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Synergy between the senses


Instinct, emotion and logic in film
Walter Murch Film-maker
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The uniquely powerful thing about film at the moment, and speculating about the future, is that it has the ability to address these three ways of thinking about the world and reacting to the world. Roughly speaking: instinct, emotion and logic, let's say language is a form of logic. And these roughly correspond to the three different operating systems that we have up here. Which is the instinctual let's call it the reptilian brain, although that may be doing a disservice to reptiles, and then the emotional brain which is an invention, let us say, of the mammalian world, and then the superstructure, the big superstructure of the neo-cortex which is the ability to think logically and linguistically and mathematically and analytically about the world, does this make sense in some geometric way.

And all art forms I think that are powerful do this, talk to each of these areas, but film, because of its unique abilities of viscerally talking about motion and colour and sound are able to make people react instinctively. Clearly films are able, if you're lucky and talented as a film-maker to make the audience respond emotionally, and then does the story that you're telling hang together? Does it make sense? Because, we've all seen films that rely on instinct, the so-called startle reflex, and films that with the right music make you feel sad or happy or anxious, but who are unable to hang together as a film, and we realise then that we've just been manipulated by these two, let's say, lower orders.

So a good film, and a really good film, has to, I think, and does co-ordinate these three elements, and it's a peculiarity of our life and I think a peculiarity of human beings, the dilemma of humans, and this sort of harks back to the concept of original sin, whatever that means, is that these three operating systems can, have a loose alliance with each other. One of them is not always in command. There are times, necessarily, when instinct takes over and you simply run out of the burning building or you jump out of the car to rescue the child and you don't think about what's in your best interests. And then emotion, clearly the emotion of the mother for the child, the father for the child, love the emotional power of love, as opposed to the instinctual sexual power which is also operating. And then, this superstructure of: does it make sense? And there are times we feel, my emotions carried me away, or, I didn't think about it, I just acted instinctively, or, I just got swept up in the numbers and I didn't realise what the implications of it all were. So, in each of those cases, one of the brains has overruled the other two. And, film when it works, can have a way of dealing with each of these and yet integrating them into a whole. And so there's a kind of synergy that results when it works. And it's easy to find examples of films where it doesn't work. And I think one of the distressing things is when you watch a bad film and you react against it, what you're reacting to is the wasted opportunity, that we instinctively understand what films are capable of when they're good, and we forget or we choose not to know how difficult they are to make, and we concentrate on... people frequently say, I wish I could get those two hours of my life back. What do they mean? That... what else were you going to do? Play a video game? Or watch TV, or hang out? So there's a feeling of betrayal. You took 2 hours of my life. But really what they're saying is: you took an opportunity that you had and you squandered it. It didn't work. And films can go wrong for all kinds of reasons. Everyone... nobody sets out to make a bad film, or a vanishingly small percentage of people do. Most people think: this is a great idea, let's do it. But things can go wrong because it's very complicated.

Born in 1943 in New York City, Murch graduated from the University of Southern California's School of Cinema-Television. His career stretches back to 1969 and includes work on Apocalypse Now, The Godfather I, II, and III, American Graffiti, The Conversation, and The English Patient. He has been referred to as 'the most respected film editor and sound designer in modern cinema.' In a career that spans over 40 years, Murch is perhaps best known for his collaborations with Francis Ford Coppola, beginning in 1969 with The Rain People. After working with George Lucas on THX 1138 (1971), which he co-wrote, and American Graffiti (1973), Murch returned to Coppola in 1974 for The Conversation, resulting in his first Academy Award nomination. Murch's pioneering achievements were acknowledged by Coppola in his follow-up film, the 1979 Palme d'Or winner Apocalypse Now, for which Murch was granted, in what is seen as a film-history first, the screen credit 'Sound Designer.' Murch has been nominated for nine Academy Awards and has won three, for best sound on Apocalypse Now (for which he and his collaborators devised the now-standard 5.1 sound format), and achieving an unprecedented double when he won both Best Film Editing and Best Sound for his work on The English Patient. Murch’s contributions to film reconstruction include 2001's Apocalypse Now: Redux and the 1998 re-edit of Orson Welles's Touch of Evil. He is also the director and co-writer of Return to Oz (1985). In 1995, Murch published a book on film editing, In the Blink of an Eye: A Perspective on Film Editing, in which he urges editors to prioritise emotion.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is an independent documentary producer who has made a number of films about science and scientists for BBC TV, Channel Four, and PBS.

Tags: film, instinct, emotion, logic, reflex

Duration: 5 minutes, 44 seconds

Date story recorded: April 2016

Date story went live: 29 March 2017