Destroy All Monsters: It's Time To Get Over "The Truth"

Matt Brown, Columnist

This is not a political column, nor does it have any ambitions to become one; but I admit that it's been difficult (as a Toronto-local pop culture writer) to find anything in the sphere to talk about this week that hasn't been drowned out by the monstrous (and surprisingly pop cultural) noise coming from our City Hall. This week also falls in the gully between two of the fall's biggest Hollywood releases, Thor: The Dark World and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. All is quiet at the box office. What am I going to write about, The Best Man Holiday?

Since this is not a political column, let us for the sake of argument declare that it's credibly demonstrable that Rob Ford frequently lies; but then, it's credibly demonstrable that global warming is happening, and look where that's gotten us. My point is only that as a person living amidst the day-to-day evidence that CNN's latest media personality fibs nine times out of ten, on camera, and without much question or challenge by his interlocutors, I can't help but spend my time thinking about the place of "truth" in the media marketplace - or its total lack, and replacement by something else.

Which, for reasons best left to the sorts of snacks I eat before bedtime, somehow leads my brain to think about the Snowpiercer controversy. As regular Twitch readers know, Bong Joon-Ho's latest is a science fiction thriller that earned raves overseas in its original, director's-cut version; and will be arriving Stateside in a version which may have been heavily edited by the industrial guru of such things, Harvey Weinstein.

Some clarifications on these points are made in James' excellent interview with Bong, which you can read here on Twitch. Among them, the simple statement, by Bong, that the conversation on the Snowpiercer edits is ongoing, and that the "original," Asian version of the film tested better in an American market than the edited, "Weinstein" version.

In the sorts of circles I run in, "Harvey Scissorhands" or the sort of worldview he represents is a kind of long-standing bogeyman, who has crawled out of whatever basement he inhabits to rob us of various cinematic masterpieces by way of his/its unceasing interest in cutting out the good bits - usually to achieve a more concise running time, at the expense of (one imagines) the motion picture's soul.

This is probably why initial word of the Snowpiercer edits raised such online ire, on this site and elsewhere. In Pierce's original piece covering the news item (with its admittedly inflammatory title, "Harvey Weinstein Thinks You Are Too Dumb For Snowpiercer"), the comments ranged from the negative to the profoundly negative.

To wit: "A year of my life hotly anticipating this, more than any other film, and Harvey fucking Weinstein has to step in with his pot of gold and shit all over everything that is good and pure in this world. I don't know what I'm saying, I'm just disgusted to the core of my being right now."

And: "Just for that motherfukking Scissorhands, I will wait for it for it on the DVD Import. He just lost my $$$ in the theater for his shrewdness. F**ker thinks we are really dumb to appreciate the auteurs from around the world. Who died and made him Pharoah?!?!?!"

And of course, the inevitable, ignorant conflation of editing a movie with sexual assault: "He's been butchering and raping asian cinema for more than 20 years already."

Is there a "true" version of Snowpiercer? Of course not. There's a version that Bong Joon-Ho declared final, but even he would likely make certain arbitrary (or not-arbitrary) changes at a later date, given perspective and a fresh set of eyes, because that's pretty much human nature. (This is why Ridley Scott continues to vex the known universe with things like his twenty-years-later "final cut" of Alien, which is - sorry to say - a sharper and more interesting cut than the original, in my opinion.)

But more to my point, is there a "true" version of what's happened with Snowpiercer? Again, probably not. Bong's own words on the subject indicate that our initial take on the controversy was altogether too simplistic, easily filing it within a known context of Weinstein's behaviour and then venting our collective internet spleens on the man for taking away Bong's masterpiece. Beyond this, there's the flexible and fluid nature of how all movies are marketed and finalized; and the unseen (and often unconsidered) reality that there are quantities of money at work behind these decisions far exceeding anything the vast majority of us will see in our lifetimes. If I had a poker chip worth $40 million, I probably wouldn't be too quick to gamble it, either.

