Tuesday, September 28, 2010

R.I.P. Editor Sally Menke (1953-2010)

Today in L.A. one of the superlative editors working in movies, - most notably for Quentin Tarantino - was found dead from heat exhaustion (or something similar as she was on a hike with her dog).  She was 56

Sally Menke has edited everything Tarantino has directed (yes, even The Man From Hollywood, though not his television episodes on ER and CSI and his first technically completed film My Best Friend's Birthday, all exceptions to a strong collaboration).  She edited other feature films as well, including the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie (from 1990), Billy Bob Thornton's movies All the Pretty Horses and Daddy and Them, Oliver Stone's Heaven & Earth, Mulholland Falls, and Nightwatch.  But she'll be most remembered for her work with QT, specifically as she received two Oscar nominations (Pulp Fiction, Inglourious Basterds) in the process.

Now, this is in some part news you can already read up on online, with some notations about her career.  But I would like to go in to what made her work with Tarantino- and, yes, on the Ninja Turtles movie - so important.

1) How to stay on a shot, and how to stage a showdown

For a while I may have underrated Menke's work on Tarantino's films.  It's a given that a director will be given the credit for when things go right - and, conversely, blame for when they go wrong - and it's only when it's really noticeable that one will point out more of the specific technical assets or letdowns.  One will credit the Coen brothers for how incredible their films turn out, and they should be for if nothing else the screenplays and casting.  But Roger Deakins and, oddly enough, the Coens themselves deserve credit for the photography and the editing.  In films, pacing is a colossal factor in how both an entire film and scenes/sequences play out.

Case in point, Pulp Fiction.  Earlier this month in an editing class I'm taking, I was asked to give an example of good editing, from anything, any movie would do.  The scene I chose perhaps had something to do with just seeing the film again at a midnight screening (seeing it on the big screen, as with many great films, enhances its finer and exceptional qualities), but it was a specific scene that I recalled in some large part because it's a scene that has no dialog at all, in a film that is loaded with the quotable one-liners we get from Tarantino circa mid-1990s.

This is the scene: Butch, going home to find the watch that his girlfriend left at his apartment, makes a couple of pop-tarts, feeling momentarily at ease by finding the watch and no one being there... that is until he looks at his kitchen's counter

In this confrontation, not a word is said, but look as to how Menke lingers on the shots.  Part of the inspiration for this scene, albeit without the standard Morricone music, is from spaghetti westerns.  The gun does not show up in the scene until it is revealed to us by Butch's eyes.  The entire scene is character driven.  There's a sense of distaste already there from an earlier scene between Butch and Vincent at the bar, but here it's taken to another level.  It's really more about the build-up than the actual violence itself.

When it does occur, it's with added shock in how fast it goes by, but then more-so because of how Menke and Tarantino stay on Butch's face, which is still very surprised but confident.  The editing in this scene takes its time, sets up the situation, and plays it out in a pace that is unpredictable and shocking.  Watching the scene in context with the rest of the film it still holds its value as giving a jolt to the system.  The addition of the smoke alarm and how Butch never reacts to it (which is never really acknowledged by anyone) is a bonus.


2) "You guys must have studied the abridged book of ninja fighting"

Before I even knew what an editor does, I was a fan of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.  Specifically the original 1990 film, directed by Steven Barron

However I did know the art of a great title on screen
But lo and behold, years later, after becoming curious about various crew members working on QT movies, I came across this item in Menke's filmography.  The 'Turtles' movie is vehemently defended by its followers, even as a cult movie (which it is now that it's gone past its day as current 'family' entertainment, though kids today should see it over that bullshit TMNT 2007 movie), and I include myself in that group.  It takes very silly material, and I even admit that it is very silly subject matter, with mutant turtles who are aged in their teens separated by color-coordinated bandanas and with their own distinct personalities and equitable hunger for pizza (as long as it doesn't have penicillin on it, to which they will do a funeral song).

What sets it apart from other family movies at the time that were also silly and meant mostly (though not exclusively) for children, is how seriously it takes itself and its surroundings.  This is before it really got silly with Secret of the Ooze (Vanilla Ice anyone?) or got mentally disabled with the third movie (Shit Sandwich anyone?)  It's a beautiful film to look at  (Roger Ebert, who ultimately gave the film a thumbs down, conceded that it had the most breathtaking production design since, or comparable to, Metropolis), and it carries with it a film-noir aesthetic even as it sends up juvenile crime movies with Shredder's clan of teenage fighters and kung-fu movies.

