Friday, July 3, 2015

54: The Director's Cut / *** (2015)

A modest act of vision can instigate hard-fought wars within the film industry, and such battles are seldom resolved in the favor of directors. One of the more legendary discussion points in that scenario is Mark Christopher, whose “54” – a long-forgotten relic from the summer of 1998 – arrived on screen in a flurry of hype, and then left with scarcely a notice beyond faded party-goers. It had been pushed by the Miramax promotion machine as the definitive expose on the controversial legend of Studio 54, but what wound up showing in theaters was actually a watered down rendition of Christopher’s original picture, which had been butchered significantly and then refilled with a variety of reshot footage (reportedly, up to 30 minutes of alternate scenes). The reason? According to the film’s distraught creator, the studio wanted less drug use and homoeroticism than what they were given, and demanded more visual excess (not to mention a much more conclusive ending). Only years later did the tribulations of it all come to our full awareness, further perplexing the matter: if the released product was such a financial and critical failure, what was the harm in releasing the original version in some other format after the fact?

“54” was one of the first films I reviewed as a movie critic all those years ago, and though it was a problematic experience then, it was nonetheless an amusing watch: atmospheric, well-framed, and equal parts joyous and scandalous. But it was, even by the standards of a newbie, missing something rather significant – to be more specific, a point beyond the blatant indulgence of an eager movie camera. Years later, Christopher was given the chance to reconstruct his original picture from the ground up, and “54: The Director’s Cut” has just been made available on demand after playing film festival circuits in the last couple of years. Seeing it now, so long after Miramax’s version essentially evaporated from memory, one will surmise that both endeavors are essentially completely different pictures: one a sensationalized party film caught up in celebratory impulses, and the other a more thoughtful character study that sees the Disco era as a flare in the shadows of personal discovery. While that isn’t necessarily a monumental change of purpose, there is little doubt that the director’s concept was – and always has been – about more than the sound and movement of an ambitious foreground.

Then and now, the premise played like any other formula picture of the decade: a kid comes to the city seeking fame and fortune, and discovers his true self in the thick of mistakes. A young Ryan Phillipe stars as Shane O’Shea, a rugged youth from New Jersey whose silent wonder of city nightlife just so happens to coincide with the popularity of Studio 54, Manhattan’s premiere nightclub of the late ‘70s. When he ventures into the city one night to explore the possibilities, he is thrust into its comforts like a natural participant; strangers welcome his chiseled physique, his handsome face, his enticing hips, his innocent bravado… and inevitably, his unending sexual energy. Nightclub regulars are magnetized by their animal attraction to him, while peers invite him in with familial interest. That ultimately propels Shane’s reputation to one of distinction, especially in the eyes of his boss-to-be Steve Rubell (Mike Meyers); beautiful and yet untainted by the cynicism of old age, he represents the pinnacle of 54’s brand, and it lands him into the key role of club bartender (with a few modeling side-jobs in between).

Meanwhile, two of his new close friends – Anita (Salma Hayek) and Greg (Breckin Meyer) – undergo their own struggles: namely, the ability to maintain some semblance of a traditional marriage while participating in the nightly rituals that Studio 54 demands. He is a barkeep who desires promotion (though is never quite willing to cross certain sexual lines to get it), and she works at the coat-check counter while daydreaming of making it big as a disco diva. Their chemistry is, at best, pedestrian; there is no sense that they would have ever been together if not for their association with the club, and they pass through daytime interludes as if only in anticipation of what another night’s work will bring. Can they be blamed, though? They are young and impressionable sorts, and the studio is a hotbed for colorful chaos: disco music, outlandish fashion, prominent drug use and drinking, carefree social stimulation, sexual freedom and, yes, accidental networking. A great many popular sorts dwell within the dark corridors of this theater of intemperance, and if you wander down the right hallway, you just never know what the cards will have in store.

