In 2009, artist Josh Melnick used a scientific research camera to film portraits of New York City subway riders in slow motion—very slow motion, about a hundred times slower than normal film speed. The result was a moment viewed as if through a high-powered microscope, revealing a degree of temporal detail inaccessible to the naked eye.
Around that time, Melnick sat down in a hotel lobby in Manhattan for a conversation with Academy Award–winning film editor and sound designer Walter Murch (whose films include The Conversation, Apocalypse Now, The Godfather, THX 1338, and The English Patient, to name a few). Murch is an amateur astronomer, a prolific translator, author of the seminal book on film editing, In the Blink of an Eye, and subject of The Conversations by Michael Ondaatje.
Their conversation, excerpted here, appears in full in Melnick’s book, The 8 Train, forthcoming this spring.
You take the subway from the airport?
Yes. It’s great because it’s an elevated train. You have that early-twentieth-century experience of looking into people’s third-floor windows. You can see people’s attempts or nonattempts to screen off their lives from the view of disinterested observers. I was watching this, and then I began watching the other people on the train watching this, and then, because of my interest in blinking, I started wondering what their blink rates were.
You’ve written about blinking.
In high school, I read that every fifteen seconds or so, some kind of windshield wiper needs to clean they eye off, which is the blink. Yet, if that were true—if that was the only thing going on—you’d come into a certain environment like this, and some thermostat would kick in and say, Okay, blink once every 7.2 seconds. But that isn’t what happens. People blink at irregular times.
Like most people, I was oblivious to blinking until The Conversation, which was the first feature that I edited. I had the repeated, uncanny experience of watching Gene Hackman’s close-ups and deciding where to cut—He put the tape down, and now he’s thinking about what he’s going to do with the tape and … cut. Very frequently, more frequently than I would have thought, the point that I decided to cut was the point that Hackman blinked. I thought, That’s peculiar. Then, after one session that lasted all night, I went out to get some breakfast. It was a Sunday morning, and I passed a Christian Science reading room in San Francisco, down in the SoMA district. They had a copy of the Christian Science Monitor. John Huston had just finished Fat City, and there was an interview with him about the film. The topic of editing came up, and he said to the interviewer, “Look at me. Now look at that lamp. Now look at me. Did you see what you did?” “No.” “Well, you blinked. When you changed subject, you blinked. That’s what the cut is.” And I suddenly thought, Aha! He was doing it along with a change of visual frame, but I realized we also blink with a change in our interior view.
When we change thoughts?
Blinking is some way of tabulating—a kind of carriage return, click, or save to disk—that helps the process of “Okay, now change the subject.” Every time you move your eyes, there’s an interruption in the visual field—you go momentarily blind when your eyeballs are moving. In order not to freak us out, the brain, almost condescendingly, inserts the last thing that we looked at, which has been stored in a sort of cache.
The motion of the eyes is the fastest motion in the body.The displacement of the eye has the most rapid acceleration and rapid deceleration. No other muscle can do it like the eye can. Ninety-nine percent of the time we’re dealing with somebody, we’re looking at their eyes. We’re not looking at their nose or their lips or whatever. So without knowing it, we have incorporated this idea of blinking into how we’re dealing with people. Can we trust them, or not? Are they telling the truth? It’s a perennial problem for politicians, because they’re up there giving a speech and, most often, they’re not really in the moment. They’re reading a text, and they’re thinking about ten thousand different things. Their mouth is in motor mode. As a result, their blinks are off, especially with the ones that don’t get elected. We don’t trust them. We say there’s something funny about this guy, and we don’t know what it is. A good percentage of that is the fact that he’s not blinking at the right place. Dan Quayle was notorious for this.
So blinking is a way to convey authenticity?
I think so. It’s very hard, as you’ve discovered in your film, to blink inauthentically. In other words, it’s that George Burns thing: “The key to acting is sincerity. If you can fake that, you’ve got it made.”
There’s been some research in the field of developmental psychology about what goes on between mothers and infants in terms of eye contact. Behavioral development entails a great deal of nonverbal communication from a very young age. Yet looking into someone’s eyes, especially when we’re older, can be threatening.
If you want to freak your cat out, stare at your cat. If you want to reassure your cat, stare at your cat, then very deliberately and very slowly blink. Like that. The cat will also deliberately, slowly blink back at you, and I almost guarantee that she will start to purr. That’s a feline reassurance.
So, we’re trained to do it as small children, but we’re discouraged from doing it as adults. What happens when you give someone permission to look deeply at someone else?
That’s what movies do. It’s the only dramatic art form that allows you to look deeply into someone’s eyes without freaking them out.
Several people have commented that the people on the train in the video look “noble.” Do you think that has something to do with the fact that the people are blinking so slowly?
