What’s Worth Saving?

This is not what you think it’s about. This is about movies, and is born out of a conversation with a chap I’ve known for decades.

He’s a really good guy, and occasionally we hit spots where we find ourselves accidentally exploring an issue that winds up going off on a bizarrely serious tangent.

In this case, we were talking about movies. As we both love to joke, the cult movie Phantasm has a remaster available for purchase thanks to JJ Abrams’ fandom of it. The movie is, to say the least, not wildly popular for a reason. There are some who even might say it kind of sucks.

I’m not the one on trial here!

What we got around to debating and wondering, yet again, was why Phantasm has a remaster but some of the truly classic long-lost gems don’t even have a decent modern release.

Take, for instance, the film 29th Street. This 1991 charmer stars Danny Aiello and Anthony Lapaglia in a dramatization of the real-life story of Frank Pesce, the first winner of the New York State Lottery. It’s set at Christmastime, and a used DVD copy of it goes for $72.24 on Amazon. It’s got a terrific supporting cast, it’s set at Christmas, and has a genuinely lovely story arc.

Why is there an affordable remaster of Phantasm, but not of that?

29th Street Movie 1991 Anthony LaPaglia Danny Aiello | kesseljunkie
It’s 100% better than Phantasm. I promise you that.

Before someone thinks they’ve got the answer to end all answers, I’m aware that if JJ Abrams, a powerful producer in Hollywood, is the fan of a movie then it’s going to get remastered.

I’m aware of the argument that there’s a financial side to things. They’re not going to bother with the restoration of a film that isn’t going to get money back for them.

I’m also aware that it highlights the arbitrary nature of film preservation.

Arbitrary

Any given film is special to someone. Trust me on this one.

Unlike previous generations we seem to care deeply about preserving past entertainment. Classic television shows have resurged on streaming platforms. It’s sparked debates about whether the show’s continued availability, if it’s available to modern audiences, forgives that times have changed since its airing.

Before I go off on a different tangent and this becomes a different argument, what I’m really fascinated by is why it bothers “us” so much when things we loved in the past aren’t redeemed in modern formats. Part of growing up is accepting that you’ll lose some things that were special to you.

Things that burned into our minds are literally a piece of us.
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Emotional Attachment

Sometimes all that remains of your fondest moments are fading memories. For some, that’s just hard to accept.

Maybe that’s part of what’s at the core with certain films being pulled from different services. It’s actively invalidating a fond memory, and a time in your life that is sacred. It’s not so much the movie or the show itself that you’re trying to defend, but the sacrosanct remembrance of our collective youth.

For me, it’s just hard to accept that just because I didn’t remake Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan in the most unbearably ham-handed way possible, or preside over the whimpering expiration of the Skywalker Saga, I don’t get to purchase a remaster of a film that I truly loved.

Maybe there’s some jealousy or hurt in there. To keep it personal, something I don’t like is treated with a reverence I feel undeserved, whether it’s Phantasm or the execrable Showgirls, while things that I do are actively cast by the wayside. Something about it seems unfair.

But then, life has always been unfair. Maybe some things just have to be accepted as destined for the dustbin.

Dust to Dust to Digital

Films – almost any entertainment, really – weren’t created with the idea that they would endure in perpetuity. They were created with the idea of entertaining and fulfilling an audience of its time. Some things falling by the wayside is inevitable.

Now, I’m not at all arguing for the erasure of films because times change. I’m staunchly for preserving them as they’re a part of a collective cultural record in the same way that the ruins at Pompeii are. We know a lot about how Roman society evolved in every aspect from politics to slavery thanks to what was preserved, often just as a function of accidental geology.

For that reason, yes, I think we should save all the films we can. I’m just making peace with the idea that the record won’t necessarily be as complete as it should.

Maybe as we transition to digital and streaming, it’ll get better. There are fewer physical considerations, even though technology continues to change rapidly even on that front.

Ha ha, your movie is really just 1100110
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Questions of Ownership

This is a weird one. But it’s a legitimate quandary, and I’m not sure I can resolve it my own, hence why I’m tapping it out on a public platform. It won’t be as controversial as renaming CHAZ to C.H.U.D., but it’s a question rooted in a changing world.

