Sally Menke, who died on Monday, September 27th in Los Angeles at the age of 56, was one of the most respected film editors of the past 20 years. Working largely on Quentin Tarantino’s feature films, doing other projects in between, Menke crafted Tarantino’s complex narratives into cohesive, memorable, cultural touchstones.
In 1991, she cut Tarantino’s first outing as writer and director, Reservoir Dogs, a heist film revealed in fractured form, with the heist itself being built up then recalled in a series of brief flashbacks. More concerned with the criminals than the crime, Dogs focused on its array of idiosyncratic characters, only referred to in name by colors, (Mr. Brown, Mr. Orange, etc.).
Through much of the film, the action unfolds at a rendezvous point after the heist, when all has gone wrong for the thieves. That Menke was able to cut in this cloistered warehouse environment yet keep the proceedings fresh and lively is a testament to her ability to hone Tarantino’s vision into a unique finished product.
Tarantino stated on record that he sought a female editor to cut his first film, not only so that she would be more nurturing to the material, but due to the hunch that he wanted someone who wouldn’t want “to win their way just to win their way.”
Their collaborative success on Dogs led to a fruitful partnership on the remainder of their films over the next two decades. Of course, 1994’s Pulp Fiction was the next and likely still the most popular of Tarantino’s films, and again featured a fractured narrative spelled out over several different interlocking stories, crafted first by Tarantino and co-writer Roger Avary. Of those stories, Menke most successfully edited the extended date night sequences between John Travolta’s Vincent Vega and Uma Thurman’s Mia Wallace, Vincent’s boss’ wife.
In an interview, Tarantino revealed that the date was originally put together in real time, and Menke brought it down to a much shorter length. When the director felt that she cut it too short, he asked that they open it up until they achieved a balance between each of their initial concepts. The director playfully chastised Menke in that case for not reading his mind “100% of the time.”
In one of the date night’s best scenes, which had been built up over an evening of mutual admiration, Menke intercuts between Vincent talking himself out of potential mischief while addressing his reflection the mirror, with Mia discovering, then snorting a very hot dose of Vincent’s own potent heroin. In one of the movie’s most powerful moments, we fade in to an overdosed Mia on the floor, bloody nose, vomit coming from her mouth, and eyes glazed over, but never see Vincent in this instance. Instead of cutting to Vincent’s reaction, we only hear him first addressing Mia, pausing, discovering the drugs on a table, and then putting together what has happened. His verbal reactions are even more horrific than the standard reaction shot of his shock and dismay over realizing that he is the cause of the problem. Far from traditional, this style of cutting is among Menke and Tarantino’s finest bits.
The next scene, with Vincent and his drug dealer Lance (Eric Stoltz) trying to resuscitate an unconscious Mia, is Menke’s crowning moment. She holds on Lance looking for a black medical book with instructions to give Mia a shot of adrenaline to her heart to bring her back to a conscious state. Instead of seeing Vincent tending to Mia, we only hear him and Lance’s wife Jody (Rosanna Arquette). When the adrenaline shot is finally ready, Menke carefully cuts amongst the principals of the scene: we see a catatonic Mia on the floor, a close shot of the tip of the needle in Vincent’s hand, a worried Lance counting down to when Vincent will stab the needle through Mia’s breastplate into her heart, Jody, the amused wife excited by the moment, and Vincent’s panicked distraught face as he gets ready to take action. The aftermath of the scene cuts amongst those same principals in reverse as they unwind from the tension of the moment.
After the climax, a nearly silent shot of Mia and Vincent quietly driving back to Mia’s house provides the needed release that follows the scene, before a brief coda between a devastated Mia and Vincent before she goes back inside. And with that, Menke forever stamped her skills on the craft of film editing.
After a long hiatus, Tarantino resurfaced with Jackie Brown, which utilized similar principles and styles as Pulp Fiction, before the Kill Bill films, which employed a very fast-paced cutting style in its many Hong Kong-influenced action scenes. Succeeding work such as Tarantino’s Death Proof section of Grindhouse was conspicuous in its noted lack of filmmaking style, which extended to Menke’s work on what was ultimately a spoof of schlocky 1970s films.
Menke and Tarantino both returned to form with Inglourious Basterds, an innovative take on familiar World War II material. With two parallel stories, one including Brad Pitt’s lieutenant’s troops of handpicked Jewish-American soldiers pursuing Nazis, which is cut simply and effectively, and establishes the tenants of Tarantino’s other films in its unexpected bursts of action amid the story’s frequent twists.
However, it is the other main storyline, following the Jew hunter Landa’s (Christof Waltz) pursuit of a Jewish girl, Shosanna (Mélanie Laurent) that creates the amazing tension and release familiar to Tarantino fans. Menke’s set pieces include the opening scene in which Landa interrogates a French farmer who is hiding Jews, a lunch meeting between Landa and Shosanna, and a separate scene involving a young Nazi (August Diehl) playing visual and verbal games in a tavern while trying to expose spies. Those three scenes above all elevated Basterds to the pinnacle of the Menke-Tarantino relationship not seen since Pulp Fiction, 15 years earlier.
Menke’s stamp on feature filmmaking was certainly solidified in these key collaborations with Tarantino, and we are sadly left only speculating what wonders they might have conjured in the future.
Editor’s Note: Sally Menke had a long history with Below the Line both as a gracious panel member and in articles in the paper. She will be missed. Here is a link to an interview conducted by our writer Mary Ann Skweres in February 2004 with Sally regarding the making of Kill Bill. http://www.btlnews.com/crafts/cutting-bill-in-two/