The following post contains SPOILERS for “Scott Pilgrim Versus the World,” “Terminator 2: Judgment Day,” “Paranormal Activity,” and “Clerks.”
At The Atlantic, Keith Phipps has a great article on the new Blu-ray for Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master” which includes a special feature entitled “Back Beyond,” a short film collage created out of scenes deleted from “The Master”‘s theatrical cut. These sequences were originally intended to be seen in the main film, but Anderson cut them during the editing process. It’s a technique Anderson’s used before to recycle discarded material; the “Punch-Drunk Love” Special Edition DVD includes a short entitled “Blossoms & Blood” comprised of “PDL” deleted scenes set to Jon Brion music.
Some of “Back Beyond” apparently adds substantial subtext to “The Master.” One scene he describes involves Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) guarding the box Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) digs up in the desert. Disobeying orders, he opens it and looks inside “and is greeted by flames.”
So what do we do, in a cognitive sense, with that scene? If it’s not in “The Master” but it is in this “Back Beyond” short, is it a canonical event in the lives of Freddie Quell and Lancaster Dodd? Is “Back Beyond” the further adventures of the characters or the alternate adventures of the characters? Can we cite them in analyses of the movie? Do we continue to pretend like they don’t exist and didn’t happen? Phipps describes these questions as part of the “irresistible perils” of watching DVD deleted scenes:
“Deleted scenes belong to a space that’s neither part of the film nor removed from it, one perhaps better left unexplored. I’ve come to think of deleted scenes features as the equivalent of that box given to Freddie to guard (or the one given to Pandora): a thing better left unexamined but impossible to resist.”
Although Phipps’ description of “The Master” Blu-ray makes me want to see it even more badly than I did before, his Pandora’s Box analogy is one I wholeheartedly support. Even before Phipps’ piece, I wasn’t a big fan of deleted scenes, and I’ve started to wonder recently whether they do more harm than good. And the fact that they muddy our understanding of a movie’s narrative space is just one part of the problem.
That’s still a pretty big part, though. Deleted scenes become particularly problematic in movies with elaborate but vaguely defined mythologies. In such cases, the editing process often becomes a series of trial and error attempts to find out how much or how little to explain to the audience. Think of a movie like “Donnie Darko,” which became a cult hit largely on the strength of its mysterious, elliptical narrative. Writer/director Richard Kelly’s theatrical cut of the movie left all sorts of holes for the audience to fill with their imagination and their interpretation. After the film found an audience on the midnight movie circuit, Kelly re-edited it into a “Director’s Cut” which made its time traveling tangent universes much clearer and, consequentially, much less interesting.
Before the Director’s Cut, audiences were free to read their own meanings into “Donnie Darko.” After the Director’s Cut their readings became secondary to the “correct” one provided by the director. Here we really get into the Pandora’s Box element of the deleted scene: viewer loves movie; viewer tries to “decode” movie; viewer and other viewers like him (or her) stoke demand for Director’s Cut of movie; director lays cards on table with Director’s Cut; viewer finds answers; viewer finds answers underwhelming; viewer no longer loves movie.
Even more problematically than deleted scenes that reveal the director’s intentions are deleted scenes that reveal what the director didn’t intend, and suggest that filmmaking is just one big crap shoot. Consider the alternate ending from “Scott Pilgrim Versus the World.” The film follows a Toronto slacker, Scott (Michael Cera), who falls in love with a delivery woman named Ramona (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and is then forced to fight her “7 Evil Exes.” Throughout the movie, Scott battles these angry former boyfriends (and one girlfriend) and his feelings for his own current girlfriend, Knives (Ellen Wong). In the end, Scott defeats Ramona’s last evil ex, and the pair walk off into the sunset together (it’s nighttime, but whatever, you get the idea).
Except in the deleted alternate ending where the exact opposite happens:
This is a pretty radical change — and it basically reverses everything the movie has to say about love and relationships and the way the past weighs on our emotional present. The fact that the filmmakers were so unclear how resolve their primary conflict (apparently because the graphic novel series the movie was still ongoing when the film went into production) is somewhat disconcerting. According to Wikipedia (which, as we all know, is never wrong), the “alternate” ending above was actually the original ending — until test audiences hated it and the final “Scott Pilgrim” book came out with a different resolution. Suddenly, Scott wound up with the other girl.
On the scale of franchises would look very different if their directors had gone through with their original plans, “Scott Pilgrim” ranks pretty low. James Cameron’s “Terminator 2” originally concluded with an unequivocally happy ending set in a future where the Judgment Day war never happened — replacing it at the last minute with a more ambiguous narration about an “uncertain future” opened the doors for “Terminator 3” and “Salvation.” In various versions of the end of “Paranormal Activity,” Katie either kills herself or is killed by police — which would have made it awfully hard for her to return for each of the next three films. And Kevin Smith built an empire out of “Clerks” that may never have gotten off the ground if he had kept the film’s original ending:
Making small tweaks to a movie is one thing; completely changing the content and tone of an ending is another. These sorts of deleted scenes recall the classic William Goldman line that “Nobody knows anything.” In these cases, deleted scenes make great movies look like some kind of cosmic fluke — a random happenstance of timing and focus group scores. Once again, ignorance is bliss — and I’m more and more tempted never to look in Pandora’s Box again.