Sally Menke may have cut her first feature in 1983, but it was with the release of 1992’s “Reservoir Dogs” that her star really began to climb. Little wonder, then, that the rest of her professional life was largely defined by the work she did as the editor of every single film Quentin Tarantino directed, including his segment of “Four Rooms.” Menke was an important collaborator for QT, as big a part of his voice as his distinctive screenplays or his eye for casting.
Sadly, Menke passed away unexpectedly in Los Angeles yesterday, and according to published reports, her body was found around 2:00 AM in Beachwood Canyon, one of the neighborhoods near the Hollywood sign. The police are still investigating the cause of the death, but early indications make it seem like yesterday’s brutal heat wave in Southern California may have had something to do with it. She was hiking with a friend yesterday morning, but the friend gave up on the hike and went back, while Menke and her dog continued the hike. When police found her body, they also found the dog, who appeared to be unharmed.
A death like this is doubly upsetting because it’s so inexplicable. Menke was only 56 years old, and for her to pass away like this is incomprehensible. Beyond the sorrow of losing a valued friend, the people closest to Menke have got to be reeling from the bizarre random nature of this. I can only imagine the impact it’s had on Tarantino, who has always treated the time he spent fine-tuning his films with Menke has one of the most important parts of his process. Menke’s always had an adventurous touch as a cutter that reflects the best qualities of Quentin’s work as a writer, and she had impeccable taste in terms of rhythm and pace.
Editing is an invisible art to most filmgoers, because if an editor has really done their job well, you should never once think about what it is that they’ve done. Their work affects everything, though, and Quentin knows that. He was smart enough to nurture this collaboration so that over time, the shorthand they developed and the instinctual understanding for what it was that he wanted informed every choice she made while cutting.
I honestly can’t imagine a Quentin Tarantino movie without Sally Menke’s name in the credits and her hand on the Avid. More than that, though, I can’t imagine what her friends and family are going through this morning.
At the “Scott Pilgrims Vs. The World” premiere in Los Angeles, I had a chance to finally meet Menke. I wouldn’t have recognized her on sight, but Eli Roth pointed her out and asked me if I’d ever met her. When I said I hadn’t, he dragged me right over and introduced me on the spot. Over the course of the evening, I had three or four different short conversations with her, and she couldn’t have been any nicer about my questions for her. She seemed particularly pleased to talk about the shift to action-era QT with “Kill Bill” and “Death Proof,” and we spoke the most about the final car chase in “Death Proof” and that film’s iconic double-punch freeze-frame ending. At the time, I cherished the opportunity to speak with her, and I was determined to find a way to sit down for a more formal discussion of her work soon.
Perhaps the best thing you can say at the passing of any creative artist is that Menke’s work will continue to impact and influence both audiences and filmmakers for years to come. She may not have the longest filmography in the world, but she left an indelible mark on cinema, and she will be deeply missed.
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