Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Cutting God: Saying Goodbye to Sally Menke


Few things in life are fair, but some things are so unfair they make you stop and wonder what the fucking point of getting up in the morning and going through the daily grind is. That's the state that the news of the death of Sally Menke, Quentin Tarantino's career long editor, has left me in. As most of you have probably noticed, I tend to avoid obituaries on this blog, for several reasons, but the primary reasons are A) Whenever anyone dies many movie blogs all chime in with their remembrances, most of which are more eloquent than I am capable of and B) Obituaries of people who worked in the movie industry tend to favor the work over the person, which annoys me. I'm not sad that Sally Menke isn't ever going to edit another movie again - well, I am, but that seems almost beside the point now - I'm sad that she isn't walking amongst us anymore. I'm sad that a director I value very much has lost a collaborator and a friend. I'm sad that her dog, who was with her on her ill-fated hiking trip, has lost an owner and companion. I'm sad for her friends who spent all of Monday worrying about her only to find out in the early hours of Tuesday morning that she was dead. I'm sad for her husband, her two kids, for anyone who was lucky enough to meet her.

And, yes, I'm sad about all the footage that will be shot by Quentin Tarantino throughout the rest of his career that will be unedited by her. I recall in a documentary I saw, that I can't exactly place now, where he said he always felt that he needed a woman to edit his pictures (which I think illuminates part of why he puts women on pedestals in his films, but I digress), his reasoning being that while a man would try to imprint his own ideas for what the film should be in the editing process, a woman would be more nurturing towards his vision. The way I paraphrased it makes it come off a little sexist, but I think the sentiment illuminates a lot about Menke as an artist - that she would listen to Tarantino and do everything within her considerable power to help him make the film he wanted to make. It seems that the two of them were on the same wavelength, and his work to this point has relied on her considerable abilities (he has even flat out stated that he considers her work vital to his own). He also said in that same documentary that cinema is like music, and cutting at the right vs. wrong instant is the cinematic equivalent of a sweet note vs. a sour note; Sally Menke prevented him from playing sour notes. He had such fondness for her that he would always have his actors do a "Hi Sally" take where they would look directly into the camera and say hello to his dear editor. Watching these outtakes now, some of which are available as extra features on his DVDs and on YouTube, is literally heartbreaking.

The only Sally Menke I ever knew was the professional Sally Menke, which was admittedly a distinct pleasure in its own right. It's hard to pick a favorite moment, but there are many unforgettable moments in Tarantino's films that result from her spectacular sense of cinematic rhythm: the final sequence of Reservoir Dogs, as intense as any moment in any movie you can think of; the dance sequence in Pulp Fiction, masterfully cut in time to "You Never Can Tell"; the genius mall sequence at the end of Jackie Brown, which creates a flawless unity of time and place; the fight with the Crazy 88's in Kill Bill, which is lightning fast yet never disorienting; the car chase that serves as the climax of Death Proof, which is visceral yet never sacrifices spacial continuity for cheap thrills; the unforgettable opening of Inglorious Basterds, where the tension builds slowly, deliberately, and when the violence explodes you can almost feel the bullets penetrating your flesh. All these moments belong to Menke as much as they belong to Tarantino.

For all these unforgettable moments, and many others, I will forever be thankful to Sally Menke. I will miss her as much as you can possibly miss someone you've never met. Rest in peace.

19 comments:

Jill said...

What a nice post, Ryan...

Ryan Kelly said...

Thanks Jill. Things like this remind us how short life is, how cruel it can be, and how we should treasure the relatively small amount of time we have on this planet. Much love.

Greg said...

You know, I agree with Jill here and Marilyn on Facebook - this is a great remembrance, Ryan. Really, it says everything just right. A wonderful tribute to Sally Menke's life.

Chris said...

That was beautiful and true, Ryan. You sell your eloquence short, sir.

Ryan Kelly said...

Greg and Chris, thank you both so much for the kind words. Can't even express how much it means to me.

Ryan Kelly said...

