Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Second Chances

Some friends of mine have been housecleaning. They live in a small space in Seattle, and having beaten the curse of being a packrat, they're not averse to clearing out the stuff they've accumulated. This time around, they asked if I was interested in some DVDs they were getting rid of. I picked the ones that interested me from the list they sent me and I got a couple of packages in the mail. I have awesome friends.

One of the items on the list was the director's cut box set of Ridley Scott's Crusades epic, Kingdom of Heaven (2005), a film I liked, but didn't love, when it was in theaters and one that I grew to love when I saw the director's original intentions afterwards. It's easy to be suspicious of "directors' cuts" of movies, particularly in the case of Ridley Scott (who continues to monkey around with Blade Runner decades after it was released), but in the case of this film, you're talking about a movie that was seriously harmed by the studio. An equivalent example might be the studio and director's cuts of The Abyss (from another director fond of his cutting-room leavings), though maybe not, perhaps, Once Upon a Time in America or The Magnificent Ambersons. Kingdom of Heaven was merely harmed, not murdered.

This is what I originally wrote about the movie back in 2005:

"Given the current political climate, the geo-political subtexts of Kingdom of Heaven are surprising. Not only does the film balance the motives of the Muslim and Christian characters, alike, but it asks very specific questions about conflict in the Middle East that resonate to this very day. "What is Jerusalem worth?" Balian asks Saladin. "Nothing," Saladin replies, "Everything." The curious thing about this film is that it is a film that could not have been released in the United States even two years ago. The way it frames its questions seems a specific confrontation with current American foreign policy. The Kingdom of Heaven postulated by this film is not built on war, but on tolerance, respect, and diplomacy. I had a hard time reconciling this film with its maker, Ridley Scott, with Scott's last epic, Black Hawk Down, being to my eyes an exercise in jingoistic porn for a nation of hawks. Is Scott a bellwether for the political mood of the times? Maybe. If so, then this movie bodes ill for the current junta, based as it is on a re-evaluation of the motives for war. This is a movie built on second thoughts. Were I to schedule this movie as part of a double feature, I would pair it not with Scott's Gladiator (which this film superficially resembles), but with Erroll Morris's The Fog of War, in which Robert McNamara suggests that we must "be prepared to re-examine our reasoning." As McNamara suggests in that film, it is imperative to get into the skin of the other guy if one is to avoid wars. Kingdom of Heaven has absorbed this lesson. The film's refusal to demonize its Islamic antagonists raises eyebrows. And Kingdom of Heaven is certainly confrontational when it comes to religious fanatics, all of whom are shown to be butchers, cowards, and fools by turns.

In any event, the film is Scott's best film in well over a decade, in spite of Orlando Bloom's sullen lead performance. In Bloom's defence, the filmmakers haven't asked him to do anything more than scowl through the whole movie, so I'll not fault him. Boy, howdy, does Ghassan Massoud as Saladin make the viewer wish that the filmmakers had approached the material from the OTHER side of the cultural divide, because whenever he's on screen, you can't take your eyes off of him. Scott is still in love with that annoying bleach transfer process that muddies up the cinematography, but at least he hasn't drenched the film in that gawdawful golden light he used for Gladiator--there are long passages that appear to have been filmed in (*gasp*) natural light. The supporting performances are all pleasurable, particularly Jeremy Irons, who seems to have recovered his muse here, and David Thewlis, who plays kindness even better than he plays rat bastards. Edward Norton's character, King Baldwin the leper, is particularly fascinating, even from behind a silver mask. Saladin steals every scene he's in. Of course, the film is being sold to the public on the strength of the spectacle, and while there is spectacle aplenty, one actually wishes there were less of it and more scenes between characters. When was the last time anyone made an action movie where the characters were the point of interest?"

All in all, I don't have any qualms with letting that review stand. It's a pretty good summary of my experience of the movie at the time, though it's factually erroneous about the process used to give the film its look (it was edited and struck on a digital intermediary). Of course, the world has changed some five years further on, but not enough to moot the political allegories of the movie. But there are a number of things about Kingdom of Heaven that I neglected. There are a number of things about both the director's cut of the movie and the DVD package in which that cut of the movie is sold that I want to address now that I've seen it again. This particular sentence from my old review gnaws at me: "Of course, the film is being sold to the public on the strength of the spectacle, and while there is spectacle aplenty, one actually wishes there were less of it and more scenes between characters." The director's cut, which adds in 50 minutes of footage and an important subplot concerning Eva Green's Queen of Jerusalem, among other things, solves most of this. It decompresses the movie and lets it breathe. It's a dramatic improvement. Hell, this version of the movie might just be my favorite of Scott's films. Some of the things it clears up:

  • The motivations behind Sybella's inexplicably descent into madness are brought into focus and Eva Green's performance late in the movie becomes far more of a piece with the rest of the movie.
  • The motivations of Guy of de Lusignan's political maneuvers regarding the assumption of power--and Sybella's complicity in it--are far more credible, given the preferences of King Baldwin prior to his death.
  • The relationship between the priest and Balian at the beginning of the movie is changed in a way that makes Balian's murder of the priest seem less out of character.
  • David Thewlis's Hospitaler becomes slightly more mysterious, though one wishes that Scott had chosen to further deepen this mystery by omitting the shot of Thewlis's head after Saladin slaughters the army of Jerusalem. Not everything is better, I guess
  • Balian's aptitude for siege warfare, seemingly beyond the reach of a mere "blacksmith" in the original cut, is given some background, making his actions in the defense of Jerusalem seem less like they were pulled out of a screenwriter's ass.
  • The film's action sequences seem to have been edited slightly slower in this cut, though this might be an illusion caused by the decompression of the narrative. Or possibly not, given that the film was cut down from an even longer version in order to get close to a two hour running time. Whatever the reason, the action sequences seem to be a bit clearer in this version. Maybe it's the quality of the DVD transfer, which is unusually fine.

On the whole, it plays much better. I can understand the studio's reticence in sending this out at over three hours, but I think they would have reaped better box office with the better version of the movie.

One of the things I forgot about this movie is the fact that it's an epic for atheists. It's possibly the only epic for atheists. I mean, sure, it certainly bends over backwards to pay lip service to its conception of ideal Christianity and ideal Islam and it tries to mediate between them--the scene where Saladin rights a fallen cross after taking Jerusalem apparently got standing ovations in the Muslim world, which is nice--but the central figure of the movie is pointedly a man who has no use for god or religion by the end of the movie, one whose success comes from a well-prepared mind rather than the favor of some fickle deity. The contrast between the Knights Templar and Balian is drawn in stark terms when their faith in God is rewarded with defeat and slaughter. God may hold sway in heaven, but this is NOT that place, so look to your own self. This functions, too, as a critique of the sanctified tone of most historical epics. It makes a fine analgesic to dull the pain of, say, Cecil B. DeMille's pious rendition of the period in The Crusades. This particular atheist finds this pleasurable.

A short word about the DVDs themselves. This package comes loaded. I'd liken it to the extended editions of The Lord of the Rings movies, but those DVDs don't give the same kinds of insights into the art of filmmaking that this package does. You get an idea of what a director actually does in these extras and watching him interact with his actors and crew during the whole process certainly gives me a new appreciation of Ridley Scott. From my perspective, the most interesting material here is provided by film editor Dody Dorn, who says point blank that the theatrical cut was an unsatisfactory compromise. She also provides several instances of how completely the film editor influences the final shape of the film (she even has a solo commentary track over the film itself, but I haven't listened to all of that yet). In any event, this might be the most comprehensive document of how a movie is actually made that I think I've ever seen.

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