Roger Ebert is one of the great pundits of the twentieth century. His work spans a number of different subjects, but I am sure that if he and I were engaged in conversation about it, he would not dispute my statement that for him, the bread and butter has always been in film criticism.
And whether you like it or not, film criticism is a valid field that serves a purpose. Because films, like it or not, provide a window into the collective soul of Humanity. Literature, comic books, music, paintings, photography, they all do these things too. But they do it at different angles and placements of the window, so to speak, which means that critiquing a film is as valuable as critiquing these other media, and critiquing each medium properly, that is, by assessing each individual piece on the basis of how they allow what is within to shine through without distortion, bias, or anomoly, is both important and an art. Ebert‘s verbal beatdown of Roy Scheider on the latter’s attempt to berate a critic who had the hide to critique his [that is, Scheider‘s] work in one film is absolutely legendary. But it is also not germaine to the point I wish to make here today.
The Vincent Gallo film The Brown Bunny caused an absolute shitstorm of derision when it was originally released at the Cannes Film Festival. Ebert told members of the press that asked him that he thought it was the worst film in the history of the festival. In his review of the subsequent edited rerelease, he admits that statement was hyperbole. He had not seen every film ever screened at Cannes, but he was pretty adamant that it was the worst press screening he had ever attended.
The point here is in Ebert’s third paragraph of the review. Something funny happened to the film. Vincent Gallo went back to the editing room and cut a superfluous twenty-six minutes from the running time. For my part, I would welcome the opportunity to see the original 118-minute version that Roger Ebert and an audience at Cannes saw, because the 92-minute version that I sat through in the convenience of my home was simply excruciating. By trimming all of the fat that people threw rotten fruit at, Gallo took a film that was hilariously incompetent in execution and made it simply… dull. And as the Ed Wood rule says, you can make a bad film, you can make an awesome film, you can make a film so incredibly bad that people will turn to each other and ruminate that it would have been better if they had gotten stoned before watching. But Odin help you if you make a boring film.
This is what I want you to keep in mind whilst I talk about Alex Proyas‘ film Dark City. When originally released, the film was a mere hundred minutes in length, contained an introductory narration, and was generally quite average at the best of times. As I said, be as bad or excellent as you want, but Odin help you if you are just ordinary.
Rather than just talk about both versions of the film in their entirety, I will talk about the director’s cut, with pieces pasted in about the differences between the two versions. This will help give readers an idea about how an entire story can be altered simply by the pieces that are included or excluded, and how the storyteller arranges them to fit with one another.
The first sequence in Dark City illustrates this fact very well. As he walks through a city that looks like it has only just begun to enjoy the benefits of the industrial revolution, one Doctor Daniel P. Schreber (Keifer Sutherland) gets out an antique watch, checks the time, and notes with what looks like amusement as the entire city seems to literally grind to a pause. We are clearly not in the New York of the prior hundred years, Toto. But the first big difference in the director’s cut is the manner in which the shot is set up. In the version that New Line Cinema released to theatres, this sequence is stretched out to many times the intended length, with Keifer Sutherland delivering a voiceover explaining exactly who the aliens in the film are, what makes them alien, and why they run this little city out in the midst of nowhere in space. The director’s cut trusts in the intelligence of the audience, and thus takes them through the world of the story in a stream of graduating steps.
After this introduction, we see a man by the name of John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell) awaken in a bathtub within a hotel. Murdoch is alone, confused, and frightened as he has no memory of who he is, what his name is, or how he came to be in the bathtub. Worse, there is a dead woman nearby, divested of most of her clothing, and with spirals carved into her skin. A telephone call to the hotel room, which John picks up, has Schreber on the other end. They are coming for you, Schreber warns, you must get out of there as fast as you can.
In the director’s cut of the film, who “they” are is left fairly ambiguous until the last possible minute. Which happens to be a good thing. But the “they” that are actively searching for John is basically a group consisting of four people. None of them really have names, all responding to names with “Mister” prefixes that best describe their natures and functions within the group mind. The least important of the search team is a child (in appearance that is) called Mister Sleep (Satya and Noah Gumbert). There is also a Mister Quick (Frederick Miragliotta), but he may as well have been called Mister Silent. The two that do matter are the very tall and thin Mister Wall (Bruce Spence) and the short, slightly heavier (relatively speaking), and far nastier Mister Hand (Richard O’Brien). IMDB trivia has it that Alex Proyas wrote the role of Mister Hand specifically for Richard O’Brien. O’Brien plays it with a beauty and style that reflects this. But we are getting ahead of ourselves a little.
