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Director’s Cut: 10 Theatrical Versions Vs. The Filmmaker's Final Vision

The Playlist By The Playlist Staff | The Playlist April 2, 2014 at 2:55PM

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).
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Close Encounters of the Third Kind

"Close Encounters of the Third Kind" (1977) vs. "Close Encounters of the Third Kind: The Special Edition" (1980) vs. "Collector's Edition" version (1998)
Synopsis: A blue collar dad (Richard Dreyfuss) has a close encounter with a UFO and becomes obsessed with the phenomenon, eventually abandoning his family to make further contact with the extraterrestrial visitors.

Background: Even though director Steven Spielberg had final cut on "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," he felt rushed through production due to having to make a release date that would better benefit Columbia, which at the time was going through something of a financial crisis. They wanted the movie for the summer of 1977 (which would have put Spielberg in direct competition with his BFF George Lucas and some lil' movie called "Star Wars"), but when various setbacks made that impossible, they settled for November 1977. Spielberg still wanted another six months to tinker with the movie but was denied. After the film was released and became a critical and commercial smash (it also racked up eight Oscar nominations—including one for Spielberg's direction), Columbia gave Spielberg almost $2 million and let him reedit the film as he saw fit. Still, there were strings attached. The studio desperately wanted Spielberg to show the inside of the famous mother ship from the end of the film and this became the cornerstone of the marketing for the new version of the movie, which was released theatrically in 1980 and made more than $15 million. (While a handful of sequences were added, just as many were deleted, and the "Special Edition," as it was called, runs three minutes shorter than the original theatrical version.) In 1998, Spielberg returned to "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" for the "Collector's Edition" of the film. This version wisely deleted the "interior of the mother ship" sequence and reinserted some other elements. It's the longest version of the movie to date (two minutes longer than the original 1977 theatrical cut) and the one that Spielberg is most happy with. All three versions appear on the Blu-ray release of the film.

CE3K

Differences: The biggest difference between the 1977 and 1980 cuts is, of course, that ending, which is something of a wet noodle after all of the soul-rattling grandeur that has come before it. The interior of the spaceship looks kind of blah and the movie is robbed of that climactic sense of mystery. (Since François Truffaut, who plays Lacombe, was off shooting another movie when Spielberg was reconstructing this sequence, his assistant, played by Bob Balaban, appears in these scenes alone). There are little additions and gags, like the spaceships flying by a sign for McDonald's, and more lip service given to the fact that Dreyfuss is abandoning his family in order to commune with an extraterrestrial presence, which isn't exactly something included in parenting guidebooks. Teri Garr's wife character is given a harsher, more brittle edge in the Special Edition, but in no way does it justify Dreyfuss' behavior. Yes, meeting aliens would be really cool. But wouldn't being there for your children be, you know, cooler? The Special Edition also has a good sequence where the team discovers a boat in the Gobi Desert (a boat? In the desert?) A noticeable deletion in the Special Edition is the jettisoning of the army press conference that is designed specifically to debunk the rash of sightings. It's a great little scene, and in the Special Edition, it is no more.

Which is Better and Why: If you're choosing between the 1977 theatrical cut and the 1980 Special Edition, stick with the theatrical cut. Mostly because you're not subjected to the awful lameness that is the inside of the UFO, although, if you're given the choice (and, these days, you are), go with the 1998 collector's edition. Aside from this being the definitive "director's cut" (in Spielberg's own words), it's just a more complete version of the movie, and features the "good bits" from the special edition, combined with most of the moments you loved from the original theatrical edition. (There are, of course, some nagging caveats.) Each version is fascinating and completely riveting, but if you've got to choose just one, go with the 1998 cut. Even if that great moment where Dreyfuss looks at his pillow and it reminds him of the shape of the Devil's Tower is gone.

Cinema Paradiso

"Cinema Paradiso" (International Theatrical Cut, 1989) vs. "Cinema Paradiso: The New Version” (2002)
Synopsis: Told largely in flashback, this is the fond, nostalgia-soaked story of Salvatore “Totò” Di Vita, now a successful film director, as he remembers the formative relationships of his life—with film—with the villagers of the small Sicilian hometown he’s long since left behind, with his first love, and most of all with Alfredo, the projectionist in the titular local cinema.

