Tell me if this story sounds familiar: A film director finishes a passion project exactly as they wanted it, creating a movie that doesn’t lower itself to pandering to the mainstream masses, but the pompous man upstairs fears it’s too unique to put enough money in his pocket and butchers it to be a hit. It premieres, the public feels safe and unchallenged watching it, the studio gets their hit or else blames the director anyway, and said director is forever misunderstood. Or are they? Because sometimes, just when we thought we knew the story, someone decides to let them release their unedited cut on video, and all but the true sheeple are enthralled at how much bolder, unique… er, and better it is.

Except when it’s not. While none of us want to side with big shot studio executives over underdog directors with a vision, the fact of the matter is that footage isn’t always cut because it’s just too daring for the man caught up in MPAA ratings and marketing strategies. Sometimes somebody else has a better idea, or sometimes it’s the director who doesn’t get it, at least in certain, isolated points. There is a thin line between daring and pretentious that just a few seconds of footage can cross. You’d be surprised how easy it is to be so immersed in each moment of your vision that you lose sight of the image they form as a whole, the one seen from the outside looking in – rightly so. (Take my case, which probably wouldn’t surprise you: More than once have I swung for an essay that seemed hard-hitting or heartfelt when finished, only to come back two months later with fresh eyes and find it cheesy, jumbled, melodramatic, or all of the above.) A vision isn’t all there is to it. As they drill into you on the writing track, editing is the heart of writing. The same goes for all other forms of storytelling. EDIT: I’m not actually the one who said that, but the internet doesn’t feel like helping me remember who was.

So here, to tell the other side of the story, are my top 9 movies that were better in their official release cuts than in the cuts that were more what the director first had in mind (though not all of them are director’s cuts per se). Why only the top 9? Because less is more, as these movies demonstrate verbatim.

  1. Bad Santa

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Hey, what if our bad Santa were ever badder? (Actually, that’s a third version of the movie which absolutely no one prefers, so forget about that.) What if we eliminated any lingering sentimentality by cutting the scenes that weren’t the director’s idea and made sure only the darkest of the comedy was left? Some of you might say not to mess with success, but even if you’re not among the people who like to think of themselves as “edgy,” your inner rebel may, in spite of everything, be just a little bit intrigued.

But on the other hand, Bad Santa was pretty much a take-no-prisoners movie in the first place, and despite the common mindset that anything darker makes the previous version ipso facto for lightweights (which often brings unfortunate support for these endeavors), how many darker places worth going are really left? It turns out what director Terry Zwigoff had in mind was more of a bitter character study than a comedy, and the oh-so sentimental moments this meant giving up turned out to include the movie’s most popular scene of boxing mentorship turning into crotch punching.

The moment that demonstrates the difference in a nutshell, however, is the opening scene with the main character, Willy, in a bar. In the theatrical cut, he sits bitterly, watching the people who have lives, while his deadpan, cynical narration informs us of the terrible yet hysterically disjointed events that led him to this point. In Zwigoff’s version, there is no narration, and nothing but the classical background music makes a sound. Willy sits in silence, drinking, sulking, and looking over his shoulder to watch the crowds of people happy to be together. It’s sad, gentle, and enough to actually make Zwigoff’s version seem like the sentimental one, despite the absence of the semi-light comedy. Whether Zwigoff realizes it or not, the movie evolved into something more in line with the first version. It’s not a sensitive depiction of a dark and pitiful man who never had a chance. Willy’s cynical, detached indifference undercuts most of the sorrow in his predicament, as if saying “forget it, I don’t care anyway.” No, the movie is a depiction of how outrageous he’s become – dropping f-bombs and urinating in his Santa chair – which just doesn’t go with Zwigoff’s idea for an artful character portrait. Instead, we feel for Willy because of how hilariously misguided yet sympathetic it is when he applies himself to helping the kid who takes him in.

“…Maybe you shouldn’t spend so much time around me.” He groans to the boy, as they and his midget assistant all lie in the boxing ring, holding their groins.

It’s a good example, if not something that ruins a movie, though the bloggers who have already covered it might have preferred I ranked it higher.

