Dream Repairman: Adventures in Film Editing by Jim Clark with John H Myers – review
Numerous directors and a fair number of cinematographers have written autobiographies, but although there are useful books on the art and craft and editing, the only memoir I've come across by a film editor is the eye-opening When the Shooting Stops… the Cutting Begins by Ralph Rosenblum, the New York editor who saved Mel Brooks's The Producers and Woody Allen's Annie Hall from catastrophe. It appeared in 1979, and towards the end of it Rosenblum says of his trade: "The profession selects in favour of caution, timidity, self-abnegation, tact, 'a diplomacy', says British editor James Clark, 'which would normally put us straight into parliament'." Now in retirement, Jim Clark has put aside his diplomacy to write a revealing, funny, devastatingly frank account of a lifetime spent editing film.
Unlike many people in films, Clark has no social or intellectual chips on his shoulder. His father, a well-off Lincolnshire businessman, gave him a cine camera and projector when he was young, and he became fascinated by cinema and ran a film society at Oundle, the public school where he boarded and where the comic writer and performer Arthur Marshall was a sympathetic teacher. In the late 1940s Clark avoided a career in the family printing firm by jumping ship while at the London School of Printing to join a small film company and move on to an ill-paid job in the Ealing Studios editing department.
Except for a period directing commercials and several wholly insignificant British movies, his home was the cutting room, and from the 60s onwards he established important partnerships with Jack Clayton, Stanley Donen, John Schlesinger, David Puttnam (whom he accompanied to Hollywood, where he was briefly one of Puttnam's executive vice-presidents at Columbia) and finally with Mike Leigh. We learn about his troubled first marriage to a wife who died suddenly leaving him with two children to raise, and a happy second one to a French editor, Laurence Méry-Clark, who was assigned in 1963 to assist him on Donen's Charade, one of his happiest experiences. We also get a valuable account of movie production over the past 60 years and of the changing technology of editing.
In a contribution to Working for the Films, a 1947 symposium on movie-making, Sidney Cole, then supervising editor at Ealing (and subject of a snide aside by Clark), writes with disarming simplicity of the editor's role. The writer, he says, deals with words before a production; the director deals with people during the film's making; the editor deals with celluloid, assembling the picture in the cutting room when the shooting stops.
Clark puts it more dramatically. "We are the dream repairmen," he declares. "That's what we do. We repair other men's dreams." Recalling his hair-raising account of the disastrous year at Columbia with the rather vague, quixotic Puttnam, he speaks more brutally of his role. "In spite of my sophisticated title as a Columbia executive, my real job was studio mortician," he writes. "When I received these films they were dead, and though I couldn't bring them back to life, I could touch up the corpse."
Of course his job was much more complicated and rewarding than this. Although his funniest stories are about salvage, the widely respected Clark was usually in at the beginning as a consultant to the director and producer, whether working on The Killing Fields, for which he won an Oscar, or the Bond movie The World is Not Enough, where his editing tasks included making the non-skiing Pierce Brosnan look like a piste artist. There is one occasion, however, when during a preproduction conference he was anxiously asked: "Can you save it?" The project was the pretentious 1999 art movie Onegin, the directorial debut of Martha Fiennes starring her brother, Ralph, with music by another brother, Magnus: "Martha was a high strung lady and seemed to shut off and stop listening when anything that contradicted her vision was suggested."
Dealing with the Fiennes family, however, was no worse than enduring the furious rages of Clayton, Schlesinger and István Szabó, and they are no less ludicrous than such Hollywood figures as Barbra Streisand and Richard Donner, whose paths Clark crosses. Unquestionably the funniest episode in a hilarious book sees Clark called to Rome to make Franco Zeffirelli's Young Toscanini watchable. The Italian director provides a high chair for Bambina, his Jack Russell, at a lunch for Clark and his wife. He turns up semi-inebriated at editing sessions, and whenever he doesn't like an edit shouts out: "You cut to the beech," meaning put in a close-up of his miscast star, Elizabeth Taylor.
Clark has many regrets, including not editing the first Harry Potter movie. However, he ends on a high note, not about the future of editing, concerning which he has serious doubts, but on his collaboration with Mike Leigh on Vera Drake : "It was just about the quickest job I've ever done because Mike and I were in sync. He rarely looked at other takes, having trusted his editor, and there was nobody else to please. It was a very happy experience." At last he had met someone in the movie business as sane as himself.
This important book, which itself would have benefitted from a little editing, is published by a small company in Texas, a reflection of the reluctance of British publishers to take on serious books on less popular aspects of the cinema, and of university presses to bring out readable movie studies that lack fashionable academic credentials.