As online retailers — or any retailers — have the right to do when people raise enough ruckus to signal their virtue, online platforms have the right to decide what they want to stream. After all, it’s on their servers and their service, they should have the right to decide what to sell.

I’m presuming there’s some level of agreement with that statement. After all, a Catholic bookstore shouldn’t be obligated to carry a copy of the Communist Manifesto or The DaVinci Code. At least, I think that’s common sense.

There are also occasional pushes for retailers to stop carrying items that have fallen out of favor. Amazon stopped selling the Confederate battle flag, as did other retailers, and everyone agreed that was okay for them to do. I don’t own one, and I never planned on purchasing one.

Sure, Amazon still sells the Bonnie Blue flag, but people would have to know history to know much about that one. Probably a safe bet no one will raise a stink until they do.

But plastic discs are so bad for the environment!
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Digital Copies

By way of my convoluted thinking, I thought about people who have purchased digital copies of movies. I know I own a fair amount.

When you find a deal for $4.99, you tend to jump to it. Since I’m not a huge fan of owning too many physical copies of anything despite a current taste for expanding my collection again, digital copies are a wonderment.

I can watch a movie I like whenever I want, without having to take up space on a shelf. I also get to watch it without generating more Future Garbage for the dump when I die.

(Speaking from my own experiences, almost all of your stuff is going to get thrown out when you die. You’re just kicking the can down the road to someone else who will decide to throw it away. The most cherished items will be retained, but largely you’re just holding onto literal Future Garbage right now.)

I’m not trying to be a downer. I’m just trying to have a practical talk with you.

The Mechanics of It

So here we get to where I’m going with this.

A person who’s purchased a digital copy from a company merely has paid a fee for lifetime access to their copy. They can watch it whenever they like. But they don’t own a physical thing, What they’ve paid for is a digital license.

Since online retailers and streaming services are, as most agree, free to decide what to host on their services, where do they stand when people stand have a digital license to a film later found to be odious by a loud plurality of people. (Note: I’m still going to use the term “own(s) a digital copy” just because it’s the commonly accepted term.)

If the company decides they no longer wish to carry something deemed offensive, they have the right to stop offering it for sale. Again, no retailer is required to carry something.

In the case of digital copies, I’m wondering if that extends to their right to rescind access for the purchaser.

I’ll also say that vinyl albums are incapable of transmitting your usage data to a faceless conglomerate leveraging your personal data for financial gain.
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An Example

Let’s start with a movie that garnered some attention in 2015.

Short Circuit has not aged particularly well, given one of its character portrayals is a white actor in brownface. Short Circuit 2, costarring Michael McKean, hasn’t aged well for the exact same reason.

It’s entirely conceivable that at some point in the future, a retailer would decide to stop selling it. It’s conceivable that the production company would stop producing copies of it altogether.

We would all agree the retailer has the right to do that. We would all agree that the production company has the right to do that. No matter what someone’s emotional attachment is to a work, no one is obliged to sell it.

What if, though, someone has a copy of Short Circuit or Short Circuit 2 in their digital collection? If the film is now judged too controversial to sell, I think it’s conceivable that there would be pressure for it not to be streamed, or even sold in the digital format at all. After all, if a retailer isn’t obligated to sell it, they’re also not obligated to host it on their servers.

While it’s hard to envision anyone being too upset about Short Circuit evaporating into the digital mists, where does that leave Orson Welles’ Othello? What if someone owns a digital copy of Triumph of the Will, the monumental propaganda piece directed by Leni Riefenstahl for the National Socialist German Workers’ Party party?

It is unquestionably odious. It’s literally lauding men who are some of the greatest monsters of the 20th Century.

But it is important. The construction of Triumph of the Will influenced students who studied it in film school. It’s influenced documentaries and fictional film with its innovative use of camera and shot selections. It was directed by a woman at a time when female directors weren’t common.

This is getting heavy, so here’s a pic of who they should cast in Star Wars: Episode X as the Drunken Jedi Master.

Reasons

It’s conceivable someone would own a copy just for the sake of being an amateur film historian. They may want to show it to people to show the dangers of popular movements and fiery ideologies.