Further versions of the "truth:" having not had the opportunity to compare them, why is the fan community's instantaneous assumption always that the big studio chief's version is inferior to the director's?

Well - if I may tenuously tie this round to my opening paragraphs - for the same reason that a person like Rob Ford can lie openly on national television, and not have it matter much. "Truth," whether it exists or not, is not an element of any of these conversations any more; something else is.

It's what I'd call "interest," but you're welcome to name it however you please. It's the more essential characteristic of media personalities and enterprises these days; it's what Nielsen ratings don't track (or didn't until recently), but Twitter does. It can be identified by a simple test, which has nothing to do with the "truth" of anything: but ask simply, "whose side are you on?" If you can reduce the element down to a dependable "us vs. them" scenario and then declare your allegiance, you've found "interest."

Interest is more appealing than truth because it doesn't require anyone to invite truth's annoying older brother, accountability, to the party. Truth can't exist without accountability; a politician can't (or shouldn't be able to) stand up on television and misrepresent himself without some sort of repercussion, and a studio chief can't (or shouldn't be able to) release a shoddier, shorter version of a film without the box office retaliating. Except they do, and nothing happens, because interest has taken over.

(Interesting, upcoming case in point: everyone who identifies as Team I Hate Ben Affleck is going to have to decide whether they're also on Team There's A Batman Movie I Haven't Seen. I suspect the accountability of all the "this is the worst Batman they could possibly get" sentiment will dissolve under the rain of "new Batman movie, cool!" interest in the summer of 2015.)

When Michael Moore was releasing films like Bowling for Columbine and Fahrenheit 911, it was identified as the "preaching to the choir" factor, which basically holds that it's lovely to write a lengthy and well-researched essay about why your team feels the way it does, but it's not going to do anything but confirm what your team already thinks, while never treading into the headspace of the opposing team to change their viewpoints. Because they aren't interested in it.

Interest is appealing because it's so much easier to manage on a mental level than any sort of interrogative thought about whether what one is being fed is true or not. It's exhausting to keep questioning, all the time, whether something is representative of one's values, whether one's values revolve around municipal politics or the sanctity of Asian cinema (or both). Much easier to just pick a side and go with it, and mentally send Rob Ford and Harvey Weinstein into the sun together on a rocket made of crack cocaine and rusty scissors. Because they're the enemy - and our team hates enemies, right?


Destroy All Monsters is a weekly column on Hollywood and pop culture.

Around the Internet:
  • Neil Pu

    The only thing I'll add is that "interest" may not demand "accountability" but it is informed by "precedent" such as, say, Harvey Weinstein screwing up American releases of Asian films. Yet even then, I agree that a bad precedent says nothing about what is happening right now, in the present, with whatever is going on in the editing room of "Snowpiercer". Waiting for the truth to come out though is hard. Thus I also find it hard to fault someone for letting their "interests" take over their thoughts.

    By the way, I did watch "Snowpiercer" in France. Can't wait to talk about it as more people get to see it, no matter what version it is. For a science fiction action flick, it is fiercely cerebral.

  • davebaxter

    Rob Ford - he's getting plenty of consequences for his actions, few are really doubting the truth of what he's done nor if his lying (untruth) is a problem. But we have our reality set up so that it's not easy to kick someone out of office if they don't go willingly. And Ford has decided to fight kicking and screaming rather than bowing out in shame. Due to this, the process will be long, and the consequences drawn out. This is not the same as there not being any. The police investigation will be long. The politics will be long. Ford's hope is probably that, in time, people will move on because reality is complex and there's so much else to focus on and take care of and so he'll skate through. We'll see. People can't legally rise up and physically throw Ford out. They have to allow for all the many cultural/social processes we've put in place to work.

    Also, truth at any given moment in time does not become unknowable simply because time marches on. The fact that things will change and evolve and develop over time has no bearing on a critique of a truth at a given moment. The critique, in fact, is usually given because people fear or want to influence the future truth. They want the critique of the current moment's truth to be heard.

