Trees, Sirs and Cuts

Last night, our campus film club screened Ermanno Olmi‘s 1978 Cannes-winning “peasant epic,” The Tree of Wooden Clogs. Shot in the Italian countryside with non-professional actors (neo-neorealism?), the film recreates a palpable sense of the daily life of turn-of-the-century sharecroppers in its lyrical, leisurely-paced imagery of muddy fields and tired faces. But it’s also an uplifting account of rural comaraderie and the inner faith of the workers. The narrative is loosely structured around four families who toil together and it accentuates their difficulties (a sick cow, a broken clog, financial scarcity, a harsh winter) while juxtaposing their attitudes, prayers, and hard work in response. Like its occasional touches of Marxist idealism, no single character rises to the fore, and the film balances its intimate engagement of the farmers’ lives with a remoteness that envisions everyone as part of a thriving community.

Although I enjoyed the film’s vivid textures and quiet observations, I must admit to feeling slightly underwhelmed with its dramatic concerns. But maybe that’s its point–the characters’ “simple” struggles and aspirations grow in proportion to the daily constancy and gentle rhythms, week to week, season by season, in which they live. In a film where the greatest victory is sprouting tomato plants three weeks before anyone else and the greatest defeat is expulsion from the farm, the subtle gradations of drama in between become individual notes in a reduced, yet harmonious scale.

The Toronto International Film Festival has announced its complete line-up for September, and glancing through the list, I was surprised to note the debut of a new director’s cut of Alien (1979) due for a wide rerelease on October 31. As a discerning fan of science fiction and horror (not to mention elegant filmmaking), I’ve often regarded the original movie as one of the bright spots in genre filmmaking. But two things about the new release bother me: it’s directed by the newly-christened Sir Ridley Scott and I’m getting really tired of “director cuts” in general being used simply as a marketing tool to justify Hollywood rereleases.

Of the former criticism, Scott’s latest films (Gladiator, Hannibal, Black Hawk Down) are almost universally regarded as artistically inferior to his early work (The Duellists, Alien, Blade Runner) while simultaneously being more financially successful after Scott’s extended commercial and critical fumbling throughout the ’80s and ’90s. Granted, the Knights Bachelor title has always stressed commercial titans like David Lean or Sean Connery over artistic icons like Mike Leigh or Terence Davies, but it’s difficult to imagine Scott receiving the British honor at all before he rediscovered how to generate some cash.

Of the latter criticism, Hollywood seems convinced the only way to justify a rerelease of a classic film (or otherwise) is to offer new footage or digital enhancements or previously deleted scenes. One of the ironies of this angle is that the very studios who initially push for cuts later rerelease the films on DVD or in theatres with the footage cut back in, thus financially profiting from their censoring tactics. Can someone please just rerelease a film without changing it? A simple restoration will do–see the excellent work by Rialto or Cowboy Pictures. Given the drastically inferior nature of video broadcasting (in terms of display and resolution alone), the opportunity to see any film as a film on flickering celluloid, projected onto a large theatrical screen in the cinema should provide ample rewards aplenty.