Since I have little else to write about in these late December doldrums, I’m going to re-run some of HE’s 2009 highlights over the next couple of days. And one piece I’m especially proud of is the slapdown I gave to director William Friedkin and his “high-contrasty, snow-grained, color-bleeding, verging-on-monochrome” Blu-ray of The French Connection that came out last February.
This Blu-ray disc was, no exaggeration, the most offensive act of corporately-sanctioned vandalism to happen to a classic film in motion-picture history, and I’m thinking it can’t hurt to give Friedkin another couple of lashes for completion’s sake, just to put the cap on and to make double sure no one ever tries something like this again.
Jeffrey Wells to William Friedkin: The French Connection was obviously your film when you were developing, shooting and cutting it, and certainly your film when you were promoting it in ’71. And you were most responsible for winning the Best Picture Oscar, clearly. But those days are over, pal, and while you may feel some form of residual parental ownership rights today, you’re out of line. At least as far as revisionist futzing rights are concerned.
Whatever your attorney has told you or the contracts may say, you do not own The French Connection, Mr. Freidkin — the moviegoing public does. The fans who’ve been watching and worshipping this film for the last 38 years do. Your ownership rights went out the window, sir, once that legendary New York crime film became a huge hit, and they sure as shit were null and void after it won the Best Picture Oscar of 1971. And you can’t just stroll into a post-production house on Highland or Seward and re-visualize it and put out a snow-bleachy version on Blu-ray and say, “This is it — the best version of this film ever made!”
Well, you can because you have. But you have no legitimacy in doing so.
Frame capture from David Lean’s revised version of Lawrence of Arabia.
The word on the street is that you intend to do the same thing to The Exorcist down the road. I got the idea from listening to you speak the night before last that if you had a chance you’d probably do the same to upcoming remasters of Sorcerer and To Live and Die in L.A..
I’m writing to tell you, sir, that this has to stop because in the eyes of the Movie Gods you haven’t the right to do this, despite what your pallies at Fox Home Video and others in the film-cultivating community may have told you.
You can’t mangle what belongs to the public and to history, Mr. Friedkin. Art belongs to the artist until he or she creates it, and then it belongs to the world. Period. That means forever. That means no retroactive whimsical messing-around rights can kick in. And that means no Greedo-shoots-first revisionism of any kind unless the intention is to try and bring genuine (i.e., nonrevisionist) improvement to the original vision. Richer, fuller, crisper, cleaner…fine. But no “atrocious” and “horrifying” revisions.
That means if Pablo Picasso comes back from the grave he can’t go to Spain and decide that “Guernica” works better in color because he had a recent vision in heaven that painting it in black and white in 1937 was the wrong way to go. That means that the ghost of David Lean can’t come back to earth and decide to reimagine and remaster Lawrence of Arabia as a black-and-white period movie in the vein of John Ford‘s The Lost Patrol (1934).
The same thing goes for The Exorcist, Sorcerer and To Live and Die in LA.. You don’t have the right because they’re not your films, buster. You made them, obviously, but they have a life and a culture and a spirit of their own now. And I am telling you, speaking for myself and I suspect for many others, to back off and leave those movies alone. I mean it. Stand aside, sheath your sword, holster your pistol and find some other way to be creative.
You can do what you can to improve the appearance of these films on DVD, Blu-ray and hi-def digital downloads feeds. You can help to make sure they look precisely as they did when they were shown as brand-new prints in first-run theatres, or help make them look even sharper and cleaner and more vivid than they did back then if you so choose, but that’s all.
Otherwise you’re a brilliant and accomplished filmmaker, and an excellent fellow to discuss the ins and outs of the movie business with. And Bug deserved more attention and acclaim than it got. And all hail Michael Shannon!