BY AUSTIN BURBRIDGE. HOLLYWOOD (CINEMA MINIMA) — An acquaintance asked, “Which version of BLADE RUNNER do you prefer — the director’s cut, or the original?”
[Update: 2011. I have seen the “director’s cut” — It is not an improvement. The explanation of details doesn’t make a better story, or a more satisfying entertainment.]
However — this being Los Angeles — I do nevertheless have a story about the director’s cut. And an opinion about why I never seem to get around to seeing the later versions of the film.
A director calls
In the summer of 2007 I worked on the packaging for the five-disk Ultimate Collector’s Edition of BLADE RUNNER.
Everyone was anxious, because the job was already late going to manufacturing for a Christmas release.
When the thing came to me, I was surprised that the project was running late — the studios are usually maniacs about deadlines, and the packaging shop was — ordinarily — very good about being on time.
I was looking over the proofs when the phone rang.
It was Ridley Scott. That was surprising because — usually — directors have nothing to do with making DVDs of their films. That’s what distributors — and sales-and-marketing departments — are for.
Why on earth did the director call — concerning a feature he had shot twenty-five years ago? Incredibly, he wanted changes made to the packaging.
At that moment, I grasped why the job was late: apparently, Sir Ridley likes to fiddle with things — and to go right on making changes — up to the last possible minute.
Five — no — seven versions
I guess that explains — in part — why there have been seven versions of the movie over 25 years. And, I suspect, why, in 1982, the producers took the film away from him as its original release date approached.
I had already been scratching my head as to why the world needed a box with five — five! — distinct versions of any feature film.
BLADE RUNNER had been a wonderful movie experience when I saw it at a matinée at the Tower Theater in Houston in 1982. I had walked out of the cool cozy dark theater, into the brilliant hot daylight, in a lovely daze. The film had been impressive, and stimulating, and in every respect, completely entertaining.
Did it answer all the questions it raised? No. It did, however, adhere to one of the rules of show business: “Always leave ’em wanting more!” It’s like a good meal — better to stop eating when feeling just about satisfied, not to gorge until the stomach is full but the palate is dulled.
Were there obvious mistakes of continuity and realism? If the storyteller draws a viewer into its world, and sweeps her along in a powerful narrative, why would she would let her attention be diverted to details? (Of course, if a film is boring, then the details will distract; but fixing the details won’t make a boring film more interesting, either.)
Not a syllogism, but a poem
Was it perfect? Who cares! That’s not the job of art.
It’s a bit like what the atheist H. L. Mencken said about Catholicism:
The Latin Church — which I constantly find myself admiring despite its frequent astounding imbecilities — has always kept clearly before it the fact that religion is not a syllogism, but a poem.
I think — no; I feel — that film is not logical, but poetic. I guess that BLADE RUNNER — as released in 1982 — was a beautiful moment — like a poem; like a kiss.
Here’s what Harrison Ford said about a later version:
Spectacular, but it didn’t move me at all. They haven’t put anything in, so it’s still an exercise in design.
In principal, I agree. I don’t imagine that the other versions would be bad, I just wonder whether they were necessary.
Alternate versions and theatrical exhibition
I also wonder whether, in general, the making of “director’s cuts” — not of BLADE RUNNER, but other, more recent pictures — sends a bad message to audiences, that any theatrical release is somehow deficient, that the best movie would have been held back for DVD. I love the feeling, sitting in a movie theater, when the title credits come up, and the music swells, that This Is It. Not, This Is Almost — But Not Quite — It.
To me, a work of art is not only what it means or what it expresses: it is also a performance. At a particular moment. Not about second thoughts, or “do-overs.” In 1981, artists got together and gave their best performances, and collectively, made a statement about what Los Angeles had, by that time, already become.
BLADE RUNNER as film noir
BLADE RUNNER is — above all — a very late film noir. Not an homage, with a wink and nod; but a film noir in an unbroken tradition going back to the forties.
It was also — and here’s the part that raised it above mere melodrama — a statement about film noir: That films noir were again relevant to the kind of place that in 1982 America was becoming. In the same way that films noir in their heyday were meditations on the kind of America which had emerged after the Great Depression.
Films noir show women and men in a system which is so big and complicated and so thoroughly corrupt, that they cannot master it, let alone understand it. They’re parables about looking for certain knowledge, and discovering that nothing will ever be known with any certainty at all. I guess that may have been the mood at the dawn of the Reagan régime.
How the fashion for continuity editing deprecated voiceover narration
Because BLADE RUNNER is an instance of film noir, the voiceovers in the original version work very well. Voiceover narration is one of the signature elements of the genre.
The film noir never, never exists in the present — it is always a story recounted in the regretted past, perfect, tense. The best example I can think of is SUNSET BOULEVARD, whose story is narrated in voiceover by a dead man, Joe Gillis.
The removal of the voiceover narration from later versions of BLADE RUNNER is a solecism — a second thought, a failure of artistic nerve, more a bow to fashion than an improvement in storytelling technique.
I think that recent Hollywood filmmakers have deprecated voiceover because the fashion in filmmaking since 1980 has been for continuity editing, the goal of which is a “seamless” (or “perfect”) illusion of reality (lately, this vogue for perfect illusion has given rise to 3-D films such as AVATAR).
But, sometimes, the perfect can be the enemy of the good. Although continuity editing is an essential artistic device, it is but one among many. It ought to be used when it is effective, and appropriate. Otherwise, a storyteller can end up like the repair-person whose only tool is a hammer — “When the only tool you have is a hammer, then every problem looks like a nail.”
When continuity editing is used as the exclusive mode of storytelling, it ends up as a kind of packaging that merely signals to the audience that what ought to be a story is merely a kind of consumer packaged good. Audiences expect the cinema to count for more than that in their lives.
And it’s really too bad — there had been a world of glorious films which told their stories — and entertained their audiences — with devices which broke the illusion: montage, non-realistic sets, and voiceover.