Are Director’s Cuts always better than the original theatrical release?
October 26, 2013
Director’s Cuts of movies first made an appearance in the early 80s. One got the sense they came about because of a director’s long-held dissatisfaction with the studio-approved release of their films. With Ridley Scott’s ‘Blade Runner’, he took out an overly explanatory narration, removed the happy ending and inserted something far more ambiguous.
When they first came around, Director’s Cuts were an exciting way of seeing what some directors had intended with their films compared to the theatrical version which was often happier, less ambiguous, and shorter.
These days, one can be a little more sceptical about this phenomenon. It seems any successful film is followed up with a director’s cut; a way of selling a film twice.
How many Director’s Cuts improve on a film, and how many weaken it? And should a director be tampering with ‘their’ work anyway?
Films have to be made quickly. They are incredibly intense processes. Getting them greenlighted can take decades, yes, but once under way, they bleed money. It could be argued that this pressure-cooker environment makes them very much a product of the director’s mindset at the time. A concentrated mindset.
But a director looking back on a film is very different from his or her old self. In doing a Director’s Cut, the new edits can sometimes be jarring. Jarring, because they are representative of a mindset that’s different from when the film was shot. This incompatibility can also prove true of advances in technology. The sophisticated computer graphics placed in the original Star Wars films seem out of place in a trilogy that used models, stop motion and blue screen.
The other upshot of the Director’s Cut is that films invariably end up longer. This isn’t always a good thing. Peter Weir’s Director’s Cut of ‘Picnic at Hanging Rock’ is one of the few instances where this trend was reversed. He took seven minutes out of it. But where scenes have been placed back into films, often one gets the impression those scenes were excised at the time with good reason. In the Director’s Cut of ‘Aliens’, there is a scene where the colonists find the alien spacecraft with its eggs a short distance from their home. For me, this draws attention to a major logical weakness: it is hard to believe that an entire colony could be set up within driving distance of an alien spacecraft and no one noticed it before. In the original cut, without this scene you aren’t drawn to this problem of logic. Fortunately, though, the theatrical cuts of the alien films are as readily available as the Director’s Cuts.
Sadly, this isn’t always the case. I would love to get my hands on the theatrical version of ‘Walkabout’. This version is a beautiful and timeless film with subtle symbolism. The Director’s Cut, though, includes obvious scenes like a group of Aborigines painting Christian icons. This seems an overly didactic scene to me in an otherwise surreal and understated film. But as far as I’m aware, you can no longer get the original.
Similarly, it would be great if you could get the theatrical version of ‘Heavenly Creatures’. I believe the 99 minute version makes for an all-time classic. The 109 minute version is still good, but not as concentrated. At least make both versions available.
So, there are films like ‘Blade Runner’ where I think the Director’s Cut is better, and films like ‘Aliens’ (and ‘Alien’ for that matter) where I believe they got it right first time, with the original theatrical release, and shouldn’t have messed with them.
‘Picnic at Hanging Rock’, though, is a film where I’m still undecided which version I like best. As mentioned before, the Director’s Cut was one of the rare occasions where the director actually shortened his film. I still have a VHS copy of the theatrical version with which I can compare the dvd of the Director’s Cut, and not just rely on memory. The latter is more succinct and Peter Weir’s argument for it, which he gives in the extras, convincing and cogent. But it’s a shame both versions aren’t available on the dvd, so the viewer can decide which he or she prefers.
The argument with genuine Director’s Cuts, as opposed to marketing ploys, is that they are the version the director would have done at the time, given they weren’t obstructed in some way, or hampered by budgetary or technological limitations. I think the worry is that films, even timeless ones, are also of their time, and directors going back over their old work will approach it with a new sensibility which may potentially jar. Perhaps some of those limitations were a good thing.
The actress who plays Miranda in ‘Picnic at Hanging Rock’, Anne-Louise Lambert, I think makes some great points in the dvd extras interviews. She talks about Weir’s new edit compared to the original edit and argues that a film stops belonging to the director and gets ‘owned’ by the people who watch it. This is actually a very lucky thing, for a film to get a life of its own. Most films are forgotten. But those which aren’t, become the property of those who take them to their hearts. Is it then right for directors to go back and mess with them? At the very least, don’t erase the original version with the Director’s Cut; provide us with both.
It’s a great argument, Lambert makes. For her, the truly successful films don’t belong to the director anymore, or even the studio. They belong to all those people who watch and fall in love with them.