    Lastly, there are repercussions in releasing a hacked up movie IF the public is aware enough of it. In the past, many North Americans had little knowledge of foreign films, directors, styles, etc. A heavily edited movie didn't mean much to us, as a public, we had nothing at stake in watching the overseas version. As time is progressing, and foreign directors and styles become more familiar to us, and as the knowledge of these industries and productions and the details of their release become easier to follow, the repercussions are likely to intensify. Not in all cases - the details will matter. But overall, we're already seeing more backlash than in the past.

    There will always be contradicting opinions about all things, and thus has it always been, this is not new. Truth has not been replaced by interest. In the past, who knew what someone in some other state in a totally different walk of life thought about a topic compared to your own? Nowadays, we get to hear ALL the opinions. It's freaking us the f**k out, I think, we're evolving to deal with all this instant global communication paradigm stuff, but nothing has in fact changed about how people view the truth or what it means to them. It's just that now we get to see all the many variations and takes and opinions, but in the past people said one thing and then did whatever the heck they wanted just as much as they do now.

  • TheGhostOfGriffinMill

    For me, it boils down to this: SNOWPIERCER -- granted, with some edits by TWC -- will now have a chance at finding a wider audience in N/A than just us lot and I think that's a good thing for Bong, for cinema and for North American audiences.

    If TWC doesn't step in with some financing, MAYBE Bong finds it elsewhere but -- even in that case -- it likely isn't from a US/NA distributor so (A) those of us Twitchers in North America are left as the few who end up seeing it; and (B) we probably end up seeing it via import DVD/BD with the Bong cut or with a likely edited/dubbed US-video release.

    Almost all art is patron-dependent, probably none more so than cinema. While the cost of production has (arguably) diminished and it seems that distribution has been democratized via the web, to really penetrate the static and corral an audience still takes a MASSIVE investment of time and at least a healthy amount of money. And artists create art to be seen.

    Would I rather see Bong's version? Sure. And I will. But I'll also see whatever my domestic theatrical version ends up being because -- to me -- nothing replaces the experience of seeing a film in a theater. Not even a better, artist-approved edit. Just m.o.

  • CHUD

    Thinking in my head while reading the profoundly negative comments: "That sounds famil-... oh shit, I said that!"

    But honestly, I stand by it. I agree with Jerry Skold and the rest. I'm not mad because I feel like some version of "the truth" is at stake. I'm mad because I may only get to see a version of an art-piece, which is not the version of that piece which one of my favorite artists would prefer to show me. I know and trust this artist, and I want to see the art that he wants me to see, but I do not trust Harvey Weinstein's artistic perspective, and would rather his financial motivations ultimately not trump the artistic vision of the long trusted and admired artist.

  • Josh

    So Bong's final cut isn't really the final cut because he might want to make more changes later. That makes no sense. I just want to see Bong's film, not Harvey Weinstein's. It's not as complex a determination as you make it out here.

    I've always had a lot of respect for Todd and Twitch, and I find this piece (and Todd's comment) baffling. Why wouldn't people who love cinema (presumably your readers) take the side of THE PERSON WHO MADE THE FILM, one of the great artists of contemporary cinema, over that of a notoriously egomaniacal businessman whose only interest is trying to squeeze as much money out of said film as possible? Do you really think that Harvey Weinstein wants to make the film BETTER? No, as he says all the time, he wants to make it WORK better, i.e. bring in more money. And he's as likely to be wrong about what makes it "work" as right. Now he's alienating Bong's many American fans, who would be the people most likely to spread the word about the movie and see it opening weekend.

    Do you guys really believe that a film's value can be determined by how it "tests"? Even if we're just talking about its box office potential, that's often a faulty way to determine it. Read up on how Videodrome tested, among a thousand other examples.

