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Sunday, September 23, 2012

All Day at Work

Thursday December 15, 1983

All day at work in the editing room, with Jim, Cathy and Ruth, forming a new strategy for re-cutting "The Bostonians". 

Jim and Ruth and I sat around the Steenbeck today on stools, with Cathy keeping careful notes, and having a lot of very good ideas. We made excellent progress.

Ruth as usual was very strong minded,"Jim, you MUST get rid of that. Horrible. Cut it out!"

Ruth has fire.

Cornered by his writer, Jim fights for each of his scenes like a loyal promoter. They're hard to let go, but the film's in danger of becoming too long. We have the luxury of being able to cut aggressively.

Christopher Reeve and Vanessa Redgrave carry the drama. Madeleine Potter played the femme fatale, Verena Tarrant. Alas, Chris never felt fire for her. I wish he had, it'd be an easier edit. Testosterone pulls through a cut like nothing else.

Ruth insisted we play up the tension between Chris and Vanessa. We came up with a plan:

I'm to recut the film from the beginning. Cathy will resume editing where J____ left off. This means she'll work with virgin rushes, untouched by an editor's knife, whereas my footage will be riddled with splices and pieces of tape. I'll see all the areas J______ struggled over. However I'm to work at the Steenbeck, and Cathy, who has experience cutting on a Moviola, will use that. A Moviola has the tendency to chew up film, especially footage that's been heavily worked on. The Steenbeck is wonderfully gentle. The Moviola, in the hands of a pro is marvelous. I love it for track-work, but not for editing picture.

We've crammed our assistants, Jim and the film into a room at 1619 Broadway that's way too small for such a beehive of activity. Cathy runs the Moviola back and forth. I can tell by the way she runs it that her cuts are based on soundtrack. Not my style, but it works. I prefer to use picture to drive through the cuts, movement on the incoming frame or finding movements from the outgoing to bring in the new shot.

Image vs. Sound. It's a duality, but image came first, lodged first in the psyche, flickered first on the screen. One might say it carries the day. It is the film. Without the image we'd be cutting tracks for radio. Once an editor begins a project and whets his observations to dialogue, and takes cues from the soundtrack, in a sublet way the audience adjusts. They begin to follow the track more than what they see. However if the editor's knife looks carefully at every frame, even if it is endless 'dialogue scenes', noticing eye-blinks, reactions, twitches of the face, steely jaws, coldness, a warmth in the eyes, and cuts to those phenomena, then the audience will notice with their eyes these things as well. The sound will then be where I believe it should stay in film, back slightly, towards the subconscious.

Over the years working with Humphrey I've learned quite a few of these sound-based tricks. One of my favorites involves cutting picture during the hiss of the letter 's'. The white-noise sibilance of the letter carries the eye over almost any visual difficulty. Not to be overused! Other useful syllables to cut on, "P" and "B" for incoming dialogue.

Again, I prefer cutting on the visiuals, on movement to bring in each new shot, or . . . . dead stillness. . . . . as a moment of reflection. If I'm in doubt about a cut I turn the volume off, and run it as a silent picture.

One must allow the mind to slow down in film. A tightly edited picture often forgets this.

At six o'clock I excused myself and ran off to the Museum of Modern Art to see Jim's film "Autobiography of a Princess". I'm glad he insisted I leave work to see it. It is the first picture Humphrey ever edited, and one of Jim's very best. I was quite taken back by it, shocked actually by how good it was.

James Mason, Madhur Jaffrey in: "Autobiography of a Princess" 
dir. James Ivory, 1975, edited by Humphrey Dixon

It is undeniably, a very sophisticated picture, with a lot to say. Parts of it are clumsily filmed, but they succeed. Images don't leave the head. I rode a subway home, cashed a check at the Grand Union, got rained on, then caught a late showing of "Claire's Knee" at the Bleecker.

