An artist never finishes a piece of art, not really. At a certain point, a precise juncture of the creative process, they just stop working. They present the art to the public, for whom this work is—seems to be—completed, but for that artist ideas may continue to churn, what could have been done differently, what could still be done differently. They may consider the possibility of changes, of improvement. Think, for instance, of any book of collected essays or stories from a writer you admire: “These appeared, in slightly different form...” is a common preface found in the opening acknowledgements. Even precise wordsmiths like James Salter or Renata Adler tinkered with pieces after they were purportedly finished. For Salter, whose revisions were done longhand, entire new pieces of prose were born of earlier pieces, so severe were his second thoughts. He rewrote his entire 1967 novel The Arm of Flesh, which he found too derivative, and renamed in Cassada in 2000. And Adler, constrained by her editors and, sometimes, her self-contradictions, rarely had the creative control her barbed style demands. When given freedom, she allowed her mind to decant across the page. You feel her presence lingering over every word, every curiously placed comma. Edgar Allan Poe, as exacting as he was bibulous, rewrote his stories over and over, even after they were published, sending different versions to different magazines. The desire to alter and improve doesn’t just appeal to writers: Manet did two versions of his famous painting Le déjeuner sur l'herbe and, for years, the earlier version was thought to be a fake before advanced technology revealed that the purported fake was, in fact, a preparatory version. Caravaggio did multiple versions of several paintings, including Boy Bitten By a Lizard and The Cardsharps. David Bowie, whose persona and aesthetic consistently vacillated, wrote and performed the music on Iggy Pop’s debut solo album The Idiot, and years later, for his own album Let’s Dance, covered the song “China Girl,” performing vocals himself and making the Krautrock-influenced sound more pop-oriented. And so on.
Life eddies and flows, and an artist is never the same person from one moment to another. They change their minds, they change their style. They change as humans, on a fundamental level.
New York’s Quad Cinema is presenting “The Way I See It,” an assemblage of director’s cuts—those monstrous, long, sometimes bloated versions of films that were, for one reason or another, not quite done in their progenitors’ eyes—and the bevy of selections is fascinating. The term “Director’s Cut,” found festooning Blu-ray and DVD boxes, is frequently just a gimmick to sell units, akin to “Unrated Cut,” or “Special Edition,” useless monikers all, but this series offers an opportunity to delve into the unfettered imagination of some of cinema’s great iconoclasts. The myriad pentimenti made by the directors don’t always serve the films’s needs very well, but they do, by their very existence, present clearer views of the artistic process, of the vision at work. Most of the films exceed three hours; in the case of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, whose theatrical version was engendered by a notoriously troubled production and Coppola’s mental degradation in the heart of the jungle, the amended version runs almost an hour longer than its original incarnation, while the restored cut of Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America runs for a butt-numbing 251 minutes—still 18 minutes shorter than Leone’s original version. The longest film of the series, Wolfgang Petersen’s Das Boot, originally 154 minutes, now clocks in at 275, which, at such a colossal length, may start to make moviegoers feel as confined and claustrophobic as the men trapped in the submarine.
When Coppola unveiled his long-gestating Apocalypse Now at Cannes in 1979, where it won the Palme d’Or, it was presented as unfinished; maybe it remained this way for the filmmaker for years, since he debuted Apocalypse Now: Redux, described as a “new rendition of the movie from scratch,”in 2001. (Shades of Salter here, perhaps.) Coppola and editor Walter Murch reinstated, among other expunged scenes, a much-discussed 45-minute excursion to a French plantation, which, for all it serenity and beauty, propounds some of the film’s darkest ideas. Here, the film’s themes of imperialism, colonialism, and power struggles are more fully fleshed out, and the diaphanous veils of mist and streamers of light that pour through windows inundate the film with the feeling of a ghost story, a disconcerting, empyrean sensation draped over the moribund material.
If it all sort of drags down the pacing, as an extra 45 minutes will do, the scene still, at least on its own, remains a beguiling piece of filmmaking—confident, methodical, humanly flawed. Perhaps that is the innate joy of a director’s cut: human folly. Art cannot, intrinsically, be perfect; it is not a math equation. Foibles are vital to a film. The mistakes, the decisions an assiduous editor would trim and hew, the superfluous moments—when amalgamated, these add up to an imperfect whole, one rife with human error, and art is, if nothing else, a way to probe one’s humanity. There’s a certain kind of messiness in these films. In seeing the imperfections of an artist’s vision, we get a fuller, more honest picture, and Redux is maybe the most fascinating example. Consider this: Marlon Brando, enigmatic in his corpulence and unnatural articulation, showed up on set having not even read the required materials. His insolence is now the stuff of legends. He was supposed to be skeletal, emaciated; he showed up distended, as if in spite. He is first seen swaddled in shadows. From the ebony alcoves of his jungle fortress he emerges, his big bald head agleam as he pontificates on flowers, on bureaucrats. He likens Martin Sheen’s assassin to a grocery clerk (the unnerving way he pops the k sound in “clerk”). It could be said that Coppola, having to compensate for Brando’s recalcitrant appearance, created one of American cinema’s great introductory scenes in a moment of irate necessity, the darkness hiding Brando’s great heft, and this brings into question the idea of auteurist intention, even in a director’s cut, which should be (in theory) the undiluted vision of the artist. Would the film have the same power if Brando had shown up gangly and prepared? Shot by Vittorio Storaro, Apocalypse Now looks best in its Redux version because Storaro and Coppola made new prints used for this cut, slicing up the original negatives to do so. The implication is that this is now the definitive Apocalypse Now. Authorial intention and all that.
