Friday, 28 December 2007

What Do 'Director's Cut' Versions Add?

Being off work for an extended period for the Christmas/New Year break is allowing me to catch up on DVD watching and return to some old favourites too. Today I watched 'The Good German' (2007) a reasonable attempt to make a version of those black and white thrillers set in Berlin and Vienna at the end of the Second World War such as 'Berlin Express' (1948) and 'The Third Man' (1949) and even 'Popiół i Diament' ('Ashes and Diamonds' - 1958) though that is set in Poland and has no US characters; a similar recent project was 'Europa' (also known as 'Zentropa' - 1991) which is pretty surreal at times but like 'The Good German' features an American getting mixed up with a German woman with secrets. Anyway, 'The Good German' is not bad, but it needs a bit more verve as it seems to drag at times. The real reason for referencing was not to discuss its own merits but because seeing it reminded me of a poorly informed review of the movie 'The Innocent' (1993) which had poor reviews. It is set in Berlin in 1955 when the Americans were trying to tap Soviet phone lines. Anyway, whatever the flaws of the movie (which I have never seen but I read the book) the most ill-informed criticism was that Isabella Rossellini who plays Maria Eckdorf was too old for the part (she was 40 when the film was released; Maria Eckdorf is 36 in the book, not 30 as some essays say) as clearly the reviewer assumed the innocent of the title had to be the female character when in fact it is the 25-year old Leonard Marnham. You cannot effectively criticise a movie, especially one taken from a book if you do not know what it is aspiring too. The most humourous example of this came in one critic's review of 'Cyrano de Bergerac' (1990) in which he admired the film but said he could not understand why they had relocated the action to 17th century France as opposed to 20th century Jersey. He had mixed it up with the long-running UK television series 'Bergerac' (1981-1991; 87 episodes) which featured a contemporary detective working on the island of Jersey.

Anyway, sorry for that aside, some comments that I have wanted to introduce but did not seem worthy of their own posting. It brings me to the focus on this posting which is about 'director's cut' versions of movies. Though some of these pre-date the advent of DVDs it is the increased capacity of the DVD format which has meant a desire to fill them with hours of 'extras' ironically stretching sometimes on to a second, third or fourth disk. The usefulness or interestingness of these can vary considerably. The section of deleted scenes for 'Blade II' (2002) has very cynical commentary about the director grabbing any discarded piece of footage to fill up the disks, though one clip does reveal a deeper relationship between Blade and the vampire Nyssa. The deleted scenes for 'Spy Game' (2001) I found really fascinating as it showed a lot more about the characters and especially the love triangle which does not feature in the main version of the movie. In addition, it is interesting to check out the locations, none of them are where they are supposed to be in the film and Oxford prison (at the time a closed British prison but which is now a restaurant complex) stands in for a prison in China very well.

I recently watched the so-called 'Extended Editions' of 'The Bourne Identity' (2002) and 'The Bourne Supremacy' (2004) and I do not know why they did not count as directors' cuts, maybe because the initiative came from the company rather than the director. I do not know how much time they add but they certainly flesh out certain aspects especially the part of Nicky played by Julia Stiles and it stops her seemingly popping up out of nowhere. I know it is bad for movies to drag but in ones of this kind in which there is a lot of background to unravel, a little more footage filling in characters, especially the ones who are going to appear in the sequels, really helps the viewer.

