Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Perfect first time? We can fix that: Director's cuts

Charles Darwin kept adding to the title of later editions of his seminal work The Origin of Species to accommodate various criticism he’d endured since the first one. The joke was that it should have been called: The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection and All Sorts of Other Things. Then again Brian Wilson finally finished his epic Smile decades after it had been ruptured by his record company, the rest of the band and his own mental fragility. I’m glad he did and I loved my only hearing of it. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong about a redraft, it’s just that so many seem like completely different works emerging from the carcasses of the originals like fatal parasites. Here’s a few from the world o’ cinema to get started on.

This really would be better thought of as a writer’s cut as the changes were pretty much William Peter Blatty’s rather than William Friedkin who had left the film in its happy state for decades without feeling the lack. A look at the BBC documentary The Fear of God: 25 years of the Exorcist, hosted by the redoubtable Mark Kermode reveals a fair bit about Blatty’s ideas of the film.

What was done? Reinstatement of a number of offcuts to smooth the transitions from the prologue in Iraq to Washington DC, a great slab of medical tests and consultations with doctors about Regan’s condition featuring various fruitless treatments. The Spider Walk scene where Regan rushes downstairs upsidedown on all fours. The Casablanca ending with Father Dyer walking off trading wisecracks with Detective Kinderman. A number of digital superimpositions of demonic figures on household surfaces.

Any of it work? None. The abrupt change from Iraq to America is from exotica to home, from ominous to normal. It works. Now it’s overstated with a warm sequence of an autumn evening in the street, in case you hadn’t quite got the connection. The extra medical scenes serve solely to drag the film into quicksand. One interview between a doctor and Chris seems to have made it in because of the mention of Ritalin, a drug in the news at the time being prescribed for ADHD sufferers. It’s a giggle but just a giggle and out of sorts with the tension the original sequence had. The spider walk sequence shown untreated in the BBC documentary was clearly misjudged and more ridiculous than bizarre. Restored it just looks try hard. The original ending with Father Dyer walking off carries the tension that the rest of the original film delivers in spades. Now it’s warm and chummy. As for the ghostly images of the demonic figures on the fridge, walls and over canopy they are as scary as Bert Newton in a Dracula costume. Errrgh!

I saw this new cut when it was released and every one of the above changes elicited laughter. I sank into my seat. In the cinema and on dvd this was called The Version You’ve Never Seen. Sadly, as the original cut’s early local deletion was to prove, this travesty would be the Only Version You’re Likely to See. I think the bluray will change that but the damage is done, now.

Once upon a time there was a movie I made my dad go and see because I knew he’d love it. It had left the cinema circuit by then so we had to go to the drive-in. This was in Townsville in December. A light muggy drizzle fell throughout the entire film which only helped the immersion of this intense and hyper epic of war and the compulsion to it. From then I was given a mission to make everyone I could find sit in front of it at a cinema. When it even left the rep cinemas I was still flushed from the effort. It remains a favourite and when I do things like Facebook lists it’s always there in the ten if not the five. And then this thing came along.

I’ll admit I was eager for it. As the film is less plotty than expressionistic I welcomed the promise of new material. I went to the Astor (Melbourne’s huge deco movie palace) with a fellow fan-for-life. It was so long it was shown with an intermission. Through this I was rapt right up until the French plantaion sequence which unravelled the lot and dragged even the joyful effect of the beautiful new print and big sound.

Why? Well, it’s not a bad scene as such. None of them are bad as such but all the additions alter the original film (which Coppola had been happy to present at Cannes and then the rest of the world for the better part of two decades). For starters Capt. Willard is a different person. The wide-eyed boyish intensity Martin Sheen maintained through the unsmiling totality of his screen time (almost all the film) was now diluted with his participation in the goofy theft of  Col. Kilgore’s surfboard. He also gets it awn with the beautiful frail daughter of the French planter household. He’s now not just one of the guys where he had been a nervewracking alien presence on the boat before, he’s livin’ the dream.

He is? They all are. The scene at the filling station is mostly atmospheric and welcome for it but the crew get to go the playboy bunnies. Well not entirely but the dry unsexuality that left the original so worryingly unrelieved has now gone. Strike two to its power. The end of the scene comes out of nowhere or a completely different film. Kurtz not only appears during the day, coming out of the obscuring columns of light and darkness where he only seems to exist. Now he looks like anyone else. Willard loses his intensity and Kurtz his mystique. Not bad going for a film that depends on the intensity of Willard and the mystique of Kurtz.