Director’s cuts tend, historically, to apply to epics more than any other type of film. Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate, which, after a terrible performance at the box office, sounded the death knell for an entire era of Hollywood filmmaking (before being belatedly reevaluated as a masterpiece), was butchered for theatrical release. The 216-minute 2012 Final Cut, shortened from a rushed 325-minute work print, was hacked into a 149-minute edited cut. Cimino’s version, a shaggy, meandering, existential trip through the dusty west, barely resembles the one that was flensed of so much footage. Restraint is what directors seem to purge when putting together new cuts of films; they add excess back, the stuff that was deemed unnecessary, but which now extrapolates the vision as originally conceived. They aren’t as tight or economical, but they give you everything. Cimino, demanding and stubborn, exploited the studio’s weak management but eventually lost control of the film. The full-length cut of Heaven’s Gate is, if a wildly uneven affair, still the best glimpse into the mind of an artist who refused to settle or compromise. Without all the superfluous material, something seems to be missing.
Sir Ridley Scott is often credited with ushering in the popularity of the director’s cut, due to his decades-long fidgeting with Blade Runner (the “Director’s Cut” of that film is, indeed, not even his preferred cut; that would be the Final Cut). Before he made cold, CG-engorged slogs, he crafted films with ingenuity and precision. (His director’s cut of Alien is two minutes shorter than the theatrical.) The theatrical cut of Blade Runner, confusing rather than mysterious, was burdened with that comically stoic voice-over and an ending whose ambiguity stemmed from interference, not artistic decision. The revised version—both of them, really—mitigate these flaws, as well as those created by technological inferiority (the reflection of bulbous fireballs gleaming in the eyeball are now curved; the unicorn’s horn is stable and no longer flops around like a cardboard prop). Some of the changes are furtive, but others, including the entirely different ending, have come to define the possibilities of a director’s cut. The film changes profoundly when that tinfoil unicorn is placed gently down. A small gesture, a small change, and it’s a different film.
James Cameron has always been a craftsman, someone for whom technology and the form of cinema are more intriguing than the humans populating those films, and in his extended cuts his acute sense of pacing and structure is thrown off. The director’s cuts of his film invariably bog down what are otherwise lithe, hard-hitting action films. He tells us more than we need to know in Terminator 2: Judgment Day and The Abyss and Aliens. Aliens especially suffers from its momentum hitting speed bumps, even if the extra footage is, taken on its own terms, engaging, and fleshes out characters, which, conventional wisdom decrees, should be a good thing. Aliens is, like the Xenomorph within it, an organism that exists for one thing, and it does that one thing with unimpeachable ferocity. It thrills. The extended cuts weigh these thrills down, and Cameron surely knows this—he does, after all, refer to these cuts as “Extended,” rather than definitive.
There is an almost existential beauty to the idea of a director’s cut— a mulligan, something so rarely offered in life. In its longer cut, Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret, a film about the agony and ecstasy of chance occurrences and routines, almost resembles a loose adaptation of Mrs. Dalloway, so disobedient is it to the accepted formal structure of modern filmmaking, with an intricate and rhapsodic sound design that marries opera with the banalities of New York life. It’s an intimate panoramic whose impulses are sometimes errant but always crucial to its depiction of quotidian life and death. Similarly, Once Upon a Time in America needs to be seen with its imperfections and oddities intact. Leone, profoundly heartbroken over the hack job done to his would-be opus, never made another film; he died, at the age of 60, in 1989, never witnessing the film’s resurgence on home media just several years later. After a rapturous ovation at the premiere, the film was, as you can probably by now guess, slashed and sutured back together, to appear more commercially viable. The wrinkled, nonlinear narrative was straightened out, as if by an iron, with the poetic digressions and associative imagery expunged. It’s a film concerned with redemption. The past lurks always like an apparition. Memories like whorls of smoke from an opium pipe dissipate into the dark. Time, in Leone’s lyrical vision, passes by like a stream that, through persistence, abrades into the earth a path. If all the plot threads are never woven neatly together by the end, here or in the other films, that is not a fatal flaw; life does not comprise tidy endings, everything sewn up nice and neat. It’s a painful, beautiful mess.