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Walter Murch

Every spring, at some point in the semester as I am teaching my graduate Fiction of Nonfiction writing and reading class to the usual collection of journalism and poetry graduate students at NYU (my mission, to help foster a new generation of lyrical reporters and investigative poets), there comes a point in the proceedings where I have occasion to offer up my opinion (which given the rules of graduate education has the momentary force of law) that Walter Murch is the smartest person in America.

“Walter Murch is the smartest person in America,” I’m likely summarily to declare, “and that will be on the test.  The question will be, ‘Who is the smartest person in America?’ and the expected answer is ‘Walter Murch.’  Ten points.”

Walter Murch - Chicago Humanities Festival
Walter Murch 

And every few months in the interim there comes another email or blog post or letter or translation or film release to confirm me in my conviction.  Film release: because that’s how most people know about Walter Murch, as arguably the greatest living film (and especially sound) editor working in cinema today, a veritable god among his colleagues—editor or sound designer, among others, of THX-1138 and The Conversation (both of which he co-wrote), American Graffiti, Apocalypse Now, large swaths of the Godfather movies, Julia, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, The Talented Mr. Ripley, The English Patient, Jarhead, and the forthcoming Philip Kaufman HBO feature, Hemingway and Gellhorn.  (His collaboration with Michael Ondaatje on The English Patient led to their booklength collaboration on The Conversations.)  Translation: for years now, in his spare time, he has been embarked on a magesterial project channeling previously unavailable reportage by the mad mythic fascist/communist World War II era Curzio Malaparte from Italian prose into exquisitely moving English poetry (for an example of which, see his latest such effort in the London Review of Books).

Apocalypse Now - Chicago Humanities Festival
Apocalypse Now

And beyond that, just all those everyday revelations.  His contributions, for example, to my ongoing Convergence Contest on the McSweeneys website, including a marvelous riff on Maxim Gorky’s uncannily prescient immediate response (in 1896!) at witnessing an early Lumiere Brothers version of the coming medium of cinema and a one-shot leap-frog over the contest’s usual requirement that entries contrast at least two improbably matched images.

Smartest?  Well, okay, maybe not the smartest (I suppose there must be some Nobel Prize winning biophysicist/concert pianist somewhere with an equally plausible claim to that title.)  But surely among the most various and polymath and confoundingly protean.  One recent afternoon, for example, he sat down to puzzle out the answer to a question he’d posed himself: on a per-watt basis, which emits the most energy for its size, the sun or a brain?  (His answer: on a per-cubic centimeter basis, the brain emits 56,000 times more energy than the sun.)  The point being, who else but him would have even thought to ask the question?

The English Patient - Chicago Humanities Festival
The English Patient

Veterans of the Festival, meanwhile, may recall his star turn a few seasons back when he fearlessly ventured into the field of gravitational astro-acoustics with his resurrection of the previously (though, to hear him tell it, prematurely and unfairly) repudiated Bodes Law about the sequential placement of the orbits of planets and moons and electrons relative to their various gravitational centers:  indeed, once Bode’s formula had been properly recalibrated, as he demonstrated across one of the most elegant powerpoint presentations ever, the orbits of a good 75% of such bodies in the actual universe turned out to jibe with Bode’s formula, which itself turned out to rhyme precisely with the Pythagorean octave.  Music of the Spheres, indeed.

Speaking of which, the other day, typically, Murch was regaling me by phone  from his home in Bolinas, north of San Francisco, with one of his latest discoveries, the fact that for a few days in June of 1600, two 28-year-olds (born within a few months of each other) found themselves jostling along together, sharing a coach on the post road between Prague and Vienna: Johannes Kepler, soon to achieve fame as the greatest astronomer of his time, and Frederik Rosenkranz, a ne’er-do-well cypher who would even sooner achieve fame, of a sort, as the basis for one half of that pair of bit players in Shakespeare’s Hamlet (the pair reprised, yes, a few centuries later as the central protagonists in Tom Stoppard’s Rosencranz & Guildenstern are Dead).

The Talented Mr. Ripley - Chicago Humanities Festival
The Talented Mr. Ripley

In keeping with the theme of this year’s festival, I expect my conversation with Walter Murch this time out will hew somewhat more closely to themes principally technological. The sorts of things he addressed in his seminal In the Blink of an Eye, the bible for generations of editing students (and especially that slim volume’s afterword, on the differences between analog and digital editing, which turn out to ramify in all sorts of directions, in fact just about everywhere). We’ll likely dip into his hugely influential theory of two-and-a-half (how in any given scene, the audience can keep track of two and a half conversations or plot developments or sonic interruptions at a time, anything more invariably leading to the experience of perceptual chaos—and the possible neurological explanations for same); his recent polemics on why 3-D filmmaking can never truly satisfy; and then maybe, for a truly satisfying conclusion, his account of what it’s been like for this world class film editor to have spent a good part of the last year directing an episode of the cult-hit Saturday morning TV cartoon series, The Clone Wars (we might even get a sneak peek at the episode in question!).


Behind the Scenes: Hollywood Sound Design with Walter Murch

Northwestern University School of Law, Thorne Auditorium: Nov. 13, 12:30 PM

Tags: Hollywood, film, editing, sound design, convergence, The Clone Wars, Apocalypse Now, Michael Ondaatje, The English Patient

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