The Negative Cutter

Photo by Pietro Jeng on

by Sarah Kobrinsky 

issue 59

I DON’T REMEMBER WHEN I STOPPED looking for her name. It was a game we played in high school. We stayed until the end of every film to see the name of the negative cutter up on the big screen. We waited patiently in the dark as the credits rolled and the other movie-goers trickled out of the theater. The negative cutter was listed toward the end, past the cast, the production managers, the directors, and all the assistants. No matter the movie, she was always there: Theresa Repola Mohammed.
                   I swear she worked on every major blockbuster back in the nineties. I can’t remember how our game began or which of my friends was observant enough to begin noticing her name, but a ritual was started, and for us, it was sacrosanct. Her name sounded so exotic to us kids from North Dakota. Theresa, a saint. Mohammed, a prophet.
                   When we saw her name roll by, we felt heady with the possession of this secret. It was like looking up someone’s skirt; we knew something others didn’t. Not only did seeing her name make us feel special and different, it made our teenage world feel predictable and safe. We could depend on her; she was always there. This sense of security would disappear for most of us after high school when we went our separate ways and began to experience disappointment, failure, loss, and the ugly stepchild of all those awful feelings, regret. Saint Theresa reinforced our protective, suburban bubble.
                   Recently I tried to find her online and came across an obituary in a film industry newsletter. She died of natural causes at the age of 52. In her heyday, she must have been one of the busiest women in Hollywood with screen credits as a negative cutter on over 200 films. Toward the end of her life, she was beginning a second career as a Hospice worker. Her lifelong dream, the obituary said, was to help people transition from life to death without fear, a clean splice from one great scene to the next. The name of the last film she worked on is Whisper. In a private ceremony held by her family, her ashes were laid to rest in a forest.
                  I don’t know if negative cutters are used to make films anymore now that everything is digital. But in my teenage vision of her, she sits in a dark room with an enormous pair of pearl-handled scissors. Her body is wrapped in miles and hours of film that resembles wild vines or snakes. She is one of the Three Fates, the one who cuts. She removes the negative, the opposite, the other— she takes away the shadows. Scenes no one will ever see fall at her feet like pieces of ribbon, endless footage of awkward mistakes and downtime, so much downtime—people waiting hours, days, weeks, for something, anything, to happen. She sweeps them up and pieces them together into a new film, her own story, our story, where love is forever just around the corner, where heroes don’t win every time, and underdogs stay underdogs, but everyone gets by just fine. I imagine in her movie, the credits roll at the beginning as in the golden days of film, and her name, Theresa Repola Mohammed, appears first.