Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The limitations of technique

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Recently, as I prepare to make the last round of cuts and revisions to my third novel, I’ve been reading one of my favorite books, Charles Koppelman’s Behind the Seen. The book’s rather cumbersome subtitle is How Walter Murch Edited Cold Mountain Using Apple’s Final Cut Pro and What This Means for Cinema, and while this may not sound like a page-turner to most people, it’s one of the five or six best books on film I know. As I’ve made clear before, Walter Murch—the man whom David Thomson describes as “the scholar, gentleman, and superb craftsman of modern film,” and whom Lawrence Weschler calls, more simply, “the smartest man in America”—is one of my heroes, and for those who are interested in narrative and technical craft of any kind, this book is a treasure trove. Yet here’s the thing: I don’t much care for Cold Mountain itself. I watched it dutifully when I first read the book, and although I’ve since revisited Koppelman’s account of Murch’s editing process countless times, nothing of the actual movie has lingered in my memory. I was startled last night, for instance, to realize that Philip Seymour Hoffman plays an important supporting character: his performance, like the rest of the movie, has simply melted away.

This paradox grows all the stronger when we examine the rest of Murch’s filmography. The English Patient, as I’ve said elsewhere, is an intelligent movie of impressive texture and skill, and Murch deserved the two Oscars he won for it. But as with Cold Mountain, I can barely remember anything about it, with only a handful of images left behind even after two viewings. I couldn’t get more than halfway through Hemingway & Gellhorn, despite being fascinated by Murch’s account of his work on it at last year’s Chicago Humanities Festival. Murch has worked as a sound designer on many great movies, above all Apocalypse Now, but when it comes to his primary work as an editor, his only unqualified masterpiece remains The Conversation. (As strange as it sounds, of all the movies that he’s edited, the one I enjoy the most is probably The Godfather Part III.) I have no doubt that Murch approached all these projects with the same care, diligence, and ingenuity that shines through all of his published work and interviews, but in movie after movie, that last extra piece of inspiration, the one that might have given a film a permanent place in my imagination, just isn’t there.

Part of this may be due to the inherent limitations of an editor’s role, since even the most inventive and resourceful editor is ultimately constrained by the material at hand and the quality of his collaborators. But I prefer to think of it, in a larger sense, as a warning about the limits of technique. Movies, for the most part, are technically wonderful, and they’ve been advancing along all the dimensions of craft—cinematography, sound, art direction—since the invention of the medium. Progress in art is never linear, but with respect to craft, progress is continuous and ongoing, with each generation adding to its predecessor’s bag of tricks, and as a result, movies look and sound better now than they ever have before. Moreover, nearly without exception, professionals in film are good at their jobs. Even the directors we love to hate, like Michael Bay, arrived at their position after a fierce process of natural selection, and in the end, only the most tremendously talented and driven artists survive. (Bay, alas, has one of the greatest eyes in movies.) Not everyone can be as articulate or intelligent as Murch, but for the most part, movies these days, on a technical level, are the product of loving craftsmanship.

So why are most movies so bad? It has nothing to do with technique, and everything to do with the factors that even the greatest craftsmen can’t entirely control. When you look at a student project from any of our major film schools, the technical aspects—the lighting, the camerawork, even the acting—are generally excellent. It’s the stories that aren’t very good. For all the tricks that storytellers have accumulated and shared over a century of making movies, decent scripts are either tantalizingly elusive or destroyed along the way by the hands of studio executives—which is one role in the movie business where talent does not tend to rise to the top. And the proof is everywhere, from John Carter on down. If there’s one movie artist who rivals Murch for his intelligence, good advice, and willingness to discuss aspects of his craft, it’s screenwriter William Goldman, who hasn’t written a movie since Dreamcatcher. Technique only gets you so far; the rest is a mystery. And even Murch understands this. On the wall of his editing studio, we’re told, hangs a brass “B.” Koppelman explains what it means: “Work hard to get the best grade you can—in this world, a B is all that is humanly attainable…Getting an A? That depends on good timing and the whims of the gods.”

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