Also, I forgot to add it's not just me ovverthinking my writing that stops me from posting obituaries. It's just that I only feel like I have any business doing it when I have a knowledge of a large portion of the person's body of work (which goes against what I said about valuing the human being above the work, but still) and that work has meant a great deal to me. Tarantino's films have been important to me.

Tony Dayoub said...

I echo everyone's sentiments here. This is a fitting tribute to a great artist.

Craig said...

I usually avoid obituaries too. I only recall trying my hand at two of them (Paul Newman and Roy Scheider) and I thought I botched it both times. Because, really, what's left to say about them? Newman especially, whose life and career seemed fullfilled. Menke, though, is different because as good as she was, I'm left with the sense that her (and Tarantino's) best work was still ahead. That, and that it seems like a tragedy that could have been avoided (didn't she carry water? a cell phone?), and that I grew up in Phoenix and hiked in 100-plus degrees countless times and now wonder if maybe I was lucky.

Anyway, thanks for writing this.

noeltanti.com said...

i empathise with your unwillingness to write obituaries however you have a beautiful post here...

i particularly like your penultimate sentence because it expresses the powerful connection/feeling there is between a person, his/her art and the audience... it's literally the sharing of one's soul with strangers...

Ryan Kelly said...

Craig, while I doubt sincerely that you botched it (I wasn't blogging at the time they died and, alas, I was unaware of your blog until after I'd started blogging - though it was a great discovery, of course), I see what you mean. Not to say the death of someone whose lived a full life isn't sad, it's just sad in a different way than something like the death of Sally Menke is, which feels random and cruel and, as you say, totally preventable. It's just awful all around.

Ryan Kelly said...

Noel, that's a beautiful sentiment, and that is the essence of art, isn't it? Obviously we don't know the person, in most cases, but we know what they have decided to share with the world through their art. Thank you for reading, and thank you for the kind words.

Lianna Albrizio said...

Menke: another great artist gone but not forgotten. As a woman myself, I appreciated your admiration and respect for a woman artist, and how you highlighted her achievements so deftly. Gosh, you did so many beautiful things in this post. LOVED how you recapitulated a few of her works in the second to last paragraph. Fucking fantastic, Ryan. Love it, love it love it.


Despite the poignancy and profuse passion displayed in this extraordinary, heart-felt post, I must say, the bit about the movie bloggers being more eloquent than you are capable of was rather comical. They couldn't hold a candle to your work! And you certainly proved yourself wrong with this post.

Do see how much emotion encourages better writing? Brilliant!

Perhaps that observation could suffice for inciting just the teensiest little smile... :)

Ryan Kelly said...

Thank you for the praise but, in fairness, I read more into the movie blogosphere than you do! I'm constantly blown away and humbled by the amount of intelligent, talented writers. I'm just another cog in the wheel - and I like it like that!

But yes, your kind words certainly made me smile. Thanks for reading, as always.

Lianna Albrizio said...

Fair enough. However you wish to rank yourself, in my opinion, you spit the hot shit in my book, my friend, like whoa! B)

Lianna Albrizio said...

Also, I wanted to share a quote with you by Thomas Edison: "Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration."

MovieMan0283 said...

A very nice tribute. Editors are sorely underrated, and Menke was one of the best.

Ryan Kelly said...

I agree, and as has been pointed out on Scanners and other sites, Menke's death has really revealed that so many people don't understand what an editor does! Many have given her credit for the mixed up chronology of Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs, even though they were in the script. As you say, the editor is so underrated, yet so vital to the film making process.

Thomas said...

I admit, I didn't know who she was, until you mentioned the documentary where he Tarantino mentions his preference of female editors because they're more nurturing. I'm pretty sure I watched that on youtube.

Ryan Kelly said...

She and Tarantino, along with Schoonmaker and Scorsese, basically taught me what editing was when I started seriously getting into film in High School. Schoonmaker has, and Menke had, an incredible sense of the medium's relation to music. She'll be missed, and I can't help but be curious what effect her death will have on Tarantino's future work.