The final cut

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"Criterion set out in the beginning to do something that no one else was doing at the time, which was employing the laserdisc medium in an innovative way, trying to make use of all the capacities of that media," Becker says. "I think fairly quickly our mission evolved from just making films available to trying to create a film archive, a film school for the home viewer. The theatrical experience is about total absorption: Either you give over to the magic of the film, or you don't, and afterward, you walk out and talk about it with your friends. When you have a film on your shelf at home, the idea was to start out with movies that would stand up to repeated viewing, that would stand up to more intensive discussion than the kind of discussion you have over a bite of dinner after the movie."

Criterion has made us smarter filmgoers and created better filmmakers: Kevin Smith (Chasing Amy, Clerks), Wes Anderson, and the Hughes brothers (Menace II Society) insist that a great deal of their film-school education came from repeated viewings of Criterion's treasure-chest laserdiscs. Now, we almost take for granted such "added value" bonuses; we expect them on our DVDs and are disappointed when a studio cheaps out and fails to include a director's commentary or deleted scenes. Criterion has not only reinvented the home-video industry; it has also spoiled us. Now, studios scramble to play catch-up, replacing their shoddy product with fancy extras. On May 16, Fox will release a special-edition Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, complete with documentary and interviews and commentary tracks, that renders the earlier, cheaper version a moot point.

The cutting-room floor is a thing of the past; it now serves as a repository. Steven Spielberg, who has so far been reluctant to release his best films on DVD, announced last week that Jaws will surface July 11 with myriad deleted scenes. Ridley Scott's two-and-a-half-hour bloody, beautiful spectacle Gladiator opens this week, and already Scott has sent notice that the DVD version will contain at least an hour's worth of deleted footage. And during an interview last September, Three Kings director David O. Russell explained that trimming his "favorite scenes" from his film wasn't quite so painful, since he knew he could include them on the DVD.

But if those lost scenes had been included in the theatrical Three Kings, it would have been an inferior film. They slow the action, explain too much, and leave little to the imagination. Such is the case with so many deleted scenes: They were cut for a reason, and more often than not, audiences wince when they show up on DVD. For every The Sixth Sense, whose deleted scenes explain previously unanswered questions, there's something like Ghostbusters, which contains a dozen humorless outtakes that appear to have been lifted from a Bergman film.

DVDs have become their own kind of art form -- a "meta art form," to use Becker's phrase. The industry also has created immediate revisionist history: Films that open today will look completely different when they arrive in stores tomorrow. DVDs offer not only "master-quality" versions of films (thus rendering the videotape as necessary and reliable as the eight-track tape), but they also allow filmmakers the opportunity to reshape a film for home release. They're no longer bound to the versions studios and test audiences "approved." Directors may not have free rein in the theater, but they can wreak havoc once allowed in our homes.

Only last week, Richard Donner announced he was finally releasing Superman: The Movie on DVD with an additional 15 minutes of previously unseen footage woven into the film. Of course, that begs the question: Can a film ever be "finished" in the digital age? George Lucas not only went in and added computer-generated effects to the Star Wars trilogy; he also excised scenes of violence, gutting the first film of its initial resonance. Directors who are unhappy with the theatrical releases of their films can now go in and add all their gold and garbage. They can tinker ad infinitum. Last month, Fox Home Video released James Cameron's The Abyss with 28 minutes of footage that were deleted when the film tested poorly. The version of Cameron's Aliens available on DVD is 15 minutes longer than its theatrical release, meaning there are whole generations out there who think the film always contained the subplot about Ripley's daughter.

DVDs explain how a director cut a woman in half; they take the mystery out of the how-they-done-it. To that end, fully loaded special-edition discs could very well ruin our enjoyment of our favorite movies. They threaten to fill in too many blanks, shoving aside the audience in the filmmaker's rush to explain every scene and unveil every storyboard. Movies are about getting lost in the dark, and DVDs, with their documentaries and production stills and video tours of production sites, threaten to shine too much light on the subject. They can be like books about books; they can destroy the illusion, ruin the fun. At their best, the movies belong to the audience. Perhaps our ability to interpret them and enjoy them will be ruined with the filmmaker leaning over our shoulders, breathing in our ears. Some filmmakers, among them Brian De Palma and Peter Weir, know this, which is why they refuse to record commentaries for their DVDs.

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky