Blessed/cursed with one of the most confusing and prolonged release strategies in recent memory, (blessed in that it has kept the movie in the conversation longer; cursed because that’s longer for everyone to get bored and irritated with it too) the second part of Lars von Trier’s “Nymphomaniac” opens in the U.S. this weekend (our ‘Vol II’ review is here). Our stock of sex puns may have been well and truly plundered (note how we couldn’t even bring ourselves to say “this coming weekend”) but that’s still not the end of it, as ‘Vol II’ also has a director’s cut on the way (the director’s preferred version of ‘Vol I’ played Berlin some weeks after the theatrical cut had already opened). Adding to the whole sorry soup is that the theatrical cuts played certain territories long before others, while screenings for press were sometimes of the two ‘Volumes’ together as one film. So at this stage we’re not entirely sure any two of us have seen the exact same combination of cuts of “Nymphomaniac.”
But why should that matter? Well, it’s because we, like many enthusiastic cineastes have a hankering to get the “definitive” experience of a film, and in these auteurist times that tends to be the one upon which the director sets his or her seal of approval. Von Trier is just the latest in a long line of directors who’ve taken issue with the theatrical cut of their film to the tune of retooling a version more in line with their original vision. His preferred version is not a years-later revisitation timed to coincide with some anniversary or a new Blu-ray reissue, however that is the route often taken by directors who’ve always had a niggling desire to revisit their past compromises. In any case, it got us thinking about the whole culture of director’s cuts—the instances in which they’ve redressed a terrible injustice that was done to a butchered masterpiece, the instances in which their version is the one doing the butchering, and all points in between.
And so we thought we’d take this chance to launch an occasional series in which we look at a few films in depth, and compare their Theatrical versions to their subsequently-released Director’s Cuts. Today our sampler is of ten titles from the more classic end of the spectrum, the stories behind their reissues, the changes made and, of course, which is superior. [Sneak preview: this particular contest comes out in favor of the Director's Cuts overall, but by no means in every case… ]
"Heaven's Gate" (wide theatrical release, 1981) vs. "Heaven's Gate: Director's Cut" (2012)
Synopsis: One of the more notorious productions in Hollywood history, "Heaven's Gate" is loosely based on the Johnson County War, a violent frontier dispute between land barons and European settlers in the 1890s. Of course, it was largely re-contextualized as a sprawling forbidden romance, with the syrupy tagline for the movie reading (on the poster, at least): "The only thing greater than their passion for America… was their passion for each other."
Background: If we're talking historically (and we are), there were actually four different cuts of "Heaven's Gate" in circulation at various times. The first cut that director Michael Cimino showed the studio supposedly ran a gargantuan 325 minutes. The version screened at the premiere (after hasty editing by Cimino) ran for 219 minutes. After this version ran in New York for a week, Cimino and United Artists yanked the prints from distribution. Supposedly the studio hired a different editor to try to whittle down the epic sprawl of the movie, with even less success. Cimino recut the film into a 149-minute version, which came out the following spring and differs wildly from the one that ran for a week just a few months earlier. Not only is it much shorter but many sequences have been reorganized entirely. (This version, it should be noted, never came out on home video.) When United Artists folded, largely due to the cost overruns and creative concessions made during "Heaven's Gate," MGM acquired its library and released the 219-minute version on home video. This was, more or less, the original 1980 version. But Cimino still claimed that the film was unfinished. In 2005 the so-called "Radical Cut" was screened internationally, which utilized sections of the film that had to be repurposed because the original negative was so badly damaged (it still ran 219 minutes). It wasn't until 2012 though, that the definitive "Director's Cut," which actually ran shorter than the 1980 cut, at 216 minutes, was screened at the Venice Film Festival and New York Film Festival before being released on DVD and Blu-ray in a deluxe package (by the prestigious Criterion Collection—a sure sign of the notorious flop's critical reevaluation).
Differences: The biggest difference is between the 1980 219 minute cut and the 1981 cut that ran 149 minutes. (The three minutes difference between the 1980 cut and the 2012 reissue, plus all the minor nips and tucks, are better left for Cimino historians). There are a number of major moments left on the cutting floor in the 1981 version, most notably much of the Harvard prologue section (including John Hurt's amazing speech and the line dancing that immediately follows) and, later in the movie, the entire roller skating dance sequence. This is absolutely shocking: that roller skating sequence isn't just one of the best moments of the movie; it's one of the best moments in any movie. There's also a fairly large chunk of the second battle sequence that had been deleted altogether (another pivotal moment full of rich emotional beats that should have been maintained). It's the difference between "Heaven's Gate" the movie and "Heaven's Gate" the experience.