    Do we appreciate the art of cinema, or is the "art of the deal" and its attendant contractual obligations of equal value? I guess there are two sides to everything. I know which side I'm on.

  • What exactly is baffling about my comment? I said that Bong presented a deliberately one sided view of the situation (which is true), that there are elements to the deal that were initially and deliberately omitted (which is true), that TWC have always had final cut (which is true), and that the story has continued to develop while initial statements about it have remained static (which is true).

    Where's the bafflement, exactly? Is it that I'm not screaming "HARVEY'S THE DEVIL"? Well, thanks for proving the point of the article. The fact that I would very much prefer to see the Bong version of the film (and will do so by buying the Korean BluRay of the film when it releases, if necessary) in no way means that I need to dogmatically pick a side in a fight that I'm not even remotely involved in and blind myself to reality in the process.

  • davebaxter

    I think what's baffling for most fans/potential audience members, at least in regards to your below comment, Todd, is how you conflate the company and financial politics with questions of artistic integrity. The politics and finances are obviously the reasons why TWC can do what they do - but no one is questioning TWC's LEGAL right to do any of this. They question (and object to) the point of it especially as it relates to the artistic integrity of the project.

    While knowing that Bong signed with TWC, who always as a rule get final cut (and here it's unknown how much pull Bong had with the decision to go with TWC - did the production have other options even on the table? Did the other financiers and/or producers override any concerns he might have had? Etc.), it doesn't change the "truth" of why people are upset at TWC. It's baffling why the details of behind the scenes negotiations have anything to do with this.

    I get what you're trying to say, but it's irrelevant to the critical shitstorm everyone's been giving TWC for this. No one was under the impression that TWC is breaking contract by making changes. No one is outraged because they think TWC is pulling a fast one on Bong, or overstepping their (contractual) bounds. No one is even, necessarily, thinking that Bong is totally shocked that TWC wants to make massive changes (how can he be, if all of us know that this is the SOP of TWC?). We're simply outraged at TWC in general, with Snowpiercer being the latest, and perhaps for some the greatest, example of why we dislike TWC's everyday approach to the films they get behind. And often the most notably heavy handed hack jobs are done to Asian films they acquire or in this case help finance (btw: was it just an expensive pre-sale kind of a deal with TWC, or did they become producers/investors by giving Snowpiercer the dough?).

    Your comment (and this article) is baffling because it seems so very blind to what the outrage actually IS, where it's coming from, and why it's being given.

  • I've said nothing at all about artistic integrity, which makes it pretty impossible to conflate the two. Literally nothing at all.

  • davebaxter

    Everyone else is talking about artistic integrity, Todd. And your argument against (or to check) everyone's complaints is about the realities of the political/contractual and financial elements. Therefore: your argument is conflating the two, I'd argue improperly.

  • I also made no arguments about anyone's complaints at all, neither replying to any comments left here nor referencing them at all. I made a reply to Matt, with an expansion / example of one particular issue that he raised. I'm not running a horse in this race at all.

    Though I would say that your automatic reaction to organize responses in terms of for / against or us / them goes an awfully long way to demonstrating his point.

  • davebaxter

    Oh, please, this is disingenuous even for you. Your comment below concerns the topic of Bong's statements being "deliberately loaded to win people to his side of the argument", and this in response to what you refer to as Matt's comments on "choosing sides", which specifically quoted people's direct complaints/negative comments. Your below comment specifically argues that behind the scenes details invalidates or complicates the reality behind "the drastically cut version that everybody is up in arms about".

    Everything about this part of the conversation is in regards to Bong's statements and the response to it concerning what can or can't (or should or shouldn't) be considered a "final cut" or "original version" and why. Josh claimed both Matt's article and your comment were "baffling". You retorted with a "Why, because I'm not screaming Harvey's the devil?" (a direct reference to other people's negative comments). My point is the "baffling" element of both Matt and your points that the fluid behind-the-scenes negotiations of films do not in fact have any bearing on the critiques about the possible cuts, and so it's baffling to commenters that you're saying their critiques are invalidated because of these facts. It's not an argument that holds up, and misses the point of the critiques in the first place.

