James Mourns the Passing of Sally Menke

This week has been a bit of a bummer. We lost a great comedian, a great director and the one that hit me the most, a great editor in Sally Menke. It’s a devastating blow in the world of editing, mainly because she was one of the premier editors, considering she worked on every film with Quentin Tarantino. How does one write something about a specific person that meant the world to them but never met?

When I was younger and first saw Reservoir Dogs, I loved it for its basic violence, back and forth story, Mexican standoff and the character’s cool code names. I was only 12 years old but it struck a nerve in me that I couldn’t explain right away, but it had an effect on me. Such an effect that I was a die hard Tarantino fan from that day forward. But when I saw Pulp Fiction, my world was thrown upside down. The frenetic story telling, mish mash of characters, intertwining story lines made me take notice. And that’s when I first got into the world of editing.

I wanted to know who could make this film the way it was. Of course it was in Tarantino’s writing, but who could make sense of it all, taking his story and giving it to all of us to take in and fully appreciate. I read the name of the editor: Sally Menke. Okay, I wanted to know more about her. I read about her, seeing that she had done Reservoir Dogs as well, but had also edited such films as The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe (a great version of Lily Tomlin’s one woman show), Heaven and Earth (an underrated Oliver Stone film) and one film that all of us here at the Criterion Cast wishes there was an ultimate edition of: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Yes, Sally Menke edited a film we all love from our childhoods, and looking back at that film alone, I see the talent that was within her.

Sally Menke edited some of my favorite films, not all of them being Quentin Tarantino films. She edited the great neo-noir film Mulholland Falls, a wonderful crime film starring Nick Nolte that deserves more recognition. She also did the editing for the forgotten horror/thriller film Nightwatch, starring Ewan McGregor, which was a pretty good film. Directed by Ole Borndal (who I only knew as the producer of Mimic at the time), it was a pretty good thriller that should be seen just for the editing/ambiance.

Of course she then edited what was and still is Quentin Tarantino’s only adaptation of a book (Rum Punch by Elmore Leonard), Jackie Brown, a return to prominence for Pam Grier and Robert Forrester and had stellar performances from a variety of actors, such as Robert Deniro, Samuel L. Jackson and Michael Keaton, to name a few. The real star of the film is the pacing, the scene changes and the back and forth action and playfulness of time that Menke and Tarantino had first done in Reservoir Dogs and perfected in Pulp Fiction.

After editing two Billy Bob Thornton films (All the Pretty Horses and Daddy and Them), she then undertook what was Quentin Tarantino’s biggest homage to the films he loved, the Kill Bill saga. What originally was going to be one epic film, it was cut down to two films, to not alienate the film going public with a longer complete cut, the film was edited into two very different and distinct films. Especially the fight scenes, which are choreographed wonderfully but the editing that went into the scene in the House of Blue Leaves alone is breathtaking. It’s a scene that I can watch on repeat alone and notice something new within. I still wish for the complete cut of the film, the way it was originally intended, to come out so I can compare and contrast to different versions.

Tarantino’s love letter to grindhouse film came next in the female empowerment film Death Proof. Well, only the second half to be honest, but the way the editing for this one was done was showcasing the old school way of chopping the film, with rough looking edges and dust all over the print. Sally Menke had fun with this film, being able to skew the editing in such a way to showcase ‘mistakes’ that were commonplace in 70’s films. I truly love this film, a loving look to yesteryear with one of the greatest car chase scenes ever captured on film. Yes, I went there. And Sally Menke should be given as much credit as Tarantino in that regard.

The last collaboration between the two is one of, if not my favorite film of the last decade, Inglourious Basterds. A cinematic masterpiece that will be studied and talked about for decades to come, it’s just a perfect film in all ways. And as opposed to the past, where it was playing with time in the editing, this film was almost the most traditional in its editing style. Not a drawback at all, but showed what happens when Tarantino put his mind to a film, to finish it in a year and get it in the can right on time. The film has these breathtaking scenes, long shots with characters, mostly dialogue and we see these performances burst on screen. And Sally Menke reigned in this film, which could have been an over the top exploitation film, dealing with Nazi hunting. But ultimately its a laid back affair, with some unique characters but the film itself is such an intimate film, a look at revenge/redemption and what it means to be a hero, on either side of the war line.

This almost seems like a loving tribute to Quentin, which can be seen within this post. But without Sally Menke, Tarantino would have been a lesser film maker. The talent was there, but Menke took his vision and made sure it was cut/edited the way it needed to be. Most people say Tarantino’s better half was Uma Thurman. I disagree 100% with that, instead saying Sally Menke was the true genius behind the scenes of all of his films. He’s called her his true collaborator of all his films and I wonder what this will do to his future films. It’s a sad time for editing, for film in general and for her friends and family. Even in death, we’ll always have all the films she was involved with to keep her vision alive. Thank you for the thrills.

There’s two videos presented here. One is Tarantino talking about his collaborator and friend Sally Menke during the making of Death Proof. The other shows how much love there was for Sally Menke on the set of Inglourious Basterds.




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2 Comments

  • What a devastating loss. It’s clear that Sally and Quentin were a match made in film-lover’s heaven. It’s impossible not to wonder where Tarantino will go from here. It will be very interesting to see his next release.

  • Sally Menke did the editing to american Nightwatch? Wow, I don’t recall anything peculiar about the editing, but Ole Bornedal’s original Nattevagten was so much better movie.

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