When Ridley Scott signed off on the wide-screen, VHS, Collector’s Edition of Blade Runner in 1992, 10 years after the theatrical release, who could not root for the director, the artiste, who’d apparently had the courage to stand up to the penny-pinching suits at Warner Bros. and demand that his movie be distributed in the form it was intended? I confess I secretly missed the original version’s voice-over and ending, but who was I to side with the studio over Ridley Scott? It was his film, after all.
In the ensuing decade, however, my faith in the revisionist approach to filmmaking was shaken. Directors couldn’t leave well enough alone; they redressed their early classics in ever-gaudier clothing in attempts to reclaim their youthful eminence, since corrupted by years of compromise.
Consider Steven Spielberg’s adjustments in the 20th-anniversary remastered edition of his 1982 E.T.:The Extra-Terrestrial. The changes range from the unnoticeable—accentuating the hobble of E.T.’s gait as he races through the woods—to the sacrilegious—digitally replacing the cops’ guns with walkie-talkies. If these strike you as cosmetic, recall the inexcusable interludes of colonial romance and stranded Playboy bunnies in Apocalypse Now: Redux, or the egregious Pixarification of Jabba the Hut in the Special Edition of Star Wars.
Directors’ cuts make financial sense because studios can resell the movies in their vaults at little cost. However, there’s a point at which auteur perfectionism slides into decadent excess, and the film suffers. It was one thing when Orson Welles asked that the intrusive titles be plucked from the now-classic opening shot of Touch of Evil (1958)—a request Universal granted 40 years later—another when James Cameron insisted on buffing up Terminator 2 with soap-operatic sequences he’d once had the good sense to leave out.
In a rhapsodic 2007 New Yorker article, Adam Gopnik notes a trend in British publishing in which classic novels, unprotected by copyright laws, have been diced up “like Damien Hirst animals” and sold as more manageable books to time-compromised readers. Unlike these slenderized volumes, he notes, special edition DVDs add to rather than subtract from the original film. Commentary tracks entitle filmmakers to justify, expand upon, digress from, or apologize for their aesthetic choices while introducing new levels of aesthetic self-consciousness. Even in bad films—especially in bad films, Gopnik argues—the commentary often enriches the experience with a layer of critical intervention. Indeed, the augmented film teaches the same lesson as the diminished book: “Dr. Frankenstein and his monster together are the subject of art,” Gopnik concludes; “the doctor alone is mere science journalism, the monster alone mere horror.”
But the artist can go too far, picking up all the failed experiments and repackaging them as the “uncut” version. This is not something most authors or painters consider acceptable, but the indulgence has become more or less the norm among Hollywood directors. The temptation to “refine” the crudities of their earlier work—by splicing in previously deleted scenes, finessing troublesome details, remastering soundtracks, and occasionally tacking on new endings—has proven irresistible to many veterans of the screen. Is it a coincidence that nearly every souped-up rerelease has been a disappointment?
Nothing captures the hazy boundary between mediocrity and brilliance better than Amadeus. My favorite moment in both Peter Shaffer’s 1979 play and Milos Forman’s exemplary film adaptation (1984) is the climactic deathbed dictation scene, when Mozart’s rival composer, Antonio Salieri, transcribes the great Requiem’s dies irae for the enfeebled, emaciated Mozart, who is unaware that he is being manipulated. Only then, as Salieri struggles to keep up with each bold compositional choice muttered by his victim, do we see exactly where ordinary creative competence tapers off and artistic genius begins. A similar disparity can be seen in the two versions of the movie, the latter extended by 20 desultory minutes on the Collector’s Edition DVD.
In addition to the pointless scenes of Mozart giving piano lessons to young girls and subsequently being accused of fondling them, there is one supplement in particular that manages to undo the chief source of Salieri’s hard-earned psychological motivation. (This scene appears in Shaffer’s theatrical script, and its omission in the original movie release represents a laudable choice in the stage-to-screen adaptation.) In all versions, Mozart’s wife, Constanza, approaches Salieri in secrecy and attempts to submit her husband’s work for the court’s approval by way of an implicit carnal offering—an offer Salieri, in his Catholic obstinacy, rejects. In the Collector’s Edition, the scene is followed by a second clandestine rendezvous wherein everything that was covert and innuendo-driven in the previous scene becomes plainspoken and explicit. Although we are afforded a merciful glimpse of the unfettered bosom of Elizabeth Berridge, the scene is boring, weird, redundant, and finally detrimental in that it tips Salieri’s libidinal hand. No longer is he a chaste Italian craftsman whose devotion to God is corroded by tyrannical jealousy, but an ineffectual pushover whose petty sexual frustrations threaten his lust for retribution. Once Salieri’s virginity becomes something he can part with, his piety becomes just another expendable virtue.
