What price a ‘Definitive Cut’?

Provoked by, of all things, the Blu-ray release of The Wolfman (this started out as the opening paragraph of my review of that — oh how it grew), I’ve once again been musing on one of my ‘favourite’ topics. No, not “what’s TV and what’s film these days?”, but “which version of a film is definitive these days?”

I apologise if I’ve written extensively on this before; I think I’ve only had the odd random muse in a review, at most. So, much as I got the TV thing out of my system (a bit) in that editorial, here’s an attempt at the “definitive cut” one:

The age of DVD has managed to throw up all kinds of questions about what is the definitive version of a film. Never mind issues of incorrect aspect ratios, fiddled colour timing, or excessive digital processing — these are all potentially problems, yes, but usually quite easy to see where the correct version lies. The question of a ‘definitive version’ comes in the multitude of Director’s Cuts, Extended Cuts, Harder Cuts, Extreme Cuts — whatever label the marketing boys & girls slap on them, Longer Versions You Didn’t See In The Cinema is what they are. But are they better? Or more definitive? Does it matter?

So many consumers hold off for the DVD these days, especially with the added quality offered by Blu-ray, that the old answer of “what was released in the cinema” doesn’t necessarily hold true any more. Filmmakers know some will be waiting for the DVD, so are less concerned with releasing a studio-mandated, shorter, mass audience friendly cut into cinemas when their fuller vision can be found on DVD. Equally, the PR people know that “longer cut!” and “not seen in cinemas!” and other such slogans can help sell DVDs, and so may be forcing needless and unwelcome extensions onto filmmakers. Then there’s all those older directors who think they’re doing a good thing finally getting to tamper with their film 30 years on, who may well be misguided.

Some make it nice and clear for us. Ridley Scott, for example, is particularly good at this: Blade Runner has taken decades to get right, but The Final Cut is quite obviously the last word on this; he was well known to be unhappy with the theatrical version of Kingdom of Heaven, and was vindicated when the aptly-titled (for once) Director’s Cut received much improved reviews; conversely, he’s been very clear that the Director’s Cut of Alien and Extended Cut of Gladiator are not his preferred versions, just interesting alternate/longer edits.

On the other hand, Oliver Stone has now churned out three versions of Alexander [2015 edit: now four], each with significantly differing structures and content. None have received particularly good reviews. Is one the definitive cut? Or is it just a very public example of the editing process; what difference inclusions, exclusions, and structural overhauls can (or, perhaps, can’t) make?

The issue is somewhat brushed aside by two things, I think. Firstly, most stuff that suffers this treatment is tosh. Who cares which version of Max Payne or Hitman or Beowulf or either AvP or any number of teen-focused comedies is ‘definitive’ — no one liked them in the first place and they’ll be all but forgotten within a decade or two, at most (well, not AvP, sadly — its connection to two major franchises will see to that).

Secondly, more often than not both versions are available. Coppola may have vowed never to release the pre-Redux Apocalypse Now ever again, but the most recent DVDs [and, later, Blu-rays] include both cuts — listen to him or go with the original theatrical cut, it’s your choice. The same goes for Terminator 2, or indeed a good deal of the rubbish listed above. Rare is the film that doesn’t fit into one of these two camps, or the third “it’s been made clear” one.

So, with all that said, does it even matter? If we can choose which version we prefer, is that the right way to have things? Because, having gone through the options and examples I can think of, it’s not often that there’s not an easy way to resolve it — by which I mean, if the film is good enough to want the clarity of “which version is final”, we tend to have a way of knowing; and if the film’s tosh, well, what does it matter which we choose? There’s every chance no one involved in the production cares anyway.

There remains one argument for clarity, I think. How does one guarantee that, in the future, the ‘correct’ version remains accessible? With new formats always coming along, there’s no assurance that every cut of a film will be released; with TV showings, there’s no assurance the preferred version will always be the one shown (though there’s another argument for how much the latter matters considering they already mess around with aspect ratios and edits for violence/swearing/sex/etc.) But then, even if a filmmaker makes it clear that their preferred version is the one that only came out on DVD/Blu-ray, what chance is there that unscrupulous disc / download / unknown-future-format producers or TV schedulers won’t just revert to the theatrical version by default?

Sometimes one longs for the simpler age of a film hitting cinemas and that being that. We wouldn’t have had to suffer Lucas’ Star Wars fiddles, for one thing. But then nor would Ridley Scott have been able to redeem some of his films, or Zack Snyder treat fans to an improved Watchmen, or Peter Jackson truly complete The Lord of the Rings. If some level of uncertainty is the price we have to pay for these things, then it’s one even my obsessive nature is willing to pay.

There are 20 different films featured in this post’s header image.
Anyone who can name them all wins special bragging rights.

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