Tag Archives: Sergio Leone

Cutting the Director’s Cut

tv times
Cover art for Yorkshire TV Times Magazine

The first film I ever saw at the cinema was Star Wars. I was six years old. We queued outside the cinema in northern English cold, and, by the time we made it into the packed auditorium, the front crawl had already crawled and the Storm Troopers were storming the rebel ship. I wouldn’t see the complete film until 24 October, 1983, when it debuted at 7.15 in the evening on ITV, at the time Britain’s only commercial TV channel. Five and a half years had passed and yet Star Wars had been a constant in our games and our toys, as well as listening to the soundtrack and reading and re-reading George Lucas’s first novel with ‘16 pages of color illustrations’.

Today the situation is obviously different with instant downloads, simultaneous DVD releases, or at the longest a wait of a few months before a film can be owned and re-watched over and over again, complete with audio commentary, deleted scenes, and perhaps an alternative ending. And though I don’t want to wax whimsical about the good old days, I do want to emphasize the amount of air that could exist around a film. In this space, there was plenty of room for rumour and speculation, and the legendary director’s cut, the first six-hour version of a film, was a commonly repeated theme: the cut would be butchered and hacked back by an unsympathetic studio and what we saw was only a remnant of the artist’s vision.

An example of this was a film that had been planned as a follow up to Star Wars, Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, which had been released in the UK in the autumn of 1982. The rumours of a five-hour version were encouraged by the film’s narrative ambiguity, some apparent inconsistencies (how many replicants?), and later by the occasional surfacing on late-night TV of versions that included bits no one remembered. The rumours were also encouraged once more by the space such thinking had to play in. The lack of internet sites – from encyclopaedic collections such as IMDB to the plethora of geek blogs – meant that such speculation took place in the letters pages of fanzines and on the bus to school, with very little ground for confirmation or decisive rebuttal. It also helped that Blade Runner evoked a world that seemed to stretch far outside the frame of the cinema screen or the VHS pan-and-scan TV screen, the first way I got to see it. The idea of an epic five-hour film was sustained by the idea that Los Angeles in 2019 looked such a big and detailed world. There was room to explore.

Such hopes and illusions came crashing down with the release of Blade Runner: The Director’s Cut in 1992. Although it gave us the opportunity of seeing this film – most of us for the first time – on the big screen, it decidedly was not the five-hour epic of the director’s vision. In fact, it was shorter than the original release. The changes were at once momentous and weirdly inconsequential. The theories about Deckard being a replicant – encouraged by a close reading of Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? – were rendered explicit: out went the off-cut from The Shining, in went the off-cut from Legend, and banished was the sleepy noir-ish narration (which I guiltily still love: ‘no one advertises for a killer in a newspaper’). With the further release of Blade Runner: The Final Cut, complete with a five-disc edition containing deleted scenes, all the major alternative versions and a documentary about the alternative version, the legend was now the province of purists, pedants and the bird-spotters of cinema, a frame here, a rerecorded line there. Clarity was given not only in the re-mastering of the image but in the elimination of those beguiling inconsistencies (how many replicants?) and, more damagingly, ambiguities: ‘I want more life, FATHER.’

Nowadays, the director’s cut is no longer a mysterious legend but a marketing tool, a way of boosting ancillary sales and a counter in getting directors to compromise on the theatrical release. Watching a Ridley Scott film at the cinema seems almost a waste of time, as we do so knowing full well that the director’s cut will be on the way, with an introduction by Scott at the beginning, grumpily disavowing any compromises made. Robin Hood, Black Hawk Down, American Gangster and most dramatically Kingdom of Heaven all had big director’s cut releases, often with a cynical delay to allow the dedicated the joy of effectively buying the same movie twice. The latter is often cited as a director’s cut that vastly improves on the original, but 1) the increased amount of Orlando Bloom offsets any subplot; and 2) given it is a better version, why didn’t Scott fight for it tooth and nail? I can only watch a film for the first time once, so that experience should be optimal. Directors’ cuts encourage carelessness and compromise even as they pretend to authenticity and definitiveness, sometimes providing opportunities for endless noodling with flawed material. See Francis Ford Coppola’s appalling Apocalypse Now: Redux or Oliver Stone’s Alexander, Alexander: The Director’s Cut and Alexander Revisited: The Final Cut, or better still, don’t.

