse The Magnificent Ambersons. It is a cliche heard among cinefans that Ambersons would've been one of the greatest films of all time but for Robert Wise.

    But when one watches the film, you wonder - where's the butchering! The film is brilliant as it is. Easily my personal favourite among all Welles pictures.

    I've heard Welles' original was a much longer picture. Nevertheless it is hard for me to visualize how a 2.5 hour film could've been better than the current version.

    My point is how artists in their obsession with the "integrity" and "independence" of their work often end up under-selling their picture by cribbing about it (as Welles did with Ambersons' editing).

    All said and done, I think most people agree that Welles' best pictures are the ones he made in mainstream Hollywood - Kane, Ambersons, Lady from Shanghai, Touch of Evil. Yes, this is the same much reviled Hollywood of Will Hays, Hedda Hopper, Mr.Meyer and other philistines.

    His European efforts where he probably had more "artistic independence" like The Trial are far sketchier, less accessible and more self-indulgent.

    Welles could've had a far greater career had he been more pliant and worked within the constraints of the studio system and marketplace like say a Hitchcock or a Hawks.

  3. Nevertheless it is hard for me to visualize how a 2.5 hour film could've been better than the current version.

    Well, Shrikanth, possibly that is a flaw in your imagination?

    I do (to an extent) take your broad point about artists cribbing, and we have discussed before how the studio system - with its apparent contraints - often had a postively disciplining influence on directors who might have otherwise got carried away. But we mustn't fit every individual case into that broad conceit. Everything we know about the history of The Magnificent Ambersons (along with what we know of the original and re-cut versions of Touch of Evil) point to a consolidated artistic vision being tramped upon.

    Also, Welles had an unreal degree of artistic control over Kane (more than almost any pre-1960 American feature-film director), so let's not try to fit that film into a narrative about the boundless merits of the studio system.

    As for your last statement: you know how much I love Hawks and Hitchcock. But I'll take Welles's career as it actually panned out - with all its erratic brilliance, warts and everything.

  4. Well, Shrikanth, possibly that is a flaw in your imagination?

    Maybe. But what bothers me is not my constricted imagination but the relative unpopularity of Ambersons because of all the negative publicity its editing has received thanks to critics and Welles himself.

    That is a shame. Because it is a film that deserves a much bigger audience than say a very neat, polished New Hollywood film like The Godfather!

    A truly profound work that makes trenchant observations on late 19th century America - the collapse of the old agricultural order, the emergence of the new industrial class, the vanity of the old order, the contrasts drawn between the moral certitudes of the youth and the more ambivalent and flexible moral attitudes of the elderly. I can go on and on.

    It has so much more to say than The Godfather or The Shawshank Redemption - films that kids watch repeatedly these days.

    But sadly it is underwatched thanks to Mr Welles himself and the
    critical establishment that has deemed it to be a "ruined" work.

  5. Also, Welles had an unreal degree of artistic control over Kane

    Well, he was probably not talked back to. But that's not the same thing as saying he had total artistic control.

    Others contributed to the artistic process of that film - Gregg Toland, Herman Mankiewicz, Bernard Herrmann. Talents that Welles would have to do without in the artistically free environs of Europe.