When should a director stop messing with a movie?

Film recuts can destroy a classic or salvage a lost gem: Here's your guide to the successes -- and disasters

Published August 17, 2010 12:20AM (EDT)

Daniel Day-Lewis in "The Last of the Mohicans"
Daniel Day-Lewis in "The Last of the Mohicans"

Sitting in my in box is a press release about a Blu-Ray edition of "The Last of the Mohicans" that's being hyped as "an all-new director's definitive cut by acclaimed director Michael Mann."

The phrase "definitive cut" made me laugh. I like Mann's films a lot, but definitive he ain't. He's a serial recutter, and this is his third go-round with "Mohicans." The first was the 1992 theatrical cut, which remained unchanged until 1999, when Mann released a second version on DVD that removed four minutes but added eight (mostly small moments of character development). I have no idea what this new version will contain, and frankly I'm in no hurry to find out, or buy the disc, for that matter. Why? Because I don't want to encourage Mann to continue tinkering with his movies -- and because the entire phenomenon of director's cuts and definitive director's cuts and restored cuts and expanded cuts and alternate cuts has gotten out of hand and needs to stop.

Except, of course, when I like the result. I'm flighty that way.

Recuts are irksome. They're hit-and-miss, and they're fueled by such idiosyncratic agendas that it's hard to state that they're always a bad or a good idea.

While trying to frame this issue, I realized it doesn't make sense to group all recuts under a single umbrella. There are many kinds of recuts, created for different reasons, under different circumstances. Whether you consider a second or third or fourth cut valid (or superior) to the first depends on what you liked or disliked about the first cut, and the circumstances that produced that first cut, and what you think was gained or lost in revision.

Since one viewer's revelation is another's crime against cinema, to attempt a ranked list of recuts would be pointless. Instead I'll try to get a discussion going by classifying categories of recuts, taking swipes at certain films and filmmakers, then opening the floor to readers.

Category No. 1: Revisions

Definition: A recut overseen by the director, who expands, contracts and otherwise messes with the cut, but doesn't substantially alter the essence of the story or themes.

Examples: Ridley Scott has produced multiple versions of most of his films. His 2003 theatrical recut of "Alien" was a straight-up revision, a nip-and-tuck job that subtracted five minutes (mostly by chopping the heads and tails off some languorous establishing shots) and added four (including Ripley's encounter with a chestburster-impregnated Capt. Dallas, seen in home video supplements but never officially included in the film proper).

William Friedkin's 1998 "Exorcist" recut added some horrifying images deleted from the 1973 original (including a now-CGI-assisted "spider walk" scene) and coda that almost no one liked. The Coen brothers' 1998 recut of their debut feature, "Blood Simple," trimmed four minutes and swapped one song for another due to rights issues. James Cameron rightly called his "Expanded Edition" of "Terminator 2" an "exercise" rather than an alternate version.

Michael Mann's alternate versions of "Heat," "Thief," "Manhunter," "Mohicans" and "Miami Vice" (the feature) were mostly futz jobs that made the films different but not markedly better (except the alternate home video edition of "Vice," which nullified the film's boldest stroke by sticking a gratuitous action scene in front of the original's in medias res nightclub opening). Steven Spielberg's many incarnations of "Close Encounters" made mostly small tweaks (a conspicuous exception is the second cut, a 1980 theatrical reissue, which rejiggered the spectacle-to-intimacy ratio and showed the inside of the mother ship). Richard Kelly's second cut of "Donnie Darko" explained things that were left undefined in the theatrical version. George Lucas added digitized landscapes and creatures to the original "Star Wars" trilogy starting in 1997 -- ostensibly to visualize what he saw in his head 20 years earlier, but could not create because the technology wasn't advanced enough.

My take: Revisions tend to be the least defensible or fruitful type of recut. They're of interest mainly as academic or "What if?" exercises, different but rarely better. And they tend to create as many problems as they solve.

