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FEATURE FILM WITH VIDEO ESSAY: Brian De Palma's RAISING CAIN is re-cut

Video
by Peet Gelderblom
January 31, 2012 6:00 AM
10 Comments
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Raising Cain Re-cut is my attempt to approximate Brian De Palma’s original vision of Raising Cain, before the director chose to compromise its structure in post-production. The re-cut uses all of the scenes in the theatrical release and puts them back in the order they were intended, giving rise to a dramatically different viewing experience.

Acquired taste

Within Brian De Palma’s already divisive filmography, appreciation of Raising Cain (1992) is thought of as something of an acquired taste. While some critics consider the film minor De Palma, others claim it’s his overlooked masterpiece. No matter what the consensus, it is clearly the work of a formalist at the top of his game, having a ball screwing around with audience expectations. If you like your storytelling plain and unobtrusive, look away: this movie is not for you.

De Palma is a full-blooded visual stylist. So visual, in fact, that he’s the polar opposite of an invisible narrator. Like any other filmmaker, he manipulates. What sets De Palma apart is that he’s frank enough to show his hand. This refusal to cover his tracks, I feel, is the main reason why people either love or hate his work. De Palma directs classic suspense with a deliriously postmodern sensibility. He’ll have you trapped inside a cinematic moment at the same time he’s commenting on it. The fourth wall be damned!

Raising Cain combines all of the elements of a vintage De Palma thriller and raises the stakes for both maker and spectator. It’s easy to get lost in the film’s labyrinthine framework centered on Dr. Carter Nix (John Lithgow), a murdering child psychologist with multiple-personality disorder, and his unfaithful wife Jenny (Lolita Davidovich). But for those who are able to keep up with the various role reversals, dream-like transitions and densely interwoven plot threads, the journey is all the more rewarding.

Second thoughts

Such artistic playfulness can be a tough balancing act. Even De Palma himself wondered throughout the process of making Raising Cain if he was going too far. In the final stages of post-production, he drastically re-arranged his film and settled on a more or less chronological order, mainly to avoid a drawn-out flashback that may have alienated the viewer.

In an interview with CHUD.com in 2006, the director admitted to regretting this last-minute decision:

“The interesting thing about that movie is that I could not make the beginning work, and it drove me crazy. (…) I always wanted to start the movie with (the woman) and her dilemma instead of with the Lithgow story.”

The Lithgow story is front and center in the theatrical release. One of the strongest readings of the film is that of John Kenneth Muir, who explained Raising Cain as a caustic social satire on the crisis in masculinity in the heyday of Mr. Mom. This analogy makes perfect sense, particularly because the film introduces Carter Nix straight off the bat as a caring husband and parent, very much in touch with his feminine side—until his suppressed “inner macho” shows up in the form of Cain, his id-ridden imagined twin brother.

In the book Brian De Palma by Samuel Blumenfeld and Laurent Vachaud (in French and currently out of print), the director explains how this first act hurts the film:

The problem with the current cut is that it starts with scenes featuring Cain. Because I'm starting the film in an atmosphere of schizophrenia, with this guy with 25 personalities, the audience is not ready to accept the romantic fantasy that follows, which is what Jenny's story is about.”

I tend to agree with De Palma that Jenny’s story pales in comparison to what precedes it in the theatrical cut. And judging from the puzzled reaction of the audience I first saw the movie with, a case could be made that the overall narrative derails a little too quickly. The switch to chronology may have made Raising Cain easier to follow, but the trade-off is unevenness in tone and minimal build-up.

A different beast

Film critic Jim Emerson once wrote that the opening shot of a movie teaches you how to watch it. Seen in this light, the restructuring of Raising Cain Re-cut couldn’t be more radical. Right from the very first shot after the credits, it’s a different beast altogether.

Now, we start with the camera shooting from Jenny’s point of view, leading us to her recorded image on a television screen, caught in a heart-shaped frame. Presented as such, Jenny almost literally casts herself in the leading role of a romantic melodrama, where Jack awaits her as the ultimate Prince Charming, holding the keys to another life.

Crisis in masculinity isn’t even part of the equation anymore. This is going to be a movie about self-projection, about imagined lives, shifting perspectives and the collapsing present. The deliberate soap-opera framing of Jenny’s section, featuring lots of talking heads and over-the-shoulder shots that are atypical for bravura filmmaker De Palma, feels all the more fitting when isolated from parallel storylines.

For over 22 minutes, the focus of the re-cut stays on Jenny—not unlike the way De Palma put the spotlight on Angie Dickinson in the first half hour of Dressed to Kill. We watch Jenny fall in love with old flame Jack, feel the pain of her dilemma, fool around, wake up the next morning in the wrong bed, hurry back home, die, and wake up all over again. Meanwhile, her husband Carter is nothing more than a figure in the background. Then something unexpected puts an end to the romance and a string of flashbacks shows us that there’s more to Carter’s personality than we thought. Much, much more…

Problems and solutions

Of course, I didn’t have access to footage left on the cutting room floor. After a few disastrous test screenings, De Palma felt compelled to make drastic cuts in Jenny’s story for the theatrical release to work. A leaked second draft of the screenplay - entitled Father’s Day at that point - reveals deeper layers of complexity in the form of a quickie in the changing room, additional flashbacks (including Carter’s marriage proposal to Jenny), Jack doing a private investigation following Jenny’s disappearance, and a vengeful Jenny attacking Carter at the playground using twin carriages as bait. Fortunately, most of these missing elements had already been scrapped or rewritten by the time of shooting and none of them are crucial to the plot.