And along with how the director and cinematographer and production designer, not to mention Jim Henson, get the details on screen right, Sally Menke made the film move and feel alive as an action movie and as a piece of camp.  It doesn't know it's camp, at least not always, and it's this that makes one take the editing seriously as well.

To demonstrate how much she was on the wavelength of everyone else, here are two examples of her contribution to the film:

First is this scene, which is a lead-up to a big fight sequence (I'll hold off on putting too much emphasis on fight sequences for the next portion of this blogpost).  The Foot-Clan, who have just pummeled the Ninja Turtle Raphael into unconsciousness come through every door-way and really any spot available to come through in the apartment.  Michelangelo's comment nails it:

Ain't that the truth, Mikey.

In the ensuing confrontation, we see a kind of showdown of skills between Michelangelo and a "fellow chucker". The pace here is fun and lively, and referential to Westerns with the move to pick up the nunchuk. And the comedy keeps being the real factor here, one topping the other in a match of skills. It should be a moment that breaks the tone of what came before it, which was dead-serious as they beat up the foot.

For a Ninja Turtles movie it perfectly lays out the attitude towards fighting: get some humor in there, make the supposedly stuff-shirted Foot Clan confused, and THEN kick the hell out of them. The violence in such a scene is off-set somewhat by the comic-timing, which is impecable. It's not Buster Keaton, but it's close enough to showcasing something exciting and, again, unexpected.

Another clip:

This is what I was referring to before regarding 'taking it seriously'.  If one were to start the film off without any prior knowledge of it as a Ninja Turtles movie, one would think it's a mid-80's crime movie, maybe starring Don Johnson or someone better.  Menke's pacing is that of a crime-wave movie; it makes more sense that the pacing is that of a wallet changing hands in crowded streets, but we're never lost as to where the wallet is going, only that there is some chaotic movement around it being moved.  Then we're let go of this tension as we see Danny (the boy walking and standing alongside the wall).  The next shot, a close-up of a hand with some kind of covering (metal?!) puts the viewer on guard all over again.

If one continues to watch, the scene where April O'Neill is walking along and is accosted by the thugs, the tension keeps peaking.  The edits are tight enough as to create the suspense, though there's enough in the shots so that super-fast montage isn't necessary.  Wisest of all (though one can give this to Barron more than Menke, to a point) is to keep on the shot of black as the Ninja Turtles come on the scene and tear up the thugs.

This should be a surreal scene, and it is in a way; the cutaway to Raphael peeking out of the manhole cover is the kind of indelible image that can stay in dreams.  Yet Barron and Menke keep the focus on how real everything is, or should be - that it's New York city circa 1990, when it was not corporate-covered in most parts and, you know, full of drug-crazy maniacs and actual gangs adds to the realism - and we believe everything in it.  It should almost, almost, be a disappointment then when the Turtles come up in the sewer, albeit in an introduction that makes the kid in me should "COWABUNGA!"  Everything that's carried with how it's cut together, leading up to it, in a neo-noir aesthetic, provides us to buy into all that will follow.


3) Commode Tricks Are For Kids

Menke's work with Tarantino has varied depending on the style the director is going after (which, being Taratino, can be as varied as spaghetti western to screwball to dark film-noir to heavy action and suspense).  But in two examples the editing plays a factor just as much, if not more, than the writing.  It is, as Tarantino himself has noted, why "editing a final cut of the film is like a final draft of the screenplay."  In this sense she (was) the director's closest collaborator, even more than Roger Avary in the early days.  Only the producers, Lawrence Bender and Harvey Weinstein, seem to have been closer than anyone in his camp.

In Reservoir Dogs, Mr. Orange (who is, spoiler, the "rat" in the bunch of criminals as a cop named Freddy Newendyke) has to infiltrate the group led by Lawrence Tierny and Harvey Keitel.  How to do this as an unknown?  Lay down a story that ties one in to the criminal element at large, though with something small.  This is the Commode Story (linked here since embedded wasn't allowed for the video).