Which is Better and Why: The longer cut is obviously the better one to go with. "Heaven's Gate" is a sizable historical epic, one that luxuriates in its time period, in its explosive violence, and in its forbidden love. The movie is messy and ungainly and a lot of the negative attention that surrounded it wasn't exactly unfair (although it was somewhat misplaced). This is a movie that deserves to have lengthy roller skate dance numbers and a historically recreated prologue set at Harvard. There are a thousand characters, each with their own thornily complicated backstory, and the moments that make up these characters, and this film, are vital through and through. "Heaven's Gate" was widely lampooned as a self-indulgent nightmare, and to a degree it is a work of obsessive monomania. But it's also sort of a masterpiece, and one that should be viewed in the way its author intended—whether you like it or not.
"Blade Runner" (U.S. Theatrical release 1982) vs. "Blade Runner: Director’s Cut” (1992) vs. “Blade Runner: The Final Cut” (2007)
Synopsis: A futurist film noir (now distinctly retro-futurist with all the 80s brands it features, and the Vangelis score), the story is an adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” and follows Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) whose job it is to hunt down and kill rogue replicants (genetically engineered humanoid robots.) Except of course, like all good sci fi (and this is great sci fi), it’s really about what it means to be human.
Background: There are, to date, seven different versions of “Blade Runner” that have seen the light of day in some form, but we’re only really concerned with three of those. There's the original 116 min U.S. Theatrical cut (which only differs from the 1982 International cut in terms of being a minute shorter and having slightly less graphic violence, and from the 114 U.S. TV version in having a little more cussin’ and boobs) and the 1992 so-called “Director’s Cut” which is now seen as something of a halfway house on the way to the 2007 “Final Cut,” certainly according to director Ridley Scott who only actually had total control over the last of those. In fact, the 1992 “Director’s Cut” was something of a rush job, spurred by a sudden spike in interest following the limited theatrical release of a newly-rediscovered work print that was erroneously named the “director’s cut” without Scott’s approval. Since that work print actually was missing some scenes and had an unfinished guide soundtrack in parts, Scott distanced himself from it. But the screenings sold out, and the film had already been experiencing a surge in cultish interest, so Warner commissioned preservationist Michael Arick to collaborate with the film’s original editor, Les Healey, and with Scott on assembling what was to be a definitive “Director’s Cut.” This was released in 1992, and was widely regarded to be much closer to the original intent and superior to the original, though subsequently Scott, who had been simultaneously finishing up on “Thelma and Louise," claimed to still be a little dissatisfied with the end product. This in turn led him to start work in 2000 on a really-and-truly final Final Cut, which had to be halted while legal issues were untangled, but eventually saw the light of day in 2007, just a year after the “Director’s Cut” had been reissued (the 1992 version had been one of the first DVD releases, but suffered from a poor-quality transfer).
Differences: The differences between the three versions (not to mention interim states) are myriad and exhaustively detailed here but what are most striking, and most eternally debated about the recut versions are the changes to the interpretation of the story, and especially of Deckard’s character, that they imply. The biggest leap in those terms is from the theatrical to the 1992 version, in which the loathed (by Ford and Scott) voiceover and tacked-on happy ending were both dropped, and the famous unicorn dream sequence made its first appearance. That sequence, exhibit A in the “Deckard is a replicant” argument (and which was apparently in the original shooting script, doubters), is longer and less ambiguous again in the Final Cut version, which cuts to the scene directly from a close up of Ford’s face and back again, very clearly implying that it’s his head we’re in at that moment. Other differences in the Final Cut include various improvements made to background scenery and visuals, and a few nips and tucks made in order to remove the confusion around the number of rogue replicants on the planet (which was sometimes pointed to as evidence of Deckard’s origins but was in fact simply a continuity error from an earlier version of the script).
Which is Best and Why: For anyone coming new to “Blade Runner” now, “The Final Cut” is definitely the one to go for, being closest to Scott’s original idea, and also having the benefit of more modern transfer and CG techniques that give it a distinctly “fresh coat of paint” feeling. That said, while it’s almost heresy these days, we still do have affection for the Theatrical version, as that was the first one we saw, and frankly, “Blade Runner” is just such a brilliant film that even in a compromised form it works like gangbusters. We might not get the Deckard/replicant ambiguity in that version, but the essential ontological questions remain the same, even with the dorky VO (though do switch off the second the elevator doors close). In any case, the Theatrical version is worth checking out after the Final Cut if only for Rutger Hauer’s hissing, vicious delivery of the line “I want more life, fucker” which is changed to “I want more life, father” in one of the Final Cut’s more pointless alterations.