Furthermore, the exchange undermines the tortured, quasi-homoerotic man-boy infatuation Salieri has with Mozart. Part of what’s revealing about Salieri’s abstinence is that his only sensual indulgence, other than Italian pastries, is music—and what word other than orgasmic would be fit to describe F. Murray Abraham’s breathless shudder upon viewing the prodigy’s “meticulous ink strokes”? All in all, the tweaked Amadeus bears more than a passing resemblance to Gopnik’s neutered classics.
In the world of directors’ cuts, such destructive choices are commonplace. Even the subtleties, while peripheral and seemingly innocuous, have their effects. An extra cutaway here, a quick reaction shot there, and suddenly the gags aren’t quite as funny. The sex scenes aren’t as breathless. The fights lose their drive. The dialogue drags. Just a little more padding and primping and the intangible gestalt of the original is lost.
Look at Paul Verhoeven’s unrated 1998 rerelease of his 1987 RoboCop for the Criterion Collection. Unlike Amadeus, the story itself remains the same, unsullied by distracting subplots and aimless convolutions. The rerelease is, however, weighted with just enough strategically placed baggage to sink the ship. Let’s be clear about the violence in the original: Even for 14-year-old boys, the supposedly desensitized target demographic, the carnage was unsettling. The opening moments when a hapless executive gets shredded by robotic machine-gun fire during a board meeting remains to this day as nauseating as it is exhilarating. More graphic still is the savage mowing down of the lead character (Peter Weller) by a band of mercenaries 20 minutes into the movie—the late-1980s equivalent of a cross-dressing motel clerk stabbing Janet Leigh in the shower and traumatizing a nation of young women.
But imagine, for a moment, Alfred Hitchcock releasing a director’s cut of Psycho. Picture the shower scene going on another 10 seconds, the knife seen puncturing the tender flesh, blood spattering across the translucent curtain, more gasping and gagging, more plunging and gouging. Would it not seem slightly over the top? Wouldn’t you wonder, at a certain point, if Hitchcock were parodying his own use of gratuitous violence? This is essentially what Verhoeven’s recut of RoboCop does, only it’s doubtful the absurdity is intentional. Perhaps the Dutch director had originally omitted his close-ups of exploding squibs and snapping prosthetics to avoid an X rating (a sure ticket to box-office disaster) and later saw the Criterion DVD as an opportunity to include the full barbarity.
The same goes for Spielberg’s digital polishing of E.T. Most viewers probably don’t notice the difference, at least not consciously, but they may well feel a shift in the film’s tone as the danger level is diminished. For me, swapping guns for walkie-talkies violates the core principle of the movie—indeed, any children’s adventure worth its salt—which is kids versus adults. The moment you reduce the threat from a bullet in the head to a rap on the knuckles, you are sacrificing not only the dramatic stakes but also the movie’s underlying mythic conflict.
Twelve years ago, the late author and critic David Foster Wallace offered a bold yet irrefutable formulation on a trend he dubbed “F/X Porn.” “There is no quicker or more efficient way to kill what is interesting and original about an interesting, original young director,” he surmised, “than to give that director a huge budget and lavish F/X [special effects] resources.” In light of the subsequent director’s cut phenomenon, we might add a corollary: The moment a once-celebrated older director is granted free rein to meddle with the work that put him on the map, his credibility as an artist is effectively reset to zero.
Why should Wallace’s proposition or the corollary be true? Does success corrupt directors? Do they lose their touch? Wallace believed the phenomenon was related to the blockbuster effect. In order to ensure that a film will be successful, it must be cast with bankable talent—actors popular enough to demand multimillion-dollar contracts (as well as script approval and other privileges). In order to justify the expense, the banks that underwrite productions require further insurance that their investment will be recouped, all of which leaves the financial burden on producers, who assume that the surest way of reaching the widest possible audience is to dumb down the script by appealing to universal (familiar) themes and relatable (stock) characters.
