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edited for television

9.19.98

"This film has been modified from its original version.
It has been formatted to fit your TV and edited for content."
- The most obscene words a movie buff can imagine

Why do networks even bother to shell out hefty dollars for the broadcast rights to movies any more? It's been at least a decade since there was any point to it. Sure, I could understand it in the '50s, '60s, '70s, and even up to the mid-'80s -- before VCRs became widely affordable. Add in cable, pay-per-view, the growing consumer base for DVDs, and the thriving market in home entertainment, and I have to wonder: who actually sits and watches a movie shown on TV, censored, unletterboxed, its rhythm and pace constantly interrupted by commercials?

Movie wonks like me sometimes watch TV versions of movies we already own on VHS or DVD, like GOODFELLAS (whose network edit is discussed below) or SCARFACE, either to laugh at the network's watered-down version or, in rare cases like VIDEODROME, to catch restored, never-before-seen footage that the network had to throw in to pad out the movie's running time, because they had to cut so much out. (Kevin Smith fans were eager to see the recent TV showing of MALLRATS for this reason.) Sometimes, too, networks will pad out a long movie with cutting-room footage to make it even longer, so they can make it a two-night event (DANCES WITH WOLVES).

But for the most part, you don't get much extra. If anything, you get less. And I still hate the commercial interruptions. They destroy a movie's rhythm. At least with made-for-TV fare, it's been structured to stop and start at frequent intervals (which makes for amusing viewing when you watch a made-for-TV movie on video -- every time there's a fade-out, you say "Commercial!"). But theatrical movies aren't designed that way, and when a tightly edited and rapidly paced film like GOODFELLAS is broken up by commercials, you feel like you're riding in a sports car that randomly screeches to a halt every ten or fifteen minutes.

So who settles for these rhythmless, censored, ad-infested, pan-and-scan ghosts of movies? Like I said, VCRs and cable aren't just for the elite any more -- haven't been for a decade. And even if you don't own these things, it's not as if network TV ever shows any obscure movies you're not likely to have seen uncut elsewhere. I mean, c'mon. Even if you don't have a VCR or cable, you know someone who does. And since the networks go for popular movies, you've probably seen them anyway. Christ, in the years between the theatrical releases of GOODFELLAS and SCHINDLER'S LIST and their network debuts, you had more than enough chances to see them. A second-run theater. A friend's house. No, I'm afraid I have to make a generalization here: most network versions of movies are for people who don't really give a shit about movies.

Yet I continue to read about the exorbitant sums the networks pay for broadcast rights to hit movies -- sometimes in the neighborhood of $20 or $30 million. This is certainly good for movie studios, which count on TV sales as a good part of a movie's total gross. But it seems to me that the networks should be putting their cash into better things, like producing original movies for TV. Granted, they still do this, but it's feast or famine: you'll see nothing for months, and then suddenly (usually during a sweeps week) there'll be an Original Drama for Television produced by Oprah Winfrey, or a two-part epic like THE ODYSSEY or MERLIN. But movies-for-TV are like their theatrical cousins: they peaked in the '70s. Gone is the proving ground that allowed a young nobody like Steven Spielberg to do great work with DUEL, NIGHT GALLERY, and COLUMBO. Hell, even in the '80s there was hot controversial stuff like AN EARLY FROST, THE DAY AFTER, and THE BURNING BED -- movies that dealt with topics no theatrical film of the day would go near. Not any more.

What's odd is that episodic drama on TV -- like ER, LAW AND ORDER, HOMICIDE, and the list goes on -- has never been better or more popular. Yet the networks can't get it together to put that same energy and intelligence into original films. Over on cable, on the other hand, outfits like HBO and Showtime routinely whip out sharp, edgy, talked-about movies (GIA, DON KING, BASTARD OUT OF CAROLINA, THE RAT PACK) that make theatrical films look like the dumbed-down corporate entertainment they are. But then, of course, made-for-cable movies don't have to play by network rules. They can say "fuck" and they can show nudity and (as anyone who's winced at OZ can attest) they can be so violent that Martin Scorsese looks at them and goes "God-damn, this shit is violent."

So the future of intelligent movies may well be found in that box in your living room. But not if it's sponsored by Taco Bell.


I had expected the CBS network premiere of GOODFELLAS last Sunday to be on a par with the ridiculous TV version of SCARFACE. But it actually wasn't so bad. I'd only intended to watch Martin Scorsese's intro and maybe a half hour, but I just got sucked in and ended up watching the whole thing.

They did an okay job with the dubbing. You can still hear a difference in sound; you'd think with technology where it is today, they'd figure out a way to do seamless dubs that have the same sound ambiance as the other lines recorded on the set. But sometimes they had to redub entire lines and it sounded like Pesci and De Niro doing it. Liotta, I'm not so sure. "Business bad? Screw you, pay me." Sounded like someone trying to sound like him. Then again, Pesci and De Niro are easy to imitate, so they might've had someone do that. There probably aren't too many people who do Ray Liotta impressions.

The violence is more or less intact, with some subtle edits. Some examples of what Scorsese toned down, for anal-retentives like me who sweat the details:

- I liked what Scorsese does when Stacks (Samuel L. Jackson) gets whacked. Scorsese does a natural-looking electronic zoom, framing Tommy's gun and Stacks' head very tightly, so you don't see Stacks' brains splattered all over the bed -- just the gun firing and Stacks' head snapping out of the frame (plus a little mist of blood Scorsese couldn't do anything about). It's smoothly done and doesn't spoil the fluidity of the take (the whole scene's done in one shot).

- When Tommy and Jimmy beat the shit out of Billy Batts, the close-up of Jimmy's foot stomping Billy's face is gone, as is the shot of blood spurting onto Tommy as he pistol-whips the offscreen Billy. When Tommy stabs him in the trunk, he doesn't stab him as many times, and the sound effects are mostly gone. Jimmy seems to shoot him a couple fewer times.

- When Tommy shoots Spider in the foot, the close-up of the bullet hit is gone. Later, when Tommy puts six bullets into Spider, nothing much is changed. Maybe a frame here, a bullet hit there. You do see at least two bloody hits in Spider.

- When Morrie gets whacked, you see the ice pick in his neck, but Scorsese cuts away before you see it fully come out.

- A few frames seem to be cut out of Tommy getting shot. Later, in the overhead shot of his body with the pool of blood spreading, Scorsese cuts it a few seconds short and puts some of the narration ("They even shot Tommy in the face so his mother couldn't give him an open casket") over Jimmy and Henry grieving after they hear the news. I think it worked.

- You see all the dead bodies in the "Layla" sequence, which sort of surprised me. Even the gross corpses in the garbage truck made it in. CBS probably figured this sequence would air after 10pm, so they didn't worry too much about it.

Some amusing dialogue changes:


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