It's hard to put feelings for these two films into words. They are similar, in many ways:

Erich Rhoemer's work is masterfully composed, filmed, with tightly controlled performances. The brilliant countryside around green Lake Geneva, the lush colors of summer, the bright prow of the protagonists red motorboat interplay with the doubts and fears of the cast. The careful use of color  is not similar - "Autobiography" could never aspire to any particular 'look' as it's composed of archival Indian footage mixed with acted roles, that are performed almost as if on a small theater set.

But compositionally, as a film, it's every bit as controlled as Rhoemer's masterpiece.

What's similar are the consistencies of character, The sentiments that emanate from the different beings beam forth throughout each picture, from the beginning right through to the end.

What else is character, but that which cannot change?  It spills out of the screen, enough to enchant, enough to excite one's curiosity, please the mind, and yes . . . to heal.

"Dersu Uzala" does this. "Seven Samurai", "Modern Times", "Andrei Rublev" all do this. Buster Keaton did this. Also Bergman, Ray, Fellini, Antonioni, Rossellini. So many.

Is that what makes great cinema great?

When it leaves some part of the soul healed and at peace?

The First Five Reels

Wednesday December 14, 1983

Yesterday we viewed the first rough-cut reels of "The Bostonians" at MovieLab, on the West Side by 12th Avenue. Ruth Jhabvala, Jim Ivory, Ismail Merchant, the whole editing crew including J____ and Cathy Wenning, as well as myself, were present.

At the end of the screening words were kept to a minimum. You could hear the seats creak. We disbanded, heads low, into different cabs, Assistant editors Joe, and Lori with  J_____ in one cab with the boxes of film to go back to the editing room, Ruth and Jim in another to talk alone. A single pretty woman came out of building so we let her take the third taxi. In the shuffle, Ismail and myself were left by ourselves. He was cracking his fingers nervously. A heavy rain was falling, and there being no more taxis nearby, we walked back to the office on foot, getting ourselves thoroughly soaked.

I understood from Ismail's spangled gait how things were going to play out. Gesture for him was absolute communication. The cutting on the film was so bad that the resolve to fire J_____ had strengthened. I would be hired as editor, along with Cathy, who presumably would be made chief and that my days of writing, reading and contemplation would soon be at an end.

Late this morning Jim and Ismail both called at the same time, and we had a three way conversation about a plan to finish the film. Jim said I would share an editor credit with Cathy. J_____ was being let go today. When salary came up Jim said, "This is where I get off." Ismail and I agreed on a price of eight hundred and fifty dollars a week. That's more than I've ever been paid, though actually is less than what J_____  was earning, and far less than experienced union editors that work on fully budgeted Hollywood pictures. Anyway, I am happy, happy that at least once I am getting the chance to show my mettle in the cutting room before retiring from this racket. I'm happy also that my relationship with both Jim and Ismail has elevated me in one giant bound to a new level of trust.

Humphrey called to hear all the news and gave me all the tips he could think of about making cuts and overlaps. "It's the return of the prodigal son," he said chuckling. I know I have Humphrey to thank for this - he recommended they take the leap and hire his old assistant, as an editor.

In the space of a month my outlook changed.. By October end I assigned a different destiny for myself, away from film towards some other occupation that would support me and my vagabond musings. Film has come to be the thing that will give me work. I see writing, but only after learning better discipline, and more experiences. Literary loves will be indulged during the small morning hours, and at night after long days on film. Written work will have to wait, maybe years.

Three jobs await, picture edit of "The Bostonians", completion of the soundtrack and music in London, then production on "The Deceivers".

My sights and designs are way ahead, while my energies are free to focus on the moment.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Time slows.

Sunday December 11, 1983

I've been ill, and sedentary, sleeping a lot more than usual, staying in all day. What am I resting for?

I've not managed to do much work in the apartment, painting, nor even get back into my reading. Such is the cost of thinking thoughts that are not yet conscious.

I am daydreaming, as if to bring the power of dreams to life.

Books, yes. I am putting together a pile of things to take with me to read in India, when I go. I am looking forward to the trip. I am restless here, though I wish it weren't so.

