1 November 2009

Exposition - A Take on Alternatives

There was a time when the feature film conveyed a sense of permanence, as if the story you were watching had been set in stone. Indeed, of the mere hundred years or so during which the medium has existed, this has been the case for all but the last third of that period. As a child of the eighties, I have only a very small recollection of this time, and yet it is an era which remains powerfully vivid in my mind. Oftentimes the only inkling you had of an upcoming film would be the preview shown before another feature. Occasionally there would be a poster or cardboard diorama set up in the cinema three or four months in advance. On rare occasions there might be a brief article in one of the larger newspapers suggesting that filming had commenced on a sequel to one of the successful films from two or three years ago. Whatever the case, when you did eventually settle down in that mildew-scented cinema and waited for the red curtains to draw aside in their jerky fashion, it never once entered my mind that I would be seeing anything but a perfect vision. Hollywood was just like Willy Wonka's chocolate factory. The inner workings of the industry remained largely unknown and mysterious, clouding popular perception to a point where it seemed inconceivable that a film could have ended up in any state other than the way we saw it on the screen. Without any knowledge of the politics, disputes, and outright failures going on behind the scenes, films always seemed to emerge with an unearthly, somewhat eerie sense of immaculate completion.

"We are the music-makers, and we are the dreamers of dreams"
Looking back over the past twenty years, it is startling how much the situation has changed within such a short period. And the most appreciable influence behind this shift is, of course, the advent of the internet. While there has always been a subculture, made up of enthusiasts, which have made it their business to appraise themselves of all the news and inner-workings of the film industry that their circumstances would allow, the mass transferral of information afforded by the internet has seen an unprecedented increase in the amount of available material and the number of people with access to it. Time was when it actually meant something to say that you had an interest in film, the hallmarks of which were a basement or attic crammed to the brim with film cases and projection equipment. Cut to the present day, where saying that you like film is akin to expressing your interest in food or simple respiration. What was once the sole province of a dedicated subculture has become a staple of culture at large, to the point where virtually everyone these days would classify themselves as some species of film enthusiast. In fact, one might say that very little is left of the original audience, that great horde which used to include the cinema as part of their weekly or monthly entertainment, to be consumed, enjoyed, and then largely forgotten. When a film screens these days it is not met by the humble consumer, but ruthlessly dissected by a throng of self-proclaimed, self-righteous critics and technical experts – yours truly included.

No longer perceived as a kind of immaculate vision, the general attitude toward film has shifted toward a 'work-in-progress' mentality: the seamless white sheet now exposed as the patch-work conglomeration it really was all along. Indeed, with the proliferation of insider-information now blazoned on the web, the attitude toward modern films is very often determined before production even begins – the seams picked apart before the industry even has a chance to lay out the template. Increasingly, the result of this pressure seems to be a frantic attempt on the part of film-makers and studios to placate vocal consumers rather than maintain their original vision. More often than not, however, the result is a bastardised hybrid of creative concept and reactionary marketing that fails to satisfy either party. But even if we rightly identify the internet as playing a significant role in this shift, is it really the only, or indeed the original cause? By the same token, can we really blame the millions of film enthusiasts – whose curiosity perhaps outstrips their tact and diligence – for the increasing number of creatively compromised films, or does the fault really lie on the industry side?

To an extent, I think that film-makers have actually brought this situation upon themselves. On the studio side, nothing but greed can account for the recent trend toward approving sequels before an original instalment has even been tested in the market. The considerable upsurge in remakes has also led to a climate wherein films are leant to direct comparisons, and the inevitable conclusion that one or the other must necessarily be bad if the other is deemed to be good. Over-saturation is perhaps the best way to describe the current phenomenon, and its origins can be traced all the way back to the era of my idealised childhood. You see, with the advent of (relatively) affordable home-viewer technology, such as Laserdisc and VHS tapes, the general populace began to see tangible proof of an element of film-making which had always existed but, until then, generally remained within the realm of urban legend: the extended cut. The famously absent spider pit sequence in the original King Kong is one of the best known examples, but it wasn't until the early eighties that extended cuts began to be widely disseminated, triggering a fundamental shift in the attitude toward film. The infamous Caligula – released in 1979 – is a tempting candidate upon whom to pin the role of popularising alternative versions. The controversy surrounding its content certainly propelled it to a level of intense public scrutiny, but the details of its troubled production disqualifies it to some extent on a technicality. After all, it wasn't that director Tinto Brass was issuing multiple versions of his own volition, more that his Caligula was competing with a version augmented by Giancarlo Lui and Bob Guccione, as if they were entirely separate films.