But while this catch-22 results in ever more soul-crushing productions, there’s a deeper issue at play. Inasmuch as a director is still the ringleader of a mad circus, as one filmmaker put it, he’s responsible for the bulk of a film’s creative decisions; the fad of the directors’ cut tests this premise. With the sole exception of Blood Simple (1984), which the Coen brothers trimmed by several minutes in a 2008 version, every director’s rerelease I’ve seen has been bloated with needless additions.
The lesson is that whether it’s a gargantuan budget or an extensive production schedule or the opportunity for infinitely many do-overs, indulgence is a death sentence. A reliable antidote, however, is the adoption of constraints.
Constraints are in many ways a blessing in disguise. In fact, they are what made Hollywood’s most detested of all cultural strictures, the Motion Picture Production Code (the Hays Code), an unexpectedly positive thing in the end. Instituted in 1930 (but not strictly enforced until 1934) by Will H. Hays, campaign manager of Republican Warren G. Harding’s presidential campaign, the code was an ironclad list of dos and don’ts adopted by the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America. The goal was to impose standards of “decency” (as determined by Catholic values) on American entertainment. Don’t get me wrong: the policy was deplorable, something no one in his right mind would endorse. Yet it must be said: the sanctions against “immoral” material—including, notoriously, any mention of homosexuality—had roughly the same effect on movies that the Berlin Wall had on contraband. Those with the determination to smuggle something through the checkpoints had no choice but to come up with shrewder and more inventive strategies. The discipline required by the Code forced writers, directors, and actors to think creatively, and their combined effort elevated the medium to new heights.
The Celluloid Closet, an entertaining and well-researched 1995 documentary about the secret history of homosexual life in Hollywood films, identifies an array of cryptic symbols and coded gestures that were too subtle to raise red flags with the code’s implacable censors. But Closet’s unintentional irony is that many of the movies ordered to leave overtly risqué themes at the door were stronger, sharper, sexier, and more cinematic than those relieved of all obstructions in subsequent decades.
It’s somewhat anticlimactic to see that the heroic struggle for recognition and exposure recounted by the documentary culminated in the release of Making Love (1982), a mawkish celebration of guess what. Indeed, when subtext becomes supertext, something crucial is lost in translation. This does not mean that directors should run in terror from taboo subjects, only that there’s a case to be made for humility, forbearance, concision, moderation, and honoring the boundaries of a given idiom. We might even speculate that part of the reason David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2001) was so strong was that it was compressed from a failed TV series into a standard feature-length format. Imagine the movie protracted across 12 to 24 meandering episodes. Sure, it might have been as stunning as the first season of Lynch’s Twin Peaks; then again it might have been as abysmal as the second.
Surely there’s a point at which constraints may exceed their fail-safe points and end up stifling creativity, but by and large this is not the kind of problem Hollywood big shots have to deal with. The very directors whose films merit the release of special edition DVDs are those least likely to improve upon their original product. In what other medium would such colossal vanity be permitted, much less encouraged? The larger point is not that we should start trusting studio executives to make creative decisions, or legislators to decide what’s fit for public consumption, but that perhaps there’s something to be said for limits and constraints.
An aging movie actor once told me he’d heard Francis Ford Coppola complaining about an artless, studio-financed Mob movie he was working on. He had no directorial control, Coppola had said, and was going nuts getting pushed around day after day by number-crunchers. The movie, of course, was The Godfather (1972). Recalling this, the actor concluded that Coppola’s being forced to “go commercial” resulted in the best movie of his career. Perhaps. But a more compelling possibility is that having to work within a set of formal constraints freed him up to devise creative solutions he might not have otherwise considered. (In the DVD commentary, Coppola explains, revealingly, that he’d shot the brutal beating of Connie by her husband after having gotten wind of a rumor that the studio planned to fire him for being too squeamish about violence.)
While no one likes restrictions, any good artist needs a framework and a challenge. Sometimes tying a director’s hands teaches him how to disentangle a knot.
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