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Helmers’ cut above?

Current climate fuels copyright debate

This article was updated on Sept. 27, 2002.

Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton should give CleanFlicks or ClearPlay a call. The video movie sanitizing services would probably happily accommodate the two easily offended self-appointed activists in cutting out what they perceive as disparaging references in “Barbershop” to the Rev. Jackson, Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr. so they won’t have to be offended while watching their own personal video version.

Here we go again with people trying to alter cinematic works of art on video to suit their personal tastes. Where will this threat to the sanctity of cinematic art lead?

No wonder members of the Directors Guild are upset.

This week an altered version of the Academy Award-winning “Amadeus” popped up on DVD. Word is, that an upcoming altered version of “The Lord of the Rings” has been changed so much that it seems like an entirely different movie.

Just last year a bunch of new shots were edited into a DVD version of

“Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace.”

But wait, all those alterations were made by the directors themselves.

Happens all the time.

Coppola had his “Apocalypse Now Redux.” Spielberg has redone “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” twice (a Criterion Collection laserdisc edition once allowed users to pick and choose which scenes they wanted to include).

Odds are, you could watch “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” on DVD, VHS, laserdisc, a broadcast network, an airline, a basic cable network, and a pay cable channel, and you would not see the same cut of the movie twice.

Of course the director has clear moral and legal right to alter his own films, but doesn’t it undercut the argument about the sanctity of the film if it is altered so often by the filmmaker?

If the original work is so pure and sacrosanct, why do the directors themselves change it so often?

“Only the creative artist has a right to alter his own work,” Milos Forman told Variety this week. “Through the years, sometimes you suddenly have a little different attitude towards things, so why not revisit and do it, especially when you don’t destroy the version before so that film buffs and film students can compare.”

Forman oversaw Warner Home Video’s director’s cut of his “Amadeus” for DVD, restoring scenes he’d originally wanted, though he feared they would make the film too long.

Clearly a director editing his own film is in a different category than the kind of sanitizing that Utah-based CleanFlicks is propagating.

Surely no Hollywood types would even consider anything so sacrilegious as altering some of the biggest or most acclaimed films of all time just to remove potentially objectionable material.

Who would ever dream of altering the scene in which Kate Winslet is nude in “Titanic?”

It would be unthinkable to go back to a classic like “The Godfather” and alter a key line, “I don’t want my brother coming out of the bathroom with just his dick in his hand,” by dubbing in a clearly mismatched voice-over so that it now sounds like he said, “. . . with just a stick in his hand.”

But wait, those cuts were made for the broadcast run of those movies, just as thousands of others have been, often under the supervision of the director.

When you get down to it, most films are never seen the way the director intended.

Just watching a movie on television completely alters the desired presentation. Everything from adding movement in shots and adjusting the framing of scenes to accommodate the small screen (leaving out a significant percentage of the original film frame, not to mention actors and objects), to the various color settings on a TV set, to the sound quality. Even changing channels during the movie radically alters the intended experience.

Directors like to draw comparisons to altering the works of great painter artists.

“If I buy a Picasso and my wife doesn’t like yellow and wants to change it, that’s unthinkable,” Forman says. “If Picasso comes to my home and says, ‘You know, I would like to change this,’ sure, it’s his work.”

But Picasso is dead and people are altering his work all the time. Unless you have an original Picasso hanging on your wall, you have an altered version of his art. Even the best print doesn’t have the same texture and precise color tones of the original — not to mention the poster versions of his art or the God-awful frames that would have made Picasso puke.

Even so, it’s unlikely we would have seen Picasso or Michelangelo go back and tweak one of their paintings by removing or adding elements, or allow objectionable parts of their paintings to be altered for public viewing and the purposes of commerce as filmmakers have (not that they have much choice in the matter).

So while it seems instinctively correct and even noble for directors to stand up in defense of the purity of their art by filing a lawsuit against these companies to try and stop them from altering their films — take note that no studio has stepped up to do the right thing — their position seems a little tenuous, even on an artistic basis.

As for the legal issue that has now been raised, Ted Turner and the companies that colorized classic black-and-white movies prevailed (legally, if not commercially). And advertisers have been allowed to continue using movie clips of Fred Astaire looking as if he is dancing with a vacuum cleaner and images of John Wayne in TV commercials.

Certainly it can be argued that altering films to remove objectionable material could be considered immoral, perhaps ignorant, or at least inappropriate and ill advised.

But illegal?

“If I record a movie and then I play with it at home and re-edit it, that’s my right. But it’s not my right then to sell it as an original to anybody,” Forman says.

That’ one for the courts to decide.

(Milos Forman talks more about companies that alter films on video and about the impact of DVD on filmmaking in Monday’s print edition of Variety sister publication Video Business.)

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