  • No, my comment below argues that the reality of what went on behind the scenes is more complex than the simplistic response it got. That's all. No more or less.

    I'm in no way defending the Weinstein choice to cut, or saying that I think it will be better, or saying that I intend to support it myself. I'm also not saying that Bong is a Saint whose work should be considered inviolate. I'm not engaging in those particular issues at all, in fact.

    All I'm saying is that it's more complex than people are treating it as being and that the truth of what's happening behind the scenes is a moving target because the truth itself is continually changing and evolving.

    That's entirely, 100% my point.

    I'm not talking about other people's critiques at all. I'm having an entirely different conversation and I think it's my refusal to engage in those critiques - not saying 'Yay, Harvey!' or 'Yay, Bong!' - but talking about something else (and, granted, something entirely more abstract) that people are having trouble with because it's so ingrained to immediately line up and say 'this guy's wrong' or 'that guy's wrong' and I just find that conversation boring and, in this context, would rather talk about something else.

    Also worth noting here that the critiques you say I'm responding to WERE NOT HERE when I wrote my initial comment. At least, all but one weren't. I was the second commenter on the thread. So the conversation that you're contextualizing my comment through ... well, it didn't apply at all when I wrote it because it didn't exist. Which also goes a long way towards making the point about the flexibility of 'truth'. You're convinced of the 'truth' of what you see in what I've said only because you're reading it through a grid that literally did not exist when I said it.

    This sort of flux is very interesting to the part of me that once considered doing a degree in semiotics ...

  • davebaxter

    Yes, I get this, I truly do, and this is 100% my own point - that no one else (or hardly anyone else) is talking about what goes on behind the scenes at all, which is why it's irrelevant and "baffling" and a counterpoint. All most people care about is TWC's standard modus operandi, and they don't like it in general, no matter the specifics. And in this case, they wish TWC would not go that route, regardless of their rights to do so, regardless of how standard doing so may or may not be. TWC has a rep for doing this, a lot of people wish they'd either give it up or use it a lot a lot less. In that way, everything about the fluid/moving target/behind the scenes stuff just doesn't enter into it. It's "baffling", I think, because I do believe it misses the point of all the negativity, which was purely about the TWC practice of routinely cutting international films the way they do, and notably for an auteur like Bong.

  • I don't agree at all that having a discussion of a certain issue becomes irrelevant because nobody else is having it or has had it. God, that's a depressing thought ... let's just keep having the same conversations that everybody else is having all the time. Bleh.

    [For the record, I don't care for TWC's standard business practices, either, and generally for the same reasons everyone else is giving.]

  • davebaxter

    I agree about conversations. But to clarify, I think the one POINT is irrelevant to the other point, especially as this conversation is trying to match them up as a response to the other. Nothing wrong (or even wasteful) about having the conversation, but we can still conclude (or at least opine) that the attempted point doesn't work as intended.

  • It's kind of fun to watch reactions spin out sideways, though ...

  • Matt Zimmermann

    "Further versions of the "truth:" having not had the opportunity to compare them, why is the fan community's instantaneous assumption always that the big studio chief's version is inferior to the director's?"
    A: Because without exception, Harvey Weinstein's edits have never served the film and his "americanized" version have ALWAYS been inferior, often in the most aggravating or insulting of ways (because when Nameless enters the giant Forbidden City that looks rather like a palace, Harvey felt that American audiences needed a subtitle that read "The Emperor's Palace", because without that we wouldn't know!!)

  • Another factor in this conversation is that truth itself - at least in these matters - can be a very fluid thing, changing and developing over time, whereas once something is written down that writing becomes fixed and, therefore, runs the risk of becoming increasingly inaccurate as the situation changes.

