We were very excited that renowned film editor and sound designer Walter Murch agreed to write a foreword for Anand Pandian’s recent book Reel World: An Anthropology of Creation. Known for his work on Apocalypse Now, The Godfather I and II, American Graffiti, and The English Patient, he has received three Academy Awards. Roger Ebert called him “the most respected film editor and sound designer in the modern cinema.” Pandian’s book uses ethnographic stories about Kollywood, the home of Tamil cinema, to explore ideas about creation itself. In the following excerpt from Murch’s foreword, he recalls a particular moment of creation during the making of Apocalypse Now.
The precariousness and contingency we see during [film] production seems to extend to all aspects of the industry, no matter what the underlying technology or culture. Apart from a few huge successes, the return on investment for the industry as a whole, worldwide, is meager compared to other major industries. Which begs the question, asked in a broad cultural context: Why do we keep doing this? Collectively, we are clearly not doing it solely for profit, though inevitably a few lucky individuals do become wealthy.
One of the answers is that the matter is out of our control: we filmmakers appear (to ourselves) to be intermediaries, not authors. We do this because we cannot not do it. Nirav, the cinematographer, observes, “I am not a magician. I am the medium. I’m not creating anything.” Yuvan, the composer, says: “I’m sort of a messenger. It just flows through me . . . I’m just a mediator.” The same idea is expressed many other times throughout Reel World: the inspiration (the breath) blows through us, sometimes unbidden. We do not create it, we transmit it from somewhere else into this world. A mysterious creative force appears to be using us (all of us) to further its own ends, and we are devotees of this force—resistance is hopeless.
Of the many unique things about Reel World, the most ambitious is Pandian’s attempt to capture this moment of creation, in writing, composing, directing—the moment that the spark of inspiration connects the individual artist to the numinous forces around him—Cocteau’s angels, so to speak. This is overtly referenced in the chapter on music, where the spark of creativity is simply ascribed to the goddess Saraswati: “Where else does it come from?” asks the sound engineer working for composer Yuvan. From personal experience, I can say these moments (when they do occur) are very quick, and must be acknowledged rapidly or else they vanish in a pique. We must always, even in our most mundane moments (paradoxically, frequently the most fertile), be ready to see things, or hear things, out of the corner of our eye/ear, and drop everything to seize the moment. Most of all, we cannot solicit these moments: they will come when they feel we are ready for them (which may not be how we feel). As Picasso said, “Inspiration comes, but she has to find you working.”
I still strongly remember one of my own “Saraswati moments”—the stunned shock I experienced when, almost on a whim, I put the sound of a helicopter in synchronization with the rotating ceiling fan in Willard’s Saigon hotel room in Apocalypse Now. The effect was so powerful, and the power was so unanticipated, that the editing machine I was using seemed to have been transformed. I, who was conscious of what was happening mechanically was nonetheless completely convinced that the sound was being created by the fan itself. “If it convinces me, it will convince an audience,” I remember thinking. That fleeting moment was the fertilized egg out of which I could construct, in a montage of superimposed images, sounds, and Jim Morrison’s music, the opening eight minutes of the film (which was unscripted): a nightmare of slow-motion helicopters and napalm that swirl and coalesce into this one concrete (and mundane) image/sound, which pulls dreaming Willard back into consciousness (Saigon. Shit. I’m still only in Saigon.), and from which he then descends into the darker and more jungly nightmare forecasting his future.