Then there are the restored classics. Sergio Leone’s Once upon a Time in America was famously butchered by the editor of Police Academy at the behest of the studios. Even though there has been a longer European cut available for some time, a new version was recently released, which restored many missing scenes. But what the film gains in coherence it loses as a watching experience. The film stock has obviously degraded and there is a glaring difference in footage quality with the lost scenes. For a restored version of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, the original cast now in their sixties and seventies overdubbed additional scenes to a similarly jarringly effect. A restored scene in Spartacus between Tony Curtis and Laurence Olivier had Anthony Hopkins doing an impersonation of Olivier in the overdub.

The dream is always that hidden treasure will be found, a lost version restored, the director’s vision finally realised, but time and again films are significantly damaged by these interpolations. Of course these aren’t necessarily directors’ cuts. They are alternate versions and, as with the recent rerelease of The Shining, there is evidence to suggest the directors might well not have wanted their films released in these versions. Sometimes less is more.

Directors’ cuts exist also in the context of ‘Unrated Versions’ of comedies (more tits, less funny), and horror movies (more gore, less scary). Having given you everything so quickly and so completely, there is still the need to shove the idea that you are somehow getting more, quantity though and not necessarily quality. ‘Including 23 minutes of previously unseen footage’ doesn’t promise much except perhaps the studio wanted an R, and the director gave them an NP-17. As a film writer, I can’t bemoan the availability of all these versions (although that is what I’m doing). I just feel disappointed; disappointed that the universe is shrinking. Now we can see the director’s second thoughts and they are rarely as good as their first. Films become flabby with additional scenes, and that sense of unseen possibility is stymied and ultimately destroyed.

The experience I had between 1977 and 1982 of nurturing the memory of a film and reliving it in so many ways can’t ever be regained, but with all our wealth of cinematic accessibility it is worth remembering some of the positives that came in the austere time, when Han Solo shot first and Jabba wasn’t CGI.

John Bleasdale

In ‘A Catholic Childhood of Unwatchable Terror’ John Bleasdale recalls his sinful teenage days watching forbidden films.

When No Means Oh OK: A dubious return to 70s-style rape in film

Love and Bruises

68th Venice International Film Festival

31 August – 10 September 2011, Venice, Italy

Biennale di Venezia website

Love and Bruises, the new film by Chinese director Ye Lou, which premiered at the latest edition of the Venice Film Festival, is a rough-and-tumble love story between a French scaffold worker (Tahar Rahim) and a Chinese student (Corinne Yam). Taken from an autobiographical novel entitled Bitch, this is an uncompromising film that examines a self-abusive bad relationship from the point of view of the woman. Or does it?

The film begins with a humiliating scene of a very public split-up. Hua, the Chinese student, is dumped by her lover. She falls asleep at a bar, and when she then wanders past the market where some workmen are dismantling the scaffolding she is hit in the head by an iron bar being carried by Matthieu. He apologises and makes sure she’s OK. He helps her find a bank machine, then follows her and pesters her until she gives him her phone number. He phones her immediately as he walks behind her. They go for dinner. He walks her home. He tries to kiss her, and when she refuses he asks what the point of the dinner was if she isn’t going to agree to have sex. She refuses again, so he drags her into a building and rapes her. Thus love is born.

