Death by a Thousand Director's Cuts
How DVD marketing is rewriting the history of film.
One of the key paradoxes of contemporary movie culture is that some film lovers claim that cinema is dying, others maintain that it's entering a renaissance, and both factions are right. It all depends on whose movie culture you're talking about.
The problem is how elastic and imprecise our terminology has become. Nowadays, when somebody says, "I've just seen a movie," we don't necessarily know whether the speaker saw it in a theater or on a mobile phone, alone or with a thousand other people, on celluloid or on a disc. These aren't really the same experiences, even if we choose to call them all The Godfatheror Up. And when it comes to distinguishing between film history and advertising, we may be even more confused.
One reason why we may be entering a renaissance in film viewing is that we no longer have to go to Paris or New York in order to learn anything comprehensive about the history of the medium as an art form. We can, in fact, live almost anywhere, at least if we own a multiregional DVD player—and nowadays one can acquire one of these for less than $50. Of course, those who argue that cinema is dying could also note that most viewers have been happy to stay in their designated regions and narrower range of consumer choices and to remain blissfully unaware of DVD regional codes, much less simple ways of circumventing them.
If we do want to bone up on film history, some of our finest scholars are busy turning out DVD extras, and a few of them are even better at this kind of work than they are in their writing, which offers fewer opportunities of illustrating their points. Compare, for instance, the audiovisual essays of Joan Neuberger and Yuri Tsivian on the Criterion Collection DVD of Sergei Eisenstein's Ivan the Terrible with these writers' recent monographs on the same subject. Or compare Tag Gallagher's analysis of Max Ophüls' Earrings of Madame de … for the same label with his online article about Ophüls for the Australian Web site Senses of Cinema, which focuses on the same scene from the same film. Yet once we start moving closer to mainstream film culture, the improvement in our understanding becomes a little less evident.
What do we mean when we use the term "film noir"? It works fine in video stores, yet unlike other genre labels, it removes us from the experiences that contemporary audiences had when they saw the same films. The term derives from a series of thriller novels published in France by Gallimard, "Série noire,"and superimposing a French identity over American products like Double Indemnity (1944), The Big Sleep (1946), Kiss Me Deadly (1955), and even Chinatown (1974) makes us feel Continental and stylish and therefore less responsive to the films' social meanings than the original American audiences were. We now use the term as a kind of historical shorthand, but often without realizing that the abbreviated history in question is also being subtly rewritten and mainly for the convenience of the DVD labels—part of whose business is to shape the choices of shoppers.
Regarding terms like director's cut and restoration: The fact that these categories are now integral parts of sales pitches seriously diminishes the possibility of their serving as accurate descriptions. Arguably, one reason why the film industry has encouraged and promoted the concept of director's cuts, even though this might appear to be counter to its own interests, is that it enables a film's owner to sell the same product to the same customer twice—or even, in a few special cases, three or four times. Presumably, if you recut somebody's film, the damage isn't serious because it can always be "restored" on DVD. The basic mythology appears to be that every film has two versions, a correct one and an incorrect one. But in fact this isn't quite true. A better paraphrase of the mythology would be, more paradoxically, that every film has at least two versions—a correct one and a more correct one, to be succeeded in turn by further upgrades.