It might be something they own because they understand its place in film history is as important as The Birth of a Nation, an equally-consequential work that is equally reprehensible in its content. Forrest Gump even uses a digitally-altered clip of it in acknowledgement.

No Conclusion

And so I’m left curious.

Obviously, if Amazon Prime’s leadership decides it no longer wishes to stream Breakfast at Tiffany’s, they can stop. My question is simply where the line is.

After all, if the point is to halt the advancement of things/portrayals/ideas that are distasteful in the extreme, it’s arguably imperative to remove access to all copies. Someone could easily argue that so long as no one is barging into someone’s house and taking someone’s physical copy, they’re simply rescinding a digital access license as is their right; or again, in some cases, their “duty.”

Further, it extends to all sorts of digital “ownership,” including the “right” to rescind or edit books without the user’s express consent. For that matter, there’s some music that was purposely made to be controversial; as the taste for tolerating controversy has lessened, so too might digital copies of that music be altered with the same reasoning.

To be clear, I’m not taking a position. I’m merely framing the argument I could see.

They could issue a refund as a goodwill gesture. They could give the customer a credit to replace it with a different movie or two.

This one got heavy and I’m not sure how it resolves now or in the future. Fortunately, I have one all set for tomorrow that isn’t such a bummer.

Reorganizing my Movie Collection

Lately I’ve been buying physically copies of movies again. There are a number of reasons why, none of which are worth going into in this moment.

The point of this blog is to discuss openly the challenge of reorganizing my movie collection. Anyone who knows me, knows that I have a penchant for reorganizing things. It is almost as if I live to reconfigure things. (You know that now, too, which means now that anyone who reads this blog knows it.) I rearrange my posters, my furniture, my collectibles, my books…you name it, I’ll rearrange it.

I can’t fully explain why I do it. It brings me a certain sense of peace. I like to experiment with the way things look. Some stuff remains at rest, but most things should be regarded as changeable.

It’s all a puzzle, man!
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The Question of Movies

And so we come to my movie collection. It’s not nearly as voluminous as some might presume. I still live under the self-imposed directive that, if I die, all of my personal possessions should be able to be cataloged and removed within 48 hours.

My personal possessions like movies or books, or records, or toys, aren’t family heirlooms. I also don’t have many of them (anymore) and I’ll always keep myself in check with regards to purchasing things. They’re going to end up in a junk heap someday no matter what I do do.

Trust me, I am completely comfortable with that.

Back to the Movies

But how to rearrange my now-increased physical copies was the question at hand. I’ve arranged them alphabetically in the past, which is boring. I’ve arranged them by series and collection within the alphabetical heirarchy, which is fine but also a little lackluster.

I think that I’ve settled on arranging them by date that I watched them. So, for example, Star Wars would be first. It’s chronologically first and so it goes to the front of the line. But what comes after wouldn’t be The Empire Strikes Back necessarily. It would be whatever I best recall as having seen in the gap between, if I possess the film in question.

It’s for this reason that Masters of the Universe would come before It’s a Wonderful Life, though Capra’s classic was released decades before Courtney Cox teamed up with Dolph Lundgren to defeat Frank Langella in heavy makeup.

It’s also a fun challenge in memory as I try to recall whether I saw The Game before or after I saw Cool Hand Luke for the first time.

Do I further sub-categorize based on whether I saw it in the theater or at home first?
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Where Then Does a Boxed Set Go?

The challenge becomes if I have something that exists only in a box set. I have Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy (his Batman movies) as a boxed set only, since I’m still not the type of psychotic fan who needs every edition of a release if it’s just the same film.

But it creates the problem that I can’t exactly split those up to place them into individual spots. I saw plenty of movies between each of Nolan’s Batman films, including some of his own.

There are also challenges of working different types of packaging into the flow of things. Certain editions of individual films are boxed sets unto themselves, with elaborate packaging that does not fit easily between the typical individual sizes of single-release features. The terrific packaging on the version of Solo: A Star Wars Story that I own accounts for an actual booklet about the production that they included.

For a visual compulsive like myself, can I live with that sort of random irregularity? Heck, there are editions of films I own that are still on DVD, that alone doesn’t blend with later packaging for BluRays.

