Thursday, May 10, 2007

Is Big better bigger?

In my post last week on Lee Marvin, I forgot to mention that an essential credit with director Sam Fuller, 1980's The Big Red One, is playing May 13 and 18 at Lincoln Center. The oversight was unintentional, but perhaps subconscious. The retrospective sceenings are of the 2004 "reconstruction" of the film, which runs 158 minutes, and not of the version I saw several times on cable in the early 1980s and own on DVD, which comes in at under two hours. With all due respect to Fuller, who was disenchanted with the cutting, I prefer the shorter version, and regret that the "fuller" version has displaced it (the special edition of the title on DVD contains only the reconstructed version; the version I own seems to have gone out of print). Despite the addition of 40 minutes, it's the longer version that leaves me feeling short-changed; for the one or two sequences that add something compensatory, others that fall outside of the viewpoint of Fuller-esque narrator Robert Carradine disrupt the structure, and scenes that benefit from the compression in the theatrical cut now dawdle. Fuller is better faster and tighter, and the loose, episodic, autobiographical Big Red One is just too unwieldy at greater length. I feel the same about the better-disciplined theatrical version of Apocalypse Now; its extension is merely tiresome.

Given their histories there was sufficient reason to revisit The Big Red One and Apocalypse Now, flawed, fascinating films in either version. But most of the director's cuts, un-cuts, extended editions, etc. that are on the market are just that, marketing gimmicks designed to get the unwary to double-, triple-, or quadruple-dip on a film that was more than adequate the first time around. Most of these are pseudo-cuts, achieved by reintegrating the deleted scenes showcased as extras on prior editions into the narrative, where more often than not they do little except make your recollection of how the film once flowed hiccup. The guiding force, if it can be called that, is the distributor, looking to soak up a little more lucre on a movie trotted out one more time to the DVD racks.

But the more interesting ones are the ones that the directors, producers, or other creative personnel tinkered with. And some do work. The grandaddy of the form, on laserdisc (and onto DVD), was James Cameron's The Abyss, which truly benefited from its expanded ending. His extensions to Aliens and Terminator 2, by contrast, add more running time than meaning to the films, and I find myself watching the theatrical cuts when I'm in a king of the world state of mind (Titanic is thankfully un-augmented on DVD). There is a crucial revelation in the extended Aliens--we learn that the embattled Ripley's daughter has died during her decades-long hypersleep, which adds considerable urgency to her relationship with her surrogate in the film. Once you know this, though, you don't need to sit through butt-twitching delaying tactics on the way to the big finish. And, trust me, you really don't need to see Terminator 2's "future coda," with a grandmotherly Linda Hamilton stuck in embarrassing old-age makeup.

Sometimes the augmenting approach does pay off. Ridley Scott always intended to increase his maligned Kingdom of Heaven for DVD, and the lengthened film progresses at a grander, more epic pace, making Orlando Bloom's transition from blacksmith to crusader far less abrupt and arbitrary. The three-hour Almost Famous that Cameron Crowe prepared sweeps key scenes with Philip Seymour Hoffman's Lester Bangs from off the cutting-room floor, and enriches almost every scene with tart dialogue and more flavorful characterization. And directors do sometimes exercise the power to cut: Oliver Stone first shrank, then lavishly grew, his Alexander on disc, in separate releases following the theatrical cut's DVD debut (once was enough for most viewers). And the DC (director's cut) of Tony Scott's Revenge, released on DVD this week, is 20 minutes shorter than the flabby release version, which is sure to displease fans for whom cut is synonymous with more, not less.

Revenge, a clinker, is one of several DCs to street in recent weeks. I can't imagine Payback amounting to much no matter how much is added or subtracted, and the only way to fix The Natural is to trash its ending, a betrayal of its source. Of greater personal interest are extended editions of Big and Donnie Brasco, which were also released this week. The latter picture, directed by Mike Newell, is one of the more underrated gangster films, a largely low-key character study with the mournful, hang-dog tone of The Sopranos, which started airing two years after its release. Al Pacino can show that he can still underplay--his last scene, a bit of business letting himself out of his apartment, is quietly devastating--and a non-cutesy Johnny Depp makes me long for the days when his talent was largely a treasure known only to cinephiles. (A sane Anne Heche also makes a vivid impression.) The 20 minutes of new scenes add to the texture of the film without causing it to break stride; a gritty, detailed piece, it feels more densely realized, and not swamped with superfluous flourishes. That sad, somber, daylight-never-breaking feeling it so powerfully creates is sustained. Then again, the supplemental features of past DVD editions of the theatrical cut have not been retained, so if you don't care to see more of the film--it's not a make-or-break proposition--this extended cut is an offer you can refuse.

Big is a different matter. The film is a delight, but it is a delight because the director, Penny Marshall, cut the modern-day fable to a trim and fit 102 minutes. Marshall has some presence in the extras on this disc--its star, Tom Hanks, who has chaperoned an expanded cut of his That Thing You Do! onto DVD this week, is conspicuously absent--but this is largely a writer's cut, adding almost a half-hour of business to the feature. I'm fond of Big, and I blanched whenever a new scene or scene extension popped up; each one felt like a detour my memory was forced to take. Frustrated, I gave up after an hour. A perfect light diversion had become fattening and bad for me. It reminded me less of Big, the movie, than Big, the bad Broadway musical, with no song-and-dance numbers and more book scenes added.

But Fox, smartly, has included the original cut on this two-disc edition. It's what we all remember and it deserves to remain in circulation, and the new print is nice and snappy-looking. Big is not always better, but it is tolerable if all the variants are included for the sake of comparison and choice under one roof, and all the extras ported over for convenience. If the studios want to us to flirt with these tarted-up versions, they should remember that everyone fondly recalls their first loves.

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