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September 12, 2004

  • Whose Film Is It Anyway?
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    I once played a very minor role in a minor footnote of film history.

    For years, the original 202-minute cut of John Wayne's opus The Alamo was thought to be missing until, by chance, a friend of mine had seen it at a screening at Ontario Place's Cinesphere in the early eighties. It was a decade until my friend had discovered how historic his find was—it turned out the film had 40 or so minutes cut from it between it's early ‘roadshow' release (a practice back in the day where movies were initially shown in limited reserved engagements) and the general release that followed and the original version was believed to be lost. My friend tracked down the print he had seen, got in touch with a Alamo film expert and the expert—who had an obsession and money to burn—flew up to Toronto and booked the Eglinton Theatre (an opulent cinema alas no longer with us) to screen it. I was invited by my friend to come along and so in October 1991 we gathered at an obscenely early hour to watch a private screening of a film that may, or may not, be an important historical find. Thirteen minutes in when the first cut scene turned out to be completely extant we discovered my friend was right; this was indeed the lost, original director's cut of the film.

    Everyone cheered. The Alamo film expert yelled, "I want to masturbate now!"

    My active contribution to this event was to dub the print "The Toronto Print" and that's what it's been called by Alamo aficionados ever since, though that may not entirely be down to me. Mostly it was a passive contribution—being there the day it was discovered that the director's cut of something was found.

    John Wayne's The Alamo is disdained by many for being a very hokey film, full of speechifying and noisy, unsubtle jingoism. And when you watch the full 202 minute version you can see that's still somewhat true. But what you also discover is a totally different film than the one that's in general release—it's more character driven, more exciting, more thoughtful.

    Just as the original version The Alamo was discovered to be actually languishing in a film vault in Edmonton for thirty years, a new movement in film was beginning to emerge. Two years before our historic find, fully restored and uncut versions of Lawrence of Arabia and Spartacus were released in cinemas. People began to think more and more about "Director's cuts" of films. In 1993, Ridley Scott came out with his original cut to Blade Runner, sans noir narration by Harrison Ford and with an altogether more ambiguous ending. George Lucas went one better and not only added longer edits of his Star Wars films, he added CGI effects as well to expand sequences completely. And he's not the only one to do this—many science fiction films in particular have ‘sweetened' effects scenes, especially on the DVD release.

    None of these concepts were particularly new. Steven Spielberg released a ‘special edition' of Close Encounters of the Third Kind a year or so after original release. In exchange for reshooting certain sequences and adding other ones, he had to shoot a new ending inside the mothership UFO. Plus, television versions of some movies were substantially longer than their theatrical releases—Superman The Movie had almost 45 minutes of footage (much of which still isn't in the director's cut on the DVD) in the TV version.

    Traditionally, the Director's Cut is a way of redeeming certain features from an indifferent studio system that at its worst demands the film be dumbed down, and at best demands that the film brought down to a marketable running time irrespective of quality. Brazil, Blade Runner, even The Alamo are films that show a much different sensibility than the one imposed on it at the time of release. (Sometimes I think the suits were right though—I'm one of the minority that thinks the original theatrical release of Blade Runner is far superior). I remember reading about the cut sequences from The Abyss (which even in its original version is a vastly underrated film, possibly James Cameron's best) and hoping desperately they would release a director's cut. I'm probably the only person on earth who is looking forward to seeing the director's cut of Daredevil because I have a feeling the film will be far better as the R-rated film it was originally intended to be (then again, it still has Ben Affleck so maybe not).

    As time goes on, though, I find that more and more that some of these so-called extended versions or director's cuts are cash grabs on the part of the studios. Peter Jackson is laughing all the way to the bank with DVD releases of regular and extended versions of his Lord of the Rings. And while I'd love to own Kill Bill I have no idea whether to bother to get the DVDs for the wide release version or wait for the inevitable Special Edition that will come sooner rather than later.

    Plus, the people marketing these things often forget that film editing is meant to be a benign process. Things are often cut from the original film for a reason. For example, the TV release of Dead Poets Society has loads of scene extensions—and indeed a complete subplot—that are completely unnecessary to the film. Director Peter Weir and his editor William Anderson saw that in the first place and the film works fine without them. Looking at the raft of gratituous home-video 'unrated' 'extended' versions of films, I don't think people have learned that lesson.