This is not what it all looks like. I don’t share photos of my domicile on here.
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And That’s How It Goes

Now you can see, hopefully, not just what a challenge it is to reorganize in such a way that it satisfies me, but why I’m constantly shifting things around.

It’s an inconsequential and silly thing to go on about, but I felt like being silly and inconsequential today. I didn’t even go on about my Bookshelf of the Banned. That features a collection of items that I started buying over time, in the anticipation they would inevitably be banned once the voices on one side or the other got loud enough.

We seem to be approaching the point that even pompous old acquaintances I knew who, in the past, were known to cheaply use that Voltaire quote about defending anyone’s right to speak, are on board with wholesale bans and cancelations. It’s weird, and what I started as a lark makes me feel prophetic now.

It could be cute to arrange it by what I think is most likely to get me thrown out of social circles for possessing it. Maybe I should arrange that by known date of the first call for banning, which puts some items naturally at the head of the pack. The real fun is that calls for bans can transcend time and sensibility in question. Just ask Kurt Vonnegut!

That’s a thought for another time, I guess. One where I’m in a less silly and inconsequential mood.

What Now, RoboCop?

This one is a bit more serious than usual, but it’s also rooted in a sincere curiosity about something that has become a topic in recent days.

Recently I wrote about movie birthdays and the challenge of defining such a thing. In that piece I said in an off-hand way that it wouldn’t be “as serious” as trying to get Paw Patrol cancelled. Of course, the New York Times discussing the “problems” of Paw Patrol was essentially a blog riffing on a tweet, but I’m going to treat you to better quality than that.

The joke I made was also a reference to the current wave of “cancelling” cop shows because they commit the cardinal sin of portraying police in a good light. I’m not debating whether that’s a good or a bad thing; I wasn’t even aware, for instance, that Cops was still on the air.

But I can’t help but wonder what the opinion or consensus would be of some of my favorite films. Several of them aren’t just favorites. They’re literally responsible for teaching me about film and what I liked in it.

A Note About Manhunter

Michael Mann’s Manhunter molded my film tastes in significant ways. It’s an adaptation of Thomas Harris’ book Red Dragon, and it’s terrific. (As a side note, its title was changed because of the fear that the failure of Year of the Dragon, released by the same company, would impact audiences by reminding them of that title.) It’s also the unspoken sibling of Mann’s Miami Vice TV series.

It’s an amazing film in every way. The pacing, the photography, and the performances are terrific. The oft-overlooked character actor Stephen Lang turns in a memorable Freddie Lounds. Brian Cox is a stunning sociopath.

There’s an immortal moment when Will Graham looks at his reflection in a rainy window, freed from other concerns, and addresses the killer Francis Dollarhyde in spirit as he spits out, “It’s just you and me now, sport.”

The climax of the film isn’t just a magnificently choreographed explosion of violence. It’s one of my favorite examples of diegetic music to this day. Thanks to this film, I heard In a Gadda Da Vida for the first time in my life, which remains one of my favorite songs. Likely at least part of my love for it comes from that first viewing of Manhunter.

William Peterson inhabits the role of a retired FBI profiler asked to come back and find the killer behind horrific slayings. While the book is a bit different, it’s still the obvious source. The film is essentially a police procedural.

Fun note: Manhunter also features the first screen appearance of Hannibal Lecter, though in this version it was spelled “Leckter.” Brian Cox was offered the chance to reprise the role in Silence of the Lambs since it’s the second story in the series, but he turned it down.

So What Do We Do?

So if we’re shunning any work that portrays police in a positive light, what do we do with Manhunter? What do we do with Silence of the Lambs, or any of a number of other films like Heat and Die Hard that extoll the virtues of hard-working detectives dedicated to the defeat of the criminal?

What do we do with David Fincher’s exquisite series Mindhunter, which portrays not just police but the FBI as fundamentally good organizations working to subvert the will of the worst in society? I guess I shouldn’t hold out hope that a miracle happens and it gets finished instead of being left undone thanks to Fincher’s packed schedule. (Trust me, that one hurts worse than the decades spent whining about a single season of Firefly.)

