Decisive Moments

woman editing 1928Yesterday, drawing from the words and wisdom of film editor Walter Murch, I posted about how cool it would be if Life were similar to how Bresson described a movie:  born three times:  once during the screenwriting, once during filming, and a third time in the editing room.  Today I’d like to briefly describe what The Editing Room Of Life might look like.

When Murch edits a movie, he starts with what he calls “Representative Stills.”  These are single frames taken from the shots the movie team has so far filmed.  Every set-up (camera angle) is represented.  What Murch looks for, when choosing his Representative Still, is what the photographer Cartier-Bresson called “the decisive moment.”

Murch then puts these Representative Stills on stiff foam boards with other Representative Stills from other camera set-ups within the same sequence.  A sequence in the movies is somewhat like a chapter or mini-chapter in a book.  Murch says that a typical movie will contain between thirty and forty sequences.

So, now lets bring this successful approach to film editing into The Editing Room Of Life…

When we look back over the footage of our life, we should be able to discern the roughly three dozen most important events of our lives and the “sequences” or mini-chapters leading up to them.  To assemble these, you may wish to start by taking the most obvious memories that jump out at you, then go year by year and try to remember the big events of each year.

Now, for each sequence, think of the important scenes involved.  Let us take for example the sequence of events around the first time you made love.  Perhaps the scenes leading up to that night (or afternoon?) would include: the awkward asking-out, the even more awkward first date, the first goodnight kiss, et cetera.

Let us take the first date as a scene.  You are at a restaurant together and you drop your fork to the floor while your date is talking, and perhaps your date picks up your dropped fork and hands you his unused fork for you to continue eating while he never misses a beat in his pontificating upon the connection between the French New Wave film movement and the increasing portability and quietness of cameras in the mid-twentieth century, and you think –as he holds both forks, his mouth open— this is a person I could spend some time with…

Snap!  That’s your Representative Still for that scene.  For our purposes, a scene will be equal to a “set-up” in Murch’s movies.  And just like for his set-ups, you’ll need to find the Decisive Moment of each of the important scenes of your life.   And remember:  only worry about the scenes that form part of the thirty or forty Sequences that you’ve chosen for the movie version of your Life.

Now take a mental picture of each Decisive Moment; jot it down, maybe sketch it.  This is you Representative Still.  We’ll be hanging these up in chronological order around the room for you to use once the actual editing of your Life-Movie begins.  And remember:  many of your sequences will not be happy ones.  Everyone’s life has had at least a few “ups” and at least a few “downs.”  Do not subconsciously repress the bad sequences; and do not overlook the good ones— sometimes the smallest events loom largest when Time offers an improved vantage point.

When you are finished hanging up the Representative Stills from the scenes of your Life-Movie’s thirty or so Sequences, take a good look at them.  It is time to begin editing.  Examine closely these Decisive Moments of your life.  Which ones are perfect just as they were shot?  Which ones need to be re-shot with different decisions taken? Which scenes deleted altogether?

Perhaps the order or pacing needs to be altered before the Final Cut.  The director Orson Welles said of the pacing and ordering of scenes:

The images themselves are not sufficient.  They’re important, but they’re only images.  What’s essential is the duration of each image and that which follows each image.

Maybe, upon reflection, you’ll want to have the main character (you) marry her lover before her career takes over her life, or vice versa—maybe she should never have given up pursuing her dream career in order to start a family.

Whatever it is you want to change—you have the power.  In The Editing Room Of Life, we are blessed to have a Special Effects Department so good that, almost as if by magic, any scenes you need to add in Post-Production can be digitally created.  So don’t worry if one of your edits at the Decisive Moment requires a drastic re-shoot.  We got this.  You’re the editor of your Life.  You just tell us what you need, sweetheart.

Do keep in mind, however, as Murch points out, sometimes when a scene doesn’t seem to be working, it’s not the fault of that particular scene, but the fault of the earlier sequences in the movie which did not set up this scene properly, so that when it arrived, we weren’t ready for it.

Also, a word of warning before you get too scissor-happy:  Sometimes what you might have thought was a mistake shortly after it happened, turns out, in retrospect, to be the best decision or accident of your life– turns out, in fact, to be the hinge upon which the rest of your life turns, without which, you would have never met the love of your life, or been blessed by that lovely child, or been forced to start over and discover what it was you really wanted to do with your life anyway.

As  Francis Ford Coppola said, “the sins a man performs are not the same as the one he thinks he has performed.”


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