Retrospectively, we can rationalise this wasn’t really rape as in the end she, you know, enjoyed it. By the way, this film was made in 2011 and not the early 70s when enjoyable rape wasn’t ruined by political correctness gone mad. The 70s, and films informed by that mentality, often gave us two types of rape to choose from. Remember Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs. We have the non-consensual sex with an ex-lover that becomes pleasurable (no means oh OK), softened by romantic music and a single tear, swiftly followed by the anal brutality of another workman, which is facilitated by the ex-lover. This version of rape says ‘well, it all depends on who is doing the raping’. Bongwater, in their 1991 album The Power of Pussy, had a lyric that ran: ‘It’s easier to accept Jesus Christ as your personal saviour when he looks like Willem Dafoe’, and the same, according to Peckinpah’s logic could be said of rapists. Love and Bruises would be an altogether different film if Matthieu wasn’t played by the fantastic Tahar Rahim. OK, he’s a rapist, but look at his body and he has such kind eyes. In fact, his thuggish friend also has a go at raping Isako with Matthieu’s complicity (a test of her loyalty), but he doesn’t look like the guy from A Prophet (2009) and so this rape (whether he succeeds or not is left unresolved) is seen as purely nasty and violent. Nothing on the earlier rape, which after a night of drinking and dancing, the couple go back to the original building site to re-enact.

The other way of portraying/mitigating rape is to distinguish between victims. Just as some rapists are OK, so some girls can be raped with more or less impunity. Think of Sergio Leone’s Once upon a Time in America. Robert De Niro’s bank robbers are told about a teller called Carol (Tuesday Weld), who is in on the job – she is not to be touched – but when the robbery begins she starts screaming and bawling, and so Noodles (De Niro) does the right thing and rapes her on the desk, complete with ‘I’m coming’ joke when badgered by his fellow bank robbers to hurry up. This horrendous humiliation is later ‘justified’ because Noodles et al meet the teller again in a brothel where she’s now working as a prostitute. Not only is there no anger, but Carol plays a game of trying to pick out her rapist by identifying him from his cock. So Carol is readily characterised as a girl you can rape, a prossie, a whore. Someone who will be a good sport about it afterwards and in fact becomes the girlfriend of bank robber Max (James Woods). But that’s Carol. When Noodles rapes Deborah (Elizabeth McGovern), his lifelong love, it becomes apparent that he’s raped the wrong girl. Deborah is the romantic girl, the virgin, to be revered, not ravaged. Noodles’ tragedy is in mixing up the virgin and the whore. It might be easy to blame this Latin dichotomy on Italian Leone, who had form (see Fistful of Dynamite for another comedy rape scene), but WASP Clint Eastwood carried the idea over in its entirety for High Plains Drifter.

Of course, some might argue that I’m conflating rough sex with rape, but actually I think that is what the films are doing. A fight that turns into a clinch is a cliché that goes on and on: Blade Runner another example. It’s a way of showing feistiness in the woman, resolving a conflict into a relationship and making it all edgy. Sparks are going to fly. But at what point does this turn into a glamorisation of rape? Or at the very least, promote values in which rape (some rape) becomes less bad than other rape? It could also be said that I’m missing the point of Love and Bruises, which is about a woman who has low self-esteem, and who is throwing herself headfirst into an abusive relationship, which is no less abusive for her consent, but I’d argue this is basically Nine and a Half Weeks with shaky handheld camerawork. The rape scene is supposed to be to some degree sexy. It fits in with all the other sex scenes and stands in stark contrast to the ‘bad’ rape scene.

Rape scenes are notoriously difficult to make without there being the possibility of titillation. After all, some (hopefully small) part of the audience might get off on rape itself. A film that takes rape as an issue, like The Accused, tied itself in knots trying to imply the rape without actually showing it: a pinball machine banging against a wall. Gasper Noé’s Irreversible takes the opposite approach and eliminates all escape routes. In what is apparently a single take, we see Monica Bellucci’s Alex being accosted by her assailant and then raped and beaten to a pulp. It is a merciless ordeal to watch, the film dares us to look away because it won’t. There is no cinematic shorthand, no cutting away, no fade to black, it is crude, violent, disgusting, nauseating, repulsive. In fact, it’s rape.

This year’s FrightFest also featured a couple of films that had a fairly primitive, 70s view of women, sex and rape.

John Bleasdale