Tuesday, September 28, 2010

R.I.P. Sally Menke

I'm not the blogger in my family; Stacy is. But tonight I feel compelled to share with the universe my admiration for Sally Menke. Sally was a movie editor, and one of the best. She earned her reputation and a couple of Oscar nominations for her collaborations with Quentin Tarantino.

I've been teaching a film course for over a decade now, and for nine years I've tried to guide youngsters in creating their own short films. What surprises my students the most about filmmaking is the power of the editor. It is the editor who controls the pace of a film, the editor who pieces together numerous takes to make an actor appear to do a better job than they could ever do in real life, the editor who crafts the order and duration of every shot in the film, and the editor who repairs the numerous mistakes the director commits in shooting. In short, it is the editor who makes the film.

The damnable thing about editing is that most people don't even notice it. Usually, that's the idea. Editing is often so seamless that our minds, absorbed in narrative, fail to recognize it all. And in the rules of classical editing and the Hollywood style, one should hide the edits as carefully as possible.

But then, there's Pulp Fiction. The structure of the movie is quite possibly its most compelling element, and that it makes any sense at all is due to the labors of Ms. Menke. The film calls attention to the fact that it is assembled, not just filmed, and that there's a genius behind the assemblage. Most people assumed that genius was Tarantino, but Tarantino has always been quick to credit Menke's role.

Film editing is grueling, lonely work. The editors miss out on all the glory (what little there really is) of filmmaking; no hobnobbing with the actors, no private trailer. You get a dim room, a computer, and a deadline.

If you've ever seen Tarantino in an interview or in person, you know that he can be delightfully intense. He seems almost maniacal in his enthusiasm for film shots and sequences. I wouldn't want to be the one to say, "Quentin, it's just too long. We need to cut this." But Sally Menke was a woman of unending patience and persuasion, and the perfect foil for Tarantino's glorious mania. She, more than any other person on the film crew, spends the most time one-on-one with the director. Tarantino considered her a close collaborator, and in many ways a co-writer.

What made Menke a great editor was not just the mind-bending piecing together of initially convoluted plots, but her clear understanding of how to get the most out of a scene without losing the big picture. Consider any scene from Pulp Fiction or Kill Bill and you'll see how it works both as a complete piece (often with a complete mini-plot) and how it fits into the larger whole.

What saddens me about Sally's death is not just that we've lost one of film's greatest editors, but that we've lost a beautiful relationship between two coworkers and dear friends. Sally and Tarantino seemed to have such admiration for each other and the other's craft, and I'm sure Tarantino's grief is profound.

So condolences to Ms. Menke's husband and two children, and to Quentin Tarantino.

If you'd like to learn more about film editing and hear both Menke and Tarantino discuss their crazy collaboration, check out the documentary The Cutting Edge: The Magic of Movie Editing. It will forever change the way you look at film.

And here's an interview with her: http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2009/dec/06/sally-menke-quentin-tarantino-editing