While the entire sequence is, in fact, a monologue, the character takes on the qualities of an actor more than a cop infiltrating as a rat.  Or, "like Don Rickles, tell a joke" the cop says.  One can credit the idea of leaping off from describing the story to showing it to the filmmaker (the old 'show don't tell', however monkeyed with as Tarantino shows WHILE he tells, breaking a not-quiet sacred rule when done right).  Menke, however, is integral in how we get from the telling to the showing.  In the first scene in the apartment it's a static shot as Freddy just goes over the words over and over in his script.  It's a dull shot and its long length is reflected in how long Freddy takes in reciting the words, his own tenor of speech.  The next scene moves a little faster, the shot isn't so static, and we see the other cop in the scene as an active audience member for what is Freddy being more energized.  The cuts aren't so fast as to lose the pacing of the story, but the energy is what counts.

When it comes to the next, big-show scene, as Freddy (aka Mr. Orange soon to be) tells the story of the drugs in the bathroom, the camera moves a little, but not so much here except as to make it about the characters listening and watching Freddy's moves.  Freddy then transposes himself in the bathroom.  Believability is now completely in his grasp, and Menke's editing here is crucial.  How much time is spent on the dog's close-up as it barks.  How long the shot spins around Freddy as everything is freeze-framed around him as he talks about his "panic" (though Tim Roth looks far from panicked, more like 'method actor' cool really).  What is great too is how long the shot remains on the cops, one of whom is telling his own story about being the asshole he is pulling someone over.

Ultimately, Menke's style takes on the precise air of self-conscious reality.  Freddy turns on the air-machine to dry his hands, the sound of which overtakes the soundtrack, and all cops look on with stone-cold stares.  Even the dog is now over-powered to be heard.  What starts out as a very dry scene without any movement and only an actor dryly saying words turns into a full-blown performance piece.  It's believable as an anecdote, but inside Freddy's mind it takes on the air of opera, and Menke complements the actors by giving them enough time to be full-blown caricatures within Tarantino's own hard-edged, almost punk rock aesthetic (the push of the air-machine is like a big 'Fuck YOU' that hits a grand note).

This reveals Menke's talent at varying the movements of characters and compositions based on the necessity of story.  What about a full-blown action sequence, the likes of which could be compared to Ben-Hur?

This is a portion of the film Kill Bill Vol. 1 that could be considered a little more than subtle.  It's an extravaganza of violence and mayhem, all orchestrated by the "Bride" played by Uma Thurman in a yellow jumpsuit ala Game of Death.  What's the point of all of this?  Simply, so that the Bride can exact revenge on the #1 on her list of people to kill, O-Ren Ishii, who has the "Crazy 88".  Are there 88?  In Vol. 2 Bill remarks that they call themselves that "to sound cool".  I would wager that Tarantino made them all up to be "cool".  Just, ultimately, not as cool as the Bride when it comes to killing hard and fast.

It's been said that it took Tarantino a full year alone to write this sequence.  I imagine less time was spent editing it, yet it's probably not off by much.  The number of shots here are many, and the angles are varied based on the intensity of the moment, the rapidity of the Bride's ability to kill, and how many are coming at her at once.  It's all a big homage to chop-socky, martial-arts-samurai movies and it holds its own when put up to those nothing-but-blood-and-carnage standards.

What's breathtaking about the scene, time and again, is that we're never lost or too confused in the chaos of the images.  The cuts are fast, but I would argue still stronger and with a level of depth and importance to nearly every shot than, say, the action in Christopher Nolan or Bourne movies.  It is chaotic, but the intention is not to feel disorientated by the action, or for it to be so choppy as to lose its momentum.  Even in moments where the actions lows in the House of Blue Leaves fight, such as when the one fighter throws the axes, or when the Bride does somersaults, the action is relentless but measured.  I always knew where everyone was in this fight, and this includes the many that were in the background.  Danger is around every step, and the mood takes into account, like music, rhythm, tempo, and emotion.  I laugh and gasp and hold on to something during this battle.  I can't say the same for most of Nolan's action or those in Bourne movies, but that's a discussion for another time.

This may be one of the pinaccles of modern film editing, nevermind Menke's career, as she finds every little moment that counts for the Bride, and how crucial every sword swipe, dismemberment and slapping on the ass and "GO HOME TO YOUR MOTHER!" adds up.  That this sequence is followed up by yet *another* fight, the big one between the Bride and O-Ren that is slower in pace and just as momentous in its intensity and scope is a credit to her as much as its director.


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