Examining the life and works of editor Sally Menke

Let me tell you something, Toula. The man is the head, but the woman is the neck. And she can turn the head any way she wants,” says Maria Portokalos in My Big Fat Greek Wedding

From Reservoir Dogs to Inglourious Basterds, editor Sally Menke was the metaphorical neck to Quentin Tarantino’s head, one of his best friends and closest collaborators.

Until she passed away in late September, Menke had edited each of Tarantino’s seven feature films, becoming a key determinant of the director’s style in the process. Indeed, I would go so far as to argue that her editing acumen in large part made Tarantino’s success possible, for his unique sense of humor, approach to dialogue and character, and penchant for rapid tonal shifts would have been too much for a lesser editor to handle.

What Tarantino needed was an editor who shared his creative vision — and Menke did, a fact both she and Tarantino have acknowledged. Her subtle editing hand helped make Tarantino one of the most culturally significant directors in the last few decades.

So let us now take the time to explore what that means by delving into a few scenes from Pulp Fiction and Inglourious Basterds, the two films for which Menke was nominated for an Oscar.

The first thing you notice when watching a Tarantino film is that his characters almost never shut up. They talk. Prodigiously. And we love them for it. The opening to Reservoir Dogs, every scene between Samuel L. Jackson and John Travolta in Pulp Fiction, the bar scene in Inglourious Basterds — all iconic. But have you ever thought about what makes them possible?

Oh sure, the writing and the performances do, but the thing that stands out is the lack of dead time in these extended sequences. And as anyone who has made a film knows, your writing and your actors can be as good as you like, but you eliminate dead time in the editing room.

Take the first scene between Travolta and Jackson in Pulp Fiction. They’re sitting in their car, driving to a hit, talking about Europe — Amsterdam, specifically. This is the famed “Royale with cheese” sequence. It goes on for about three or four minutes, which is a long time for two people to sit and talk in movie.

The biggest challenge in a scene like this to keep the tension up and keep the audience invested. Sure, the dialogue is funny, and Travolta and Jackson are great, but so is Menke.

Whereas many editors would simply use cross-cuts of the two actors, Menke holds off. Most of the scene unfolds as a basic static two-shot, as Travolta and Jackson talk about Europe. It’s not until about halfway through, when they start talking about the hit, does Menke cut in with the over shots — at the point when the characters are listening, not talking, to each other.

This might seem basic, but what it does is provide structure, not just for the scene, but for the film in general. So when a scene comes along such as the one at restaurant between Travolta and Uma Thurman — a scene of intimacy, taboo and romance — the decision to alternate exclusively between over shots achieves a special significance.

Perhaps more importantly, her editing style keys the audience into what is important. Because of Menke, we’re able to differentiate between the dramatic and the comedic. She makes the dialogue accessible so that the audience isn’t met by a flat wall of words.

Perhaps the best scene Menke ever edited was the opening scene of Inglourious Basterds in which Col. Hans “Jew Hunter” Landa (Christoph Waltz) interrogates a French farmer. The scene is an ingenious blend of everything that defines Menke and Tarantino’s collaboration. It is a scene of suspense, action and — perhaps most disturbingly — humor.

Menke lays down the base of the scene using the fundamental principles outlined above, i.e. alternating between the static two and the overs. This time, however, she adds the close-up to her repertoire.

The subtext to this scene is Landa’s transition from a sheep in wolf’s clothing to — to put it ineloquently — a wolf in wolf’s clothing.

When he is introduced, he is affable, polite, even charming. But it’s a cover. All a swarm of words, just as in the “Royale with cheese” sequence, and Menke appropriately cuts between medium shots — two-shots and overs. But as Landa’s true nature is revealed, as his cunning emerges, we see close-ups for the first time and we feel his power.

Not to go unmentioned, however, is the decision in this scene to not show the Jewish family hiding beneath the floorboards. The standard practice in this scene would be to build suspense by cross-cutting between the Jewish family and the action above. But Menke doesn’t show this. Why?

For one reason: The scene is about Landa. It’s all about him; not about the farmer or the family he’s sheltering. It’s Landa, and Landa doesn’t know where the family is — so neither do we. We only know what he knows — that the Jewish family is there and that the farmer is lying. Nothing more.

What Menke has done is place us, the audience, subjectively in Landa’s state of mind, something that is as genius as it is frightening.

Safe to say, Menke was brilliant, and her death is a loss. These scenes were remarkable, but there are dozens more. She and Tarantino shared a unique bond, something rare between director and editor, and it should be remembered, honored and understood.

Sam Colen is a junior majoring in economics/mathematics. His column, “’O Lucky Critic,” runs Fridays.