SFIFF State of Cinema Address: Walter Murch

I spent a wonderful 90 minutes Sunday at the San Francisco International Film Festival’s State of Cinema Address address. The speaker was film editor, sound designer, and general cinematic genius Walter Murch.

murchsfiff He talked mostly about the birth of cinema, but not in the sense of Edison inventing it or Griffith turning it into an art. He talked about movements in other art forms that culturally prepared people for what cinema had to offer.

Murch wasn’t much interested in predicting the future (“We don’t know where we’ll be ten years from now”). People confront new technology and “usually notice what’s lacking,” he argued. For instance, with the iPad, “people are asking ‘Where’s the USB port.’” (For the record, Murch spoke with a Mac laptop by his side, controlling an onscreen PowerPoint presentation. When there were technical problems for which he needed help, he admitted he wasn’t familiar with that computer.) He described how Gorky looked at a motion picture in 1896 and asked “Where’s the sound? Where’s the color?” “He didn’t see that, for the first time, pictures on a screen were moving,” Murch pointed out, although he noted that Gorky predicted that the new invention would lead to pornography and “violent horror films.”

122_00_2[1] An invention needs the right culture to flourish. As an example of an invention that didn’t flourish, Murch used the Aztec wheel. The Aztecs built children’s toys with wheels, but never (as far as we know) thought to make practical carts with them. Somehow their culture just didn’t allow for that connection.

He spend much of his talk on what he described as the Three Fathers of Cinema, and only one of them was obvious: Edison. The other two, Beethoven and Flaubert, seem odd choices until he explained them. The three stand, in Murch’s view, for trends in which they played important, but not solitary roles. Beethoven invented musical dynamics, moving quickly from the quiet to the loud. Flaubert brought realism to the novel, infusing every-day reality with poetic prose. And Edison, of course, stands for the electrical, mechanical, and chemical nature of cinema.

Just for the record, I’d like to point out that it was George Eastman who created film in the chemical sense, as he invented flexible, transparent, photographic film. And it was an Edison employee, William Dickson, more than any other individual, who figured out how to use this film to make motion pictures. Murch, who restored one of Dickson’s most important tests—a job that he discussed in detail in his talk–acknowledged Dickson as the true inventor of cinema.

Beethoven[1]Before Beethoven, Murch argued, music was seen as architecture—man-made, carefully constructed, and not intended to comfort, not shock. But Beethoven as fascinated by  nature, in all its organic unpredictability. He broke rules and mixed things up (“He puts doves and crocodiles in the same cage,” complained one critic). By the end of the 19th century (more than 60 years after his death) such dynamism was the accepted norm.

In novels like Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert described ordinary life in ways that Murch finds “miraculous.” One slide contained a quote from that celebrated and–in its time–controversial novel. I don’t remember the quote exactly (my note-taking abilities aren’t that good), but I searched online and think I found it:

Flies on the table crawled up the glasses that had not been cleared away and buzzed as they fell drowning in the dregs of the cider. The daylight which shone down the chimney imparted a velvety look to the soot in the fireplace and gave a bluish tinge to the cold ashes. Between the window and the hearth sat Emma at her needlework. She had no scarf about her neck, and tiny drops of perspiration were visible on her shoulders.

These two artists, and others breathing the same air or following their leads, prepared 19th century culture for the new art form that Edison would help invent. Right from the beginning, filmmaking was about realism, recording and exhibiting the natural world in all its detail (minus sound and color, of course). And with what Murch described as the “Unexpected invention of editing,” dynamism came to this new, natural, visual art. “It would not have happened without dynamism and realism.”

After the talk, Murch opened up the floor for Q&A. Two of his choice comments:

  • When asked who was the father of editing, he admitted that no one knew. “We let that art form come into existence without realizing it.”
  • One person asked if he’d ever worked with the great, recently-deceased editor Dede Allen, and what he thought about women editors in general. He never collaborated with Allen, but they worked on the same lot at times, and socialized. “I immensely admired her work.” Pointing out that women have been editing films from the start, he observed that “All editors use their feminine side. We’re all cooking what the guys bring home from the hunt.”

3 thoughts on “SFIFF State of Cinema Address: Walter Murch

  1. Great overview of the presentation! He was in Toronto just this week doing the same thing!
    I recently posted a few blogs myself about certain things he talked about that I thought were interesting.

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