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Sally Menke 1953-2010

Posted by Wesley Morris  September 28, 2010 05:20 PM

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Sally Menke, the film editor who did her best work with Quentin Tarantino, died today. According to a report in the Los Angeles Times that is still unfolding, she went for a hike yesterday in Griffith Park and never returned. Her body was found this morning. Los Angeles is currently in the midst of an unprecedentedly brutal heatwave. It's possible the temperature was a factor. It's sad news. Menke was the secret weapon and special sauce in every Tarantino production. She never did more to a scene than what was necessary, which is true of most editors (or should be), but with Tarantino, more was often was required. 

Nearly every sequence in both volumes of "Kill Bill" required both a comedian's timing and an athlete's nimbleness. Ditto for "Death Proof."  For "Jackie Brown," one of the more memorable characteristics of that very nearly great film is the how long the shots seem to last -- many, many seconds, minutes in several cases. That, by the standards of today's filmmaking is an eternity.  The movie probes these lowlifes and finds their humanity. Come the big heist sequence at Torrence's Del Amo Mall, danger appears simply in the changing of the tempo of the cutting. The characters' antsiness becomes the movies'. And what about that superb farmhouse sequence that opens "Inglourious Basterds"? Editing gives the scene its power and dread, knowing when, for instance, after a stretch of not being sure the farmer is lying to Lanza, to cut to the sheltered family shivering beneath the floorboards to confirm that he is.

Menke worked on other people's films -- including Oliver Stone's "Heaven and Earth" and Billy Bob Thornton's "All the Pretty Horses." In an interview with the U.K.'s Observer, Menke said that she met Tarantino when he was looking for an editor for "Reservoir Dogs" -- a "cheap one," she said. What attracted her to the job, she said, was her identification of Martin Scorsese in Tarantino's script. That, of course, gave her an opportunity to be his Thelma Schoonmaker, who's been editing Scorsese movie's for almost 40 years. It's entirely possible that Tarantino's films would have worked just as well without another editor, but it's hard to imagine that they would have worked as well in the clever, smooth, and exuberantly stylish way they do.

This is her again in the Observer: "Watching Scorsese and Schoonmaker's work, I learned how to collapse time in action but still push characters through a scene. It's a trick to give the illusion it's all real; that's become crucial to us because the Tarantino thing is to make the mundane feel very spicy. It's the illusion that time is ticking away. It's all about tension, so you follow the emotional arc of a character through a scene, even if, as in the opening of 'Inglourious Basterds,' they're just pouring a glass of milk or stuffing their pipe. We're very proud of that scene -- it might be the best thing we've ever done."

Tarantino has said that he didn't know where his ideas ended and hers began. Most DVDs of his movies contain footage of what became known as the "Hi Sally" reel in which members of the cast, on the set, look into the camera and greet Menke, who was back in Los Angeles in the editing room. Here's a link to the "Hi Sally" reel from "Inglourious Basterds" and to the even more entertaining one from "Death Proof".

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Ty Burr is a film critic with The Boston Globe.

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