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The Pros and Cons of Directors' Cuts

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by Matt Singer
June 5, 2012 12:44 PM
4 Comments
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"Blade Runner."
"Blade Runner."

On Friday, we'll finally get our chance to see Ridley Scott's first crack at "Prometheus," his return to the "Alien" universe after thirty long years. I say first crack because, given Scott's track record, the odds suggest it won't be his last. As a filmmaker, Scott's name has become synonymous with one thing: director's cuts. Scott has directed at least thirty different versions of his twenty features, including director's cuts of "Kingdom of Heaven," "Alien," "Robin Hood," and "Legend," "extended cuts" of "Gladiator," "Black Hawk Down," and "American Gangster" and at least three alternate versions of "Blade Runner" (there could be more; I haven't checked Amazon this week). I suspect Scott's history of directors' cuts and the release of his "Prometheus" is what inspired The A.V. Club to run a 2-part Inventory list this week of the "14-plus Movies Improved By Directors' Cuts" and the "13-plus Movies Weakened by Directors' Cuts." One movie even made both lists: Francis Ford Coppola's "Apocalypse Now."

I'm not going to argue with any of their choices or propose counter-lists of the movies they forgot. You've seen both lists, and probably many of the movies on them. There are good directors' cuts and bad directors' cuts. But on the whole, are directors' cuts good or bad? Here's every argument I can think of, pro and con:

PRO: Under optimal circumstances, a director's cut represents the director's vision.

It's the classic story: boy makes movie, boy fails to secure the rights to final cut in his contract negotiation, boy loses control of the movie to the studio, boy stands on the sidelines as the movie becomes a cult hit, fans demand movie returned to boy, boy gets to release director's cut that he wanted to make all along. There are plenty of legitimate cases of producers chopping a movie down out of considerations for length, and chopping it off artistically at the knees. Sergio Leone's "Once Upon a Time in America" ran almost four hours in European theaters, and just 140 minutes in American ones. You don't need me to explain the difference between a two hour movie and a four hour epic. To get the real experience in this case, you need the director's cut.

CON: Under less-than-optimal circumstances, a director's cut represents an excuse to sell one fan two versions of the same title.

It's also a classic story: boy makes movie, boy works with studio to create the version that the most people think is effective, boy makes compromises but ultimately feels the movie is stronger for it, boy releases movie alongside a supportive studio, boy and studio make a lot of money when the movie becomes a hit, studio comes to boy with interest in making more money, boy says what the hell I never got to make "my" version of the movie anyway, boy releases superfluous director's cut. Let's invoke Scott here again, since he's made no bones about the fact that his "Director's Cut" of "Alien" is, in fact, a marketing tool of the studio, 20th Century Fox. In fact, his preferred cut of "Alien" is the theatrical release from 1979, which Scott says he still believes is "perfect."

PRO: More versions of a movie mean more for fans to discuss, examine, and critique.

In some cases, it's not always obvious which version of a movie is better -- the director's cut or the theatrical cut -- which can spark wonderful cinephile conversations. Is "Apocalypse Now" better in the longer "Redux" version that more fully replicates the experience of going deeper and deeper into a nightmarish abyss? Or is it better in the original cut, which removes some of the madness but might be a bit more coherent as a result? Are the improvements Spielberg made to the director's cut of "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" worth the creative compromises he made to get them? These are the unanswerable questions that movie nerddom are made of.

CON: More versions of a movie mean more confusion about which version is definitive.

While movie nerds like to argue, they also like to know which cut of a film is the one true version to watch, treasure, and collect. Even in the case of a director's cut, that information is not always immediately obvious -- take the aforementioned confusion surrounding the various versions of "Alien," for example. And for purists who want to see the film exactly as it was presented in theaters -- think "Star Wars" obsessives -- directors' cuts just muddy the waters of authorship and ownership.

PRO: Directors' cuts free the filmmaker from the shackles of censorship.