  1. Kiki’s Delivery Service

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                Admittedly, there are some good reasons to side with the latest English release of Kiki’s Delivery Service over the one that Disney released in 1998. It eliminates most of the superfluous lines that weren’t in the original Japanese version and reverses other inconsequential changes to at least make purists happy. But the context in which they were changed back can be irksome. If you grew up with the version released by Disney, you might find yourself missing just a couple of Phil Hartman’s best quips as Jiji the cat, and the ending in which he doesn’t regain his ability to talk can take you out of the moment. It’s actually not that different either way – we establish that he and Kiki reconnect despite their lives continuing to go in different directions regardless – but changing it back at this point carries the hipster stench of “what, you can’t handle a little something sad?” which is not what the moment is about. It’s supposed to be Kiki’s moment of triumph, no matter how it falls into place.

But the real reason for its inclusion here is the latest cut’s altering the two musical sequences to use the original Japanese pop tunes. If the songs in the American version had just been any old English pop songs that happened to be big at the time, I’d support this. But they weren’t. They were sincere numbers by a little-known singer that were specifically recorded for this movie and fit their respective scenes perfectly. Heck, they actually have a stronger connection to this movie than the songs they replaced, which existed before the movie and were chosen just because they seemed to fit the bill. At very least, that’s enough to put them on equal ground with the Japanese alternates, so why not give the English-speaking audience the songs that allow them to get behind the lyrics as much as the music? It’s partly a personal gripe but a major one nonetheless.

  1. Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker

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Actually, you could easily make an argument the other way for this movie, because no matter which version came out better, the main purpose of the edits was to censor the relatively trivial cartoon violence. A less-than-noble attempt to cover the company’s back like that can indeed compromise artistic integrity and should be criticized when it does. So this time around, how did it change this high point in the series about an elderly Bruce Wayne passing the torch to the teenage Terry McGinnis?

The returned Joker’s gun, sprouting one of those flags that reads “Bang!” now sprays Joker venom, instead of then shooting the flag like a dart to spear his enemies? Actually, that feels more characteristic of him. The dart gun was a noble attempt, but it ends up seeming like a lot of excess for a lesser version of an average handgun. But on the other hand, a lot of the fight scenes are shorter and simpler, distilling the purpose they were meant to serve in the first place.

So what about the most infamous changes, in the flashback to the night the original Batman fought the Joker for the last time to recover the kidnapped Robin, brainwashed and remade in the image of the Joker himself? Instead of showing us just enough of the footage of how he broke Robin to take in the horror, telling us it involved “shocks and serums” that took their toll despite resistance that would have made Batman proud, we’re only shown that it involved a lab table? True, that one does take out some of the impact. And then, when Batman pins Joker against a wall, instead of craftily turning the tables with a concealed knife to the leg, explaining the limp we see Bruce Wayne walking with throughout the series, the Joker wins just by punching him back once? Darn it, no wonder fans rallied around the unedited cut. And then it changes the big crescendo, in which the Joker decides to let the brainwashed Robin shoot Batman, tossing him the dart gun? Actually, brainwashed or not, that was pretty stupid. Didn’t Joker think there was just a chance his former enemy might decide to aim the gun a few inches to the right? Because that’s what he does. And no, I don’t think Joker’s last words, “That’s not funny” make the scene, like some fans seem to.

So how did the edited version do it? The fact that it’s a poisonous gas gun now means Robin can’t simply shoot the Joker by surprise. So now, the former boy wonder, still laughing the droning laugh hat is now the only sound he can make, squirms, sweats, and finally tosses it away. The beaten Batman smiles in disbelief as he realizes the Joker was right about one thing: Robin’s strength would make him proud. Laughing, smiling, forcing himself to action, Robin lunges on the furious Joker, driving him back into the room where the man tortured him. The Joker finally seizes his coat and attempts to hold him down, but with a burst of strength, the boy pushes him into a tank of water that shatters upon impact, tangling him in electric wires. The Joker rises and lunges forward, but with a sudden slip, he accidentally flips a switch. With a bloodcurdling scream we only hear echoing through the halls, the Joker’s reign ends, and Robin, the ultimate second banana, the figure even Terry has sneered at on several occasions, emerges as the one the Joker underestimated and the one to decide which way his endless struggle with Batman finally falls. Succeeding where Batman failed, he takes the most horrifying memories of the Joker – including killing him mano a mano – upon himself, breaking down in tears.

