Saturday, August 18, 2012

Director's Cut

In filmmaking these days--or, rather, film marketing--the "director's cut" has become an important selling point.  Often the director's cut appears on DVD several months or even years after the movie in question has had its initial run. The director returns to her film to render it anew by restoring it to the structure she originally had in mind, before powers that be--whoever that is--or commercial concerns--as if the director didn't have these in mind all along--forced the director to make some unfortunate choices.  Or, perhaps, after a break of several years, the director has reconsidered her film and now thinks of it very differently.  So differently that she feels compelled to render the newly cut, "truer" version.  The director's cut should represent the most pure, most artistically successful iteration of the film, the personal attention by the director being the sine qua non that guarantees the new version has realized the film's inherent ambitions and possibilities.

If you think my tone sounds cynical, you're probably right.  Too often I suspect that these "director's cut"s don't represent a more refined version of the movie in question but just an attempt to milk a few more bucks off of it, by selling movie lovers something they don't really need.  Other times I question whether a director's cut is necessarily better than the original.  (And didn't the director cut the original anyway?) Ridley Scott was famously unhappy with certain aspects of the version of Bladerunner that appeared in theatres back in its original 1982 run.  He especially didn't like the Harrison Ford's voiceovers, a compromise apparently forced on him by the studio.  In the thirty years since its release, a variety of differently edited Bladerunners have appeared on DVD and even in the theatres, including a most ballyhooed "Final Cut" in 2007.  But there's no getting around the fact that the original Bladerunner was--and is--a stunning, viscerally affecting film.  I, for one, never minded the voiceovers; and I find it hard to believe that whatever Scott did to his movie in subsequent edits it can entertain me any more compellngly that it did the first time I saw it.  As much as I love the film, and maybe because I love the film, I have no desire to see this so-called "Final Cut."

On the other hand, there is the infamous case of Orson Welles's The Magnificent Ambersons, his ambitious followup to Citizen Kane.  The story is well known.  After filming had finished, Welles dawdled through the editing and finally put the work aside for several months to do some filming in South America on behalf of the Roosevelt administration.  In his absence, impatient studio officials took hold of his movie and essentially ruined it.  Most criminally, they filmed a new, happier ending and shoe-horned it into the movie, and they cut up Welles's supposedly masterful opening shot in which he let the eye of the camera roam from room to room of the Amberson mansion, following this character and that, without any jump cuts.  In fact, no cuts at all.  It was the longest unbroken sequence in film history and a powerful opening (so we're told)--at least until the studio got its paws on it.  Realizing what was happening to Welles's movie, some close to the action pleaded with studio executives to at least make a copy of Welles's version and archive it before they proceeded to make any more changes.  The studio refused.  Welles's version of The Magnificent Ambersons was destroyed, lost to history forever.  That's one movie for which a newly discovered director's cut would be most welcome--and a miracle.

I have all this in mind because I am busy making my own "director's cut" these days on my Van Gogh novel.  As I may have mentioned on this blog previously, the original typed version of the thing ran to over 1200 pages.  1200!  The first version I began showing to interested readers was around 950 pages.  And the version which many agents first saw was around 750 pages.  My director's cuts at that time were simply a  matter of trimming and more trimming, trying to get the beast under control.  Over a year ago I was working closely with one agent's office.  This agent made the compelling case that I needed to cut still more.  Okay, okay, I told myself.  They want cut, I'll cut.  I became ruthless.  I trimmed another 200 pages from a novel that had already been mightily reduced in size.  At the time, I really thought that through these last cuts I was bringing the story into the sharpest focus possible.  However, recently another agent  mentioned that there seemed to be a few rather strenous jumps in it, with the intervening years and circumstances going largely unexplained.  Well, yeah, I thought, but don't you know how much I cut?  And aren't you impressed that I did?  Then of course I realized that she had no idea about the earlier cuts, and all that mattered to her is what she saw inside the manuscript.  I realized too that those last brutal cuts might not have been so artistically necessary as the earlier agent thought.  In fact, I may have removed some crucial connecting tissue of my story.  I proceeded to review the entire novel all over again, going back and forth between different versions. Well, length be damned, because I'm now convinced I cut way too much.  I've since restored about 100 pages to the book, and I'm feeling a lot happier about it.  Some scenes which were my private favorites, and which I'd eliminated as I followed the "kill your darlings" approach to writing, I put back.  And I'm glad.  Because they are good scenes.  And the novel, in my opinion, is better, clearer, for their inclusion. And because it's a director's cut, dear agents, I'm afraid that it's only my opinion that counts. 


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