There have been a lot of 'talking head' documentaries in recent years -- where a person or persons sit and talk about an idea: The Aristocrats, Helvetica, The Kid Stays in the Picture. In Murch, David and Edie Ichioka focus their camera, more or less, on film and sound editor Walter Murch as he talks about the craft of editing and the film's he's applied it to. And really, any 'talking head' documentary stands or falls on whether or not the head doing the talking has interesting things to say -- and by that standard, Murch is a movie lover's delight.
Reading Walter Murch's resume brings to mind the line from Belloq about the big whatsit in Raiders: "We are just passing through history, Dr. Jones. But the Ark ... is history." Murch has cut images and shaped sound for Apocalypse Now, The English Patient, The Conversation, Ghost, American Graffiti, THX-1138, The Talented Mr. Ripley, The Godfather Part II, Jarhead. More intriguingly, he's also gone through a significant change in his field, from hand-cut linear editing to digital non-linear cutting -- a change as big as when monks trained in hand-illumination first looked upon Gutenberg's printing press.
But Murch is matter-of-fact about his craft, which is part of the film's appeal. He'll digress -- about the physiology of blinking, about his work technique of editing while standing, about the challenges and opportunities rising out of the films he's worked on -- but it all comes back to the central concern of this film and his work: How do you tell a story?
And you also get some nicely-spun inside movie gossip as well -- like when Murch relates the original idea of releasing Apocalypse Now to one theater in the geographic center of America, where it would then play for the next 20 years as a kind of cinematic national monument. "And then," Murch dryly notes, "the realities of film financing kicked in. ..." If you're looking for the glossy, gossipy, star-struck glow of The Kid Stays in the Picture, you're out of luck here aside from the occasional gem like the above; what Murch does deliver, though, is a nice concise snapshot of a craft and a craftsman, and a look at the art of moviemaking that, by examining a few movies, makes you see all movies in a new way. Unlike many other recent shot-on-DV documentaries, the Ichiokas have a grasp of how to compose and light and set an interview -- there are no visible microphone cords here, and the flow and cut of the film is smooth, yet never complacent. (It's a safe bet that the Ichiokas picked up a few things from talking to Murch -- how could you not? -- that show most obviously in the film's sound mix and editing.)
And I don't know how Murch will play for non-movie buffs, or off the Festival circuit; it isn't fun or slick like The Kid Stays in the Picture, it isn't rabble-rousing and rough-hewn like This Film is Not Yet Rated. But in a way it's better than both those docs -- it's free of artifice, focuses on one subject who knows precisely what he's talking about and pops the hood on the process of moviemaking instead of just admiring the shine of the bodywork. You're going to have to look for Murch, but anyone who cares about film at all will find the quest provides its own reward.