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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.

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