Background: You’d be hard pressed to find anyone round here who doesn’t get at least a little misty-eyed thinking about “Cinema Paradiso” (the 123-minute, 1989 Best Foreign Language Oscar- and Cannes Grand Prix-winning version, that is); it’s one of the tenderest and sweetest paeans to cinema that’s ever been made. But the almost universally worshipped award-winner was itself, in fact, a reduced version. Originally in 1988, director Giuseppe Tornatore had released a 155-minute cut that flopped hard on release in Italy, both critically and commercially, before 22 minutes were shorn from it to make it into a stone-cold classic on the international circuit—an early example of Harvey Weinstein’s snip-happy impulses working to the (gasp!) benefit of a film. Its success paved the way for a resurgence in Italian cinema in general and in period-set Italian-language filmmaking specifically that continued through the ‘90s (“Mediterraneo,” “Il Postino,” Tornatore’s own “The Star Maker”and “Life is Beautiful” would dot the Foreign Language Oscar category in the following years). But for no discernible reason (it’s that truncated cut’s massive popularity and success that remains the most impressive entry on Tornatore’s CV to date), in 2001 it was decided that what the world needed was a version of “Cinema Paradiso” that didn’t just restore the excised 22 minutes, but one that actually ballooned out way beyond it, to a 173-minute running time. This director’s cut, also known as “The New Version" got a limited U.S. release in 2002.

"Cinema Paradiso"
"Cinema Paradiso"

Differences: As is to be expected in a version that adds a whopping 50 minutes of footage to the more familiarly seen film, the pacing of "The New Version" is completely different, especially as the film enters its third act, and the emphasis is shifted pretty fundamentally, which leads to a total reevaluation of some of the central relationships. Already in the “teenage Totò” section (in which he falls in love with Elena) Tornatore’s broader, bawdier impulses are on display as the Paradiso become as a place of more graphic, unbridled carnality than before, and crucially Totò himself is caught up in it this time out, clearly shown losing his virginity to the town prostitute. This detracts from the innocence of Totò’s character and adds a layer of disingenuousness to his protestations that Elena is “his first” and that he is so gauche and inexperienced. Furthermore, by adding a whole extra part at the end in which the older, returning Salvatore is reunited with the older Elena (who is herself married and has a daughter) for an adulterous car-seat tryst, the ethereality that had surrounded his memory of her is dashed, and their grand love becomes something far more banal, and rather soap operatic. But perhaps most detrimentally (because it’s the relationship we care about most in the film) "The New Version" also unnecessarily sullies the Alfredo/Totò friendship, when it is revealed that Alfredo deliberately kept Totò and Elena apart at a crucial juncture, the better to make Totò leave the village that he believes he has outgrown.

Which is Better and Why: Unreservedly, and by about a million miles, the 123-minute theatrical version should be considered the definitive cut of the film. This is a film about magic, and about elusiveness and aging and time and memory, and none of those things come across nearly so well in the longer, less subtle, more explanatory “New Version.” In fact, much as we love these characters, there are some back stories we just never need to know and some characters whose power is totally diminished by revisiting them—especially Elena, whose function should be to flicker and flutter in the mind’s eye like something perfect, intangible and unattainable, like an image projected on a screen. The director’s version drags a warm-hearted, joyously sentimental classic down to earth so much that even the famous last scene of the kissing montage feels compromised, where in the original it is simply one of the most wonderful endings ever. Do yourself a favor and never see the "New Version." Forget it ever happened.

As we mentioned, this is a topic we’ll be returning to, so if there are any Director’s Cuts you’d particularly like us to cover in future editions, you can let us know below. —Jessica Kiang, Drew Taylor, Oli Lyttelton and Rodrigo Perez

This article is related to: Features, Nymphomaniac, Feature, Heaven's Gate, The New World, Blade Runner


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