    And then we come to George Lucas.

    Lucas always been concerned with his legacy and has always tweaked his films—even if just to tweak the sound mix—long after most filmmakers would believe them simply complete (the DVD release of American Grafitti apparently has more CGI tweaking than Return of the Jedi did). The version of Star Wars shown in 1977 is not the same as the one released on video in 1980 or TV in 1983 or in the Special Edition in 1997. But the Special Edition of Star Wars went a step further. It wasn't than it added scenes (they still didn't add the first Biggs scene though, which cheesed me off), or used CGI to make the added scenes work (like creating a Jabba for Harrison Ford to act with). No, when it comes down to it Lucas did just one thing that has completely upset the apple cart.

    Greedo shot first.

    In the original Star Wars, Han Solo is arguing with Greedo over making a necessary payment. Just as the argument gets to a pitch and it sounds like Greedo's going to get nasty, Han plugs him dead. And so he should. In the original film, Han was an amoral mercenary who only at the end of the film gives in to his better instincts. For George Lucas, this hasn't sat well in retrospect. Han is a hero to kids, and he's much more the hero in the sequels. So, in the retitled special edition of Episode IV: A New Hope, they CGI—badly, I might add—Greedo shooting at Han first, so Han shoots in self defence.

    This trend in changing things continued in other films. Steven Spielberg had a change of heart when releasing E.T. and felt that some of the harsher elements—having Elliot and E.T. being pursued by Federal agents with guns—would not play so well with kids today, so now Elliot and E.T. being pursued by Federal agents brandishing walkie-talkies. In both cases, I can't actually fault the decisions made by the filmmakers on some level. Times have changed since the original releases of these films, and a filmmaker may feel more responsible in how he displays violence or the threat of violence in films that are going to have kids as a predominant part of its audience. I'm not sure if I agree with that—by that logic they should CGI out the feet of the Wicked Witch of the East under Dorothy's house in re-releases of The Wizard of Oz—but I understand it nonetheless.

    But nonetheless for many fans and film buffs, this is where the line was crossed. There is a difference between re-editing and selectively re-making one's film. By digitially manipulating what was originally done to create a completely different impact to the story a nerve was touched. People began to complain about their own childhood memories being spoiled. Which is utter nonsense, but it raises an interesting philosophical conundrum: Back in the day, we all saw the same film. And we had a common shared experience that lasted for all time. But now…films are subject to updating, adding, and tweaking. The film people had a collective ownership over is constantly shifting, often in ways that are drastic and will alienate others. This comes out in funny ways. For example, I didn't mind the DVD special edition of Star Trek: The Motion Picture adding new CGI effects sequences; I minded it because they created new titles at the start of the movie!

    People are starting to view films—even the general release versions—more and more as historical artefacts. The idea is that films represent a particular time and place, technology and indeed a faulty studio system and they should reflect that. People may feel the Ridley Scott director's cut of Blade Runner is the authoritative version, but maybe there are people out there like me who think that what was made in 1982 was pretty neat as well and didn't deserve to be obliterated from the marketplace like the works of Copernicus in the middle ages. The market is beginning to change as a result and have begun to provide both the release version and the jazzed-up version. This is precisely what James Cameron did on the DVD release of Terminator 2—providing, the original, a Director's Cut, and a secret third cut of the film hidden as an easter egg. The Criterion edition of Brazil even has the version tinkered with by the studio. Even modern, CGI-enhanced, episodes of Doctor Who provide the ‘original' version as the default.

    Alas, this trend won't touch the Star Wars films, and the upcoming DVD release, will give us yet another Special Edition, though Lucas has compromised a little and the shooting is now just about simultaneous, with Han maybe firing first. There's progress.

    In the meantime, I'm waiting, possibly in vain, for a restored version of the full 202 minute version of The Alamo. Apparently, after its initial home video release in '92, my beloved Toronto Print was left to rot in the vaults of MGM/UA home video. Legendary film restorer Robert A. Harris is trying to find funds to provide a full restoration. I hope he succeeds in doing it. And I hope they include the original 161 minute version on there as well, because that's how they should do these things.

    Posted by graeme | (0) Comments | Permalink

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