    In this specific case, Bong very clearly said what he said about the cut (and said it repeatedly) and what he said was factually accurate as far as it went, though it also conveniently omitted the fact that TWC had ALWAYS had final cut of the film in their territories as a condition of them laying down the money that allowed Bong to make the film at all in the first place.

    This simple omission speaks to what you're talking about in 'choosing sides', Matt, as Bong's statements were deliberately loaded to win people to his side of the argument while overlooking the fact that NOBODY would have had ANY version of the film if not for this deal with TWC, which is a deal Bong was fully privy to and would have had to sign off on, as a producer of the film. So the Korean version of the film doesn't exist without TWC, either.

    But further to that, things have changed. The truth is proving fluid. Bong's statements about TWC thinking Americans are too stupid for his movie remain fixed when the reality is that TWC tested a simplified version, the results weren't great, and now the conversation about cut is ongoing and the drastically cut version that everybody is up in arms about probably isn't going to be used anyway. And it's not being abandoned because of some online outcry but because TWC are good businessmen who aren't going to release a version of a film that tests lower than another version that they also have access to. I won't be surprised if they test a few more versions to see if they get something that tests higher than Bong's version but that's a standard process with virtually all films and its a process being demonized here because of statements which, while accurate(ish) at the time they were made are rapidly becoming less and less and less truthful.

  • toomuchtelly1

    Maybe I'm wrong about this, and correct me if I am, but I am pretty sure that the movie was produced without funds from TWC. That being said, the point about there not being even an original version (I don't like calling it a director's cut or even Bong's version since it is a movie release version, he probably has another director's cut that will show up on a DVD; I don't know, calling a wide release version a director's version feels disingenuous. I think it should be original release version and Weinstein version.) isn't necessarily true unless of course you are referring to it being distributed but that is another assumption, you're assuming another distributor wouldn't have picked it up.

    I should admit my bias, I'm an American currently living in South Korea and have already seen the original version - loved it - and cannot for the life of me figure out where the cuts would even be made. I can see why someone might want to change things, the general opinion of the film within the foreigner community has been a bit polarizing, either you loved it or you were not a fan, but the issues were not comprehension based which is what they were making cuts based on.

    I agree that working with TWC implies cuts since they get final say so if Bong did not want cuts he should have gone a different route but I think the issue people have in general is that the TWC model is always cut, cut, cut regardless and usually to the detriment to the film. That films get refashioned is not new, the reason this is getting demonized is that as far reviews have gone the film is great on its own without cuts, plus 20 minutes, which was initial cut number floating around, is a lot of movie. It's one thing if it is a movie still in production and they are testing it out on audiences here and there trying to figure what works and what doesn't, then refashioning happens. A whole nother ball game when it's an already released film that has had a positive reception elsewhere yet refashioning is still the go to and might even hurt the film.

  • You're wrong. They had a significant financial gap (well into the millions) which TWC filled. If they hadn't stepped in there would be no movie. And TWC having final cut was a condition of that deal from Day One. Bong knew that before doing the deal.

  • toomuchtelly1

    Having final cut and deciding to cut 20 minutes is not really synonymous. It does not change the argument too much either. The issue is still there is a demonstrated well-received version and TWC wants to cut it. I get that TWC is not a giant boogeyman, that the system allows for these things and it should be expected but I think people are upset that as far they know, based on reviews from this side of the world, the movie is fine as is so why attempt to fix something that is already running at an already great level.

  • Jerry Sköld

    Or maybe it is because I want to see Bong´s version of the movie -
    for good or ill - and not Harvey Weinstein´s? Sure, there´s hyperbole to
    spare on teh interwebs, but we shouldn´t assume that people are
    reacting harshly to these news completely as an uninformed kneejerk
    reaction.

    I heard that Australia will get something
    closer to the Bong cut - or perhaps THE Bong cut, I am not sure yet -
    and that is what I personally want to see. Spare me from what US
    producers feel will test better with focus groups - I don´t need to be
    talked down to.

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