Death Comes In Twos

18 03 2008

Last year, when both Ingmar Bergman and Michaelangelo Antonioni died on the same day, it felt like more than a coincidence. It was as if some uber film critic was making a cosmic ironic comment on the state of movies today.

What, then, are we to make of the deaths of both Arthur C. Clarke and Anthony Minghella today? There is no cosmic joke here, just a sad realization that the man who gave us the book of 2001:A Space Odyssey and the man who gave us TRULY, MADLY, DEEPLY and THE ENGLISH PATIENT will create art no more.

Ben Kuchera, in a column in Ars Technica today, quotes the three laws that Clarke was famous for.

  1. When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.
  2. The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.
  3. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

The last of the three is famous, in and of itself. I often wonder, imbued with the good ol’ sensawonda, just how someone merely 100 years old can hope to internalize all of the changes in his or her lifetime. I know that when I emerge from the editing of a film and look around, it seems like the editing technology has drastically changed. A mere five years ago, a mention of the acronym DI would have gotten you stares of incomprehension (unless they thought you were talking about drunk driving). And that’s just in my small little neck of the woods, and in five years time.

Clarke (who has written “Against The Fall of Night”, “Childhood’s End,” “Rendezvous With Rama,” and “Islands In The Sky” in addition to the novel he wrote with Stanley Kubrick) has been writing since 1937 and, in that time, has created some remarkably detailed and plausible future worlds. Remember, when he started writing, the concept of launching anything into space was incomprehensible. The Internet? Not even a gleam.

Yet Clarke, and a few other science fiction writers at the time, managed to conceive of all of this, at a time when the magazines that published science fiction were more concerned with Bug Eyed Monsters and women in the clutches of monsters.

Now, that is a visionary.

Still, I’m particularly entranced by that second law, that one needs to go beyond what we consider possible in order to discover reality’s true limitations.

Speaking narrowly, there are two types of directors in the reshaping process in editing. There are those who will make big, broad changes early on and see what breaks. They will remove entire scenes, rearrange whole sections of the film, drop favorite moments and excise great lines Then they’ll see what absolutely needs to go back to the way it used to be (or, to be more precise, go back a little ways to what used to be).

There are also directors who will work in smaller incremental changes, slowly chipping away at problems until they arrive at a comfortable resolution.

Neither approach is right. Both of them work (though the second method takes longer).

My own preference is to make broad changes — to push past the possible into the impossible — and to see what works. It is axiomatic that once you take a scene out of a film, no one misses it. When you do, you know you’ve got to keep it in the film in some form. So, plenty of things that I’ve resisted changing for what I thought were very good reasons, turn out to be quite expendable in the long run. You never know what is going to work and what won’t (within reason). It’s a cliche, but, really, you never know.

So, Clarke’s second law has ramifications everywhere.

Anthony Minghella didn’t have Clarke’s same speculative fiction side of things, but he managed to blaze a few paths in storytelling and character development. The people in TRULY, MADLY, DEEPLY (the awesome Alan Rickman, years before the caricature he plays in the Harry Potter series) felt blindingly real. The story of a woman who cannot let go of her husband, after his death at an early age, the emotions that Juliet Stephenson portrayed were touching. Not because they were telegraphed, but because they weren’t.

THE ENGLISH PATIENT was a different canvas altogether. Those of you who have taken my Intermediate Editing course know that I play the Caravaggio interrogation scene to demonstrate the use of silence and sound contrast. Walter Murch is given credit for the concept but, as we all know, nothing gets put in a film without the director’s permission, and I’m sure that Minghella enthusiastically was aboard the beautiful use of sound and music to create the horrifying mood of the scene.

It’s that kind of collaboration that we all seek in this business. I know that Walter Murch admires Minghella almost as much as Thelma Schoonmaker admires Martin Scorsese. That comes from a respect for talent, of course, but it also comes from a realization that their directors allow them to do good work. These directors have the ability to step back and let their collaborators come up with ideas.

Not every director can open up that easily. The ones that do are worth their weight.

I will certainly miss the art that Anthony Minghella and Arthur C. Clarke created, even though it will live on — past my own death, I’m sure.

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