Film Fund-amentals: Director’s Cut, the Special Edition (Extended Version)

Whoever said you shouldn’t beat a dead horse was obviously never in the DVD business. After all, you don’t expect people to keep buying the same lousy version of the same crappy film over and over again, do you?

Which is why we now have multiple versions of such films as Blade Runner (five and counting), two versions of Apocalypse Now (not counting the two different versions that were originally released back in 1979), two extremely different versions of Superman 2 (technically each version with a different director), and so many variations of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid that I can barely remember who shot whom by the end of the movie. Not to mention all the oddball variations in the assorted editions of Close Encounters of the Third Kind (I doubt if even Spielberg can keep track of which cut is which).

There are many reasons for these assorted versions. Sometimes it really is the case that the director and the studio were seriously divided in their intentions. Occasionally, a more striking cinematic vision is attainable thanks to recent technological advances. But mostly, it’s all about selling new copies of old flicks. Why else would we be getting walloped with the impending release of Avatar: Special Edition? Gee golly, Cameron has added over eight minutes of extra footage. Obviously I can’t wait for the Director’s Cut followed by the unrated version.

Personally, I don’t have a problem with somebody milking more money out of an old cash cow (though I seem to recall that Avatar has barely left the theaters following its original run). Here in America, a person has a constitutional right to make money by any means that doesn’t involve a felony. Besides, all of these director edition redos have a distinct (though largely unmeasured) positive effect on otherwise sagging DVD sales. It would be hard to criticize anything that helps business.

Unfortunately, the wide variations among these versions have made a complete mush out of film study. Oh sure, in some cases the revamped version is closer to the artistic intent of the director and deserves to be viewed as the “authoritative” vision of the film. But mostly, movies have become a fluid commodity with no fixed narrative or thematic reference point. It all depends on which cut of the movie you just watched.

Lacking any sense of accepted form (which edition is “official”) or common narrative structure, film history (which for the most part has been badly taught in the first place) becomes a loosey-goosey load of gibberish. A detailed critical study of a film becomes an exercise in alternate histories with enough footnotes to fill several volumes. In academia, the only winner is film theory, and that is simply because film theory gave up dealing with movies over twenty years ago and is mainly focused on itself.

If anything, the extreme relativism created by this situation works mighty well with the post-modernist conviction that critical analysis is all about the critic, not the subject.

Ironically, some movies benefit from this state of confusion. I have not seen the alternate version of Highlander II, but it was already so incoherent that the massive changes made in the director’s cut edition couldn’t be any nuttier (as I dimly remember Highlander II, it was so screwed up that it actually made the original film even more incoherent in some weird act of retrograde stupidity).

As for the multiple versions of Blade Runner, this film somehow grows richer with each reworking. Stranger still, each version hints at — but never fully resolves — its own central questions (and by the way, Deckard is supposed to be a replicant himself – in fact, I have the impression that he was originally supposed to be a member of the renegade band led by Roy, who has been reprogrammed for the job he is doing in the film). So the film manages to retain its uniquely haunting sense of poetic incoherency — more of a metaphor than a story.

But mostly, nobody has a clue what anyone else is watching any more. The shared dialog of cinema has increasingly become a quasi-Orwellian mess of constantly changing material. Say, what did you think of the love scene in Apocalypse Now? What love scene, for crying out loud? Oh heck, in another year Francis Ford Coppola will probably cut it out again anyway.

So the common basis for any kind of critical discussion of movies is rapidly vanishing into a digital haze. In some ways this isn’t exactly new. Movies have always had a kind of spooky subconscious subtext that can linger strangely in the mind even though the point that lingers is hard to pin down. Heck, it took me nearly twenty years of watching The Searchers before I realized that the captive girl in the movie is supposed to be John Wayne’s daughter (not his niece). Ford clearly implies this, but in such a sly manner that it can go right past the viewer.

But the subconscious text in cinema is now changing into a state of general unconsciousness. Film was once a shared communal experience. Now it’s simply another type of commodity, constantly changing in its forms and meaning with no fixed or shared reference point (sort of like the economic stimulus program). The only thing being shared is the price tag, not the experience.