Sally Menke, 1953 - 2010

David Hudson

"Sally Menke, a film editor best known for her long association with the director Quentin Tarantino, and who edited his kinetic features like Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, the Kill Bill movies and Inglourious Basterds, was found dead on Tuesday in the Beachwood Canyon section of Hollywood Hills in Los Angeles. She was 56." The New York Times' Dave Itzkoff notes that it was the Los Angeles Times that broke the story this morning and it's at the LAT's site that Andrew Blankstein is updating that report with details as they become known.

Itzkoff also points to a conversation the Observer ran last year in which Menke talked about working with Tarantino: "Our style is to mimic, not homage, but it's all about recontextualising the film language to make it fresh within the new genre. It's incredibly detailed. There's nothing laissez-faire about Quentin's approach, but I know his film voice, always have done.... 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."

"Sally Menke was in the prime of her life," writes David Poland, posting a few minutes from a recent interview at Movie City News. "Last year, she was nominated for her second Oscar. Last time I saw her was a few months ago, at Sony, where she was 'fixing' The Green Hornet, successfully, it seems. Obviously, she was a major talent. And personally, having spent a little time with her in this last year, I really liked the woman."


Kyle Buchanan interviewed Menke last November for Movieline. And via Nathaniel R, Edgar Wright recalls meeting Sally Menke a few times, glad that he was able to tell her how much her work meant to him and to his own editors.

Updates, 9/29: "Nearly every sequence in both volumes of Kill Bill required both a comedian's timing and an athlete's nimbleness," writes the Boston Globe's Wesley Morris. "Ditto for Death Proof. For Jackie Brown, one of the more memorable characteristics of that very nearly great film is 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 is probing these lowlifes and finding their humanity. Come the big heist sequence at Torrence's Del Amo Mall, danger appears simple in the changing of the tempo of the cutting. The characters' antsiness informs 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, to cut to the sheltered family shivering beneath the floorboards."

Dave Itzkoff has updated his report with a phone call to Lawrence Bender, who's produced several of Tarantino's films. On the "Hi, Sallys": "That was something Quentin just started doing, something to make her laugh. Out of everybody, bar none, who's worked with Quentin, Sally was the closest to Quentin. Every movie, morning noon and night together, the two of them in that edit room. And he would go so far as to say, 'OK, well, I'm not going to shoot the movie until she's available.' If she wasn't available, he wouldn't shoot. But when you're shooting, she's not there. But she's there in spirit. That's just a way to say, 'We're thinking about you, Sally. You're here with us. Hi, Sally.'"

Also via Movie City News, Entertainment Weekly's Chris Nashawaty on Reservoir Dogs: "Cutting back and forth between characters, letting their back stories leisurely unspool before putting them back into the cinematic Cuisinart, Menke gave order to the chaos.... It could have been a mess, but in Menke's nimble hands, Pulp Fiction redefined and re-energized independent cinema. Waiting for Tarantino's next film, Menke took the occasional gig working with other directors — she edited 1996's stylish noir Mulholland Falls and 1997's chiller Nightwatch.... The sad news of Menke's death robs movie lovers of a woman who was brilliant at her job and an unsung master of a craft that all too often goes overlooked."

Glenn Kenny's appreciation centers at first on one crucial cut in Pulp Fiction, two shots "juxtaposed by an individual with a superb eye and a superb feel for drama, an individual who Pulp Fiction's co-writer and director Quentin Tarantino was delighted to admit — almost boast, really — was a crucial, invaluable factor in the overall shaping of his work."

She "was the most recent in a tradition of outstanding female film editors which included Barbara McLean, Anne V Coates, Claudine Bouché, Verna Fields and Thelma Schoonmaker," notes Ryan Gilbey in the Guardian. And, as mentioned earlier, she "was working on The Green Hornet, a 3D superhero adventure directed by Michel Gondry and starring Seth Rogen, due to be released next year. Footage of The Green Hornet was shown in July at the Comic-Con convention in San Diego. It included a complicated fight sequence from the point of view of a combatant who can predict his rivals' moves. Needless to say, it was made accessible by Menke's characteristically eloquent cutting."

"It's easy to forget an editor when we wax rhapsodic about a director's framing, a cinematographer's lighting, or an actor's performance," writes John Lopez for Vanity Fair. "However, every casual student of the medium knows you could make no bigger mistake. In a great editor's hands, all these elements are merely the marble from which a masterpiece must be uncovered. The true alchemy of film, the dream-like nature that helps us sit still for 100 minutes or more, seems to flow like magic from the space between a cut. Although they work in solitude, in a dark room far away from the convivial atmosphere of the movie set, editors are often the true maestros/workhorses leading audiences through at just the right pace, finding small emotions on actor's faces, and building dramatic meaning where there was none before.... It seems impossible to overstate Menke's loss for any fan of Tarantino's work. To crib from his infamous invocation of Ezekiel 25:17, she was the good shepherd leading us through the valley of film. In her white-gloved hands, we moviegoers feared no evil."

Update, 9/30: Todd McCarthy knew Sally Menke fairly well and ran into her often in his Los Angeles neighborhood. "The most memorable of those occasions came in early April, 2009, scarcely a month before the scheduled world premiere of Inglourious Basterds in Cannes. At the time there was no film more anticipated and wondered about, so when, on the street, she asked if I wanted to come over to the cutting room and watch a scene, it was impossible to disguise my excitement." Yesterday, "while having lunch with Ken Bowser at a sidewalk restaurant in Greenwich Village we saw Quentin walking by to hail a taxi. I ran over to say hello and commiserate with him and he said he'd be flying back to Los Angeles imminently. But I had the feeling that neither of us had ever been so profoundly struck by how abruptly and unexpectedly it can all be taken away as we had been when we learned about Sally."

Update, 10/3: Do read Jim Emerson's introductory comments, and then...

Sally Menke, Editor (1953 - 2010) from Jim Emerson on Vimeo.

Update, 10/13: Sasha Watson in Slate: "'That's my gal,' someone who worked with Tarantino recalls him saying about Menke. In a 2004 documentary, The Cutting Edge: The Magic of Movie Editing, Tarantino says that he was specifically looking for a female editor, one who would 'nurture' him through his movies. Menke embraced the role, and its lack of wider recognition, too. In the Guardian last year, she wrote, 'Editors are the quiet heroes of movies, and I like it that way.'"

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