Cinema Cuts Itself To Pieces

Orson Welles Cinema Citizen KaneCinema has a rich history of power struggles and battles. The studio system allowed the major studios to control their artists and dictate everything. The rise of independent cinema, the era of the blockbuster and highly paid superstars allowed artists, actors and directors alike, to exert a level of power that made it commonplace for contracts to include final cut for directors (the ability to resist studio pressure about what was edited out of their film) and even the trend for stars to insist on executive producer credits.

Going back to the golden age of cinema it was almost unheard of for a director to have final cut on their project. One of the most celebrated examples would be RKO allowing a then 26 year old Orson Welles such a privilege on Citizen Kane. The furore that erupted around Welles’ thinly veiled William Randolph Hearst-inspired character brought about more than just alarm bells within the studios. It meant the ongoing victimisation of possibly the greatest director America has ever produced.

The stories of modern directors who have wrestled with studios over the many edited and released versions of their films pale in comparison to the experience of Orson Welles. I recently got hold of a Blu-Ray edition of Welles’ classic 1958 movie Touch of Evil. The fact that Universal had been so unsettled by his first rough cut that they reshot scenes, reedited the movie and butchered it was only balanced out by the fact that it had been possible to reassemble enough of the original that the director’s infamous 58 page memo could be honoured.

It was his final movie made in America. He’d had enough. After Citizen Kane caused such a stir his follow-up The Magnificent Ambersons had suffered irreparable damage by the studio, with all unused footage destroyed. No rescue project would be possible there. The Lady from Shanghai was a project he did as a favour for Columbia boss Harry Cohn. That too was butchered by a studio that didn’t understand him and the film we see today is still a flawed masterpiece, but flawed nonetheless.

But what of other directors in other eras? Sam Peckinpah’s controversial 1971 movie Straw Dogs remained unavailable for years because he refused to edit the most sensitive scenes. Only when sensibilities had mellowed did the BBFC allow it a certification for release. It is a masterful exercise in tension, drama and violence that has remained unscathed. Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange remained out of circulation for a different reason. Perhaps the only modern example of a director self-censoring; withdrawing his film from cinemas following a media backlash as aggressive as the copycat violence attributed to it.

But then there are the examples of a film being damaged by studio intervention. The theatrical version of James Cameron’s The Abyss makes little sense in the final 30 minutes until you see the Director’s Cut. He had to become the most successful, powerful director in Hollywood to get the full version shown.

And then there’s Ridley Scott. How many times has Ridley Scott had to revisit Blade Runner? Was he making a joke of it all when he oversaw the release of Blade Runner: The Final Cut in cinemas in 2007? When the many versions of a film have their own Wikipedia page then you know it’s been a long and tangled mess.

Why must studios interfere with the work of directors who have reputations and movies that draw us to the cinema to enjoy their latest work? And why does no-one take Michael Bay’s movies off him and edit out everything between the opening and closing credits?

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