Friday, June 24, 2016

Edited for which content, exactly?


It was with a bit of dread that I saw this message upon finally poping in the copy of Wonder Boys I've owned for ten years:

"This film has been formatted from its original version. It has been edited for content."

Edited for content?

What the fuck?

"Formatted to fit this screen" would have been better. I mean, I hate pan-and-scan as much as the next guy, but at least that would have been better than, you know, censorship.

And how does a DVD made available for sale become "edited for content," anyway? It's not like this was the version they were playing on airlines sometime circa March of 2001.

I couldn't recall the circumstances of buying Wonder Boys, but I immediately cursed them as too lackadaisical. No, I hadn't made the mistake of buying a movie that wasn't in its proper aspect ratio, but I'd somehow missed the warning sticker that must have needed to appear on any version that wasn't the original.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I watched the movie and could detect nary a difference from the Wonder Boys I've seen about three times before.

And it wasn't just that the movie seem unsullied by the fascist hand of a censor. It actually was uncensored, as far as I could tell.

When trying to imagine what might be objectionable enough to cut from Wonder Boys, I focused on three things: 1) profanity, the most likely aspect to cause difficulty for whatever these prospective squeamish audiences might be; 2) drug use, as Michael Douglas' Grady Tripp regularly puffs on joints; 3) and possibly sexual content, as two of the characters (those played by Tobey Maguire and Robert Downey Jr.) are gay, and Downey's character even shows up with a transvestite on his arm.

Yet all of these things were intact. The characters drop the f-bomb at least ten times, including one as a recurring joke ("fit as a fucking fiddle"). Grady puffs on his full contingent of scraggly joints. And the movie is as gay as it ever was.

So what the hell? What was actually cut out of it?

The internet might be able to tell me, but I won't bother to find out. I'm just glad that the Wonder Boys I know and love was there for me to know and love once more.

And that I did. I was struck again by one of the things I love most about this movie, which is that it's so damn comfortable. It feels like pulling on an old sweater that's been perfectly worn in for all your curves and grooves. It feels lived in, and it has the sense of starting up in full swing in the lives of characters it seems like we've always known. This is how you do character development, prospective screenwriters. Steve Kloves could give a class on it.

I think what makes the narrative flow so nicely is that it's novelistic. Sure, it's adapted from a book, the one written by Michael Chabon (which I've read and which I don't like as much as this movie). But so are hundreds of other movies, not all of which retain their novelistic quality so nicely -- and in a way that's not actually detrimental to it being a good movie. On this viewing, I noticed for the first time a wink at this hoped-for ease of translation, as we overhear two characters at the chancellor's party talking about an unnamed film. "How did you feel about the adaptation?" one says to the other. "I thought it was more literary than cinematic," the other responds. Congratulations, Curtis Hanson -- you've managed to have it both ways.

An interesting thing about the timing of this rewatch was that the movie has two things in common with Hollywoodland, the movie I rewatched just the day before. One is profound while the other is more incidental.

1) Both films make mention of George Reeves. Hollywoodland is of course about Reeves, but he gets a quick mention in Wonder Boys too, when James (Maguire) is rattling off famous celebrity suicides in a savant-like manner. Naturally he lists Reeves, and curiously, chooses to make no mention of the fact that some people contest the finding that it was a suicide.

2) Both films feature a character unwittingly holding another character at gunpoint, only the first character doesn't realize the gun he or she is holding is loaded. That makes the situation all the more dangerous, because many people wouldn't hesitate to casually pull the trigger on an unloaded gun.

A couple other isolated thoughts:

1) Alan Tudyk is in this! He plays Traxler, the pothead janitor.

2) I love Vernon Hardapple, the character not actually named Vernon Hardapple, played by Richard Knox. "Vernon Hardapple" is the name Grady and his editor give the character, with his James Brown bouffant, while spotting him across the bar and spitballing a backstory for him. Little do they know that Vernon will actually turn up in their lives as they are leaving the bar, as he believes Grady is driving his stolen car and doesn't give up easy in the pursuit. Vernon finally seems to "win" by stopping the car dead in its tracks. In a moment that's delightfully absurd and ultimately never explained, he uses his upper hand by running up, jumping on the hood of the car, leaving an ass print in it, performing a whimsical bow, and then walking away. "What the hell was that?" Rip Torn's character, the aptly named Q, rightly asks.

3) I love this line of dialogue to describe the house Grady's wife grew up in: "It's the kind of house you like to wake up in on Christmas morning." Indeed.

After I'd written this draft but before I'd posted it, I learned what the edited content actually is. Putting the query out to my Flickcharters Facebook group (instead of googling it myself like I should have done), I discovered that the family of Alan Ladd had objected to him being listed by James among the people who committed suicide. Indeed, Ladd's death was ruled as an accidental drug overdose rather than a suicide. So Paramount agreed to scrap all reference to Ladd in all future incarnations of the film, on video and any potential future theatrical screenings.

What I don't understand is why they didn't just silently excise the reference to Ladd and be done with it. It seems to only draw attention to the issue, since people like me will google it (or, in my case, should have googled it) to find out what was edited out. You'd hardly think your duty to the original is such that you have to post a disclaimer like his out of a sense of full disclosure. I mean, did George Lucas warn us that the special edition of Star Wars had been "edited for content"?

But if it made the Ladds happy -- even 36 years after his death when the film came out -- then I guess that's a good thing.

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