It wasn't until the mid eighties, when cable TV stations began to show an extended version of Michael Cimino's Heaven's Gate, that the public was really exposed to the idea that a director could favour a version of the film which was substantially different from the cinema release. It was this particular example which also brought the term Director's Cut out of its original context as part of the film-making process and introduced it to the consumer vocabulary. Even so, for the most part the eighties continued under the auspice that what you saw on the screen was what you were ideally meant to get, at least until two of the biggest names in modern film-making unwittingly pioneered what has since grown into a staple of the industry. As fate would have it, 1992 saw two of the most influential science-fiction films reissued to audiences, with Ridley Scott releasing a Director's Cut of Blade Runner, and James Cameron offering a Special Edition of Aliens. The ramifications for the home-viewer were nothing short of revolutionary. Suddenly it wasn't simply a matter of whether you liked the movie or not, but which version you regarded as being superior. Films could now be comparable to themselves, creating a schism which – regardless of where you fell on the issue – denied any concept of an immaculate, definitive version. With the cinema complex still top-dog in the market, however, the issue was still largely relegated to the home-viewing enthusiast.

While these examples certainly acted as harbingers on the horizon of future possibility, they were destined to remain something of an oddity through to the late nineties. As pillars of the industry, Scott and Cameron had opened minds to the possibility that great films could exist in an alternate form which was even arguably superior. However, each had come about through a set of particular circumstances, with neither director exhibiting any desire to make it a staple in their creative repertoire. It took another pillar of the science-fiction catalogue to really set-off the boom industry in alternate versions, a dubious honour that fell to George Lucas and his 1997 theatrical release of the Star Wars trilogy in a revised Special Edition. This time there was no escaping the schism, and to complicate the issue further, this divide would have generational implications. Where Scott and Cameron had been content to allow their alternate version to stand on their own merits, Lucas took the contentious step of weighing in heavily, even overbearingly, on the issue. His intent with these re-releases was to establish a definitive version, taking advantage of technology which was not available to him at the time.

For those that had embraced the original Star Wars trilogy it was simply too bad – it was being put out to pasture, with the openly professed intent that they might be forgotten as a new generation grew up in the shadow of these revised iterations. The older generation had, unfortunately, fallen for an incomplete, blemished version, but now it was time to upgrade to something certifiably superior. Needless to say, many resented the implicit suggestion that they had been duped into embracing a flawed vision, and doubly so now that the unconditional love they had shown for this cash cow had put enough money in the farmer's coffer that he was at liberty to take it out the back and shoot it. A precedent had been set and a means of increasing revenue simultaneously proven, and it was not long before others took the idea and ran with it, including the unimaginatively titled release of The Exorcist: The Version You've Never Seen. With the subsequent advent the DVD format and its ability to convey data in a non-linear fashion, the market in alternate versions expanded rapidly from this point on, delivering a bastard child in the form of endless reissues and repackages.

As always, however, it only takes a few glorious triumphs for us to forgive a trying campaign of misadventure, and in the realm of alternate versions there have certainly been a few films that seem to justify the phenomenon. The 2003 release of an Alien 3 in Assembly Cut form, for instance, offers an approximation of the film we may have seen had a young David Fincher not been encumbered with a terminally ill production from the outset. As a mark of dedication to the original source material, Peter Jackson put considerable effort into an Extended Edition of each instalment in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, providing an affirmative example of how to successfully negotiate the rift between the casual and dedicated audience. Deserving the most praise of all, however, is Ridley Scott, who has recently returned to place his indelible mark on the phenomenon which he ostensibly created with a truly transformative Director's Cut of the otherwise deeply flawed Kingdom of Heaven. Since then he has delved into the depths of his back-catalogue to reissue Blade Runner in a deluxe set, delivering not only a revised Final Cut, but a staggering four other versions in a definitive sign of support for the dedicated enthusiast. As such, while we may lament the advent of alternative cuts for unleashing a marketing farce in recent years, it is certain that we would never have experienced some truly spectacular film evolutions had the phenomenon never taken root.

Ridley Scott finishes what he started with Blade Runner