Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The kindest cut

with 2 comments

Laura Dern and Nicolas Cage in Wild at Heart

Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s question: “Has an ‘uncensored’ version of a familiar entertainment ever scandalized you?”

Earlier this year, there was a brief online furor over a report that Martin Scorsese had cut a few minutes of footage from The Wolf of Wall Street to get its rating down from an NC-17 to an R. Looking back, the initial response seems overblown—if there’s one thing that Wolf doesn’t need, it’s more graphic sex—but it’s easy to understand the reaction. Scorsese is both our most acclaimed living filmmaker and something like a national treasure, and he should presumably be allowed to release his movie in whatever form he sees fit. In the past, Scorsese’s struggles with the ratings board have resulted in some genuine losses: the original bloodbath that concludes Taxi Driver was desaturated in postproduction to avoid an X rating, and although the version we have plays just fine, I still wish we could see the vivid colors that the cinematographer Michael Chapman wistfully describes. Yet there’s also a part of me that believes that there’s a place for a system that requires filmmakers to pull ever so slightly back from their original intentions. Like it or not, less is often more, and sometimes it takes an arbitrary, borderline annoying set of cultural watchdogs to enforce that discipline, even at the cost of a frame or two.

This isn’t meant as a defense of the MPAA rating system, which is badly damaged: it ignores violence but panics at the slightest hint of sex, and it permanently destroyed our chances of a viable cinema for adults in the United States by its bungled rollout of the NC-17 rating. (As Roger Ebert pointed out at the time, it was a mistake to simply substitute the NC-17 for the X, which only transferred the existing stigma to a new category: the real solution would have been to insert a new A rating between X and R, allowing for adult content that fell short of outright pornography. Unfortunately, the revised system was allowed to stand, and there isn’t much of an incentive in this country for anyone to make a change.) But I’d also argue that the ratings have their place, within limits.  We often end up with a more interesting cinema when directors are forced to work around the restrictions, pushing them to the extent of permissibility, than if they’re simply given a free pass. It wasn’t what the ratings board had in mind, but just as the Hays Code indirectly shaped the conventions of noir, you could argue that American movies have benefited from their puritanical streak—not in the blandness of the mainstream, but at the edges, where smart, subversive filmmakers skewed the rules in ways the censors never intended.

Kyle MacLachlan in Blue Velvet

And it’s often the most imaginative and formally inexhaustible directors who benefit the most from such shackles. I’d rather watch Psycho again than Frenzy, and you can make a strong case that David Lynch—who at his best is the most interesting director of my lifetime—works better under constraints. I’ve written elsewhere of how Lynch was contractually obligated to produce a cut of Blue Velvet that was under two hours, which he and editor Duwayne Dunham delivered down to the minute. The result is nothing less than my favorite American movie, and although it lost close to an hour of footage in the process, the sacrifice was a crucial one: the deleted scenes featured on the recent Blu-ray release are fascinating, often wonderful, but including them would have left us with a movie that most of us would have been glad to watch once, like Inland Empire, rather than one I’ve wanted to experience again and again. Since then, Lynch has moved on, and his most recent work, shot on digital video without any eye to commercial appeal, seems designed to avoid any constraints whatsoever. And he’s earned the right. But I don’t know if he’ll ever make another movie like Blue Velvet.

Lynch also clearly benefited from the thematic constraints enforced by television. Twin Peaks gained much of its power from the fact that it had to operate within broadcast standards, and it was endlessly evocative precisely because it left so much to implication. (The difference between the original series and Fire Walk With Me is that between the intensity of restraint and its opposite.) Much the same is true of Mulholland Dr., the first two acts of which were originally a television pilot. And Wild at Heart, at least to my eyes, was actively improved by its television cut. When I first saw it, back when it was a real event for me to catch a movie like this on a broadcast channel, I loved it—it was sweet, sinister, colorful, and charged with perverse romance. A few years later, when I caught a screening of the full version at the late and lamented UC Theater in Berkeley, I was surprised to discover how much less I enjoyed it: it was uglier, more indulgent, and ultimately less true to its own conception. This is all very subjective, of course, but I still believe that the television cut retained most of what I love about Lynch while paring away the worst of his excesses. In its existing form, it feels ever more like a footnote, while the television cut is a minor masterpiece that I’d love to see again now. I only wish that I’d taped it.

2 Responses

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  1. I agree 100%. Eminence can be a curse for some artists, I think. You have a lot more insight into publishing than me, but I sometimes get the impression that books written _after_ a writer becomes a major figure don’t get edited rigorously enough. That if they were submitted by an unknown they might well be published, but only after some heavy cuts and rethinking. Once they are only listening to themselves, even geniuses can produce rubbish. I think it was Eric Temple Bell who said something like “It takes two to create a masterpiece; one to paint it and the other one to recognise when it is finished.” Its somewhere in Men of Mathematics, an odd and dated but fascinating book. Anyway.

    Darren

    February 22, 2014 at 2:09 am

  2. “I sometimes get the impression that books written after a writer becomes a major figure don’t get edited rigorously enough.”

    That’s absolutely true, and it affects even the best.

    nevalalee

    February 24, 2014 at 8:00 am


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