Are Director’s Cuts Necessary?

In 2004, I screened 2 versions of an important American film within a week.  My dad had bought the Apocalypse Now Redux DVD and I didn’t want to see it until after I checked out the original 1979 version which I ended up renting.  Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam masterpiece originally ran for 2 hours and 33 minutes.  The running time of his 2001 extended version, the aforementioned Apocalypse Now Redux, is an incredible 3 hours and 22 minutes.  Believe it or not, there is an even longer version of the film available.  According to the Internet Movie Database, there’s a nearly 5-hour “workprint” edition that has never been officially distributed but, apparently, it’s a circulating bootleg.  I love great, long movies but isn’t it a relief that both of the official versions of that great masterpiece are considerably shorter than that?  (More on this in a moment.)
I’ve been wanting to talk about this subject for a long time.  The necessity of director’s cuts.  Because of America’s screwed-up ratings system more and more films are being sanitized for their theatrical releases and then popping up on home video in “unrated extended versions”.  You’d be surprised at the wide range of titles this affects.  Take, for instance, The New Guy.  Horrible movie.  One of the worst I’ve ever seen.  Its running time is a merciful 88 minutes.  Several months after its short run in theatres and its debut on DVD, an unexpected Director’s Cut appeared.  It runs for 92 minutes.  Yes, that’s right.  It’s the same movie plus 4 minutes.  Honestly, if you hated the original as much as I did, is there any chance in hell you’ll change your mind after seeing the Director’s Cut?  I always try to keep an open mind about movies but let’s be real here.  Why would I waste my time with this version, unless it was theatrically released (which it wasn’t), when I had such an unpleasant time with the original?
In all of my years of watching movies, I’ve never had 2 different opinions about 2 versions of the same movie, which brings me back to Apocalypse Now.  The original is so great why the need for an alternate version?  Well, Coppola felt it needed to be improved in some way.  (I know geniuses are supposed to be on the edge of insanity but this is nuts!)  His solution?  To re-release the film and incorporate nearly an hour of added footage that was previously only seen in that bootlegged, workprint version.  Did he succeed?  Is Redux the better version?  My dad thinks so.  I disagree.  While I appreciated all the new footage I felt Coppola got it right the first time.  Even though both versions are first-rate, Redux feels unnecessary.  The first film plays better.  It’s smoother with fewer diversions before the encounter with Brando.  Sure, it’s cool to see more of him, Martin Sheen and those sexy Playmates but, the original movie wasn’t flawed to the extent that it needed something to enhance it.  It didn’t need fleshing out in any way.  Chalk it up to an insecure director worried about the legacy of his masterstroke.
George Lucas did the same thing nearly 10 years ago when 3 of his beloved Star Wars movies got the Special Edition treatment.  I made it a point to see the first one in theatres since that was the only one of the original trilogy I had never screened in a theatre.  (I was only 2 when the original was first released.)  I still haven’t seen the extended versions of The Empire Strikes Back and Return Of The Jedi and now, I deeply regret not seeing them in the theatre.  At some point, I will get caught up with them.  As for Star Wars: Special Edition (or A New Hope, as the purists would prefer), like Apocalypse Now Redux, I liked seeing the new footage but felt the original was superior.  When the trilogy was issued on DVD, there was more tinkering, especially with Jedi.  (I have to ask:  why can’t filmmakers settle on a cut of their film and move on already?  I’m talking to you, Mr. Lucas.)
It doesn’t help that the original versions of those movies are not scheduled for a DVD release which is crazy considering they were issued on tape many times.  Hopefully, Lucas will reconsider and realize that giving movie fans what they want and deserve is a win-win for everybody, including him.  It’s not as if this is a bad business decision, right?
But let’s get back to my initial question:  Are Director’s Cuts Necessary?  Roger Ebert would probably argue “yes” for some films and here’s why.  Sometimes films are sent to film festivals before they’re actually finished.  Remember the negative reaction Cameron Crowe’s film, Elizabethtown, received when it played Toronto?  People knew going in that the film wasn’t quite ready yet but that didn’t negate the bad assessments.  When a different version was issued in theatres Ebert praised the new edit on his TV show while also commenting on his disappointing experience with the unfinished cut he saw in Toronto.  However, the film failed to find an audience during its theatrical run and one wonders if previewing an incomplete cut of your movie at the most prestigious film festival in North America was such a wise strategy.
