An appreciation of film editor Sally Menke.
In a scene from Inglourious Basterds that vibrates with tension, Col. Hans Landa, the Nazi played by Oscar winner Christoph Waltz, toys with Mélanie Laurent's Shosanna Dreyfus. He's forcing her to eat apple strudel with him in a Paris restaurant, suggesting but never saying outright that he knows who she is: the Jewish girl who escaped his massacre of her family at a dairy farm. It's a key moment in the film, and it signals the beginning of the girl's plot to kill Hitler.
The scene works because of the tight focus on seemingly mundane details—the way a cigarette is offered, an eyebrow raised, a dollop of cream served. Film editor Sally Menke, who died earlier this month, discusses her work on the film in Invisible Art/Visible Artists, a documentary made annually by Allan Holzman to celebrate Oscar-nominated editors: "Does he know that it's Shosanna?" asks Menke. "Does he offer her the drink of milk, does he control the cream knowing that she was the last person at the dairy farm? It's an unanswered question and we wanted to leave it unanswered, and so hence the close-ups and hence the controlling of the cigarettes." The scene ends just after Landa has kissed Shosanna's hand and walked away, leaving her gasping at the table. "She goes into just a huge well of tears at the end of the scene," says Menke, "and we cut it short because we only wanted her to just release the breath because she had to remain a fountain of strength because she was going to plan the death of Hitler."
Watching her speak, it's clear that Menke was easily as invested as Tarantino in the Oscar-nominated film and that her contribution was essential to the film's success. For many of us, used to thinking of a film as the creation of an auteur-director, it comes as a surprise to learn just how much creative control editors have. They're often the only ones to see every minute of footage shot for a film. Out of that mass of footage, they pick shots, lines of dialogue, and character-revealing expressions, telling the story visually by sequencing the events of the film. As Holzman says, "The director shoots and then the editor makes a movie out of it." Tarantino has repeatedly said as much, calling the woman who edited every one of his films his "No. 1 collaborator." After all, when Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction first came out, a huge part of their appeal was the thrilling way they jumped between characters and times. And yet, until her death, Menke's name was little-known outside of industry circles.
The long-term partnership between a director and an editor can resemble a traditional marriage, with the director the public face of the couple and the editor acting as the classic woman-behind-the-man, honing the vision and crafting the persona that he presents to the world. And in fact, more women tend to work as editors than in other Hollywood fields. And many of the qualities associated with a good editor could be construed as traditionally female—at least for females of a certain age. Like some marriages, the relationships seem anachronistic, or maybe just harmonious, depending who you ask.
"That's my gal," someone who worked with Tarantino recalls him saying about Menke. In a 2004 documentary, The Cutting Edge: The Magic of Movie Editing, Tarantino says that he was specifically looking for a female editor, one who would "nurture" him through his movies. Menke embraced the role, and its lack of wider recognition, too. In TheGuardian last year, she wrote, "Editors are the quiet heroes of movies, and I like it that way."
Some editors do seem frustrated by the extent to which their work goes unrecognized by viewers, but they usually accept it as an occupational hazard. "It's hard to tell what's well-edited," says Lillian Benson, a documentary editor who serves on the board of American Cinema Editors, or ACE, "because the job is not to call attention to yourself." Holzman, meanwhile, wryly says that "editors are meant to be heard but not seen." The public face of a film, after all, is the director's, and directors are often given—and take—credit for work that's done in the editing room. Tarantino's frequent and enthusiastic tributes to Menke's editing have always been the exception to the rule.
Hollywood is still largely dominated by men, as was endlessly pointed out when Kathryn Bigelow was the first woman to win the Oscar for best director last spring, but according to the Celluloid Ceiling, an annual study that crunches the numbers of female vs. male representation in the 250 top-grossing films of the year, 17 percent of editors in 2009 were women. That's in contrast to 7 percent of directors and just 2 percent of cinematographers, numbers that don't go up or down very much over time.
Photograph of Edna Warren courtesy American Cinema Editors.