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Cut For Your Pleasure: THE TOWN
The issue of censorship is one that is pretty contentious at the best of times. As the official spokesman on censorship for Criminal Complex, I wholeheartedly say that censorship is archaic, and, in general, completely fucked, having no place in an informed and adult society where people should be read, hear and see what they want a rather sexy occurrence that has in no way hindered the enjoyment of any viewer/reader/listener/sentient human morsel in the processing mill of multi-media in all of history.
Crime media has always been a particularly contentious category, often affected by censorship due to its violent and lurid subject matter. The Hays Code is a famous example of this in the film industry, as is the Comics Code for… well, comics (a reaction to the U.S. Senate enquiry caused by Fredric Wertham’s book Seduction of the Innocent). Both Codes seriously neutered the content of their respective crime narratives, and it was years before the teeth got put back in.
Some have argued over the years of the benefit, particularly during the classic film noir period, of censorship, as it pushed much of what would have been the text into the subtext, giving much richer and more subtle narratives. However, while that argument is made, it is often just an assumption that the only thing making our artists produce rich material is their restrictions. Though there is definitely a place for that argument, in the end, we are just being told what we can’t handle consuming.
It’s easy to blame censorship when art fails, and also easy to praise it for creating subtlety. However, it’s often more complex than that, and a number of factors contribute to what does, or doesn’t, make the final cut. More often than not, a final product, regardless of medium, is the results of several contributing factors and people. Say what you will for the auteur theory, for every uncompromising, pristine vision, there are others that wouldn’t’ve gotten there without their team.
Personally, I prefer works, regardless of their flaws, to be the voice of one person, one vision.
Having said all that, though, I thought it might be fun to run through a few films that were censored or otherwise cut, often with very different intentions and outcomes. The films I cover here are in no way comprehensive , and I’m sure there are a lot of films out there that could warrant a look (I’m open to suggestions). Depending on how much you guys dig this entry, I might look at a few more films next time.
The Town (2010)
For his second film as director, Ben Affleck again decided to adapt a novel (after previously adapting Denis Lehane’s Gone Baby Gone in 2007), this time Chuck Hogan’s Prince of Thieves.
Affleck made a very cool flick, starring himself, Jon Hamm, my future ex-wife Rebecca Hall, and my future husband Jeremy Renner. It feels like an inheritor to the throne of Sidney Lumet and Michael Mann (although, I’m that one guy who thought that Miami Vice was Mann’s best flick since Heat, so what do I know?).
Playing Doug MacRay, a crim who heads up a crew of bank robbers (dubbed by Jon Hamm’s FBI agent as “the not-fucking-around crew”), Affleck gets a lot of mileage out of his combination of charisma and smugness, which both play really nicely here. Doug and his guys run out of Charlestown, Boston, which the film explains to us in its opening titles has “produced more bank robbers and armoured car thieves than anywhere in the world.”
While being pursued by Feebs (I get to call them that because I’m legit as shit, yo), MacRay makes the mistake of falling for the girl they kidnapped during one of their heists, and starts a relationship with her while she is unaware that he was the cause of her recent trauma. All the while, he makes a go at digging himself out with a series of poor choices and a completely fumbled attempt at leaving the life.
Renner stands out with a typically livewire portrayal as MacRay’s fuck-up sociopathic best friend – a misbehaving, but loyal, bulldog. The cast is rounded out by Pete Postlethwaite in one of his last roles (and this is complete conjecture on my part, but he looks seriously emaciated in this, like he was perhaps in the throes of illness) as the ruthless, small-time crime boss, the Florist, and by Jon Ham’s roguish FBI agent.
The theatrical cut was a nice, tight, and fantastic flick, that earned pretty strong reviews, and continued my case of Affleck-Hulk-itis (wherein I Hulk-out whenever people slander Affleck, and throw this DVD at them, along with Gone Baby Gone and Hollywoodland).
But, this being the studio-driven marketplace, Affleck had to deliver a film of around two hours. In a lot of these instances, the director’s preferred cut may be well beyond that. Films regularly shoot more content than will make it into the final cut, to allow the filmmaker to “find” the film in the editing stage – so they can play with content, tone, and supporting characters, embellish back-story if things are unclear, or just leave things alluded to.
When this film came out, I remember having a long discussion with a mate about it. His main problem with the flick was in Affleck’s character – he just didn’t believe the character at all – he felt that the film was trying to have its cake and eat it too by making MacRay so damn likable. He compared the film to Heat (which The Town owes a lot to), and talked about how that film didn’t strain to make the characters likeable. Instead they were compelling simply because they felt authentic. Sure, they were sociopaths, arseholes, murderers and thieves, but the integrity of characters drew you in. They were compelling, not pre-packaged likeable, and there’s a huge difference that so many writers get wrong so often (Film Critic Hulk nails the problem with this thinking here).
I didn’t have such a huge problem with Affleck’s character: I felt enough about him alluded to the fact that he was kind of a prick, even if he was charismatic as hell, and aspired to something more, but I could definitely see my friend’s point.
While it’s only fair for my friend to assess and criticise the film that was released, Affleck’s preferred cut ran around a half hour longer and this extended cut does a lot to flesh out the darker side of Affleck’s character, and makes all of his crew as unsavoury as Renner’s loose cannon. Thanks to the market created by DVD, we actually get to see these alternate cuts, and Affleck has released The Town: Extended Cut on BluRay.
Much of the removed content revolves around strippers, snorting oxy off of strippers, and Affleck grinding a broken bottle into the head of a defenseless man. There’s also more to the subplot about Affleck and his crew running drugs that was only briefly alluded to in the original cut, and severely cut the screen time of Jon Hamm’s delightfully low-key FBI agent (it’s like he’s channelling Donald Pleasence in Raw Meat).
One of the most powerful scenes that it cut, though, was Affleck’s character coming off the wagon and snorting a bunch of oxy. To be fair, everything has just turned to shit, but that scene, and the following that was also cut, involving Affleck visiting his neglected child, really do a bang-up job of simultaneously making Affleck seem far more compelling and also like more of a dirtbag.
Does the addition of these scenes make the film better? Yes and no.
The movie definitely was punchier in its theatrical form, but all the dirt that was scraped from under its fingernails hurts the overall investment in the film. However, some of the scenes between Affleck and love-interest Rebecca Hall were rightfully left on the cutting room floor – skating very close (but thankfully never crossing the line) to saccharine bullshit.
It’s easy to see why these scenes were trimmed – if you’ve gotta make some cuts, the moral ambiguity is the first thing that’s gonna go. Plus, there’s a lot of stuff that was originally left out that feels like weird extraneous moments before Affleck really settled on a tone for the theatrical cut. And while the theatrical cut of The Town is certainly a terrific film, it just doesn’t have the strength that the longer cut has. Giving the characters the room to breathe is certainly a nice touch; however, I don’t think Affleck’s extended version quite nails it either, and that the perfect cut of this film, the one that would elevate it in the crime-film canon, is somewhere between the two.