After leaving the hotel, John goes to collect his wallet from the automat. This is the first big clue we get that something is really amiss with the city. Whilst automats still exist today in slightly different forms to how they were in their heyday, their existence in a city where all of the residents appear to be from America or some other country that was once a colony of England, or even England itself, is more than a little incongruous. You can look up the provided link and guess at which of the listed meanings I mean. Nonetheless, after retrieving his wallet by means that give another hint that something is up, John is stopped by a pair of policemen who are curious as to who he is and where he is going. Fortunately, a streetwalker who is only known in the film as May (Melissa George) comes to extract him from the annoyances of the policemen, and takes him to her home.
Like a lot of celebrities that are yanked out of Australia and everyone in Australia is expected to go rah rah rah for simply because they are Australia, Melissa George was at one point circulated in the press around Sydney with that patented “oh look, Melissa George is in a film, get excited cos you are Australian” bullshit. Unfortunately, her serious lack of acting ability became a big hindrance, and there is a good reason why you will never see her in a television series that happens to include the like of Anna Paquin, or a film with Michael Fassbender for that matter. If she cannot even fail to embarrass herself in a film where the almost best performance comes from Keifer Sutherland, then putting her in something like Prometheus would produce a rich embarrassment to Australia on every level. But I digress. The main reason I am focused on her at this point is because Melissa George simply cannot seem to get a simple basic of acting right. Like knowing when to actually have your mouth open, as opposed to all of the time. I counted no less than seven occurrences of the word “mouth” in that linked document, and all of them involve Melissa. The choice ones are:
“And we’ve noticed that the majority of Ms. George‘s performance consists of staring blankly with her mouth open.”
“The other thing the extra length affords you is time to notice that Melissa George never, ever, closes her mouth.”
“Then it occurred to me—maybe she has some sort of congenital birth defect that actually PREVENTS her from ever closing her mouth, and this is the moment that the Cinema de Merde Melissa George Mouth-Closing Initiative was formed. Please sign our online petition.”
Melissa George‘s screentime in Dark City is pretty minimal. Maybe five minutes at most, and her character is mainly a prop for two important interactions that occur in the film. But the basic point here is that even if her mouth was welded shut (and her lines are pretty fukking terrible on a writing and delivery level), she is still a terrible actress. Like a lot of Australians, she seems to believe that she is owed admiration on the level of the golden key to the downstairs crapper based on the fact that she is she, rather than based on her actions. But anyway, the salient point here is that rather than murder May, John leaves the house after seeing that May has a daughter that her streetwalking basically supports. The whole inability to close the mouth thing seems to have developed since Dark City, but a search for her by name in Google’s images function shows her in a lot of pictures with a gawk like she has seen a walking pile of crap look on her face. Maybe she is just trying to keep the Australia-inflated ego between her lips.
Now, by this point, audiences will be wondering why this John fellow has woken up with what turns out to be a dead prostitute nearby, and sinister-looking agents coming after him. Well, apparently, the city has been plagued for a certain amount of time by a serial killer who has been murdering random prostitutes and carving spiralling patterns into the corpses. The main detective engaged in the case, an Inspector by the name of Frank Bumstead (William Hurt), goes to visit the detective who was previously working on the case, a man named Eddie Walenski (Colin Friels). The other police believe that Walenski has suffered some form of mental breakdown, and are reacting much in the manner one would expect of 1920s policemen. Bumstead tries to “reason” with Walenski, telling him that he is scaring his wife half to death. But this only draws protests that she is not really his wife, and that the whole case is really “just a big joke” (his words).
Probably the moment that really sold me on the film is pretty much the same in both versions, it is just framed slightly differently between the two (that is, the footages leading into and out of it differ). Making his way to a walkway that sits under a mechanically-automated sign advertising the mysterious tourist destination called Shell Beach, John finds a number of newspaper clippings in his pocket that are about the murders. His reaction is, understandably, more than a little panicked. And this is when the Stranger squad that was dispatched to retrieve him finally catch up with him for the first time. “So it seems you have discovered your unpleasant nature, yes?” Richard O’Brien asks as Mister Hand.
Probably the final and most important clue as to who the Strangers are comes in this scene. Mister Hand issues the command to John to “sleep… now”, as he did to the hotel’s manager, twisting his hand in a peculiar way to punctuate the command. But unlike the manager, John does not react to this command at all, prompting the Strangers who are coming after him to draw knives. This, in turn, causes John to focus the same ability he used in a fit of frustration to open a shelf in the automat on a section of the platform behind the approaching Strangers. This results in Murdoch escaping after one Stranger excitedly announces “he can tune” to the others.
