The Long and the Short of It

Over the last several weeks I’ve repeatedly found myself having the same conversation, frequently revolving around Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained.  “It was alright.  I enjoyed it,” someone will say, “but why was it so long?”  I entirely agree that Django is about forty-five minutes longer than it should be, but what interests me is why the filmmakers made this apparent misjudgement.  For me, the excessive length places Tarantino in the company of directors such as Spike Lee and Oliver Stone.  In each case early work exhibited a sure hand and the possession of a valuable set of skills.  The progression of their careers, however, exposed filmmakers painfully unable to control their own creative excesses.  What is lacking in each instance is someone to say, “That’s a bad idea”.

Disagreements between studio heads, producers and directors go back at least to Erich Von Stroheim and his quarrels over both Foolish Wives (1922) and, more famously, Greed (1924).  Heedlessness of any budgetary restraint on the former got the director sacked from Universal Studios, and his eight-hour first cut of the second was  reduced by 75% for the eventual release version.  In the usual formulation, these two films helped to cement the primacy of penny-pinching producers over visionary directors for the remainder of Hollywood’s “classical” period.  According to this narrative, true creative freedom was only restored with the collapse of the studio system (in the mid-Sixties) when directors were released from the Promethean rock of studio oversight, and no longer had to operate under the eagle-eye (and liver removing claws) of pesky producers.

The problem, as always, is that it’s not that simple.  The dictates of money-men are frequently cited in discussions of post-production editing.  In the last week, in unrelated conversations, I’ve discussed such examples as Cromwell (1970) (shorn of at least 40 minutes of additional footage), The Abyss (1987) (which initially lost the entire original conclusion) and the Chinese film Warlords (2007) (shortened by 15 minutes for American audiences).  Sometimes, though, producers point in the other direction.  Michael Curtiz’s The Egyptian (1954) is about 25 minutes longer than it should be because Daryl Zanuck’s mistress was cast in a role that should have been drastically shortened.  Henry King’s The Country Doctor (1936) includes about ten story-stopping minutes of Jean Hersholt rolling around on the floor with the Dionne quintuplets, simply because they were a huge marketing draw.  Either way, the problem is not new, and opinions can vary about the pros and cons of length or brevity in either direction.

What seems to matter most, though, is the tension between the different sides of the director/producer, art/money equation.  If a powerful producer can productively butt heads with a strong director, the intersection of their opinions is where the “magic” happens.  In many of the Oscar-nominated films this year, however, that tension seems to be lacking.  Django is exhibit “A” in this argument.  Pretty much everyone I’ve talked to believes that the film should probably end at the conclusion of the crucial financial dealings between the characters of Christoph Waltz and Leonardo DeCaprio – but it doesn’t.  Instead, Quentin keeps on rolling through several extended sequences (maybe forty additional minutes of screen time) including the weakest scene of the film (in which the director has a central cameo).  My reservations about Tarantino are well-known, but I don’t mean to unduly single him out.  Lincoln has about three endings too many, and even something as relatively intimate as Silver Linings Playbook could easily be shorn of twenty minutes to tighten the pacing.  In each of these cases a strong director has managed to trump any objections by the force of his personality and reputation (or, more pointedly, by acting as his own producer).

Perhaps the ultimate poster-child for the tendency to filmic loquaciousness is Peter Jackson whose roughly four thousand endings to Return of the King demonstrate a director utterly unable to exercise narrative discipline.  I’ve not seen The Hobbit, but I’ve heard nothing about the plans to extend it to three films which mitigates this opinion.  The point is made even more succinctly by the fact that Jackson’s 2005 remake of King Kong (1933) runs nearly twice as long as the original (187 mins. vs. 100 mins.), while having a fraction of the overall effect.

My larger point here is the importance of having someone around who can argue against you.  In film-making, and in life generally, it’s important to have a contrarian close by.  That doesn’t mean that it’s always good to argue just for the sake of argument, and it certainly isn’t a suggestion that people should fight all the time.  But nothing is more damaging than always getting your own way, especially if there are sound and reasoned arguments against your position.  Some people never figure this out, and some people just can’t handle it (these are the people who always take disagreement as a personal attack).  Hollywood egos are famously touchy, and the way the system works now it’s harder to keep a devil’s advocate on the payroll, but just because Quentin, David and Stevie haven’t entirely figured out that it would be good for them doesn’t mean that it should stop the rest of us.  If we keep it in mind, we’ll do better work and profit by it.  Plus then we could all leave happy and save ourselves an extra forty-five minutes.



2012: Sorry About the Apocalypse

It’s been a busy end of the year, which involved not only the holidays, but a four-day whirlwind trip to New York to visit many too-little-seen friends (with apologies to those I missed).  At any rate, blog posting has fallen by the wayside, but the semester will be starting up again next week, so the schedule should be more regular.

Much as I dislike end-of-the-year lists, I was perusing my record of what I watched in 2012 and thought it might be entertaining (for me, anyway) to cite some of my more interesting viewing experiences.  I don’t want to generalize too much, but even my own records indicate how much actual film has almost disappeared from the life of the average viewer, and how many alternate venues there now are for examining cinema history.  The difficulty, of course, is that the attempt to cash in on all that new technology frequently leaves less familiar titles by the wayside, but those titles (paradoxically) can never be better-known if no one can see them.  It’s a chicken and egg problem, turning into a bit of a death spiral, but I think the following list indicates that anyone who’s interested can walk the tightrope successfully if they put forth an effort.

