Friday, July 18 2003

Pissing in your whiskey

Han shot first.

We never saw Newt’s family.

There was no World War II scene.

The government agents had guns.

Think of your favorite movies, the way you remember them. Pick them up on DVD, and there’s a disturbingly high chance that the movie you see will be different somehow. Maybe it’s subtle, adding a few minutes here and there that were originally chopped out for runtime or ratings issues. Maybe it’s dramatic, restoring huge chunks of material that were arbitrarily slashed away by a clueless studio. More and more often, though, it’s the result of a director revisiting his earlier work and simply changing his mind about how best to tell the story.

I call this “pissing in your whiskey,” because the director is insisting that the best work he could do ten years ago has soured in the barrel, and needs an infusion of mature creative juices.

The worst part of this is that he’s so convinced his new work is better that he won’t allow you to buy the old one. The original film was good enough for VHS and LD, but in the DVD market, it needs to be revised. Repackaged. Updated. Pissed on.

Okay, there’s a commercial reality that people seem to be more attracted to DVDs that include “special features,” but is that the real motivation for some of the changes that are being made?

Do you really need to rewrite the Star Wars Trilogy to get people to buy new copies of it? E.T.? Aliens? Not a chance. These are films that millions of people are willing to see again and again. When injectable movie crystals hit the market, people will be lining up to have themselves implanted with shiny new copies of these flicks.

And some of those people will be unhappy that they can’t see the film the way they saw it in the theater. I know I will.

Are theatrical cuts always better? Of course not; Blade Runner is a classic example of a film that the studios simply didn’t understand, and insisted that audiences wouldn’t get either unless they added a voice-over by the main character. There are plenty of others out there, dumbed down by soulless suits who wouldn’t know a good movie if it slept with them.

Should deleted scenes always be restored? Good heavens, no. If you take a good look at those “special features” on your DVDs, I think you’ll agree that ruthless editing is a necessary and desirable part of the film-making process. Most scenes that are deleted end up on the cutting-room floor for a darn good reason: they suck.

Others are deleted because they dilute the impact of the film. The original release of Aliens is tight; it sucks you in and drags you through the story with a power and energy that’s rarely been matched on the big screen. The DVD takes every opportunity to undermine this careful pacing, by fleshing out the characters and situations.

Taken on their own merits, I like almost every scene that was added to the DVD release of Aliens. As part of the movie, however, I hate them all. I saw Aliens before seeing Alien, and I still regard it as a self-contained film. One of the most important elements of that is not knowing the truth about LV-426 before the marines arrive there. Showing Newt’s family finding the eggs under Burke’s orders not only destroys the suspense of the arrival, it unmasks Burke as a villain about an hour too soon.

Ripley’s daughter, the automated perimeter guns, the quiet exchange of names between Ripley and Hicks; they’re all fine moments, and they satisfy the fan’s desire to know more about the film they’ve invested so much love in, but they don’t belong in the movie. As optional elements that can be viewed in context, they’re great; as mandatory parts of the experience, they’re excrutiating.