The magic of cinema

This is an excerpt (My most favorite part) from the book “Conversations – Walter Murch & the Art of Editing Film” by Michael Ondaatje – author of The English Patient. It is long & calls for TREMENDOUS patience, but trust me, it is totally worth it.

(FYI, Walter Murch is the first guy ever to have been credited for ‘Sound Design’ and he is the editor of films like Godfather – I, II & III, Apocalypse Now, THX 1138, English Patient, Talented Mr. Ripley, Conversations & Unbearable Lightness of Being).

Murch: There’s a great game–I forget whether we’ve talked about it–Negative Twenty Questions?

Ondaatje: No, we haven’t talked about it.

Murch: It was invented by John Wheeler, a quantum physicist who was a young graduate student of Niels Bohr’s in the 1930s. Wheeler is the man who invented the term “black hole”. He’s an extremely articulate proponent of the best of twentieth-century physics. Still alive, and I believe still teaching, writing.


Anyway, he thought up a parlour game that reflects the way the world is constructed at a quantum level. It involves, say, four people: Michael,
Anthony, Walter, and Aggie. From the point of view of one of those people, Michael, the game that’s being played is the normal Twenty Questions–Ordinary Twenty Questions, I guess you’d call it. So Michael leaves the room, under the illusion that the other three players are going to look around and collectively decide on the chosen object to be guessed by him–say, the alarm clock. Michael expects that when they’ve made their decision they will ask him to come back in and try to guess the object in fewer than twenty questions.
Under normal circumstances, the game is a mixture of perspicacity and luck: No, it’s not bigger than a breadbox. No, you can’t eat it….Those kinds of things.

But in Wheeler’s version of the game, when Michael leaves the room, the three remaining players
don’tcommunicate with one another at all. Instead, each of them silently decides on an object. Then they call Michael back in.
So, there’s a disparity between what Michael believes and what the underlying truth is: Nobody knows what anyone else is thinking. The game proceeds regardless, which is where the fun comes in.

Michael asks Walter: Is the object bigger than a breadbox? Walter–who has picked the alarm clock–says, No. Now, Anthony has chosen the sofa, which is bigger than a
breadbox. And since Michael is going to ask him the next question, Anthony must quickly look around the room and come up with something else–a coffee cup!–which is smaller than a breadbox. So when Michael asks Anthony, If I emptied out my pockets could I put their contents in this object? Anthony says, Yes.
Now Aggie’s choice may have been the small pumpkin carved for Halloween, which could also contain Michael’s keys and coins, so when Michael says, Is it edible? Aggie says, Yes. That’s a problem for Walter and Anthony, who have chosen inedible objects: they now have to change their selection to something edible, hollow, and smaller than a breadbox.


So a complex vortex of decision making is set up, a logical but unpredictable chain of ifs and thens. To end successfully, the game must produce, in fewer than twenty questions, an object that satisfies all of the logical requirements: smaller than a breadbox, edible, hollow, et cetera. Two things can happen: Success–this vortex can give birth to an answer that will seem to be inevitable in retrospect: Of course! It’s the —-! And the game ends with Michael still believing he has just played Ordinary Twenty Questions. In fact, no one chose the —- to start with, and Anthony, Walter, and Aggie have been sweating it out, doing these hidden mental gymnastics, always one step ahead of failure.
Which is the other possible result: Failure–the game can break down catastrophically. By question 15, let’s say, the questions asked have generated logical requirements so complex that nothing in the room can satisfy them. And when Michael asks Anthony the sixteenth question, Anthony breaks down and has to confess that he doesn’t know, and Michael is finally let in on the secret: The game was Negative Twenty Questions all along. Wheeler suggests that the nature of perception and reality, at the quantum level, and perhaps above, is somehow similar to this game.

When I read about this, it reminded me acutely of filmmaking. There is an agreed-upon game, which is the screenplay, but in the process of making the film, there are so many variables that everyone has a slightly different interpretation of the screenplay. The cameraman develops an opinion, then is told that Clark Gable has been cast in that part. He thinks, Gable? Huh, I didn’t think it would be Gable. If it’s Gable, I’m going to have to replan. Then the art director does something to the set, and the actor says, This is my apartment? All right, if this is my apartment, then I’m a slightly different person from who I thought I was: I will change my performance. The camera operator following him thinks, Why is he doing that? Oh, it’s because… All right, I’ll have to widen out because he’s doing these unpredictable things. And then the editor does something unexpected with those images and this gives the director an idea about the script, so he changes a line. And so the costumer sees that and decides the actor can’t wear dungarees. And so it goes, with everyone continuously modifying their preconceptions. A film can succeed in the end, spiralling in on itself to a final result that looks as if it has been predicted long in advance in every detail. But in fact it grew out of a mad scramble as everyone involved took advantage of all the various decisions everyone else had been making.

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3 thoughts on “The magic of cinema

  1. @Wanderlust: I have played this once and it was tremendous fun! of course we were all too drunk and constantly kept forgetting each other's answers, which made it extra fun!Jokes apart, we need to do it sometime. When are you back in your 'foster' home?

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