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[ Personal Memories | Behind the Scenes ]

ARGUING THE EDITING

By Jonathan Oppenheim, editor


The first I heard of the project that was to become Arguing The World was the day I received a call from Gail Segal, the Associate Producer. She
was seeking an editor for a film about four intellectuals.

She told me about the filmmaker, an intense guy named Joe, who was devoted to telling their story and had already spent many years researching and shooting it. This made me anxious. It suggested to me the possibility of a rigid, relentless personality, someone with whom it would take an inordinate amount of energy to deal. However, I had been looking for a project that I could sink my teeth into, where possibilities in the material might be rich and complex. We arranged to meet.

The meeting with Joe, confounding my fears, was pleasant. He seemed charming and intelligent, the project, large and interesting. In the ensuing weeks, we met once or twice more. He looked at my tapes, I looked at his trailer. We decided to work together.

Happiness is not a word that I usually associate with screening footage, but when I began to watch Joeís footage, I found that I was happy. Here was a unique experience; hours and hours of interviews with people who cared about ideas and knew how to express them. Though not all on the same level, the material seemed loaded with possibility. But what the film could be that contained these interviews, I didnít know. That would emerge over time, I hoped. I screened for many weeks, alone in a room and that happy feeling continued. I remained uncharacteristically optimistic even when I slowly began to wonder if there might not be sizable gaps in my knowledge of what these people were talking about.


Is There Life After Early Memories?
After several months of screening and selecting, the first sequence I decided to tackle was something I called Early Memories. It was meant to be a condensation and interweaving of the four mens memories of growing up in the twenties and thirties. For me, the advantage of working on a sequence based purely on childhood recollection was that I didnít need any background knowledge. After I finished editing this sequence, however, my lack of knowledge became a pressing matter for me. Though I had a skeletal knowledge of the subject matter, working with most of the remaining interview material required that my knowledge be sweeping, specific and detailed. In order to help construct a credible narrative, I needed to grasp the subtleties and nuances of these four mens stories plus six decades of world and political intellectual history. Joe began to feed me a constant diet of books and articles; writings by the four men (Bell, Howe, Kristol and Glazer), histories of the American Left, transcripts of HUAC hearings, autobiographies of American Communists, accounts of SDS and much more. It took me six months of reading to even begin to get up to speed and it was necessary for me to read continuously on these subjects for the duration of the project.

During this early period Joe and I each embraced a different idiosyncratic idea related to the question of narration. An early scriptwriter had come up with the idea of mini-documentaries Ė two to four minute sequences throughout the film, each encapsulating a historical period (ie.the Popular Front, the McCarthy Period, the late Sixties) Ė instead of traditional narration. These mini-documentaries would provide the necessary historical backdrop for each section of the film. This method of addressing the huge volume of history would free us up to concentrate on the four mens stories and let the arguments rip, so to speak.

My pet notion was to take Joeís idea to its logical but risky conclusion, and this was to dispense with narration completely except within the mini-documentaries. My idea grew out of my long held belief that narration tends to deaden a film, and is often used as a crutch by the filmmaker to escape the challenge of telling the story organically. If the mini-documentaries worked properly, narration in the body of this film might not be necessary . At the very least dispensing with narration would allow us to build the story solely from the strengths of the interviews. Further, we would not need to worry about an outside voice stepping on the liveliness of a sixty year story told through argument. So mini-documentaries and no narration became our game plan.

Out of Control
I made a ten hour assembly, organized by theme (there were twenty themes) and the next months were spent attempting to refine it. Joe and I would look at the emerging sequences and talk about them, trying things out. There were many possibilites, many ways to go and we were beginning to feel excitement about the process. Soon however some real anxiety surfaced. A faint but nagging sense was growing that we didnít understand how to tell the story or even what was important in it. Perhaps there were too many possibilities. In addition, strong poltical differences between us began to emerge. We began to have heated discussions about Communism, the McCarthy Period and the Sixties. We each seemed to be anxious that the otherís political point of view would somehow contaminate the film. Things began to feel overwhelming, out of control. We had some good days and many bad days. And yet we could only soldier on.


Out of the intense seesawing between our political arguments and our need to understand the film came the disturbing notion that the Communist point of view was not interestingly or adequately represented in the interviews. The Communists were the opposition were they not? How could there be a lively back and forth if the opposition wasnt lively? Because the one thing that had emerged from hard months of working with no narration was that the potential strength of the film lay in just this back and forth of opinionated interviewees. With my encouragement, Joe proceeded to shoot interviews with several American Communists.