Now, I have written so many times that the manner in which people behave or act has to be motivated. This is especially the case where acts with serious gravity and everlasting consequences such as murder are concerned. The motivation given for the acts that John supposedly committed (killing multiple prostitute women in a manner that is pretty compulsive to say the least) is that John is married to a woman named Emma (Jennifer Connelly), and she has been a little unfaithful to him. Emma is a vocalist at a nightclub, and after one performance is met by Doctor Schreber, who urges her to contact him if John tries to talk with her. Inspector Bumstead also has a conversation with her after she goes to the police precinct and attempts to file a missing person report, only to be told to speak with Bumstead. Bumstead, in a manner that somewhat lapses from being gentle with the loved ones of suspects, shares the somewhat unpleasant revelation that John is believed to have murdered around half a dozen women in a brutal manner.
This is basically what I am getting at in my remarks about the difference between the theatrical and director’s cut versions. When you frame your film so that it looks like everything is straightforward and meant to be out on the table from the get-go, all of the little incongruous elements and weirdnesses of the manner in which characters talk can really make a viewer think “why are they doing things this way?”. As opposed to focusing on the story and what it is meant to be about. When hints that something beyond the surface is “up” are subtle, on the other hand, it allows the viewer to relax and go along for the ride.
A good example of this is when we are introduced to Emma for the first time. When I first wrote what I thought of the film, I got carried away with my remarks about how emotionless and lifeless she seemed in this scene, where she is singing the song Sway for a bar audience that does not seem that particularly interested. Because the theatrical version is framed as obvious and all out in the open, the fact that Emma seems to be singing through a hundred grams (grams, not milligrams) of Melaril stands out. One sort of wonders if she is about to fall asleep. In the director’s cut of the film, the fact that we still do not know at that point why John is so important or who these people messing with him are draws curiosity rather than suspicions of bad direction. It fits in more easily with the fact that, on the surface at least, the people behind the scenes cannot seem to make up their mind whether it is meant to be 1920 or 1980.
Numerous times in the film, the location referred to as Shell Beach and how to get to it is brought up. John has very vague memories of having holidayed there with his parents during his childhood, but nobody ever seems to be able to give a definitive answer on how to get there. Even when the person being asked says that they went there with their wife or similar important individual so recently that the basic steps of the journey should be as easy as pie to recite. But when John presses them, the typical answer is something along the lines of “no, wait, let me think…”. Which is especially odd considering that it is meant to be a major tourist centre.
One of my favourite sequences in the film, one that could have easily been excised but was not, involves the Walenski character crossing paths with Murdoch in the subway. Murdoch is trying to get the train to Shell Beach, but repeated attempts to get on the line to get there end in frustration. Walenski, noticing Murdoch and understanding his frustration, simply tells him that there is no way out, and delivers a certain half-arsed, sounding like he has gone mad explanation of what the Strangers do (essentially, switching memories back and forth between inhabitants of the city). He finishes this by reinforcing his opening statement, that there is no way out. Then he dives in front of an oncoming train, and we never see him again.
After being cornered and arrested by Bumstead, John Murdoch exhausts a lot of effort to explain to Bumstead how much he knows about what is really going on. The police precinct ends up with Mr. Hand and his team “sleeping” everyone therein in an effort to get at Murdoch. This, of course, prompts Bumstead to allow Murdoch to escape, on the proviso that they go together. So after coming across Schreber and picking him up for the ride, both demand that he lead them to where Shell Beach is. This, of course, does not sit well with Schreber, who begs, pleads, moans, and does everything shy of literally pissing in an effort to dissaude his captors. But a quick “tuning” from Murdoch convinces him to go along with their plan.
Where Shell Beach turns out to be is nothing more than a large billpost advertisement over a brick wall. So, keen to get answers, Murdoch and Bumstead begin tearing the paper from the wall. Then, when they find the brick underneath, they pick up sledgehammers that have been conveniently left nearby and start bashing the brick surface with them. As Schreber continues to piss and moan, begging them to stop, they eventually break through the wall. Narrowly missing going through the opening he has helped create, Bumstead is pulled back by John just as the Strangers pursuing them arrive.
This is a curious moment in the film for a number of reasons. When I recently watched both versions of the film in preparation to write this article, I noticed very much how the rapid-pace cutting of the theatrical version made this (and many other) line(s) in the film fall flat. I am not saying that every shot in a film has to be thirty or more seconds long, but the fact that O’Brien’s best line in the film has far more impact when time has been invested to build the relationships between characters and the sense of unreality about the Humans’ situations should tell filmmakers everywhere something. Sadly, if the manner in which the film industry continues to work some fourteen years after Dark City was originally released is any guide, it has not.
