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by Mel Valentin

"A must-see documentary about a filmmaker with the vision thing."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2007 SAN FRANCISCO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: What do "THX-1138," "American Graffiti," "The Godfather," "The Godfather II," "The Conversation," and "Apocalypse Now" have in common? Francis Ford Coppola’s American Zoetrope production company produced all six films. Two, "THX-1138," "American Graffiti," were written and directed by George Lucas. The other four, of course, were written and directed by Coppola. All six films have someone else in common: Walter Murch, an Academy Award-winning sound designer and visual editor. Once you’ve seen "Murch," a feature-length documentary about Murch by longtime assistant Edie Ichioka and her husband, David Bleiman Ichioka, you’ll have a newfound appreciation for Murch and what he does and what he’s contributed to film.

Mixing an extended interview with Murch at his Paris home with footage of Murch working on his last project, Jarhead, and footage from the films he worked on, Murch takes us through Murch’s process, from the practical side, the initial, rough-cut, assembly of footage through his philosophy for editing film and designing sound. Murch begins by discussing what he calls the “best cut” for ending one shot and beginning another. Not surprisingly for a lifelong cineaste, Murch segues into discussing the French New Wave, specifically Jean-Luc Godard’s first film, Breathless and Godard’s then radical use of “jump cuts” to edit between scenes.

After briefly mentioning his role in creating the 5.1 sound format for Apocalypse Now (it’s become the standard sound format). For Apocalypse Now, Murch adopted a new title, Sound Designer, to reflect the level of effort and creativity necessary to mix the dialogue, the score, ambient sounds, and sounds manufactured specifically for the film. Murch brings something up about Apocalypse Now that first-time moviegoers don’t catch the first time around: the actors look straight into the camera, a decision that heightens the intense subjectivity moviegoers associate with the lead character, Willard (played by Martin Sheen). Murch won his first Academy Award for sound mixing on Apocalypse Now.

Murch offhandedly reveals that he prefers editing film standing rather than sitting. Comparing what he does to a cook or a surgeon, Murch feels more energized and more focused when he’s standing. For the first cut, Murch edits without sound, relying primarily on his internal sense of rhythm than on music cues. Later, he replays his first edit against the score. Murch also uses representative frames for each film that he tapes up to a white board that often create unexpected juxtapositions. He also uses two other techniques, one based on instinct, where he tries to end a shot at the same point and if he does, he keeps it; the other is based on his ideas about ending a shot when an actor involuntarily blinks, signaling as it often does, the end of a thought.

For Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation, sound and context were intricately woven into the film’s thematic structure. Filming The Conversation on location made accurate sound recording difficult. Residual noise was a constant problem, as was microwave radiation that created waves of static. Since the technology didn’t exist to block out the radiation, Murch had to compromise, re-recording the sound on tape recorders with the cast. On one take of an important piece of dialogue, actor Fredric Forrest changed up the emphasis on a particular line. At first, Murch assumed it was a mistake, but later, the recording proved vital to clearing up ambiguity in the storyline.

For Coppola’s The Godfather, made several years before The Conversation, Murch came up with an important addition to the soundtrack. In the justly famous scene where Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) obtains revenge on two men involved in the attempted murder of his father, Don Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando), Coppola didn’t want to use a traditional score to emphasize the emotional beats in the scene, but silence or ambient sound alone didn’t work either. Having grown up in New York City, Murch suggested adding the sounds from an approaching elevated train that gradually build to a crescendo (and which also reflect Michael’s disjointed state of mind). Murch was also instrumental in unconventionally layering two pieces of music for the famous horse head scene, a decision then Paramount production head Bob Evans accepted without argument.

In addition to working with writer/director Philip Kaufman on The Unbearable Lightness of Being as the editor, Murch has collaborated with filmmaker Anthony Minghella on The English Patient, The Talented Mr. Ripley, and Cold Mountain. Murch won his second and third Academy Awards for sound mixing and picture editing for his work on The English Patient. Not content to work as an editor or sound designer, Murch also headed up the effort to restore Orson Welles' Touch of Evil. For the Touch of Evil restoration, Murch relied on Welles' comprehensive 58-page memorandum to Universal Studios. For Apocalypse Now Redux, Murch reedited Apocalypse Now using alternative takes, extending some scenes, trimming others, and adding new sequences.

With that kind of curriculum vitae, it’s not surprising that Edie Ichioka and David Bleiman Ichioka decided to record Murch’s thoughts on filmmaking for posterity. As his awards attest, Murch is well respected within the industry and, of course, among cineastes who pride themselves on knowing about filmmaking as a craft and not just as an art, but Murch deserves wider recognition among filmgoers and video watchers. Hopefully, "Murch" is a step in the right direction. If, on the other hand, you’re familiar with Murch from his book, "In the Blink of an Eye" or his "Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film" with author Michael Ondaatje, "Murch" will serve as a near-perfect companion piece.

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originally posted: 05/04/07 15:39:23
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2007 San Francisco Film Festival For more in the 2007 San Francisco Film Festival series, click here.

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Directed by
  David Ichioka
  Edie Ichioka

Written by

  Walter Murch

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