One transition in the re-cut proved particularly tricky. To make up for a lack of coverage, I deployed a technique De Palma repeatedly relies on in the second draft of his screenplay: repetition. By quickly playing back a key moment earlier in the film, the viewer is reminded of where the upcoming scene fits in the overall chronology. To soften the transition, I lifted an establishing shot from the epilogue.


Does it work?

Whether De Palma was right to regret the theatrical cut or my attempt to approach his original vision improves on it— that’s for you to decide. To my eyes, however, the re-cut plays spectacularly well. While it’s heartbreaking to think of deleted scenes that will never see the light of day, it’s very well possible that the cuts that were made to improve the chronological version have made a tighter re-cut possible, easier to digest than the first time around.

I wouldn’t be surprised if the average filmgoer agrees. Since the release of Raising Cain, the language of cinema has continued to evolve. Elliptical head scratchers such as Pulp Fiction (1994), Memento (2000) and 21 Grams (2003) broke with classical continuity and were all the more successful for it. There’s a chance that a new generation of non-linear features has primed today’s audiences for the wild experiments De Palma had in mind earlier. Perhaps it’s high time, then, to unleash Raising Cain in its most uncompromising form.

Special thanks to Laurent Vachaud, Geoff Beran and James M. Moran

For a limited time the complete Raising Cain Re-cut can be seen right here (for critical and educational purposes only).

Raising Cain Re-cut from Press Play Video Blog on Vimeo.

Peet Gelderblom is a freelance director/editor/motion-designer from the Netherlands. He drew the weekly webcomic Directorama for Slant’s The House Next Door and Smallformat magazine. Between 2004 and 2008, he was the founding editor of 24LiesASecond, a now-defunct platform for provocative film criticism with an underdog bite, for which he wrote a number of essays. For commercial assignments he’s represented by In Case of Fire/Firestarter, Amsterdam. A selection of his work can be found on his personal website Directorama, where he also keeps a blog.

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10 Comments

  • Film Fan Man | September 16, 2013 1:01 AMReply

    The best accolade for this re-cut comes from the director himself. Check out the September 2013 edition of the UK film publication, Empire. At page 125, Brian De Palma in the Q & A segment says this:

    "I'm not really a You Tube guy, though I did see somebody re-edited Raising Cain into the original order which I cut it. I looked at it and said , " I should have left it that way.""

  • R.G. Miller | August 28, 2013 4:43 PMReply

    no one even knew the original version untill the director mention it! so when I view the first cut I like the film the way it was shown, this re-cut shit is for the one's who see more than what is really there! get out of here with that NON SENSE...it's the same film regardless what order you put the scenes in!..I am a filmmaker myself and the viewer has no idea what order scenes are going to be cut in unless the Director opens his/her mouth..the man is a good director, but he still needs to find himself and let go of his vain behavior, and stop worrying about what the viewer wants to see, any time a director wants to RE- MAKES his own movie he/she has fails to understand their own creative power!..DePalma has a great creative power but hollywood system locks him down and others also to making Blockbuster hits only...this confuse's the best of directors..and their work of art becomes Twisted and mis-understood ...DePalma don't get stuck in the trying to give a dam about what the viewer wants to see, keep puting out what kind of art YOU! want to express.... that's why we like it because we can see something in it....R.G.

  • Jarred | May 21, 2012 7:39 PMReply

    Criterion release pleeeeaaasssseeeee?!

  • Nate | February 4, 2012 1:46 PMReply

    I gotta give you big kudos on giving DePalma the credit he properly deserves. I've been a big fan of his since I first saw CARRIE on cable when I was in 3rd grade. What I love about a lot of his films, not all, but so many of them have such a great visual style and flare lacking from so many conventional and safe directors ( IE. Ron Howard has won a best director oscar). I think when you watch his films, you can really get a great example of how to make strong visual choices rather the standard. Thanks Marco!

  • Filip Onell | February 3, 2012 7:58 AMReply

    Interesting. I'm a De Palma fan, and I enjoy Raising Cain, but changing the first act like this really improves movie. It's far more intriguing this way. It would be neat if De Palma went back and re-cut Raising Cain to the non-linear structure he had initially intended...

  • Filip Önell | February 3, 2012 7:58 AMReply

    Interesting. I'm a De Palma fan, and I enjoy Raising Cain, but changing the first act like this really improves movie. It's far more intriguing this way. It would be neat if De Palma went back and re-cut Raising Cain to the non-linear structure he had initially intended...

  • Chris | February 2, 2012 11:25 PMReply

    This has been my first time watching RAISING CAIN (I'm a somewhat new De Palma fan), but I loved it. I'll see the theatrical cut very soon, but I fear I'll prefer this limited-time version. The set up of the first act is great, and makes this film all the more like another of De Palma's clever spins on PSYCHO. I just hope that maybe, since the original cut should exist somewhere, that the Criterion Collection might put together a release of it. One can live in hope.

  • jay | February 2, 2012 12:41 PMReply

    not to mention Psycho...

  • Marco Versiero | February 2, 2012 6:42 AMReply

    wonderful essay of film criticism!! I had never heard about De Palma's unsatisfaction about "Raising Cain" theatrical cut.. and his original idea of starting with Jenny's romantic story instead of Carter/Cain psychological deseases would have made the movie more interesting, actually! moreover, the device of disguising the core-subject of the plot to the spectator's perception with a sudden "trasition" from one character to another would have approached "Raising Cain" to the narrative structure of "Dressed to kill"!!

  • Peet Gelderblom | February 2, 2012 8:11 AM

    Thanks, Marco! It's interesting to follow different reactions on blogs and social networks.

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