Not a word from Merchant-Ivory on the editing front. Someday there will be a project to keep me in New York, allow me to become part of the city again while I work.

My unemployment again draws me overseas. I'm offered jobs abroad, but not here. I feel like a stranger.

The problem is unlocking the mind from it's accustomed ways of moving about, down the same paths and streets, the same greetings, the same habits, the same thoughts about the same people.

What other turf is there in any man's mind, never before explored?

A man grapples with a lock that does not bind him. He needs only to stop and see that the chain is free. But with the head lowered, how can he see anything?

How to meet the task head on, yet be free from it?

Exploration of the world, for me now, means venturing into new territories of thought.

In travel, I pass through chasms of memories, beneath dried fruit clinging to naked branches. One must not touch the fruit of the past. It is not real! It is not edible.

I stop in places altogether new and strange, never before conceived or imagined. Could this place possibly be one's own? So foreign, so strange and different, yet already holding some minuscule part of my being.

Directors and Lady friends, in this and Other Worlds

Saturday December 3, 1983 - All day in the editing room, putting together twenty minutes of footage to represent "The Bostonians" at the Merchant-Ivory Retrospective Screening, coming up this next Wednesday at MOMA. The irony is the film isn't even completed, and as of now, I'm not the editor. I'm being brought in to put together the best bits, a trailer so to speak, so they can show a morsel of the unfinished film alongside their completed works.

Jim must have called three times from Claverack. "Please put this shot in," or "Leave that shot out!" As usual he has more difficulty cutting down than adding; I'm afraid my reel of selected takes will just bore everyone silly, especially after they've seen the completed film that precedes it, Ismail's very brilliant but long "Courtesans of Bombay".

The gala event will be at the Museum of Modern Art. Afterwards everyone will going to Raga for dinner, of course.

Yesterday Jim and I had lunch. He told me how frustrated he was working with J___. I told him it was his own damm fault and he admitted it was true. (I was a bit bent out of shape that I hadn't been hired straight away.) To compensate for J____'s poor cutting and falling so far behind schedule, Jim hired another editor, a third assistant, and another cutting room. Ismail is desperate. At such times he becomes the totally frustrated producer, tearing his hair (not much to tear!), distracting himself by yelling at distributors in far away places like Paris, or London.

The delivery dates for the film, and the mix dates in London are all set and cannot be changed. Ismail got a deal by pre-booking and pre-paying the mixing studio fees. So the production is really in a pickle. The completion guarantors will stick it to Merchant-Ivory if he doesn't deliver on time. So now the problem is Jim has two editors instead of one, and is afraid that this will divide everyone into two opposing camps. Furthermore neither person is likely to give their best effort if the burden of responsibility is not clear. Who is the editor of the film? That has not really been decided.

The new editor just hired, is an attractive woman named Catherine Wenning. It will be a week at least, before she is able to cut enough to show her mettle. What worries me most of all about Jim's handling of the problem is London. The dialogue replacement, dubbing, footsteps, the whole post picture-cut production happens there. Distributors and investors lurk with baited breath. The picture-cutting will still continue, even while Brian Blamey or some other sound genius has a go at finding tracks suitable for a film that's remains a work-in-progress. Titles will have to be designed, opticals ordered, music recorded and cut. Without an editor in charge of the post-production, it is doubtful whether Jim can finish the film on schedule.

I must remind him of all this, particularly since he is likely to turn to me for help as a bail-out solution. I have already determined not to involve myself in the cutting of the film at all unlesss I get a full editor's credit. I'm miffed at both Jim and Ismail for not offering me the job in the first place, and though secretly relieved that I am not actually having to do it, I am concerned that it may fall to me as a result of poor J___'s incompetence. That's a bit unfair really. He's talented enough to do it, just the kind of person that becomes less capable the more the heat gets turned up in the room. Merchant-Ivory can be a boiler room to work for. Pressure is part of the job. Ismail drops in twice a day to scream and yell and turn up the heat. The craftsman bends his back and shovels coal.