I think it’s the slow motion. We believe that an eagle is noble, but a sparrow is not. If we slowed a sparrow down, we’d say, Oh, how noble. Do a shot of New York traffic and speed it up—it looks like ants. We don’t think of ants as noble. But slow it down and it’s got this mesmerizing quality.
Those who have near-death experiences talk about the slowing down of reality. There is a function in the brain, which is called the flicker fusion rate, which is set for each species of life and actually set for each individual. You have a flicker fusion rate. I have a slightly different one. It’s more or less around fifty milliseconds.
Can you describe that?
If you have a light bulb attached to a strobe machine, it goes blink blink blink blink. If you increase the rate of it, there comes a point where you no longer see the blinks. You just see a continuous stream of light. Whether an object coming toward us is a blur or not, or whether or not a rotating propeller is seen as a shimmering disc, it has to do with whether flicker fusion has kicked in. It’s a balance point between our need to function in the world and the brain’s ability to process and store information. In a life-threatening situation, apparently the brain says, You’re going to die if you don’t catch that rope that’s hanging there, because you’re about to fall. In life-threatening situations, everything slows down. Which is to say, the flicker fusion point increases tremendously. We’re working at the same rate as the rope. Yet an objective person on the sidelines sees something impossible, and wonders, How did that person see the rope? Well, he saw it because vast areas of the brain are mobilized. That’s why people have amnesia about what happened. Whole areas of the brain that are not normally engaged tune in to process this information, at thirteen hundred frames per second, or whatever the rate is.
Maybe the history of the human race is such that we associate slow motion with moments where mortality is in the balance, where we’re forced to say, This is it. All bets are off.
I think this is one of the things that explains what we talk about when we say, He’s a natural athlete. If you studied it you’d see that Ted Williams, or whoever, had a slightly higher flicker fusion threshold. When the ball came streaking toward him, you or I would see just a blur. Baseball players talk about this as being “in the zone.” They can see the stitches on the ball as it comes toward them.
I wonder whether people who focus attunement and attention on specific things—someone like you, working as a film editor—are training perception in much the same way as the baseball player.
Definitely. As film editors, that’s what we study—the frame level. On some level, we know actors better than anyone else—better than the actor knows himself. We spend fourteen hours a day for a year watching certain actors. We know intuitively that he always does that before he does this.
Also, of course, you shape authenticity by cutting out inauthentic moments.
Another Huston-ism is that, in the theater, the real projectors are the eyes and ears of the audience. I can look at a film, and the film can make me smell certain things or feel certain things, even though it’s not operating on those wavelengths. It does this by judiciously leaving out certain pieces of information that we have to fill in. As soon as you do that, something from the person rushes in to fill the gap. But they see it as if it is objectively onscreen, coming from the screen. That personalizes the experience. That’s just like me! They warm to it. Al Pacino is looking at me. Whatever. That’s the primal level of engagement.
Having less information that feels specific enables psychological projection. I think that’s why black-and-white photography or silence can often be more effective. The viewer must fill in more gaps.
Film is really the one art form that can effectively use silence. Music and theater can play with silence, but they can’t sustain silence without losing energy, whereas film can go into a silent mode and stay there for minutes at a time.
It’s one of the dilemmas of motion pictures that they are so specific. When you read a novel or listen to a radio play, watch a ballet or listen to music, you’re dealing with a highly abstract form. Even black-and-white film has a greater degree of abstraction, which allows for this projection. Is it a prince, or is it a red-haired prince? Film presents us with red-haired princes all the time, and how it does that—how it becomes particular, and yet remains general—is one of the great mysteries.
Partly, it has to do with the acting and the casting. About an actor, people ask, Can he carry a film? What do they mean? They are talking about whether the actor has the right degree of specificity and abstraction to allow the audience to project all of their hopes and dreams onto that person. If an actor is too specific, he becomes a character actor. People who have that mysterious and easily extinguishable quality of being stars can be who they are and yet allow us to project onto them at the same time.
As you were talking about your ride on the train from the airport, I was thinking of the way in which the train itself is a cinematic experience.
There’s a big link between trains and film. One of the first filmed objects was a train. The clickety-clack of the projector and the clickety-clack of the train are similar. There is the idea of the voyage—every voyage is a story. I wonder if film would have been invented without the train. Somehow, the invention of tracks and all of that made us think a certain way about the world, and that led eventually to the idea of the sprocketed film, with its frame lines.
It’s part of a general acceleration of the world that started in 1830. In 1830, give or take a few years, if you wanted to displace yourself or information, you had the same abilities and tools that somebody in 1830 BC had. You could run. You could walk. You could ride a horse. You could take a ship. Then, suddenly, the pace picked up. We invented the telegraph, and we invented trains. Then we found out how to manipulate time, and we invented sound recording and film recording. Then we invented automobiles and powered flight, and radio, television, computers, jet planes, rockets. You could write a history of the last 180 years as the obsessive devotion to manipulating time and space.