The Audience Cut: In praise of flawed films
Directors aren't the only ones who get to edit films the way they want; each of us gets to create our preferred versions too...
Here’s the short version of a long story from recent cinema history, a saga we can call “The Snyder Cut Controversy”:
In 2016, Zack Snyder began directing Justice League, intended as the third instalment to his desaturated, libertarian take on the DC comics. A personal tragedy pulled Snyder from the project, to be replaced by Joss Whedon, as if a carbon-copy of his work on the Marvel franchise would guarantee success again. The Whedon Cut, or Joss-tice League, was released to lacklustre critical reception, and a vocal community of Snyder and DC fans began an online campaign to pressure Warner Bros. into releasing a fabled “Snyder Cut”. Finally, remarkably, in early 2021, the studio released a four-hour Snyder directed version of Justice League.
More interesting than anything in either cut of the movie is the part played by movie fans in this process. Their success seemed to be definitive proof that the relationship between cinema and audience had opened at last to the kind of reciprocity that had existed in the world of television for decades. The product (which a movie like Justice Leagueabsolutely is) could now be adjusted in response to audience feedback.
This is not the only example of movies with various versions for different fans to favour – in the superhero genre there is the Richard Donner Cut of Superman II. (Interestingly, a major criticism of the theatrical version was that it was too heavy on comedy, which was also said of the Whedon Cut and was “corrected” by Snyder’s version just as Donner “fixed” it in his.) An antecedent to the Snyder Cut equally drawn out and debated is the set of alternate versions of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, which begins in 1982 either with the Workprint Prototype Version shown to test audiences or, as Scott himself has claimed, a four-hour cut shown only to the studio. Six or seven versions later, we arrive at the director-approved Final Cut in 2007.
Debating the merits of each rendition of Blade Runner has long been an established feature of its fandom. But we need not wait for an alternative cut of a film to have such discussions – whenever we critique a film and debate its virtues and vices, we are pitting this seemingly singular entity against an imagined alternate version, the edit we might prefer, including the changes we’d make to improve or augment what is already there. This is what we could call the Audience Cut.
I have an Audience Cut (housed and shown in the private cinema of my mind) for anywhere between half and two-thirds of modern movies, for a single reason: They give me too much. They are too long, usually by a scene or three, occasionally by an entire final act. I loathe the experience of feeling that the proverbial curtain has dropped at just the right moment and the roll of the credits here will leave me in that liminal state between sated and keen for more, before another scene inexplicably begins. An idea is underlined, italicised, then emphasised again in bold by repeating something that has already been stated well.
Spielberg’s The Lost World, for instance, is an entertaining sequel with one too many third acts. Birdman, for me, ends with the cut-to-black after Riggan’s last stand on stage. The three minutes that follow say too much and contribute too little, as well as needlessly confusing things thematically. Back to Blade Runner – though this isn’t a matter of duration so much as volume – the voice-over in the theatrical cut adds nothing positive and subtracts from the film’s complexity. I’m glad that it is gone in the Final Cut.
Most of the edits made in my mental cutting room are less extensive than this and apply to specific details; they are tweaks rather than overhauls. An unconvincing line delivery, a poorly framed shot, a strange aesthetic choice – shooting with a handheld camera where motion control would have brought clarity, for instance – a jarring needle drop, or an overly expressive music cue: Modifying these things makes, to my mind, a better film.
The film critic Roger Ebert wrote about the phenomenon that I am calling the Audience Cut in his 1994 re-examination of Midnight Cowboy. Twenty-five years after first seeing it, Ebert described the film as “one of a handful of films that stay in our memory after the others have evaporated”. He goes on to explain:
“What has happened to Midnight Cowboy is that we’ve done our own editing job on it. We’ve forgotten the excesses and the detours, and remembered the purity of the central characters and the Voight and Hoffman performances. Seeing the movie again was a reminder of what else, unfortunately, it contains.”
Lamenting how Midnight Cowboy is diluted by cinematic fads and spoiled by a lack of confidence on the director’s part, Ebert adds that “if films could be revised, or rewritten, it is possible to see now how this one could be more pure”. In fact, revising and rewriting films is precisely what we each do to the facsimile of a film stored in our heads. The fodder for such creative projects, the raw material we cook (or, perhaps, the once-cooked meal we re-season then re-heat) is the sort of film like Midnight Cowboy that “comes heartbreakingly close to being the movie we want it to be” – one that almost succeeds but doesn’t quite get there, that is good but not great.
To be clear, these are not “bad movies”, whatever you take that term to mean. I’m not convinced we would lose anything worth preserving if all the truly terrible movies went away. There is, however, an important place for flawed films in the self-education of autodidactic cinephiles. We can learn as much from the negative lessons of failures as we can from the positive lessons of success.
Perhaps first among the virtues of flawed films is that they can teach us to engage critically. It is easier and many times more noticeable to react negatively to something that offends our aesthetic sense or intelligence than to positively embrace something that fits tidily with what we like. It is a well-known feature of human psychology that we tend to avoid pain more than we seek pleasure. (Most of the time, we attempt to resolve indecision by working out which option will cause the least suffering instead of which will bring the most joy.) I think this might be at play in our asymmetrical focuses on cinematic failures and successes.
It is also a far more creative practice to imagine how we might direct, write, or act a scene that needs improving than it is to merely envision how the successful director/writer/actor achieved what they did. The latter is simply repetition, the former is invention. We can replicate another person’s victories or invent solutions to other people’s mistakes. It is more creatively engaging to wonder how we would fix a problem than it is to simply see how someone else got it right.
Of course, every film is flawed in some sense, and a perfect film probably doesn’t exist. But there are those movies we individually feel need nothing changed (so perhaps this is what a “perfect film” is, or does perfection require the prohibitive standard of one-hundred per cent audience approval?) and there are films we believe could be upgraded from good to great with some improvements.
The imaginative act of mentally editing those films to create something else, something we think is better, is not only an educational and enlightening process, it is a deep part of the joy of watching films. It allows us to shift from the passenger seat – where, yes, we can enjoy the ride, albeit passively – to take a turn at the wheel. So here’s to the flawed films that give us the chance to try something new, to dream something different. If the next film you watch isn’t great, let’s hope it’s at least good.
• Midnight Cowboy, retrospective review on rogerebert.com (orig. 1994)
• Midnight Cowboy, review on rogerebert.com (orig. 1969)