Then, there are movies that suffer from studio interference.  When Blade Runner was issued in the summer of 1982, it featured narration by Harrison Ford which director Ridley Scott was deeply unhappy about but Warner Bros. fought for.  10 years later, he reissued the film minus the narration while making other changes. There was supposed to be a special edition DVD of the movie featuring even more versions of the film but since its announcement several years ago we’re all still waiting.  This is important to me because I’ve not seen either of the American theatrical cuts.  I think I’ve only seen parts of the European version when I was really young.  (I can’t remember now but I don’t think I saw it from beginning to end, just bits and pieces.  I can only remember the incredible visuals and the intense violence, that’s it.)  Seeing both North American versions of this movie would really answer my question about the necessity of director’s cuts.
Then, there are those rare times where 2 versions of the same movie are issued simultaneously in different parts of the world, sometimes in the same country.  Cinema Paradiso was originally a 3-hour Italian film when it played in Europe but the original North American version was cut down to 2 hours.  (A few years ago, the director’s cut finally played in theatres.)  When Basic Instinct was issued here in 1992, it was missing a sex scene that was shown exclusively in Europe. 
And then, there are these 2 films:  Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet and Once Upon A Time In America.  Both Branagh and director Sergio Leone wanted long running times for their respective movies.  But dopey studio executives preferred shorter versions of their films to get theatrical releases.  When Roger Ebert assessed the Leone film he gave one star for the 2-hour version and four stars for the 4-hour version, believing that to appreciate the film you need to see the whole thing, not half the story.  I respect that view even though I think Once Upon A Time In America is way too long and not a very successful film.  (I found myself curiously uninvolved in the lives of these characters.)
However, according to the Internet Movie Database, Leone originally had a 10-hour cut to work with! He edited it down to 6 hours hoping to release the film in 2 three-hour parts, which, come to think of it, would’ve been a good idea considering the later-day successes of The Lord Of The Rings and Kill Bill movies.  He changed his mind and settled on a 4-hour running time, disappointed that an additional 45 minutes of footage he felt necessary to telling the story properly couldn’t be included.  The studio fought for an even shorter version and that’s why some theatregoers got to see a 2-hour version rather than the 4-hour cut.  Only the 4-hour version is available on DVD.
Hamlet went through the same unnecessary hassles.  A 2-hour version, as well as the full 4-hour version, saw theatrical release until critical outrage provoked a change in strategy.  As a result, more theatres screened the full film rather than the shorter version.  I recommend Hamlet even though I believe it loses a bit of steam by the end.  The first 2 and a half hours are the most energetic and entertaining.
Just look at this list of titles:  E.T., Alien, The Lord Of The Rings trilogy, Frank Miller’s Sin City, the American Pie trilogy, The Exorcist, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Almost Famous.  All of them feature commercially available director’s cuts (that’s just a sampling of what’s available) and more are on the way.  Look for extended versions of The Missing (Ron Howard’s 2003 movie), Mr. & Mrs. Smith (with Brad Pitt & Angelina Jolie), The Hills Have Eyes remake, and many, many more.
What to do about all this madness?  It’s fine to put out another version of your movie if you got it wrong the first time or if saboteurs ruined your original edit.  But, for the most part, do we really need more than one version of a film?  And in the cases of Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, Blade Runner and the original Star Wars trilogy, why can we only see the director’s cuts and not the originals on DVD?   Until the Motion Picture Association of America stops enforcing silly rules that result in ridiculous re-edits and filmmakers settle on one cut of their films, it appears the phenomenon of the director’s cut will continue to haunt us forever.  What a waste of time.
Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Wednesday, April 20, 2006
5:11 p.m.
Published in: on April 20, 2006 at 5:13 pm  Leave a Comment  

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