I was having a conversation with some people yesterday in which I came across a person who said that they needed to see the "director's cut" of Alien. It took a few minutes to explain to him that the newer version of the film not only wasn't better than the original, that Ridley Scott himself has said that he prefers the original cut. Then I mentioned the shock of shocks... the newer version of the film actually runs shorter than the original.
There have always been alternate cuts of films. Sometimes they are more apparent than most (i.e. airplane and television versions, editions cut for more permissive European markets), but usually they consist of minor changes that were made at some point. There is an alternate versions of On Her Majesty's Secret Service, for example, where the only divergence is the use of a few alternate shots. Most agree that there is no effective difference between these cuts. And yet, often enough we come across new cuts of films that are significantly different from what had been seen before.
However, many of these alternates are now coming into the public eye as studios find it a great way to repackage material they've already released. Filmmakers themselves have sometimes been responsible for the recutting, and as a result, much of the time the assumption is simply that the extended version, of "director's cut," as people keep using no matter how inappropriately, is the "correct" or "better" version of the film. This is not, of course, counting the "unrated" editions of comedies promising (and sometimes delivering) raunchier jokes and more nudity than the theatrical version (although one wonders how much they'd actually push the boundaries of the "R" rating).
Filmmakers are human, and they can make mistakes. And cutting a film is not just about including and not including material. You keep hearing it mentioned, but editing a film is about pacing. This is a hard lesson to learn when cutting on a Steenbeck, and it is one of the main reasons why I think that film students ought to learn how to edit physically before they're introduced to the wonders of digital editing. A second can last an eternity on the screen. And there are times when there are scenes that are great, but they just don't fit.
One need only look at the overly cluttered and messy Apocalypse Now Redux to see an example of this. It also trivializes several characters, most damningly Robert Duvall's Colonel Kilgore, who is made the butt of some comic relief at the conclusion of the infamous "Ride of the Valkyries" helicopter attack, but the biggest problem is that while both cuts are leisurely, the original is visceral and ambiguous, while the new cut is ponderous and pretentious. The difference is in the pacing. The film is the story of a journey, and so pausing too many times... the assignations with the Playmates, the French plantation scene... breaks up this journey too much.
Of course, many times the newer versions of the films actually do restore the original intentions of the filmmakers and make for more satisfying experiences. The "oysters and snails" scene from Spartacus effectively explains the climax of that film. The additional character material in the "Untitled" cut of Almost Famous actually has the effect of focusing the film more than the abbreviated theatrical version. And there are always the extended cuts of The Lord of the Rings films to point out as well. The latter two examples, however, also demonstrate that there is a significant difference between what is acceptable pacing in a theater versus at home. While much has been done to push the boundaries of the "bladder barrier" in theatrical exhibition, the fact of the matter is that time is a factor in the cinema, and it isn't so much at home. Of course, that doesn't mean that pacing isn't important, it just means that the expectations are more lenient.
And that's important. Longer is not neccesarily better. It can be, but it is impossible to make a blanket statement that "all longer versions are better," when there is so much evidence to the contrary. Unfortunately, it is impossible to know beforehand which cut of a film may speak to you more; despite my preference for the extended version, many people have mentioned that they prefer the leaner theatrical version of Aliens to the extended cut, and their reasons make sense. And I've said on many occasions that I don't believe that the more explanatory director's cut of Donnie Darko invalidates the gleefully ambiguous theatrical cut. And I'm not the only person out there to despise the tinkering George Lucas has done with the Star Wars trilogy...
Aw, man. You made friends with them. See, friendship is the booze they feed you. They want you to get drunk on feeling like you belong.
Well, it was fun.
They make you feel cool. And hey. I met you. You are not cool.
I know. Even when I thought I was, I knew I wasn't.
That's because we're uncool. And while women will always be a problem for us, most of the great art in the world is about that very same problem. Good-looking people don't have any spine. Their art never lasts. They get the girls, but we're smarter.
I can really see that now.
Yeah, great art is about conflict and pain and guilt and longing and love disguised as sex, and sex disguised as love... and let's face it, you got a big head start.
I'm glad you were home.
I'm always home. I'm uncool.
The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what we share with someone else when we're uncool.
I feel better.
My advice to you. I know you think those guys are your friends. You wanna be a true friend to them? Be honest, and unmerciful.
If you've ever seen actual footage of Lester Bangs (there is a small sample on the "Bootleg" DVD), all of Philip Seymour Hoffman's scenes in Almost Famous are rather eerie. In a way, somewhat more so than the leads in a biopic. You expect the main characters in a film of that genre to be working towards channelling historical figures. Hoffman's portrayal of Bangs - who is a relatively obscure figure - in which he nails every detail, every gesture, is fascinating, especially in context of how, despite the autobiographical nature of the film,* it consists primarily of characters that are amalgams of various (much more recognizable) people.
* * *
There is an awesome acoustic guitar and harmonica version of Neil Young's "Cortez the Killer" heard in both versions of Almost Famous in the airport, right after the storm scene on the plane. I have no idea where this came from. The credits simply list it as having been "Composed and Performed by Neil Young," and so it might be one of the several bootleg tracks that Crowe managed to clear for inclusion in the film. It's a shame, though, as it is a really good performance of a really good song. I was hoping that maybe it might be included on that multi-disc box set that Young will obviously never release...
* This is most likely why it is the only Cameron Crowe film I've yet seen to really connect with me. While he is often placed in the same category as Richard Linklater, I have found on the whole Linklater's career to be much more interesting, and while I must admit that I haven't seen Say Anything, Crowe's other work tends to leave me cold.