Where do we find ourselves with the Lethal Weapon series? The second film in that series specifically paints (LAPD!) cops as working to defeat racists. The third film has a major plot point around the idea of “cop killer” bullets that were significant headline generators at the time; it’s undeniable that the police are seen as working against the odds to defeat well-armed criminals. The fourth one, for my money, doesn’t actually exist, so we can all just agree to ignore that one.

Am I to disavow the Lethal Weapon films, despite their amazing craftsmanship and true dedication to highlighting problematic social issues? Richard Donner was loudly and proudly anti-Apartheid and used these films to highlight that. He focused on real social issues in the sequels. The series highlighted PTSD and mental illness in a sincere way with the character of Riggs when most films wouldn’t really discuss it.

Some scenes were taken as “comedy” by some, but there was a manic energy that authentically spoke to inner pain and turmoil.

Even Dystopias Have Complex Cops

RoboCop is constructed around the themes of corporatization and corruption, but there’s no mistake that the Detroit Police are portrayed as the “good guys.” Would this invalidate its other messages examining humanity and technology, and the excesses of corporate greed, when viewed with that in mind? There were also questions of humanity and virtue laced throughout.

If anything, films like RoboCop, and even Predator 2, project out the idea of the police as beleaguered by well-organized and armed criminals. They fully embrace the vision of a criminal apocalypse that many films in the 1970s, 1980s, and early 1990s projected. It was a certain thing to films of that era that the future was full of unchecked criminals who bordered on supervillainy.

For goodness’ sake, Soylent Green deals with a police officer trying to uncover a horrific scandal at the root of society. This scandal, like RoboCop after it, revolves around corporate greed and government favoritism.

But make no mistake — they always portray these cops as similar to the Jim Gordon of Batman: Year One or Christopher Nolan’s Batman films. They’re trapped in a flawed system and trying to accomplish good despite the systemic issues they encounter. In a sense, these cops are the good guys not because all cops are “good guys” in their world, but because these are virtuous people trying to use their position to do good. In a sense, their jobs are secondary to their true nature.

I’ll also point out they were trying to replace cops with a robot, initially. It…did not go well.

My Wish

What I wish, before people decide they want to wipe out a film or a genre, they considered a few things. Bear with me.

I wish that people would understand that the people consuming these entertainments aren’t children. Functional adults can see any number of things and contextualize them for what they are. Only people dereft of reason, or the pridefully condescending, think that those who watch something ascribe everything about it as reality.

In other words, it says a lot about someone who thinks that a person who watches Cops doesn’t understand that bad cops need to be punished. It says that not only do they think they’re a smart person, they think “everyone else” is dumb.

That type of person is a tool. That’s always been true, and always will be.

In Conclusion

That might be the most troubling thing about this desire to purge these sorts of entertainment: It’s rooted in a fundamental arrogance. There are plenty of people, myself included, who know that the real world is a complex and tricky place and don’t need to watch or read things that only conform to our world views to find them valid or well-crafted.

That’s not entertainment programming. It’s programming in the sense of agitprop.

The beauty of the forum of ideas is that it’s free and open, and any ideas can be heard and debated. The beauty of defending that forum is that it protects everyone.

And in terms of the types of things that someone watches, sometimes…a cigar is just a cigar. It’s not ascribing to “police propaganda” to love Heat. It’s just loving a good film that’s well constructed and which allows you to escape your life for a few hours. To think that it will mold people into being avowed defenders of bad cops is like thinking someone will jump on a broom in hopes it lets them fly after reading Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.

Give people a little credit, and let them enjoy some escapism.

He’s just enjoying the movie!

Coda

The strangest thing about this is, I’m a nobody and just writing this blog because I like to write. A small number of people like to read it. I’ve said nothing controversial on here.

And yet, I wonder sometimes if there is such a thing as “non-controversial” anymore.

Director’s Cuts

As threatened in my post about what constitutes a movie’s birthday, I will now discuss “directors’ cuts,” both so-called and actual. Before we get into the topic, though, a quick discussion for those who aren’t entirely familiar with the term.

What is a Final Cut?

A final cut of a film is what you see in the theater while you eat overpriced snack food as you lounge on your lazy buttocks, or streaming at home eating affordably-priced snack food as you lounge on your lazy buttocks. It has gone through the usual

It has typically been accepted that the director is the final arbiter of what a final cut is, if anyone gave it a passing thought. Most don’t, and are likely happier for it. The director enjoys the praise, and the director takes the blame.