Directors' cuts effectively put some or a lot of the deleted scenes back into the main movie. The length of film people can tolerate seems to fluctuate. It did seem that around 90 minutes was the top limit for a multiplex successful film then someone released 'Titanic' (1997) at 194 minutes, i.e. 3 hours 14 minutes which is beginning to approach the length of a Bollywood movie. Its popularity showed that people are willing to watch longer versions of films. In addition, there was the thing that the 'director's cut' as opposed to the 'exploitative, movie company cut' is closer to what the director intended. The most famous was probably 'Blade Runner: The Director's Cut' (1992) for which the director Ridley Scott put back in deleted scenes from 'Blade Runner' (1982) which suggest that Rick Deckard, the hero of the movie, is actually a replicant (i.e. android) like those he is hunting down. It also removed the 'happy' ending of Rick and Rachel flying away from the grime of Los Angeles to a green wilderness using footage shot for another film. I agree with including these changes, but I did dislike the removal of the voice over by Harrison Ford who plays Deckard. The reason for this is his explanations filled out the details of the dystopian world that is shown in the film (a heavily polluted, derelict Los Angeles of 2019 - only 12 years away now) and also link back to the classic 'hard boiled' detective novels of 1930s-50s and American film noir movies of the 1940s-50s which often include soliloquies (i.e. the hero(ine) effectively addressing the audience directly) and so gave it a futuristic spin on an established genre helping to make it a classic. Anyway, this year, a second director's cut of 'Blade Runner' called 'Blade Runner: The Final Cut' has been released to coincide with the 25th anniversary of the original release.

I accept that editing for commercial reasons or so the average audience does not get lost in the director's or the scriptwriter's complex story, does take the movie away from what was intended. However, saying that it does not mean it creates an unsuccessful product. I had a friend who termed the released version of 'Dune' (1984) 'a torso' in his view because so much had been cut from. The movie ran to 137 minutes anyway and a 189-minute version was produced though not approved of by the director David Lynch (partly because it pads out the movie by repeating some scenes rather adding back in many deleted scenes). The trouble is that the book is hundreds of pages long with innumerable characters and sub-plots. It is complex enough to watch as a mini-series and would have lost the audience in your average cinema. Thus, for purists and those knowledgeable of the 'Dune' arc it may have been been butchered but for the average cinemagoer it is an imaginative, exciting and visually impressive film.

Finally this brings me to the director's cut I have just watched, which is another from Ridley Scott. His 'Kingdom of Heaven' (2003) was reasonably successful. It is about a blacksmith, Bailian, in 1184/5 (between the 2nd and 3rd Crusades) travelling from France to Palestine to inherit his father's barony and being caught up in the battle for Jerusalem around the period of the death of the Crusader King Baldwin IV. It was criticised at the time for playing around a little with history. The Templars are shown as being more blood thirsty than they were but the behaviour of many of the people featured such as Reynald de Chatillon, Guy de Lusignan, Almaric de Lusignan - Constable of Jerusalem (called Tiberias in the movie after one of his other titles presumably so there is no confusion with Guy or with Almaric who is the hero's sidekick), Queen Sibylla, King Baldwin IV are portrayed pretty accurately as we can tell. The movie was unpopular in the USA as at the time of the war in Iraq it seemed to be too sympathetic to the Muslim side, though Salah-al-Din was renowned for his chivalrous behaviour. The original version of the movie had drama with both battles and political scandals, a romance between Sibylla and Bailian and spectacular scenery.

In 2005 a 4-disk director's cut version was released. There are obviously loads of extras but it is the 45 minutes which have been restored to the main film which have made a huge difference and change the whole dynamic of the film. It shows throughout how removing even a few minutes can alter a film greatly. In the new version you see far more about Balian's background and realise that the priest is actually his brother who betrayed the suicide of Balian's wife (following the death of her child) and that Balian's father was brother of the lord of the manor. You also see what changes Balian brings to his barony; King Baldwin's part which was restricted to a few interchanges with Balian in the original is deepened too and you realise that beneath the make-up (Baldwin was a leper) that it is Edward Norton playing him. The relationship between Sibylla and Balian is made far more convincing by the extended portrayal of its development and this makes more logic in terms of the choices the characters make. Sibylla's son, also Baldwin was missing from the original cut but his reappearance just in a few scenes make Sibylla's motivations and actions clearer. In many ways it is the same film, but it is also a different film and it is quite astounding that for 45 extra minutes you get a much deeper story. Ridley Scott is always good on visuals, but there is not much additional material in the battle scenes, it is the small scale stuff of people talking to each other, showing their connections to others and behaving in certain ways that make this director's cut a worthwhile one to watch even if you have seen the original version.

I know that other director's cut versions may not be so successful, but I am certainly going to keep my mind open to viewing them if they can add something as successfully as Scott has done in returning to 'Kingdom of Heaven'.

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