Every one of these scenes would have been better as a well restored dvd extra. I always find the misjudged outtakes as intriguing as the good ones that got away. The special dvd edition of Apocalypse Now contains a seamless branching feature which will allow the viewing of either cut. It’s over two discs but it’s a good solution.

A glorious lavish fable of earthly mediocrity vs divine inspiration, Amadeus was a rare treasure trove from the days when a mega budget could be used well to the last cent. Everything about this production worked, the locations, the music, the adaptation from the stage into what could only be called a liberation, and the mighty casting from Jeffery Jones as the Emperor (my sister called him an axylotl), Tom Hulce as Mozart and the deserving best actor Oscar of that year, F. Murrary Abraham as Salieri whose recollection twisted by self hatred and violent resentment gave this story its ground (and should have warned any pedantic twit that they weren’t about to see a biopic about Mozart). It was long but filled with such life and seriousness in just the right doses that it was also completely compelling. Probably the exact length it needed to be. Well, definitely, actually.

The director’s cut on dvd seems to lengthen the film by about a fortnight, adding everything that could be found and, barring only failed takes, shoving it in like a railway cop stuffing commuters into a Tokyo peak hour train.

What’s new? Subplots. The musical courtiers do more scheming. Salieri tries it on coercively with Mozart’s wife. A drunk and penniless Mozart tries to extract patronage from a former patron. Etc. Not only does this bloat the film and distract from Salieri’s madman’s tale but there’s a very nasty cut in favour of this “new” fluff. Older Salieri, gets to a part of his confession that shocks his confessor with its darkness. Salieri breaks his rock like sternness and breaks into an indulgent grin. It’s about a second long but it says more about his character and puts the veracity of his account into perspective in that little time. Now it’s gone, swept under some courtier’s buckled shoes. The original cut was not included in any release on optical medium after the deletion of the initial release. Can’t get it now. Amadeus is still a great film. It just could be a greater one with the judgement that made the cinematic release such an exhilaration.

In 2002 this film shone like a beacon. It was indy and inventive with great dialogue, an assured helming by writer Richard Kelly and bullseye casting. The concept was strong as an ox as well, was Donnie a time traveller or just mentally ill? The circular nature of the narrative sealed the question without ever needing to resolve it. It was a kind of moebius strip movie.

What’s new? A commitment to one of the two interpretations mentioned in the first paragraph. Everything that could cause doubt as to one of them was removed or disambiguated. The creator of one of the most original and enjoyable films of the 2000s turned his masterpiece into a literalistic mediocrity. I haven’t seen the hated Southland Tales nor the better considered The Box but I’m not inclined to after his self travesty. Did he really not know how fine his original work was? Director’s cuts usually arrive decades after the original. This one came about two years afterward. Rather than replace old with new in this case there is an accessible release of this film which contains both cuts. Finally!

Where are the director's cuts of Taxi DriverAnnie Hall, Videodrome or Blue Velvet? I'll tell you one thing I know. When David Lynch released his personally overseen remastered dvd of Eraserhead he did something very interesting with some deleted footage he was able to recover. Lynch owns Eraserhead holus bolus, he doesn't have to answer to anyone about its presentation. Instead of reinserting the scene he put it on his website and made it accessible only to those who could supply a code number on the content of the dvd. I saw it during a trial free access period. I'm glad I saw it. I understand why it wasn't in the film. I don't care if I never see it again. Eraserhead has been allowed to continue airing its odd universe without a syllable's worth of extrapolation or a frame more than it needs on screen. Now that's protection of legacy.

Do any director's cuts work? There have been too many recuts of Blade Runner for me to bother with but I do like the second one that omitted the obvious narration by Harrison Ford and the goofy happy ending. But that was a case of the director restoring his intentions rather than milking an old cow for champagne. Peter Weir's recut of Picnic at Hanging Rock shortened its length (the only instance of this in history?) as he felt it could do with a little less melodrama. So, yeah, they can work if their creators care about them.

Any further expamples? Counter examples? This list can't be exhaustive.

1 comment:

  1. It's not a good film by any means, even its original form, but the directors cut of 1408 was even worse than the first! Sadly I do not even know why i bothered to watch it a second time.....