When I told Jim to cut his losses and spare both him and J____ the agony of going any further by letting him go, he responded, "You are saying the exact same thing as Ruth and Jhab," in a tone that implied, "The more of you that say the same thing the less likely I am to listen!"

But I could tell he was listening, and only wanted to find the courage to really listen, and take action. Of course I needed a job, but it had to be on full and equal terms. They'd first hired me seven years ago as a runner, and weren't used to me saying things like "you should do this and not that". Understandable.

Jim told me he had gone to see Jessica Tandy last night, backstage after a performance of hers and that she had not recognized him at all. "All the months we spent working together!" Jessica had played Miss Birdseye in their film.

"Not even a glimmer of recognition. I was so flabbergasted that I walked right out of her dressing room."

Well clearly she had remembered her lines that night, so perhaps she had an axe to grind about payment and was using the old "Who are you?" to get even. Perhaps she was becoming senile, it's possible, and also possible that Jim was so distraught over things in the cutting room that he was temporarily at least, unrecognizable.

"You mean you didn't even try to refresh her memory?"

"I couldn't bear to. With all those people standing there, whom she knew. I don't think she would have remembered."

"It's her age Jim," I said, not suggesting that it might have been the old New Englander's trick of regarding those allied with disreputable financial organizations, as personae non-grata. Hepburn would have done the same thing. I didn't dare suggest that Ismail's financial wizardry had shortchanged an old lady, and that Jessica had got her revenge by not recognizing Jim in front of a bunch of theater critics.

"All the trouble she had up in Boston might have induced a stroke. Who knows?"

"No, that isn't it," he mused. "It's something actresses do. They're so hyped up after their performance. All they can do is associate with the character they've just played. They forget the people in the real world. In their own lives. One's best friend seems terribly distant, acquaintances become strangers again."

Friends that don't recognize each other!

Isn't that what just had happened when Jim failed to recognize my ability to edit his film from the start, then blindly went ahead and hired a stranger, less capable than me.

Should it be me that points out this shortsightedness?

No. He wouldn't have mentioned Jessica Tandy unless he already knew that.

Sunday December 4, 1983

The great allegiances of one's life, that one has to follow, that one must submit to, will last a little longer.

What is all this lingering, where is it going, what is this pain, does it mean I am growing?

A difficult day, rifts of doubt and self cross-examination. When I am so distressed I cannot trust any of my voices. So I storm off to the movies on St. Mark's Place or down at the Bleecker. Showboat and Roberta. Black and White tear-jerkers. I cried a little. I like those old films. They make love seem so simple, and easy.

I feel wrong for having told my friends so early of my chance to go to India and work. I feel the tinge of their jealousy, and that has affected the way I view the situation. It's true, their envy causes me to be grateful. I feel it shouldn't.

December 7, 1983

A dream:

Lost on a high azure road overlooking Jersey City.

From the crest of the road I saw the Hudson River, and New York beyond.

I sat in an old Studebaker car with luxurious yellow leather seats, beside me in the front sat a tall dark haired woman, and her daughter. They drove me to the foot of their property, where there was an old gate, overgrown with vines. Beside it was a giant swimming pool, black with algae, and rotted vegetable debris. Suddenly the women got out and locked me inside the car. I felt the motor going into reverse. I attempted to break the window glass with my shoe, harder, harder, but the car rolled faster and faster towards the edge of the pool.

I woke up sweating, and realized who they are!

Saturday, September 15, 2012

"Remember the Empire Hotel!"

Humphrey Dixon flies into town. Jim and Ismail are seeking his advice on what to do with "The Bostonians." We meet for a meal, he tells me about his life in LA, and we have quite a time reminiscing about some of our common experiences working for Ismail and Jim.

On one of their pictures, Humprey arrived in New York, late at night. I believe it was to edit Dick Robbins' little film about street musicians. Anyway keys were left for him somewhere to some friend's apartment. An hour after he picked up the keys he got to the place which was at the other end of Manhattan, and naturally the keys didn't fit. He spent the whole night wandering midtown looking for a room. The President was in town or something. Finally he found a ground floor windowless cubicle in the Empire hotel. He took it and paid cash.