Mann's second cut of "Last of the Mohicans," for instance, is superior to the original in terms of character development, but the action sequences feel choppy in places, where before they had a sharklike elegance. All the editions of "Close Encounters" sort of blur together in my head; when I watch a particular version, I'm always relieved to see certain scenes and disappointed that others aren't included (except the 1980 finale inside the ship, which Spielberg rightly realized was a mistake and deleted from future cuts). Lucas' CGI futzing made the original "Star Wars" trilogy busier but not better, and some of his changes (Greedo shooting first, the new songs in "Return of the Jedi," Luke's shriek as he plunged into the air shaft in "Empire") were just stupid. (At least Lucas cut the shriek for the DVD release of the futzed-with "Empire.") And don't get me started on Kelly's "Donnie Darko" recut. It's an obscenity that suggests Kelly is a genius flake who needs to be protected from his worst impulses -- by force, if necessary.

Bottom line: What's wrong with leaving well enough alone?

Category No. 2: Rescues

Definition: A rescue is a recut overseen by the director, or by allies of the director acting under his supervision. The intent is to restore sections of a film that were lopped out for time or pacing reasons, or to perfect a work the filmmaker thought was compromised by a lack of time or money, or by studio meddling. This type of cut is usually (but not always) longer, more complex and more digressive than the first cut.

Examples: James Cameron's longer version of "The Abyss" fleshed out the main couple's rancor and distress and explained what those glowing underwater aliens were up to; the changes intensified the story's already extravagant sense of melodrama and sentiment, and made the aliens seem like Greek gods passing judgment on humanity, rather like the extraterrestrials in the original "The Day the Earth Stood Still."

Ridley Scott's 1992 recut of "Blade Runner" removed a monotonous, Raymond Chandler-with-a-head-injury voice-over narration forced on Scott by the distributor; over the next 15 years he cut three other versions. Scott also did a longer, yeastier version of "Legend" (restoring a Jerry Goldsmith orchestral score that the studio had replaced with Tangerine Dream synth tracks) and an extended cut of "Kingdom of Heaven" (more character development, political detail and atmospheric imagery). Oliver Stone recut "Alexander" twice. Or was it three times? I've lost count.

Francis Coppola's 2001 effort, "Apocalypse Now Redux," restored 50 minutes of footage deleted from the 1979 rough cut of "Apocalypse Now," including the French plantation sequence, a comic interlude with boat crew stealing Col. Kilgore's surfboard, and a scene where Kurtz reads a Time magazine story to Willard. "Redux" covers the same narrative ground as the first cut, but the characters are more psychologically plausible and Vietnam feels like a geographic rather than figurative space.

My take: The rescue is the Hail Mary pass of recuts. It aims to add luster to a troubled, incomplete or imperfect production that divided critics and viewers, and show what might have been "if only" the director had more time, money, freedom, etc. But the result often fails to convince.

Cameron's longer "Abyss" was better: more comprehensible, melodramatic, substantive and satisfying. "Apocalypse Now Redux," however, feels more prosaic and "realistic" than the 1979 cut -- more like a novel or a miniseries and less like the hallucinatory, sound-and-picture-driven original. Some intriguing and even striking qualities were gained, but something essential was lost. The third, fourth and fifth versions of "Blade Runner" don't feel terribly different from the second cut to me (although many people I respect consider the fifth cut definitive and near-perfect). The recut of "Legend" is stirring, and the orchestral score adds heft and makes the film feel less like a mid-'80s product. But the movie is still pretty thin stuff, and after a while I missed Tangerine Dream, which at least gave the thin story and anemic characters a veneer of freshness. The recuts of "Kingdom of Heaven" and "Alexander" improved those films but failed to overcome fundamental screenwriting and casting problems. The same could be said for most rescue efforts: If a film's basics aren't spot on, no amount of reediting will fix them.

Category No. 3: Resuscitations

Definition: Cuts undertaken by parties other than the director, often with the purpose of reassembling a film that was cut down, reworked and in some cases butchered without the director's consent.

Examples: I'll fixate on just one example here, because it exemplifies pretty much every factor involved in this sort of cut. Orson Welles' 1958 thriller "Touch of Evil" was recut, remixed and partially reshot during postproduction by Universal without the director's supervision or consent. Or so Welles claimed: The studio countered that it had asked Welles to return from Europe, where he was working on his next movie, to supervise and revise "Evil," but Welles declined.

