Welcome back, class. After our 50th week together in the Free Film School, I gave you a little time off without homework. I hope you had a good vacation, because it's time to crack the whip again. The world of film is vast, and the quest for great films is largely unending. As long as there are interested students, I will try to bring you what knowledge I can. Refit your thinking caps, and prepare to become smarter. This week's lecture will be on the notion of the “Director's Cut.”
I was inspired to write about this topic from the most recent installation, actually, of The Series Project here on CraveOnline. It turns out, you see, that the first three films in the Alien franchise are accompanied on most home video versions by respective secondary cuts. For these secondary cuts, both Ridley Scott and James Cameron reinstated some scenes that their editors, and most likely their studios, cut out. Alien³ is a special case, in that director David Fincher was never granted to opportunity to complete a cut to his satisfaction, resulting in a home video cut that was based, ex post facto and without Fincher's direct participation, on notes left behind. This was done, I think we can all agree, to make a film that coincided with the original auteur's vision.
This has happened countless times over the last 32 years or so. A director, working hard to make a film in a very specific way, will eventually, thanks to various financial or creative pressures, have to kowtow to demands from their money-providing studio. They'll either have to cut scenes, add scenes, or alter entire storylines to fit in with what the studio feels would be a more bankable product. Which the studios have every right to do; most Hollywood feature films, after all, typically cost millions of dollars, and it's studio’s money on the line, not the director's. In the best of cases, a powerful and copacetic auteur will either provide something so stellar that the studio dare not touch it, or the savvy director will know how to deal with a studio, and make only the smallest of editing compromises. In the worst of cases, creative input will come from so many sources that the finished cut of the film will only result in a big mess. It's been the case that some directors, displeased with studio interference, will leave the film, removing their name from the project entirely. If you've ever seen an Alan Smithee film, that is the most popular pseudonym used by unhappy directors.
But eventually, thanks to the home video market, the director can have their way, as they often are permitted to go back and recut their movie as much as they like, and release the now-ubiquitous Director's Cut. Some directors are well known for their tinkering and re-editing. William Friedkin, rather notoriously, re-released his 1973 horror classic The Exorcist in theaters in 2000, which not only incorporated scenes previously unseen, but also used modern special effects to add in eerie subliminal flashes of demon faces throughout. Ridley Scott is the worst offender of recutting his movies: his 1982 sci-fi film Blade Runner famously has four “legitimate” cuts to it, which can all be found on various home videos. There's an American theatrical release, a European theatrical release, a 1992 Director's Cut, and a 2007 Final Cut. I think Scott finally meant it when he said “final.”
The most infamous example of this is, of course, the 1997 re-releases of the first three Star Wars movies. George Lucas, much to the chagrin of many of his fans, erased most all of the three films' practical effects and replaced them with new digital effects. He also, in what some have seen as a baffling move, added other small digital elements throughout, so that the 1977 footage now had CGI creatures and machines in the background.
The 1997 Star Wars debacle opened up a new discussion of the notion of the “Director's Cut,” and has a new generation scratching their heads. Surely if a director owns the rights to a film, and they have the resources and wherewithal to do so, surely they are permitted to release whatever cut of their film they want. The problem with this sort of retroactive creative freedom is that it flies in the face of any ideas we may have of a film's permanence. Surely, we will want to say to ourselves at some point, there must be a single, authoritative version of a movie somewhere. And that permanent version may not necessarily be the director's vision. In the case of Blade Runner, many feel the 1992 cut to be the final word on the matter, despite the 2007 cut. The vast bulk of Star Wars purists vastly prefer the 1977 cut of Star Wars over any of the digitally-enhanced later versions, even though George Lucas has been, rather notoriously, been actively seeking to bury the old versions and make the new ones the only ones to be available. If the filmgoing community at large agrees on what's authoritative, perhaps the original auteur has lost much of his voice. Indeed, in the case of the Star Wars movies, some enterprising fans have actually bothered to re-edit the film to their liking. I'm willing to bet that, if you count fan edits, the film to have the most number of final versions would be 1999's Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace.
Its permanence is one of the artistic factors of film that makes it stand apart from live theater, perhaps film's closest cousin. Film can feature all of the dramatic acting and theatrical scenarios of live theater, but it uses a camera to capture a performance and record it for as long as someone bothers to store it. Theater is ephemeral. Film will be around. Thanks to this, we can see old performances made by dead actors, still young and glittering for all eternity. Films must necessarily run a certain length, and they will stay that length forever, locked away, shimmering and alive, on strips of celluloid film, or, more recently, locked in a computer file.
As a result of its very form, we tend to think of films as immutable. Untouchable in a way. Some see this permanence as a hindrance to creative rethinking. I tend to see re-cuts as a non-canonical reconsideration, but, as a critic, have decided to select the original cut as the final version. And re-cuts thereafter are special editions. Extra icing on an already-iced cake. There has to be a lot of scandal surrounding the original theatrical release for me to redefine it as the final version. Blade Runner and Terry Gilliam's 1985 dystopian headtrip Brazil are the two most notable exceptions. In the case of Brazil, the version you're more likely to see is Gilliam's preferred version, which is slightly longer, and has a tragic ending, rather than a studio-mandated happy one.
