Monday, January 23, 2006

Halfway through his excellent "The Conversations-Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film" Michael Ondatje suddenly hits upon something I've struggled to articulate for years:

"When films are worked on in this way (Murch's eliptical editing of Francis Ford Coppola's "The Conversation") they seem to give off a novelistic air. I felt the same way watching Wong Kar-wai's "In the Mood for Love," where I believe he created a "story" during the editing from a much larger canvas of possibilities that he had filmed. And in "The Conversation," we get the sense that there's a complete story behind the selection of material-it's back there in the distance. That's similiar to the kind of thickness that a novel gives off. We are not held hostage by just one certain story, or if we are, we know it is just one opinion: there are clear hints of other versions. Not many films do that."

In other words, the film is approachable from any angle you wish. It's not a narrow corridor leading to a single conclusion, it's more like a giant apartment complex with multiple entrances and exits. You can come in one door and leave by another, and this encourages multiple viewings, as there seem to be a multitude of experiences contained within the film.
A stunning example of this approach to film editing can be seen in Terrence Malick's "The Thin Red Line," one of the strangest, most open ended films to ever emerge from the Hollywood system. A vast array of characters compete for space over the course of it's meandering two and a half hours, none of them ever quite achieving "main character" status. Witt, the young infantryman, probably comes closest, but one senses that had the editing been slightly different, any one of the 6 or 7 most prominant characters in the cast could have ended up in the lead. Bits and pieces of their stories pop into view like teasers for alternate versions of the same film, and the result is that "The Thin Red Line" feels completely liquid, as if it could change shape at a moments notice and shoot off in a multitude of directions with any given character at the helm.
In the end, the impression this creates for the viewer is one of great depth only hinted at, like seeing the tip of an iceberg from a ship, then peering down into the cold water and realizing that the part that is showing above the waves is only the smallest part.
Like Ondatje says, "Not many films do that."