"I was afraid of getting mugged in the lobby! And the mice in the room, not to mention the MOLES! Yes Moles!"

"Weren't they rats?"

"No." Humphrey said. "They were moles. I know moles when I see them. They have the little frilly pink noses. And there were a lot of them. I think there was a hole in the floor below the bed that led to bare ground."

"Too bad they're not putting you up in the Empire now! It's been acquired by some big company. They're going to make into a luxury hotel. Restore it to former grandeur!"

"Luxury my ass!"

We had a good laugh. Merchant-Ivory somehow always got us into the places that are cheap, but interesting. If a carpet-bagger with wads of cash had followed us buying up the real estate they'd have made millions.

Now Humphrey's got a high paying job in L.A. editing a film for a big production company. After he signed the contract the producer gave him a Lincoln Continental. All their editors got a car, a villa with pool and a tennis court, free meals, and plane tickets. He can't quite believe it all.

"None of this was in my contract with them. They gave it all to me later. They said, 'Give us the receipt for that, we'll pay it!' "

Yet between all this talk of striking it rich in Hollywood, I sensed Humphrey's longing for the underpaid work he did for Merchant-Ivory.

In later years, a man wants to touch his roots. No mention of what's to happen with me on "Bostonians", though I sense Humphrey is routing for his star assistant.

On the way home I remembered the crash courses Humphrey gave me in editing room procedures, protocol and techniques. He's old school, a Brit, dour as they come, given to flashes of gentle smiles and laughter, but sanguine on most topics. This is what made him such a brilliant editor on his first editing job, "Autobiography of a Princess", undoubtedly one of Jim's very best films.


I received a great letter from Barney, written so well I am touched with envy. He writes the way any person does when they write at their best. How long has it been since words have flowed that way for me? When the words sit happily, form an image, bulge with humor, laughter, confidence. Images one can call up and remember later. The letter arrived after his short trip to India with Zakiya to do publicity for one of Shashi Kapoor's films. He wrote me in his letter that he regrets having made the trip:

"A week of preparation, a week of traveling and a week to recover afterwards

"Bombay is still a slum, always will be," he added.

On this point I know he is so wrong, but the way he wrote it was so funny that I let it slide by. This disconsolate note led me to think he doesn't quite understand the sources of strength in his own work. Our trip to India challenged Barney, made him stretch, he felt himself put out, his privacy invaded, his senses bombarded, his tastes insulted, but after recoiling from this his writing became stronger. He dwells on these bits of ire with a sense of humor. A writer must constantly laugh at himself, must never become absolutely certain that he himself isn't a fool of fools.

At the urging of Ismail, I'm reading "The Stranglers" by George Bruce, a scholarly book based on the experiences and work of Major William Sleeman, putting an end to Indian Thugs, or the 'Thuggee'. These were professional assassins, that travelled India performing ritual murders, usually in very remote places. They were almost entirely unknown until the 19th Century when their practices were uncovered and their followers brought to justice by Sleeman, who learned that the "Thugs", hence the origin of the word, were worshippers of Kali, that murdered religious pilgrims for their gold and silver, and covered up their crimes by disemboweling and de-limbing their victim's bodies, then burying the pieces in pre-dug graves.

John Master's "The Deceivers", about the same subject, lacks the truthfulness that this volume makes up for tenfold. The script for Merchant-Ivory's version of "The Deceivers", should be based on truth, on the facts of the Thuggee in India, and not on John Master's purple-prosed, and watered down version of it.

I bought the book at considerable cost from a collector, at Ismail's behest. No mention on refunding my cost on that - he knows I want the editing job on  'The Bostonian's'. No word yet but in any event they want me to work on "The Perfect Murder", and if that doesn't get funded, "The Deceivers" as well.

I pack for India.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012


Galerina autumnalis with the vaginate cap,
Seals one's doom via flavorful trap.
The delicious brown mushrooms do not tell,
If psychedelic, or a Funeral Bell.

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