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Even With Changes, ‘Boys’ Will Be Boys

BALTIMORE SUN

One of the few glories of the year 2000 in movies was the scruffy perfection of Curtis Hanson’s “Wonder Boys,” a poignant comedy about Pittsburgh-based writers and academics--notably novelist and creative writing professor Grady Tripp (Michael Douglas) and his protege, James Leer (Tobey Maguire)--who stumble toward the instincts that will set them free.

So when Paramount released the film on DVD with a disclaimer stating that editorial content has been modified, movie-lovers set off a firestorm of complaints in online sale-and-review sites such as Amazon.com.

In an interview, director Hanson set the record straight, explaining that the modification was an act of kindness to the family of longtime Paramount star Alan Ladd.

For most moviegoers, Ladd is still best-known as the heroic star of “Shane,” but for James Leer in “Wonder Boys,” he is part of a litany of Hollywood personalities who committed suicide.

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“Paramount prevailed upon us as a favor to the Alan Ladd family to remove his name from the suicide monologue; there is some question about the details of his death,” Hanson says.

“His name was mentioned off-camera, so not one frame was altered; we could do it just by making a sound change. What happened afterward was that down in the bureaucratic bowels of the studio, someone slapped that discretionary note in front of the movie simply because one element had changed. It is an MPAA and DGA rule that you have to put a statement like that on the film whenever it is altered.

“But that was meant to protect directors by alerting the consumer that his work has been tampered with. This was doing the opposite: confusing the consumer into thinking something had been done to the movie that wasn’t. Paramount was very unhappy this whole thing had happened, recognized it as a foul-up, and saw to it that the statement would be deleted from any new print or pressing.”

The gaffe was a case of poetic injustice, since few directors have lavished as much careful attention on their movies’ DVD releases as Hanson.

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“I participate in the sense of trying to see the movie represented in the best possible form; on the pan-and-scan version [the one that makes the movie fit the proportions of a conventional TV screen], that means recomposing every single shot,” he says.

But then, many directors do that. What Hanson also does is ensure that the “extras"--the sidelights and behind-the-scenes material--enhance the experience of the film rather than smother it in trivia, or pre-digest it for a viewer.

“It may be curmudgeonly,” he admits, “but the work should speak for itself. It’s good for people to do the viewing and reviewing and discover things, rather than have everything pointed out to them and explained.”

DVD reviewers have acclaimed “L.A. Confidential” and “Wonder Boys” but complained that Hanson hasn’t provided the running commentary on an audio track that’s become almost a standard feature.

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But when Hanson thinks back to his own formative years of moviegoing, he’s glad “that I wasn’t listening to John Ford and Howard Hawks go into what and why. They chose not to do that as much as possible. Instead, you had to think and use your imagination and sometimes come up with conclusions that weren’t the ones intended. With DVDs, it’s a bit like what struck me when MTV started: Once you saw the music video, the song became altered, because you had these visuals married to the music. And I didn’t like it.”

On the “Wonder Boys” DVD, you can see a music video that Hanson directed: his funny, haunting visual interpretation of the movie’s theme song, “Things Have Changed,” pulled off in collaboration with Bob Dylan. What made him join the MTV game?

“I did it for fun, because Bob asked me to,” he says. “But also, this song was written for the film, and I thought it would give me an opportunity both to clarify the degree to which it was inspired by the film, and to reinvent the imagery and restate the themes of the movie with the poetry of his language. It adds up to one thing: Bob wrote a song which is what Grady Tripp would have written if Grady Tripp were a poet, not a novelist.”

Michael Sragow is film critic at the Baltimore Sun, a Tribune company.

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