waves

At first glance, legendary film editor Walter Murch seems like an unlikely choice for a literary muse. Murch is a groundbreaking figure in film, to be sure–and, as an author, he’s written the acclaimed In the Blink of an Eye, about the craft he’s helped shape. Waves Passing in the Night: Walter Murch in the Land of the Astrophysicists is actually the second nonfiction work by an already-admired author that’s taken Murch as its subject. The first is Michael Ondaatje’s 2004 The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film, which grew out of the two meeting during Murch’s work on the film adaptation of Ondaatje’s novel The English Patient. If Ondaatje’s book about Murch focuses on the work for which he’s been most acclaimed, Weschler’s focuses on an entirely different side of him, and raises broader questions about art, vision, and expertise along the way.

Weschler’s nonfiction frequently focuses on offbeat thinkers, unlikely visionaries, and unexpected juxtapositions. Murch is a figure in which all three converge. Weschler provides a short summary of Murch’s work in film, but largely directs readers interested in that side of his subject’s life to Ondaatje’s book, which he praises highly. There is one early anecdote that likely explains why Murch’s work as an editor has been irresistible to literary storytellers like Ondaatje and Weschler. Weschler discusses Murch’s work editing sound for the early George Lucas film THX-1138. While editing the sound of footfalls, he realized that precision no longer mattered if three or more figures were moving simultaneously.

It seemed, he came to realize, that the human brain was capable of tracking two and a half streams of aural input at any given moment (two conversations, say, and a third half of a phone conversation), after which everything lapsed into an equivalence of noise.

From there, he discovers that certain languages have words for “many” for any number over two. Here, science, language, and storytelling converge. That bit about languages foreshadows a later mention of Murch’s work: he’s an admirer of the writings of Italian author Curzio Malaparte (perhaps best-known in the United States for his novel The Skin). Murch, according to Weschler, “has been seeking out rare untranslated bits of Malaparte and translating the Italian’s vivid, often almost hallucinogenic prose, improbably (though to surprisingly bracing effect) as poetry.”

It’s another side of Murch’s work that takes center stage for book’s first half. As the subtitle suggests, Murch has, for the last few decades, had an interest in astrophysics–specifically, to the way that celestial objects orbiting a larger object tend to fall into specific patterns. Wescher opens Waves Passing in the Night with a description of Murch giving a lecture about this theory, which left him dazzled. From there, he works through Murch’s personal history and through the development of his theory–which may have serious implications for the way that the universe is ordered. Or–and despite Weschler’s sympathetic portrait of Murch, this is also possible–this may be a notion created by a smart thinker who’s completely out of his depth when it comes to the mechanics of astrophysics.

In the book’s second part, Weschler examines criticisms of Murch’s theory. He brings it to several scientists with formal training in the field and gets their thoughts, which range from dismissive to somewhat curious. But while the questions that Murch raises are fascinating to consider, this ends up being only part of Wescher’s larger point, which is to interrogate the question of professionalism in the classical sense.

George Bernard Shaw once famously quipped that every profession is a conspiracy against the laity, but the priesthood of advanced science nowadays is especially well armored, in particular thanks to its mandarin reliance on mathematics that is well-nigh impenetrable to average and even well-above-average followers.

On its own, the development of Murch’s view of the cosmos, and of the mixed reception it received, would be the stuff of a compelling narrative. But Weschler is able to simultaneously juggle an intimate view of Murch with a much grander view of how this particular (and idiosyncratic) debate fits in with larger questions of how life is lived. It’s something characteristic of Weschler’s work as a whole, which regularly finds “eureka!” moments in unexpected juxtapositions–which, come to think of it, is likely why Murch appeals to him as both subject and kindred spirit.

Wescher’s larger point here is also one worth pondering, whether or not you’re a reader with a serious investment in astrophysics or film history. Are we, as a society, losing something by shutting out enthusiasts without formal training in certain debates, or are we preserving intellectual integrity by doing so? As the author of this book, Weschler demonstrates how a compelling personality at the center of a compelling debate can make a heady discussion decidedly accessible. With detours to the origins of Star Wars, the life of Vladimir Nabokov, and the discovery of the outer planets, Weschler turns what might at first seem to be a digressive story into a unified and gripping one: the intellectual debate as page-turner. And it brings these disparate narrative elements into line as smoothly as planets might orbit a sun.

***

Waves Passing in the Night: Walter Much in the Land of the Astrophysicists
by Lawrence Wescher

Bloomsbury; 156 p.

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