One clear-cut advantage of directors' cuts is the fact that they premiere on DVD or Blu-ray and therefore avoid the censorship restrictions of the Motion Picture Association of America. The full horror of a film like Zach Snyder's "Dawn of the Dead" is only available on its DVD director's cut. And if you want Paul Verhoeven's -- Penis Joke Alert! -- uncut vision of "Basic Instinct," you won't find it in the version that was released theatrically, because that cut was -- Body Hair Joke Alert! -- trimmed to get an R rating.

CON: Directors' cuts also free the filmmaker from the shackles of good pacing.

This one's my biggest personal gripe with most directors' cuts: they give the director the opportunity to put back in all the stuff they had to take out of the movie, but with a few notable exceptions, that stuff was cut in the first place for a very good reason -- most often, concerns over pacing. The extra material that's been added back to "Army of Darkness" over years of VHS and DVD releases is fun, but none of it really improves the jewel-like perfection of the original theatrical experience (plus: give me the triumphant Ash ending over the future Ash ending any day).

PRO: Directors' cuts give you more of the movie you love.

Sometimes you've seen a movie so many times, and fallen in love with its characters so thoroughly, that it's nice to have a director's cut just for the opportunity to immerse yourself more completely in that world. "Untitled," the director's cut of "Almost Famous," gives you almost a third more 1970s rock and roll to enjoy; likewise the madness of "The Blues Brothers" -- which was already pretty excessive to begin with -- is only improved by the 18 additional minutes on the DVD "Extended Version."

CON: You know the expression "Less is more."? Yeah, that.

Not only do many directors' cuts sacrifice pacing for indulgence, they also sacrifice intriguing ambiguity for tedious clarity. "Donnie Darko" is a lot more interesting in its theatrical cut, which leaves itself more open to multiple interpretations; the director's cut makes Richard Kelly's own version a lot more explicit, and makes the film as a whole a lot less watchable. Similarly, fans who prefer to debate the true nature of "Blade Runner"'s hero might prefer an earlier edit to the so-called "Final Cut" which makes Dekkard's true origin a bit more clear. Perhaps, as in "Prometheus," the search for more knowledge is always bound to result in disappointment and possible alien infestation.

Read more of "14-plus Movies Improved By Directors' Cuts" and "13-plus Movies Weakened by Directors' Cuts."

Which do you tend to prefer? Directors' cuts or theatrical cuts?  Tell us in the comments below.

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4 Comments

  • rainestorm | June 7, 2012 1:23 PMReply

    I think you really nailed it with pacing. The most notable example of a movie's pacing being wrecked by a director's cut is Dances with Wolves. The original was a beautifully paced film that never felt excessive. The director's cut blunts that pacing with a lot of unnecessary filler that takes the viewer away from the more pertinent points of view of relevant characters.

    The same can be said of 'The Two Towers.' The theatrical release is a tense war film that steadily builds to an amazing climax. The extended edition adds nothing relevant and murders the pacing.

  • Ted | June 5, 2012 1:30 PMReply

    I think, on the whole, they are a good thing. With director's cuts, it's usually either the changes are negligible, in terms of the impact on the quality of the film, or there is significant improvements. I don't believe I've seen a director's cut which was significantly worse than the original cut, though I'm sure there are a few I'm forgetting. Ridley Scott is a bit ridiculous with the director's cuts though. The only film that's seen a significant improvement is Blade Runner, largely because the voice over was just awful.

  • rainestorm | June 7, 2012 1:25 PM

    It's funny you should mention 'Blade Runner.' While removing the voice-over greatly improves the picture, the so-called Final Cut adds some unnecessary elements and, worse, remixes the sound in key scenes that totally undermine Vangelis' amazing score. To me, the 1992 director's cut is the most watchable.

  • Mattijs | June 5, 2012 3:46 PM

    The Director's Cut of Kingdom of Heaven is also a significant improvement over the Theatrical Cut. I remember loathing the latter and being totally engrossed watching the former. On Gladiator, Scott even mentions before the Extended Cut starts that this is not his favorite cut by any means and continues to trash it on the commentary. Strange business sometimes.

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