However, it’s not always the case. Producers exert a tremendous amount of influence on the final cut of a film. Harvey Weinstein, before the wall of silence around his execrable behavior crumbled, was notorious for taking a movie and editing it as he saw fit. Someome producers trust their directors and let them work. Some producers only see a bottom line and obsess about what will bring in the highest gross amount at the box office. Some producers want to fiddle with specific projects in hopes of winning acclaim.

The “kesseljunkie cut” of Avengers: Endgame is much more emotionally powerful.

Examples

Halloween II is a complicated sequel to consider. The final version released theatrically is different than the version released on television, but not just in terms of the gore shown onscreen. It juggles aspects of the story and the ending.

In the behind-the-scenes documentary about the film, the director talks about how “everyone” has a cut of the film. The producer has a preferred cut, and the director has a preferred cut, and so on and so forth.

It’s why so many directors become producers on their own projects, and especially an Executive Producer. It’s their way of subverting the hierarchy by exerting control over it.

The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi have always been producer’s cuts. George Lucas admitted that his goal of having different directors was to have them do the day-to-day work that was an unlikable chore for him after three draining experiences. However, the stories were his and he was going to be darn sure that what made it to the screen was what he wanted in order to get it told.

To move away from Star Wars, Robert “The Kid Stays in the Picture” Evans came to claim that he “saved” Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather from disaster when he sat down and recut the picture. For context, Evans was sort of the Harvey Weinstein for his day in terms of working on a film – manipulative, controlling, and absolutely convinced he knew best.

So the version of The Godfather we saw was – if Evans is to be believed – a producer’s cut. Ironically, its success gave Coppola the cachet to get final cut control until he burned every professional bridge possible with Apocalypse Now.

The “kesseljunkie cut” of Star Wars: Episode VIII: The Last Jedi has Dougie Jones. It’s 1000% better as a result.

So What Does That Have to Do with Director’s Cuts?

The nature of a final cut is what makes director’s cuts so dicey. Film is, by its very nature, a collaborative effort. Directors are, by their very nature, controlling people. What you typically see is the product of intense collaboration.

The default for many is to presume that director’s cuts are always the version of the film that should be watched and regarded as authoritative. I know that for myself, I always prefer to watch a director’s cut when it’s available. Sometimes producers make dumb cuts and alterations that are unwarranted and the director’s vision is a more cohesive picture of the film.

Only rarely, or after a notably successful career, does a filmmaker have the ability to control everything from start to finish like Hitchcock did in his masterworks. For every Nolan there’s a journeyman director just trying to make it work so they can continue doing what they love. Heck, Zack Snyder had a film taken away from him and half of it reshot by a completely different person; the resultant reactions are going to result in him finally getting to release some version of his vision years later.

But sometimes the director’s cut is indulgent and bloated. Sometimes it has some good things included, but it’s at the expense of pacing. As an artist, you have to be willing to make painful choices for the sake of the whole. Sometimes you have to concede that the shortest possible cut of Highlander 2: The Quickening will always be the best by default, because the pain ends more quickly.

Some directors are just really good project managers. When the right people are around them, they know how to execute a plan to get things finished on time, on budget, and entertaining enough to justify the investment.

Money!
And by “investment,” I mean laundered mob money and tax breaks.

The Ultimate Point

The ultimate point would be that, director’s cuts should be approached with an air of optimistic skepticism. Because whether an alternate cut is better than the version you saw originally is going to depend on a lot of factors outside of a director’s control.

I loved Blade Runner when I first saw it. The director’s cut released in the 1990s wasn’t even a director’s cut technically speaking, but it became accepted conventional wisdom that it must be more respected because it was labeled as a director’s cut.

The Final Cut of Blade Runner is much more a “director’s cut,” and it is better, but it earns that regard by virtue of a director recutting and tweaking things to get it closer to a vision in the first place, and to account for the missing narration. But it could have gone either way.

So the next time you get into a discussion and someone insists that the director’s cut is the way to go, it’s okay to disagree. If you preferred the other cut, that’s fine. Someone else did, too, and it’s OK if you agree with them instead.