Despair
We spent many months integrating the Communists into the film. One or two of them were lively and engaging, moving and inspiring even. They should have helped to enliven the film and flesh out the issues in the thirties, forties and fifties. We worked and worked on our Communists, trying all kinds of versions and combinations. It seemed inconceivable that their presence wouldnít help the film. Somehow though, no matter what we attempted, these sequences never quite jelled. Still we kept on trying. But gradually the Communists began to fall away from the film. This part of the process landed me in a pit of despair. We seemed to have gotten no return on a huge investment of time and labor and I felt that we were virtually back where we had started from. We did however, painfully came to understand one very important thing: the film worked best when we adhered to the point of view of the four protagonists closely; their debates with each other and their attitude about the opposition was what was interesting. The actual voice of the opposition seemed to utterly flatten the film (The exception to this was the Sixties.).

By the first week of January, 1996, after a year of editing, we felt ready to screen a complete version of the film. It ran three and a half hours, was laced with mini-documentaries and had no narration. There may have been one or two Communists left in it. We had had modest hopes at this point that we were on the right track. However, viewing the film was a sobering experience, to put it mildly. It was so formless and boring that it took our breath away. Too stunned to turn the lights up when the film was over, Joe and I sat there expressing our feelings of despair and cold fear in the dark. What had we been doing all this time? How could we have gone so wrong? When we turned the lights up one thing was clear to us: Weíve gotta have narration. Weíve gotta get real. We had been trying to tell virtually the entire story through what came out of peoples mouths and it was putting a huge burden on the interplay of the protagonists. It was sinking us.

Out from Under

Over the next months we began trying to narrate the film. This process consisted of locating the sections where it was needed and removing the extensive interview material that had been serving the function of narration. Joe would then write a draft of a narration line which we would discuss and try out. Each piece of narration usually went through many drafts (ten or more) because it had to convey complex information as tersely as possible. Each draft of each line would have to be recorded in order to try against footage.Typically, so as to muffle room noise while making this recording, one of us would crouch under my down jacket while reading into a microphone. This probably occurred many hundreds of times. As draft after draft was put in and improved, the film began to have a flow. The cherished mini-documentaries began to seem like interruptions and were removed. The last of the Communists also bit the dust.

The film began to work as a story but a new problem emerged. The film was now a virtually unbroken mass of voices, mostly older, male ones. The need for other kinds of sounds to break up this low throaty rumble was clear. We found three ways to address this. First, with rich background sound effects, largely used under the copious archival footage in the film. The second point of attack was to find a certain kind of narrator, one who had neither a neutral narratorís voice nor one who was too close in character to the older men in the film. We needed a voice that would exist in some natural relation to the four men, a youthful voice with a New York feel to it. We heard Alan Rosenberg read a short story and knew he should be our narrator. The third and most pivotal solution was music, opening the film up with music. We located many areas that could take music and worked with a composer, Adam Guettel, who had a deep and insightful take on the film. He helped us bring it to another level.

Endgame
Editing this film was like playing a game of three dimensional chess. There were always several elements that had to be considered at any given moment; four menís stories, sixty years of history, the dramatic momentum, the pace, the visual component. These elements all occurred together at each moment of the film. These were standards that one had to be true to. One couldnít drop something just because it didnít work; that might cause us to misrepresent a personís point of view or a historical circumstance. One had to constantly search for a successful way to combine what worked emotionally with what was true in the menís stories, true at the historical moment and true to the momentum of the film. This level of stricture is unique in my film editing experience. In other film projects there might be long stretches where the major concern is only what feels right at a given moment, and oneís sole reference point is only the structure or story of the film. Two dimensional chess.

The real lesson for me was that bad ideas are like fertilizer, if you have enough time to explore them and get beyond them. All of our really bad ideas seemed to lead to important realizations. The foolhardy attempt at working without narration for as long as we did helped push us to tell the story through what was strong in the interviews and to create a back and forth between the protagonists. The misbegotten mini-documentaries were a valuable exercise in condensing complex historical material which stood us in good stead when it came to actually creating a narration track. The failed inclusion of the Communist opposition helped us to perceive the actual nature of the film we were working on, that it must relentlessly focus on the four men and their gradually shifting positions. But little of this could have occurred if we had not had time for the full process to unfold.
The shaping of the film was also influenced by our political differences. Through the constant friction of our political debate and the watchful eye we cast on the otherís position, through the anxiety we had that the others point of view would adversely affect the film, we reached a kind of political standoff. We were impelled to embrace evenhandedness as our guiding principle. We developed, over time, an unspoken commitment to treating both sides, right and left, in as balanced a way as possible, with the hope that a larger view might emerge about the four mens changing relationship to their ideas.

 
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