Can a Movie Ever Have a Definitive Cut?

June 12, 2012 — 8 Comments

Ever since there have been movies there have been multiple cuts of movies. Silent films like Greed were chopped up and screened in various version, in many cases leaving many scenes lost to history. In some cases, films had roadshow edits that were trimmed for the regular theatrical release, as was the case with It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. Sometimes studios would go in and meddle with the cut approved by a director. In many recent cases a director will agree to a studio-advised cut, only to put out a “director’s cut” later on. Sometimes the studio will want a new way to market a film and create a new “extended edition” or “unrated version” or even get a director to create a “director’s cut” that isn’t even the director’s preferred version (as is the case with Alien).

The prevalence of multiple cuts has increased drastically since the advent of DVD. It seems like every other movie released on DVD or Blu-ray is labeled “Unrated” or “Director’s Cut”. It’s hard to know whether this is a good thing, especially when directors are already talking up extended versions for Blu-ray when the movie was only just released theatrically. Why even pay to see the movie theatrically if the definitive version is being held for home video? This is the dilemma created when Ridley Scott says that a version of Prometheus 20 minutes longer is coming to Blu-ray. But is that the definitive version? What constitutes a definitive version of a film to begin with?

Ridley Scott is probably the king of the multiple cut. Alien has two cuts. Black Hawk Down has two cuts. Gladiator has two cuts. So do Kingdom of Heaven and American Gangster and Robin Hood. Blade Runner was released in a Blu-ray set with five cuts. FIVE! In some of these cases they are true director’s cuts, meaning they best represent Scott’s authorial intent. In a few cases that’s not the case at all, and in a couple of others it’s murky territory. It’s quite possible that Ridley Scott doesn’t so much care about director’s cuts, but about the opportunity to let the audience view various versions of the same story. In that interview about Prometheus he basically says that the version currently in theatres is probably the best, but that a longer version might enhance the film in ways a more niche audience might appreciate.

This is where everything gets very complicated. If you’re a pure auteurist then the definitive version of a film is always the one that the director has given an ultimate seal of approval to. For Scott, Blade Runner: The Final Cut and Kingdom of Heaven: Director’s Cut fit the bill in that sense. But what if you’re one of those people who prefer the theatrical cut of Blade Runner, or how about those films where there is no strict preference on the part of the director? Is it possible to say that any one version is truly definitive, particularly if we assume that the film as an experience belongs as much to the audience as to the “author”.

There are also some controversial cases. I adore Apocalypse Now: Redux, preferring it to the original version. As far as I know, Coppola agrees with me. So I guess that means I’m on the right, preferring the definitive version. But some people argue that the original theatrical cut is definitive. Not only because it’s better, but because the Redux version was cut more than 20 years later by a director who was in a very different place in his life and career. How could that cut possibly be definitive if it doesn’t even necessarily reflect the intent of the director back at the time of original release? This is where the auteur theory side of things starts to break down. Ultimately it comes to personal preference, not of the director, but of the audience members.

I’m a fan of the longer cut of Apocalypse Now, and I’m a fan of the longer cut of Amadeus, as well. I think the longer cuts of Terminator 2 and Aliens are lesser versions. I think the alterations made to Blade Runner improve the film, whereas I think the Special Edition “enhancements” to the Star Wars trilogy instead detract. Those are my definitive versions of those particular films. The versions I keep going back to. They are the versions that excite me and offer me the best experience.

But sometimes there is no way to decide a definitive version. In this old review of The New World: Extended Cut, Matt Zoller Seitz describes the differences between the three known cuts of the film. His opinion is not that any one version is necessarily better or more definitive, but that each one, by focusing on different things in slightly different ways, offer equally valid and enlightening ways of watching the same story. Matt says:

This edition pointedly asks, “How much of personal evolution can be ascribed to conscious choice and how much to the subliminal aftershocks of historical forces? And what parts of ourselves remain mysterious?” The seemingly endless ways in which Malick has assembled its component parts in his various editions highlights these questions as pointedly as any single scene or line. It’s possible to envision a fourth or fifth cut, equally playful and intriguing.

Maybe Matt is right. Or maybe what he says is only true of a few films, The New World being a rare example. I think in general the only way to approach these cuts is to go with the one you respond to most. Of course, then we get to the problem of figuring out which version to watch first and all the psychological factors that come into play. And that’s where I just bury my head in the sand and give up. Too many cuts. It’s a good thing and a bad thing, but it’s been around forever and clearly it isn’t going away.

What do you think about alternate cuts? Are there any particular revised cuts you lover or loathe? Share them with me in the comments!

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8 responses to Can a Movie Ever Have a Definitive Cut?

  1. 

    There is no definitive version of anything. Once the story can be broken down into it’s component parts, the extraneous differences become food for scholarship.

  2. 

    There’s a fine line to this since pacing is totally at stake. Some extra scenes may totally bog down the film but others may enhance the story enough.
    Usually, in the DVD trade, unrated versions are literally mere seconds longer. I always look on the back of the box to see if the runtimes of the two versions are printed and if they are any different. In most cases they are not different. It’s all just marketing.

    One of the best extended cuts, in my opinion, is Das Boot. Even though it makes a long movie into a SUPER long movie, it all works for the film.

    • 

      Well, Das Boot is actually a case where the film was made as a TV series originally and cut into a much short movie. You could actually say that the theatrical version sacrifices pacing by being way too quick and focusing on the larger scope rather than the intimate details and claustrophobia.

  3. 

    I’m with you that my opinion of a Director’s Cut really depends on the movie. I like The Abyss so much more with the added scenes, which make a lot more sense. In some cases like Ali, it’s just interesting to see the characters fleshed out more. What I’m not a fan of are the “extended cuts” with an extra few minutes that are just money grabs and aren’t approved by the directors. Those give the others a bad name.

  4. 

    My answer to this is yes and no.

    Yes for the fact that sometimes, a film could be presented in the way its meant to be shown. Take the films of Sergio Leone where Once Upon a Time in the West, Duck, You Sucker!, and Once Upon a Time in America each were given drastic re-cuts for American audiences and lost a lot of what Leone wanted to tell. In their uncut versions, these three films are considered to be far more powerful. Notably Once Upon a Time in America where in its original version (not the recent expanded version that just came out at Cannes), it had a narrative that really allowed Leone to create something for de Niro’s character. In the shortened American version of 2 1/2 hours, it took away the back-and-froth narrative and loses the dramatic motivation for de Niro’s character.

    On the no side, multiple versions of films can be confusing. There’s three cuts of Bad Santa. The theatrical version, an unrated version, and a director’s cut version? It’s like… “uh… which one is the best version?”

    There’s pros and cons to this. For me, it depends on the film and the filmmaker.

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