The whole notion of a “director's cut” began relatively recently. All films released before 1977 were given to one, permanent version. Even films that were notoriously butchered remained butchered, leaving audiences to merely ponder what could have been; Orson Welles' 1958 film Touch of Evil, for instance, was taken away from the director and recut by the studios. It wasn't until a famed DVD release decades later that Welles' original editing notes were heeded, and a more “pure” version was made available. But in 1977, Steven Spielberg's hit sci-fi epic Close Encounters of the Third Kind was released. The 1977 version was a huge hit, and the iconic imagery, alongside its messages of a benevolent alien force in our midst, have made the film one of the most beloved films in Spielberg's already well-beloved canon.
Despite this, Spielberg himself was not pleased with the final version. The film's final climactic 25 minutes (wherein humanity finally communicates with an enormous alien vessel hovering above a unique rock formation) were, according to Spielberg, a difficult shoot, and editing just this final sequence was a nightmare. When Spielberg wanted to shoot some extra footage to fill in some necessary gaps, his photographer was no longer available. He asked the studio for extra time to complete the film (he was under the impression that Close Encounters was to be a summer release in 1978), but was denied.
Spielberg was, of course, happy with the film's success, but was still irked by how incomplete and rushed he felt. As a result, and thanks to some flagging finances by Columbia, Spielberg was allowed to recut to movie to his liking, and be granted a second theatrical release in the summer of 1980. Re-releases were, to remind you, more common in the days before home video. The new version had a scene inside the alien mothership, and extended some scenes while trimming others, making for a better-told and more taut movie. It was ultimately three minutes shorter.
This was the first time the phrase “director's cut” was heard in the public ear. Studios would often talk about granting certain directors “final cut,” or who made which cut, but the public would only get one. 1980's re-release of Close Encounters of the Third Kind changed all that forever. Now no version of a film was permanent, and the public could more openly speculate as to what was cut out of the final version, and could circulate rumors about which cut was the “final” cut of a movie, and which one particular cut counted as canon.
This notion of editing impermanence has permeated the home video market to an astonishing degree. Indeed, when certain films are released in theaters, they are done so with the alternate cuts already waiting for the home video release. Studios use their alternate cuts as selling points. “The theatrical cut was only rated PG-13, but now you can see the longer, R-Rated version! Seven extra minutes of footage never before seen!” Studios also will often point out that the “director's cut” is gorier, or perhaps has more sex. This practice of the temporary theatrical cut has led to some confusion. If the only version available on home video is the “new” cut, where does the old one stand? Was it a beta test?
This can work in some directors' favor. Ridley Scott, as I have mentioned, has not only recut Blade Runner, but also his films Legend (1985), Black Hawk Down (2001) and Kingdom of Heaven (2005) have been recut and re-released on home video. Terrence Malick released his sublime The New World (2005) to a small but excited audience, only to re-release a different, slightly shorter cut a few months later. The DVD release also features a 175-minute cut. Oliver Stone made a sword-and-sandal 175-minute biopic of Alexander the Great called Alexander in 2004, which was panned by most critics for its campiness. Stone recut the film for home video, shortening it to a mere 167 minutes, thinking less of the film would encourage people to see it. Still unsatisfied with the results, Stone then decided to, in a third go-'round, go the opposite direction, and release an all-in 214-minute cut. I have only seen the 175-minute theatrical release of Alexander. I'm not sure what a 214-minute version could add other than mere length.
As fan editing become a more prolific practice, and various home video versions become more ubiquitous, the notion of a “final cut” is becoming more and more ephemeral. There was a time when a director had to fight for final cut of their film. And while, for many, it's still important that the “final cut” be the first theatrical release, thanks to the home video market, and the notions introduced by Close Encounters of the Third Kind in 1980, any director can, at least in some way, have their final vision be seen by an interested audience.
Is this good or bad? For the director, of course, it can only be good. For film purists like myself, or archivists who want to grow a library of films, the impermanence is troubling.
I feel that, at some point, even if a director is not entirely pleased with the end result, they should let their baby birds fly on their own merits. Release it as it, and don't touch it anymore. See how the world reacts to it, and let the world have that reaction. If you are a big-name director with the clout to tinker with a long-completed film of yours, ponder if it needs to be tinkered with before any editing begins in earnest. Maybe, to most people, the last version was good enough.
Homework for the Week:
Watch two different cuts of the same movie. Try Close Encounters. Which cut was better? The director's cut, or the theatrical cut? What are your thoughts on the ideas of film permanence? Should there be a definitive version of a film, or can films be endlessly recut to fit your desires? What are the benefits of having a permanent, authoritative version? What are the advantages of mutability? When you see a film in theaters, do you look forward to a longer version on home video, or would you prefer a single version? If a film is already great, can slight tinkering make it better, or is that messing with any notions of purity?