Film School: On Director’s Cuts

Weighing the Value of Director's Cuts | Scanline Weighing the Value of Director's Cuts | Scanline

“We like to think of works as made by one person, products of their own vision, when nothing is that simple” – Scanline

In “Weighing the Value of Director’s Cuts“, video essayists Shannon Strucci and Harris (aka hbomberguy) explore “the idea constructed by the concept of Director’s Cuts” (my emphasis, but maybe theirs too?).

While their exploration may begin with a discussion of the impending theatrical release of Apocalypse Now: The Final Cut, it’s perhaps truly catalyzed by the Snyder Cut ̶n̶o̶n̶s̶e̶n̶s̶e̶ phenomenon, and it’s clearly prompted above all by George Lucas’ treatment of his Star Wars films:

The idea that there’s an authentic version of a film is kind of beautiful, and that makes the struggle to get that version seem almost romantic. (40:33)

But where does this idea come from? As they point out, film making is a collaborative process – assigning credit or responsibility for the product of hundreds of hands to just one person is incorrect and unfair. Beyond that: directors, when given final cut, don’t necessarily make the best choices (I’d add Donnie Darko: The Director’s Cut to the list of prime examples of this); and often, a director’s feelings on their own choices change with time.

Nonetheless, the romantic idea of lone-artist-versus-bulldozing-corporation has, ironically, been successfully co-opted into audiences’ unwitting loyalty to those very corporations:

But this idea has been repackaged and sold back to us… [film studios are] selling us the ‘fixed’ version of a movie that was broken by them. (40:42)

As a creator, I sometimes like the idea of my creations being in a perpetual state of flux, that I can go back and tinker with things I made once they begin to embarrass or annoy me. I like to think it’s a sign that I’ve gotten better at my craft, that I can see or do what I couldn’t before. But this denies the value of those things – or, as the Scanline kids refer to it,

the charm of mistakes (24:11)

As an audience member, the way a work was, and my memory of it – particularly its little quirky details, its charming “mistakes” – is integral to my perception of it, and of myself in relation to it: the work remains the same, I change, and I can measure my progress as a human being by the change in how that work looks and feels to me over time. It’s why so many of us are upset that Lucas didn’t just update “his” films; by removing the theatrical versions of the original Star Wars trilogy from the market place, he deprived us of our version of those films.

So: coming back to looking at this as a creator, letting go of the work is also integral to me moving forward – not only as a creator, but also as a person.

As an educator: these questions, which are interesting to me as an artist, make me appreciate project deadlines and examination schedules – a framework which forces my students (particularly the perfectionists) to let go, to move on, and to aim to take what they’ve learned from this semester into the next, and, ideally, into their practice beyond university.

Funnily enough: I have managed to already see Apocalypse Now: The Final Cut. The part I found most interesting was director Francis Coppola‘s introduction, a short address to camera that goes for maybe 3 minutes, in which he acknowledges the way his own ideas about his own ideas have changed in response to the culture and technology around him – and how sometimes it takes 40 years (and a lot of very knowledgeable collaborators – he credits the sound designers and colourists above all) to maybe begin understand what you’ve actually created.

Further Viewing

Lindsay Ellis has covered a great deal of ground surrounding this topic. There are two in particular worth checking out at this point. The first is a shorter overview of Auteur Theory:

The second is a longer length, deeper dive into a question Scanline inevitably butts up against by the end of their discussion: does the author’s intention even matter?