Tribute: Sally Menke
Editors are the unsung heroes of the movies. Directors get credit for the creative vision of a project. Producers get credit for the visual style. Actors get credit for the performances of the writer’s lines. What does an editor do, exactly? Editors are the most important people in cinema, as without them, your feature is dead in the water. A motion picture begins as a screenplay, which starts off devoid of life. A screenplay is nothing but collected stage directions and lines with indications for setting. It is the bare skeleton of a picture. Through casting and production, meat is added to the picture. Sadly, film being the excessive medium it is, it’s about adding as much meat as you can until the skeleton can’t stand any more.
What an editor does at this time is to carve away what is excessive, unneeded, unnecessary or unwanted. They do this through assembling endless reels of footage–actors, establishing shots, action shots, effects shots, inserts, first and second unit photography–seamlessly, so that it all runs together into a movie where you cannot envision any improvements–only changes. Sally Menke was likely one of the best people in the world at this job, and I’m far from alone when I say I will sorely miss her.
Sally Menke was the editor for all six of Quentin Tarantino’s movies, from Reservoir Dogs to Inglourious Basterds. Her job has stretched through the years to include, solely for editing his movies: non-linear and fragmented narratives; long, loose anthology films; deliberate meditations on aging; a kung fu movie and a western joined at the hip; a slasher movie, cut to ribbons and cut back to size with car chases; and a World War II spaghetti western built almost completely on suspense. When I mentioned in my Death Proof review that the movie went into the editing suite twice and came out once a functional, if skeletal, barely-feature film for Grindhouse and twice a slick, polished and deliberately damaged ode to slasher movies, Sally Menke was the devil behind both cuts.
Everyone who talks about film has been guilty of praising the director and forgetting the editor. I admit that in my Tarantino series, I should probably replace half of the “Tarantino”s with “Sally”s. It’s undeniable that Tarantino has a gift for writing and directing in such a way that his dialogue feels entirely natural to even the most jaded ear. However, neither of those gifts would be worth much if, when he got to the editing suite, he was partnered with someone incapable of tuning their ear to the rhythms of his characters’ speech. Sally Menke was a genius in that respect, and perfectly suited to Tarantino’s films and world. After all, if you can’t cut talking, you can’t cut Tarantino.
Film editing is an invisible art when it’s done right. Even with intentional faults, as in Death Proof (either cut), it’s made to feel natural and faultless. If there is any constant through Tarantino’s oeuvre, it’s the natural essence of conversation. Their first movie together, Reservoir Dogs, opened with eight men sitting around a table at breakfast, just talking. It was Sally who made the cut of that conversation that tied it all together. She was the reason you didn’t notice Chris Penn’s conspicuous lack of talk in the opening conversation about Madonna. For the record, he sat it out to respect his brother Sean’s ex-wife. Yet, when he chimes in about K-Billy’s Super Sounds of the 70’s weekend, it feels natural and flawless.
Sally Menke was one of the last American editors to cut on film. Non-linear (or digital) editing took over as the norm in the 90’s, but Sally and Quentin cut on film all the way to Death Proof. Even when it came time to damage the print to give it a real grindhouse feel, they damaged the film print by dragging it on floors, covering it in dust and abusing actual film. Inglourious Basterds was their first film to be edited on a computer, and while she found the process to be incredibly liberating, I’d hoped that she and Quentin would go back to cutting on film. It made them unique, it made their films visually distinct from their contemporaries, and it kept all of Tarantino’s work from being dragged through the digital intermediate. I was just talking about this with Mel on Friday after we saw Catfish. It was not even a week ago that I was talking about how Quentin and Sally would be making their next feature, and it’s just inconceivable that someone so gifted at what they do can be gone.
When I look at editing in cinema, I look at one person’s work to compare all others, and that’s Sally’s. That’s not a lie. Her work is on par with the greats, whether it be action, conversation or exposition. I can only imagine how Quentin Tarantino must feel, losing not only a partner and collaborator, but a friend who has been with him for his entire career thus far. It’s rare that a director and an editor can be so finely tuned to each other’s artistic capabilities, and whoever steps into the editing suite with Tarantino next has a big, big pair of shoes to fill. I can only thank Sally for making sure that those shoes are as big as they can be; there is no worse sin than to leave a job half done.
At the end of it all, it’s a very sad day when we lose someone this talented. I’m left not only worrying for her friends and family, and how they must be dealing with her untimely and as-yet unexplained loss, but also the movies she would have gone on to cut for Tarantino. Kill Bill Vol. 3 is still in pre-production. I wonder whether that should really be called Vol. 3 and not simply Kill Bill 2. But I also wonder how it will feel, how the action and conversation will come together without Sally’s guiding hand in the editor’s chair.
I’ll miss you, Sally. So will filmlovers and filmmakers around the world. But I’m glad you’ve left your movies, friends and family here to remind us of you. Thanks for the movies and thanks for the memories.