Friday, September 10, 2004

The Unkindest Directors Cut

GEORGE LUCAS: These are my movies. I made them, and I have the right to do whatever I want with them.
STAN: You're wrong, Mr. Lucas. They're not your movies. They're ours. All of ours. We paid to go see them, and they're just as much a part of our lives as they are of yours.
KYLE: When an artist creates, whatever they create belongs to society.
(from the South Park episode "Free Hat")

Okay, first of all, I'm not the biggest Star Wars fan, though like everyone else I will probably wind up getting the DVD set. And, like many people, I thought it was pretty cool the way Han Solo shot that guy in the bar scene, and I didn't like the way this scene was wussified for the so-called "Special Edition." And, again like many people, I wish George Lucas would stop adding pointless new scenes and digital "improvements" to his movies and just release the films as they originally appeared in theatres.

But what interests me about the controversy over "special editions" of films (which was the subject of a very funny South Park episode, quoted above) is that similar controversy doesn't usually attach to so-called "directors' cuts" -- that is, films that are re-released with footage that was cut from the original release, or an ending that the studio originally didn't want, or just something that got cut. There are quite a few films where the version now in circulation is longer than the version that originally got released. The Wild Bunch and any other Peckinpah movie where extra footage can be found. Touch of Evil got two re-releases, one to add back the Orson Welles footage that got cut originally, and another to take out the scenes he didn't direct. Blade Runner, of course.

Sometimes the "directors' cut" doesn't really have much relationship to what the director wanted. Jean Renoir's The Rules of the Game is probably the most famous case of a movie that was cut to pieces after previews, and "restored" some years later. But as is pointed out in a note on the Criterion DVD, the version we see today is not only longer than the original theatrical release, it's longer than the cut Renoir put together for previews (which is lost). The "definitive" version of Rules of the Game was assembled in 1959 from a bunch of different sources, with Renoir's consent but not his direct involvement, by two guys who loved the film but weren't involved in making it. There's little doubt that the version we see is different -- and longer -- than it would have been if the previews had gone well in 1939. (I still think, heretically, that the famous hunting scene goes on way too long after its point has been made, though I don't know if this scene is significantly longer than it is in the theatrical release version.)

We tend to think of directors' cuts as being all right because they restore the filmmaker's original vision at the time the movie was made, whereas "special editions" represent afterthoughts (by filmmakers who, like Lucas, may have lost whatever creative spark they had at the time they made the originals) and compromise that original vision. But to say that a directors' cut, even one created by the director, doesn't compromise the movie's "vision" is to ascribe the "vision" of the movie entirely to the director. I don't think that's true of movies, and certainly not of Hollywood movies, where the producer is (or was) just as likely as the director to be the driving force behind the project. A movie is "created" by the director and the producer and the studio executives and anyone else who has a hand in shaping the project and deciding what its final form will be. Touch of Evil is an Orson Welles film, but it's also a film by Albert Zugsmith (the producer) and by Universal (the studio). As such, if the studio chooses to cut some of Welles' scenes and add a few new shots by another director, that may be regrettable, but that's not a change made after the fact, that's a change made during the creation of the movie, as part of the whole editing/revising process. It's the form in which the film is released to the public. Whether we like it or not, it's the "definitive" version. To say that Welles' memo to the studio has more to do with the movie's definitive form than the actual theatrical release version is to imply that the director's creativity exists in a vacuum, apart from the contributions of the producer, the studio, the preview audiences, the general tenor of the times, etc. And I don't think that's how moviemaking works.

Now, having said that, do I think that the original theatrical release of Touch of Evil should be the only one we see? No way. Some of Welles's cut scenes are too good to lose. (On the other hand, I don't really care for the recent re-cut based on Welles' memo; to me it just proves that some of the studio's editiong decisions were good ones.) Same with the material the studio cut from The Wild Bunch and many other movies. But given the nature of filmmaking, I don't think these re-cuts have more validity than the studio-imposed final versions; if we accept that once a movie is released to the public, it's out of the creators' hands, then there should be no moral or artistic right to go back and put new scenes in, even if they're scenes that the director would have liked to put in in the first place. The argument for these directors' cuts is not moral, it's qualitiative: we like to have scenes put back if they improve the movie. And similarly, the argument against George Lucas adding computerized crap to his movies is not about morality or the original being the definitive version (because if the original Star Wars is the final definitive version once it's in theatres, then so is the original theatrical release of Touch of Evil), it's just that the older, politically-correct, computer-obsessed George Lucas shouldn't be allowed anywhere near the movies he made when he had talent.

Addendum: Among "special editions" of movies -- movies where new material was created years later -- one I like is the "special edition" of Disney's Beauty and the Beast, which had a new sequence recorded and animated for the DVD. What I like about it is not the song (which is good but doesn't really add a lot), but the little scene with Belle and the Beast reading Romeo and Juliet, which removes one of the more irritating things about the original version of the movie: that Belle is presented as someone who likes to read, but (in the original theatrical version) we never hear about her reading anything more challenging than Jack and the Beanstalk. So that little scene actually improves the character, and therefore the movie.

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