Thirty years later, film editor and sound designer Walter Murch (who worked on many Coppola films, including both versions of "Apocalypse Now") supervised a "restored" version, working from a wish list memo that Welles sent to Universal in 1957. You could almost call the 1998 cut an alternate universe version of "Touch of Evil" for its good-natured attempts to visualize the film described by Welles. The biggest change is in the legendary opening tracking shot, which removes the studio-mandated Henry Mancini score. As the bomb-rigged car rolls through the town, you still hear the film's main theme issuing piecemeal from barrooms and apartment windows, arranged in different musical genres.

My take: Resuscitations are sometimes satisfying but nearly always problematic. I have no doubt that the 1998 version of "Evil" is closer to what Welles intended; it's right there in the memo. But would Welles, who died in 1985, have "restored" the film in exactly this way? Maybe, maybe not -- we'll never know. So should the 1998 version be considered any more or less valid than the 1958 cut, or the slightly longer, better 1976 version that Universal released theatrically? Is it a heroic act or just a glorified editing experiment?

Also troublesome (if only to aspect ratio geeks): "Touch of Evil" was originally shot in the squarish, 4x3 "Academy" ratio, but cropped to 1:85-to-1 for its 1998 theatrical release. Glenn Kenny argues, persuasively, that Welles and his cinematographer, Russell Metty, framed each shot to work equally well in both formats, and that the shots may even seem more dynamic with a narrower crop. On the other hand, though, when the director is Welles, how much more dynamic can a shot be?

A less troublesome resuscitation is the 1989 rerelease version of "Lawrence of Arabia," which restored cut footage that fleshed out Lawrence's life (including his rape by Turkish captors) while preserving the character's core of mystery. Director David Lean supervised or approved every change. The previously unseen material made a great film greater.

Category No. 4: Reimaginings

Definition: The director revisits a favorite title, producing a new cut that feels less like a second-thoughts reconsideration than a new movie constructed from the same raw material.

Examples: I'll just offer just two here. The first is Francis Coppola's "The Outsiders: The Complete Novel," a 2005 recut of his 1983 youth melodrama that was 22 minutes longer than the theatrical version and a lot shaggier and more naturalistic-seeming, with extra scenes of the teen characters sitting around shooting the breeze on various topics not directly related to the plot. Coppola also replaced the original cut's sweeping orchestral score (by his late father, Carmine Coppola) with a wall-to-wall tapestry of period pop. Everything in the "Complete Novel" feels different: the pace, the tone, the overall sensibility.

The other example is "The New World," the 2005 epic about the romance between John Smith and Pocahontas, written and directed by Terrence Malick. Malick released the film on Christmas Day, 2005, in a 150-minute version that played in a handful of cities to qualify for end-of-the-year awards. Then he cut 15 minutes for the film's national release a few weeks later. In 2008, he released a 172-minute version to DVD.

My take: These two cases represent the extremes of the "reimagining" strategy. One example is dreadful, the other fascinating – and in my opinion, brilliant. I loathe Coppola's "Complete Novel" and consider it a misstep rivaling Richard Kelley's "Donnie Darko" atrocity. Beyond the tedious rap sessions that should have stayed on the cutting-room floor, the director's substitution of period pop for orchestral music makes the whole film seem smaller and less special. When Coppola released the 1983 cut, he called it "'Gone With the Wind' for teenagers," and the combination of overripe color photography and a borderline-hysterical score showed that he wasn't kidding. Whatever its flaws (and it's by no means a consensus classic) the first version of "The Outsiders" pulses with life. The 2005 version is as lifeless as a stuffed-and-mounted moose head.

Malick's three versions of "The New World," on the other hand, strike me as remarkable. The first cut is cosmic and ruminative, drunk on pseudo-Emersonian poetry. The second is more intimate, more tightly focused on the main characters. The third is broken up into chapters with printed title cards; it includes many long, real-time encounters, plus detours into the lives of supporting players whose experiences enrich the film's main themes. The first two cuts are like fraternal twins born of the same mother. They're clearly related but nowhere close to identical. The third cut is the twins' baby brother, a unique creation built from the same DNA. What Malick is doing here goes way beyond futzing. He's an architect challenging himself to build three different cathedrals from the same pile of bricks.

But, of course, your mileage may vary.

So tell me, what director's cuts do you consider essential? Or misguided? Or satisfying but troublesome? Are there any that turned your opinion around on a film? Are there any types of recuts that should not be tolerated? Pile into the Letters section and let's discuss.

By Matt Zoller Seitz

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