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Show or Business?

Frank J. Avella's April 2007 Film
(and some other stuff) Column

(Opposite Photo Evan Rachel Wood in Across the Universe)


One of the essential, seemingly-eternal cinema questions asked is if film is an art form or a business. Should movies be viewed as the sacred expressions of its creators or commercial ventures designed to make money. To say it’s both is rather a cop-out.

As an writer myself, it seems ludicrous to even consider any answer but the sacred one, yet there are sometimes extenuating circumstances that go into these literal star wars.

Across the Universe

The latest controversy, as reported in the New York Times, involves the celebrated director Julie Taymor (Titus, Frida) in a battle with producer Joe Roth. Apparently, Mr. Roth saw fit to recut Taymor’s 150-minute print of Across the Universe (starring Evan Rachel Wood and Salma Hayek), shaving thirty minutes off the running time. The mogul has been test screening his bastardized version and Taymor is publicly threatening to take her name off the film.

This brings up many questions.

Does a producer have a right to do this? Well, one can argue that contractually she did not have final cut. But that’s bullshit, read-the-fine-print argument since no one but Woody Allen, Steven Spielberg (and a few others) actually have final cut in their contracts! Yet, usually there is little problem when the director is a respected one.

Oh, don’t get me wrong, there are major battles that are fought and sometimes major filmmakers lose these battles.

Martin Scorsese presented a 3-hour plus version of Gangs of New York to Harvey Weinstein in 2002 and was browbeaten into cutting his film down by close to one hour. Many believe that this resulted in a good film that should have been great. It may have cost him that Oscar as well. Hopefully, one day, we will get to see Scorsese’s original cut on DVD.

Two years ago, Oliver Stone, heeded to pressure from Warner Brothers to trim down Alexander, mostly for its homosexual content. He did so and the film tanked with critics and audiences. Alexander Revisited, The Final Cut was recently released on DVD. It’s a sprawling 214-minute version that moves about time quite freely. It also happens to be an extraordinary film.

DVD has allowed for many a filmmaker to release his “director’s cut”, and the result is usually a much better film. Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now Redux is a perfect example of a great film entering the classic pantheon due to the added footage.

Is Taymor’s film too arty? Is it self-indulgent? Don’t we have a right to see her version? And if the Roth version hits screens instead, doesn’t Taymor have a right to remove her name since it really is no longer her vision?

One of the most notorious events in the last few decades occurred with Terry Gilliam’s edgy film Brazil. Universal refused to release it. Gilliam refused to make changes. Universal recut the film to incoherent shreds. Gilliam got the LA film critics on his side. Gilliam won the battle.

This is nothing new in Hollywood, the best directors from genius Orson Welles (who had The Magnificent Ambersons taken away from him and recut) to the maverick Robert Altman (with The Gingerbread Man), the conflict seems eternal. And the ending isn’t always a happy one. Altman won. Welles lost and went a bit mad.

Ah, but what if we are dealing with an eccentric, egocentric and self-indulgent auteur? The best example: Michael Cimino. Coming off the tremendous success of The Deer Hunter, Cimino ceremoniously bowed his self-proclaimed masterpiece, Heaven’s Gate, in December of 1980. The movie was a master mess, critics and audiences agreed. Heaven’s Gate was pulled from distribution, recut, shortened and released later in 1981. It was even worse. Looking at the film today, it’s not bad at all, a bit muddled and ponderous, but folks wanted The Deer Hunter. Cimino has never quite recovered as an artist.

Does Roth have a right to test screen another version? Well, of course he does, he is the producer. But Taymor has a right to despise him for it.

My favorite (and I am being highly sarcastic) incident of test screening that changed a film and totally fucked it up is Fatal Attraction in 1987.

Sherry Lansing and the Paramount powers-that-be at the time tested the film and it received lackluster scores because of the ending. Adrian Lyne, the spineless director, re-shot the finale. Paramount re-screened and everyone was happy--it was a box office smash and received multiple Oscar nominations including Best Picture. The only problem: the new ending destroyed the film’s credibility and turned it into a misogynistic slasher film!

The original ending had Alex, the Glenn Close character, slitting her throat and blaming Michael Douglas for it. Pretty genius when you think about it. But it was too anti-climactic for the bonehead screener audiences--mostly young males--who didn’t like this form of retribution. She should pay for what she did. He shouldn’t. After all, he only cheated on his wife!!! So, now we have Close being drowned, coming back to life and being shot dead. Her character is no longer human; she’s Jason in Friday the 13th!

Is there any proof that the film would have been less financially or Academy successful without the changes? We’ll never know.

I do applaud Taymor for sticking to her guns, especially with Roth’s dismal filmmaking track record (Christmas with the Kranks anyone?) I only hope we get to see her cut of Across the Universe and judge for ourselves.

Random Rants: Cool, New York and Otherwise


On the NYC stage scene: Frost/Nixon is the best play I have seen since The History Boys last year. It’s exciting, riveting theatre that tells an important story in the most entertaining way! Written by the suddenly ubiquitous Peter Morgan (The Queen, The Last King of Scotland) and starring the male-stage-equivalent to the Notes on a Scandal acting tour de force: Frank Langella and Michael Sheen, Frost/Nixon keeps you spellbound from beginning to end, Noteworthy among the supporting players is Stephen Kunken’s terrific turn as Jim Reston. Frost/Nixon is a London West End import. Leave it to the Brits to brilliantly comment on a seminal time in recent American history. This will be the hot ticket of the season. Go now!