The centerpiece of these realities is the performance by Mike Meyers, who occupies the famous Steve Rubell persona not from a place of resentment or idolization, but intrigue. To Myers, this monumental figure – the legendary “Lord of the Disco” – was a businessman built entirely on lost hopes and forbidden dreams, and he manners the characterization with deliberate eccentricity. Just as it was difficult for a comedian like Jim Carrey to turn serious in the late ‘90s, so must it have been strange to Meyers to turn towards drama with such deep conviction; the effect is one of almost transcending (if glaring) intricacy. The flaw of the time, perhaps, is that the role was so secondary under the core values of the theatrical edition; under the discretion of the Director’s cut, Rubell is more fully realized as an identity, used as a compelling contrast against faces that wander through the material searching for something they suspect is within reach. Was he as corrupt as his infamous tax evasion charges would suggest? That is not Christopher’s point, because his “54” is not about basic concepts of right or wrong: it is about cynical personalities informing the paths of others, and how their world expects them to engage in increasingly volatile experiences.

While the new version is in fact only four minutes longer than the original, nearly a third of the footage from the theatrical release has been excised by Christopher as, essentially, a measure of tonal cleansing. Because much of what existed in 1998 was all part of an elaborate reshoot to sensationalize the material, most of it has been removed in order to return the characters to their original morose purposes. Consider, as the prime example, the Shane characterization; here he is not just a simple party boy caught in the excess of 54’s nightlife, but rather a youngster fearfully seeking identity in the throes of drugs, social class and bisexual fantasies. The friendship he possesses with Anita and Greg, furthermore, runs deeper than simple commonalities; it is built on a silent urge between them to exchange love physically and mentally, sometimes without sparing feelings. Audiences who could have been privy to this original version so many years ago might have been shocked by what they saw; it was not yet the time of “Brokeback Mountain” or John Cameron Mitchell, and the literal context of homosexual interaction would have been a difficult pill for mainstream moviegoers to swallow. All that said, the risk would have been to a far greater benefit than what the heads of Miramax resorted to when revising the film in editing stages. By comparison, their decisions play like a punishment against characters who are supposed to be a byproduct of a liberated generation, and all walks of life were such a fixture of the real Studio 54 that the older edit feels like it robs the setting of a core essence.

On the other hand, Christopher’s reassembly is problematic in its own ways. Some of the footage – through no fault of the director, I’m certain – is cut in from far inferior quality sources (several of the added party scenes appear to be transmitted from a VHS copy), and the sound editing has patchy consistency, implying very little of a budget in post-production. Meanwhile, the order of scenes do not establish much in the way of narrative rhythm, suggesting that the original screenplay was content to jump between story arcs in a disorienting manner. And then there is the question of perspective: is there a point at all to some of the moments contained in the picture beyond their stigma as lost moments on the cutting room floor? What are they supposed to build do? I don’t always know. As a movie finally reaching its definitive state, “54” is a flawed endeavor, and clearly the work of someone new to the venture of making movies. But it all comes together in fascinating hindsight, and as an op-ed to the endeavors of a studio, it is a reminder of the resonance of singular artistic visions in the thrush of a business-oriented medium. It may have taken nearly two decades to arrive back at that point, but at long last Christopher can find peace in the realization that his voice was, eventually, heard to full capacity.

Author’s Note: Against my long-standing practice of staying consistent with star ratings, the original theatrical cut of “54” – which was awarded three stars at the time – has been downgraded to two-and-a-half. This comes more as an act of perspective than defiance; in the hindsight provided by this far superior new version, both pictures now fall on the scale exactly where they deserve to.

Written by DAVID KEYES

Drama/Dance (US); 1998/2015; Not Rated; Running Time: 106 Minutes

Ryan Phillipe: Shane O’Shea
Mike Meyers: Steve Rubell
Salma Hayek: Anita Randazzo
Breckin Meyer: Greg Randazzo
Neve Campbell: Julie Black
Sela Ward: Billie Auster

Produced by Don Carmody, Bobby Cohen, Ira Deutchman, Richard N. Gladstein, Dolly Hall, Jonathan King, Margot Lulick, Bob Weinstein, Harvey Weinstein and Lila Yacoub; Directed and written by Mark Christopher

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