“And now you know the truth…” Mister Hand tells his quarry as he is seen with several of his fellows, and Emma in tow. The timing of this line is awesomeness in itself. But the manner in which Richard O’Brien delivers it even tops his delivery of “it’s astounding…” during The Rocky Horror Picture Show (and yes, I almost but not quite typed that title with Ricky rather than Rocky). When I originally started writing this essay, I was under the apprehension that this scene was not in the original theatrical version of Dark City. Odin only knows why. Actually, no, I think I can tell you very well. You see, a lot of idiots who defend the theatrical version of Dark City will try to tell you that because the two versions have more or less identical stories, the scenes are mostly the same, and the story ends the same way, it is basically all the same. They are sorely mistaken, and this is why I referenced Roger Ebert‘s review of The Brown Bunny in the first place. You see, the original theatrical version of Dark City goes somewhere, alright, but it is a mess. It feels as if the studio cut the film up into minute-long pieces, threw those up in the air, and waited to see where they would land.
People who have read earlier writings of mine will also recall that I have said one of the golden rules of storytelling is that you do not pull out all of your aces right away. Another firm rule is that one must give their aces enough development time and space to breathe. That, in a nutshell, is my problem with the original theatrical cut of Dark City. The editor in charge of this cut seems to be in such a hurry to get to the “good bits” that he chops everything else down as much as he can. Picture watching The Godfather or Aliens with the first and last minute of every scene or shot excised, and you sort of get the idea I am trying to convey. Even small, two-second shots in the director’s cut are often only about half as long in the theatrical version. There are some sequences that were five to six seconds long in the theatrical version that take up the lion’s share of thirty seconds in the director’s cut.
In a nutshell, the theatrical version of Dark City feels like being told a story by a coke-addled idiot who says he has this really important piece of information to share with you. As he rambles at length, speaking fast and jumping from subject to subject without any regard for linking or leading. It is like he has an important, urgent story to tell, but telling it properly would require an investment of three hours or more, but he feels an urgent, excruciating need to compress it down to a hundred minutes or less. That is the feeling I had recently when I watched the director’s cut again, then watched the original theatrical version a little later. It was like the makers of the theatrical version were really, really in a hurry.
I can be brief about the endings of both versions of the film. Both versions pretty much end in the same manner. Apart from changes in the colour treatment, which is pretty much a film-wide thing, and some changes in the effects shots, both versions are more or less alike. The way in which the film ends is pretty curious, much like the rest of the film, but I am not going to give it away here. It is (mostly) a Hollywood sappy ending, but twisted in just the right way to be satisfying, as opposed to insulting.
Blu-ray Discs are available in multiple territories with both cuts of the film on them, so one can simply purchase the one disc and decide at their own leisure which version they prefer. Although I have watched both versions several times during the weeks I spent working on this particular piece, I think one would have to be pretty dense to not guess which version I prefer. I also believe that if you have not already partaken in Dark City, the director’s cut is the version you should start with. Either way, give the film a go, admire Melissa George‘s terrible acting, ask yourself why Keifer Sutherland does not do more roles like this one, and wonder why Hollywood does not take more risks like this one.
So yeah, as I imply in this writing’s title, editing has been said to be the soul of cinema. It can also be salvation or damnation, depending on how on-the-ball decision makers in the process really are. Dark City‘s theatrical cut reminds me of a review of Morbid Angel‘s fourth album, Domination. In this review, the author stated that in contrast to Morbid Angel‘s prior albums, the bass drums were no longer being used “economically or artfully”, but instead were smothering the songs and leaving them with no space to breathe. I have listened to Morbid Angel‘s second album, Blessed Are The Sick, a number of times, and whilst the band’s appeal to me is limited, after comparing songs like Fall From Grace to anything on Domination, the analogy between Domination and the theatrical cut of Dark City is a perfect fit. The theatrical cut smothers its power-strokes, leaving them without space to breathe.
Oh, and if you do find yourself deciding to import the Blu-ray Disc from other parts of the world, keep in mind that the disc sold in America appears to be region-locked to A. Although the region code defeating culture has very much moved underground, it is still there, and it is only a matter of time before one or more player manufacturers decides that strictly enforcing the codes is simply not worth the effort (I cannot confirm this, but word has it that Toshiba, after suffering the humiliation of having to start manufacturing BD players, decided this from the get-go).