Also on the theatre scene and all the way out in Montville, NJ--if you can imagine--The Barn Theatre’s production of Rupert Holmes’ Accomplice turned out to be quite a delight. The play opened on Broadway in 1990 and even then it was near impossible to write a murder mystery that can keep audiences guessing (although the new musical Curtains attempts it as well). Holmes very cleverly demolishes the fourth wall and then does so again. And while his gimmick may not completely work, the Barn production, nicely directed by Jeff Knapp, was enjoyable and featured solid acting turns--especially the women (Liza Harris and Kym Frank).

If you are looking for a great pre-or-post-theatre eatery look no further than The Brooklyn Diner Times Square on West 43rd Street. The manager, Holly, couldn’t be nicer, our server Jason was a sweetie, the ambiance is fantastic and the desserts are to die for! I happened to sit at Marshall Brickman’s favorite table which gave me an extra added incentive to work on my new play.

If a fancier seafood dinner is more your speed, visit Blue Fin Restaurant located in the W Hotel (1567 Broadway @ 47th Street). The food was phenomenal, our server David was beyond fast and incredibly pleasant AND, most importantly, the seafood was fresh. I suggest the lobster!


Over on the boob box we have the most popular ‘reality’ show on TV, American Idol, keeping up it’s ratings with the whole Sanjaya controversy. So much has been written and reported, online, and in the news and telemedia about how bad a singer he is and how Idol is losing all credibility. Now, I do not think Sanjaya’s a good singer, but what I want to know is where the hell were all these naysayer critics when Ruben Studdard and the evil Taylor Hicks warbled their way to victories? Neither of them could sing and America chose them (with a LOT of help from the judges TELLING them how great these two idiots were each week). Ruben, at least could get through an R&B song pretty well, but Taylor had no talent whatsoever! And he beat Katharine McPhee and Chris Daughtry (who is having the last laugh with his chart-topping CD). So to all the Sanjaya haters out there: Chill. It shouldn’t be THAT surprising that America is voting for the mediocre. My money is still on the fab Melinda Doolittle (Mindy-doo). All she needs to win is a nice mohawk.

Elsewhere on TV, HBO is usually to be applauded for its daring. But the creators and writers of the 2nd season of the mini-series Rome (which has mercifully NOT been renewed) should be burned on a pyre for the excrement they have turned the show into. Losing all credibility as the season wore on, Rome misfired early on by making two fictional characters the MAIN focus of the saga: Lucius Verenas and Titas Pullo. Not that creating working class Roman heroes was a bad idea, but funneling their characterizations through modern day sensibilities was a terrible one. Instead of real ancient Romans, we got Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger, impenetrable he-men heroes no one could believe or care about.

And the liberties Rome took with history is appalling. How HBO let them get away with such bullshit like implying that Pullo was the real father of Cleopatra’s child AND actually was NOT killed by Octavian, is beyond me. Also, to portray Octavian as a complete, cold villain is to forget that he became the first and best Emperor of Rome. Finally, to not show ANY of one of the greatest battles in history, the battle of Actium where Octavian crushed Marc Antony and furthered his ambitions as future Emperor is egregious. I was initially upset that the series was canceled, since the real excitement begins once Octavian becomes Augustus. But after seeing the crap they filmed this season, I am grateful. Thank God, we still have I, Claudius for now, although someone needs to tell the stories of the Roman Emperors--and do them justice!

Two VERY diverse CD’s were released in March. One is a brand new singer/songwriter who is one of the more interesting vocalists to come around in a while. The other is an icon who is rightly considered one of greatest artists of all-time:

Conceived by Gordon Jenkins, ‘The Letter’ was a highly ambitious undertaking in its day (1959). The album tells a story of one woman’s romance in New York via a series of letters. The vocal interpreter of the material: Judy Garland. Ms. Garland’s voice has never been stronger. Each track has the Garland magic along with terrific letter readings by the actor John Ireland. Garland’s voice particularly soars on “Love in Central Park”, “At the Stroke of Midnight” and “Come Back.” Check out this gem from the vaults. Kudos to DRG Records for releasing this masterwork. (

‘Life in Cartoon Motion’ is the title of the Euro-pop sensation Mika’s debut CD. (His NYC concert at the Gramercy on March 29th was a sell-out!) The singer brings to mind a hybrid of Robbie Williams, Freddie Mercury, Annie Lennox, Jake Spears (of Scissor Sisters) and, yes, even Judy Garland, but like the best appropriation artists, he’s also quite madly original. The fantastically infectious “Grace Kelly” is currently number one on the Euro charts.

‘Cartoon Motion’ is filled with marvelous confections but “Billy Brown” is, by far, the best track. Bursting with a poppy, Broadway sound, it tells the story of a married man with children who falls in love with another man. Mika is unafraid to fuck with sexuality in his music. Now, whether we can accept that here in the US is another matter. Poor Robbie Williams has yet to splash here because Americans have no clue what to make of him. Let’s hope we’ve matured, because Mika is one of the most exciting new artists to emerge in the last few years.


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