For the record, my first film last year was most of the surviving bits of Gregory La Cava’s charming Womanhandled (1925), starring Richard Dix and Esther Ralston, and available on DVD in the latest “Treasures from the American Film Archives” Collection.  The year ended with Flicker Alley’s very nice blu-ray of the always entertaining The Most Dangerous Game (1932).  In chronological order, the highlights in-between those bookends included:

1.)  The Shining Hour (Frank Borzage, 1938) – This model piece of studio product is available from the Warner Archive on a made-on-demand disc.  Starring Joan Crawford, Melvyn Douglas, Robert Young and Margaret Sullavan, I expected soap opera-ish piffle – which, to a point, it is.  The combination of talent behind and in front of the camera, however, made it much, much more, giving it a weight and polish which far exceeded its potential.

2.)  The Red Dance (Raoul Walsh, 1928) – Someone posted a crappy, illegal, bootleg copy of this to YouTube – but if they hadn’t none of us would ever see it without going to an archive.  Not a masterpiece, but a well-photographed, fairly ripping adventure film which I’m grateful to have had the chance to watch (no matter how dubious the circumstances).

3.)  Young Eagles (William Wellman, 1930) – I wanted to use this World War One aviation film in my dissertation, but I didn’t have the money to go to California just to watch it in the UCLA archives.  Fortunately Film Forum (in New York) was holding a William Wellman retrospective, and I managed to swing a trip.  Again, not a classic, but a worthwhile piece of work, immensely useful for my own research, which is absurdly difficult to see.  This was a nice 35mm print at one of the last (and most important) remaining repertory houses in the country.

4.)  The Girl I Loved (Keisuke Kinoshita, 1946) – Kinoshita is a major filmmaker whose work has essentially never been available outside Japan – until the good people at Criterion decided to post a huge chunk of his filmography on Huluplus, effectively moving him from the “famine” to the “feast” category.  This film had strong echoes of John Ford, and it may be the most emotionally wrenching piece of work I’ve seen in a number of years.

5.)  A House Divided (William Wyler, 1931) – An especially powerful performance by Walter Huston anchors this tale of a spineless son, a mail-order bride, and a really nasty father in a small fishing village.  Despite an Oscar-winning director and lead actor, though, don’t look for a legit copy.  This one is only available as a bootleg dvd.

6.)  Battle of Warsaw -1920 (Jerzy Hoffman, 2011) – I’m still not on the 3-D bandwagon (even as it loses speed), but this Polish film made some of the best use of the technology I’ve seen.  Of course, despite domestic success it didn’t get a wide release in the United States.  I was able to see it because it was screened as part of the CMU International Film Festival (in collaboration with Pitt’s Polish Film Festival).

7.)  They’re A Weird Mob (Michael Powell, 1966) – One of Michael Powell’s last films is the super-quirky little tale of the travails of an Italian immigrant to Australia.  I’d heard mixed things about it, but found it both fascinating and charming – after procuring a copy of the only legitimate stand-alone release from Australia.

8.)  The Loves of Pharoah (Ernst Lubitsch, 1922) –  The heroic work of piecing together this early 20’s Lubitsch film from multiple archival sources was matched by the bravado of releasing it on blu-ray.  It had to be ordered from the German distributor, and I’m not asserting that it’s a lost classic, but it’s another example of the possibilities of an international marketplace which has made lots of obscure titles exponentially easier to see (and it’s a perfectly entertaining historical drama).

9.)  Dynamite (Cecil B. DeMille, 1929) – I taped this when it was broadcast on television a number of years ago, and finally managed to watch it.  Like so many other DeMille films before 1935, it knocked my socks off with its sheer narrative audacity.  Describing the ridiculous convolutions of the plot would be a disservice, so you’ll just have to trust me – and keep an eye on the TCM schedule since that’s currently the only legitimate way to see it.

10.)  A Bell for Adano (Henry King, 1946) – I’d seen very little about this unexpectedly touching story of U.S. servicemen wrestling with the realities of reestablishing normal life in occupied Italy.  Part of the reason for that is probably that King’s elegaic (and sometimes quite pointed) film is only available on a dvd from Australia.

11.)  The Egyptian (Michael Curtiz, 1954) – Somewhere along the way I’d gotten it into my head that this film was supposed to be a crashing bore.  While it’s not a complete success (more about that in a future post), I was pleasantly surprised, not only by the stellar picture on this limited edition blu-ray from Twilight Time, but also by the degree to which I found the story and production engrossing.

12.) Cheyenne Autumn (John Ford, 1964) – This is far from Ford’s best film, but I bit at the chance to see this in a 70mm screening at Lincoln Center.  Though it’s nice to see it on a screen, the only available print is not in the best of shape and subtitled in Swedish.  And then one of the projectors broke…

As I said, this isn’t a list of  “favorites” so much as a catalogue of interesting or surprising film experiences.  I didn’t attend either of my usual film festivals this year because of dissertation work, and the films I saw during my annual trip to the Library of Congress weren’t especially revelatory.  Part of my point, though, is that the number of viewing options seems to increase constantly.  Of the above, 1, 2, 4, 8 and 11 (MOD discs, YouTube, HuluPlus and Blu-Ray) would have been technologically unavailable even five years ago.  7 and 10 (multi-region dvd playback) would have just barely been possible fifteen years ago.  3, 5, 6, 9 and 12 (screenings, television broadcast and bootlegs) have been with us for decades, but still involve paying close attention to theater, television and festival programs or you risk missing them.

As the Cheyenne Autumn screening indicated, the continuing transition to a digital world points us closer to the apocalypse for some kinds of viewing (especially actual film), but newer options spring up constantly and it’s important to take advantage of what’s out there.  It takes a little work (not to mention some careful scheduling and money), but the world hasn’t ended yet, so we still have time.