Actually, I think I like that better. Like, a lot.

When you’re forced to alter something, it’s your choice how you rise to the challenge. In this case, the people behind Return of the Joker crafted a critical scene that hinged on a contrived plot point, and being forced to throw it out altogether inadvertently allowed them to try again. They chose to do it with gusto, and they didn’t make the same mistake twice.

  1. Greed

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Before it was edited for its official release, 1924’s Greed was director Erich von Stroheim’s only movie that he claimed had “total validity.” He wanted to make the definitive version of the novel McTeague, the story of the rise and fall of an average man in a once-loving relationship. He was able to do everything his way while filming it. He shot the entire movie on location, even travelling to the actual dessert described in the novel, where the crew members regularly collapsed from heat exhaustion and the cameras had to be wrapped in icy towels. He had the actors live in the flat that was the primary setting to get into to character, wanting everything to be as realistic as possible. He even managed to shoot most of the scenes with only natural light. But in the end, only a handful of people outside the studio ever saw his unedited version – at a special screening – their opinions ranging from “masterpiece” to “painful overkill.” The footage that was edited out is now considered lost. So after all that, how could I possibly say the unedited version didn’t measure up, especially since nobody alive today has ever seen it? It was almost 10 hours long.

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As Roger Ebert put it, “There is a point at which an audience will simply not sit still.” It would take most people multiple sittings to get through 10 hours of black and white footage styled for unrelenting realism. But isn’t it still a little bold to say the edited version was better, especially since the producer responsible for it was von Stroheim’s nemesis Irving Thalberg, hiring a low-ranked editor to make it into a more commercial picture? It’s hard to think so, considering the edited version, still running 2 ½ hours, is considered one of the greatest movies of all time.

So why only 6th place, if we’re talking about stripping down enough excess footage for 6 movies and coming up with a masterpiece? Well, that’s where I backpedal. The 2 ½ hour cut really is sort of amateurish, using title cards to bridge gaps in a way that could come off as sloppy. And actually, von Stroheim was willing to compromise, getting help from his friend Rex Ingram to edit it down to a four hour version that everyone involved approved of, before Thalberg took over the project. At very least, it’s a shame that we’ll never see the four hour version, especially since von Stroheim approved of that one and disowned the one we got. Heck, no matter what the best version of the movie was, it would probably be nice if we could at least see the rest of the 10 hours, which might have been the ultimate passion project. But still, the strict rules apply. The director wanted to use the unbearably long 10 hour cut – or a shorter but still overlong version of it, depending on who you ask – and the official release cut we got instead was a watchable all time great. If it’s any consolation, there’s a 1999 reconstruction of the film, using von Stroheim’s long-lost script and several hundred still pictures from the lost footage. It runs about 4 hours.

  1. Star Wars: A New Hope

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I could probably question the updated special effects and such in George Lucas’s newer release, but to reiterate the real reason for the widespread hatred towards it in a way that most of you will get, I only need 3 words: Han shot first.

But on the other hand, if I could only use 3 words to explain why I’m only ranking this one 5th, they would have to be: I don’t care.

…as much as I care about the kind of changes to come, which are truly the difference between a good movie and a bad movie, for while having Han Solo wait for a bounty hunter to shoot at him at point blank range before firing back is tacky and removes some of the immediate impressiveness of his character, Harrison Ford’s performance – in a movie that has become timeless for so many other reasons in addition – was enough to insure that we still see the same character and still enjoy a truly great movie, not to mention that Lucas’s latest version has them fire at the same time, which basically still gets across the notion of Han outsmarting his opponent. So, yeah.

 

 

With that, part 1 comes to a close. I’ll see you all soon with the alternate cuts that really did a number on their movies – yes, even more than the change that started a whole fan fan crusade.

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