Boxing Helena: The Director's Cut (Laserdisc/ DVD comparison)

In 1994, Orion released Boxing Helena on laserdisc, and they released the director's cut in 1995 as a special edition boxed set. MGM issued the film on DVD in 2001, and again as part of their "Avant-Garde Cinema" collection in 2003. Both of those DVDs were the unrated version, as opposed to a slightly censored R-rated version that originally played in theaters; but it's not the director's cut. That version, and the wealth of special features from the special edition, have never been seen again since that boxed set. So just what is everybody who wasn't on the laserdisc train missing?
Boxing Helena is the oft-maligned and misunderstood debut of Jennifer Chambers Lynch, daughter of course, of the great David Lynch. But, let's face it, not all of that maligning is based on misunderstanding; some of the criticism is fair. Boxing Helena is a crazily overwrought melodrama, which is clearly intentionally over-the-top and unreal. Writer/director Lynch consistently refers to it as a fairy tale, so anybody expecting a realistic, down to earth drama just needs their expectations adjusted. But even for a fairy tale, it's a bit dopey.

Julian Sands plays a goofy surgeon with huge, on-the-nose oedipal issues and a truly blind, unrequited love for Sherilyn Fenn, who plays her character to such a selfish, nasty degree that they clearly meant her to be some sort of hypothetical archetype rather than a relatable character. Anyway, she doesn't like him back - she's currently involved with Bill Paxton, but seems to resent him almost as much - and continues to push Sands away. So when she's hit by a car outside his house, he leaps at the gruesome opportunity to amputate her legs and keep her completely dependent on him in his house. And yes, at some point he also cuts off her arms and puts her in an ornate box.
It explores the possessive, demanding side of love relationships to comically exaggerated degrees - we see plenty of the Venus De Milo in Sands' opulent home - but not without real substance or compelling things to say about them. It's probably the film's rejection of the more conventional Hollywood entertainment style, specifically that it persistently refuses to allow the audience to empathize or side with any of the characters that turns most people off. We're exploring the bad sides of our characters here; and while I think you could say it has a naturally feminist perspective, it certainly doesn't deliver the expected, pat feminist message either. It wants to be both challenging art and a trashy erotic romp at the same time, and that's not the kind of thing most people will receive well. But there's definitely a lot to appreciate in this movie if you're of the right mind-set.

Plus, hey, almost everybody judging this film is basing it on the DVD, catching it on cable, the old VHS or whatever. Unless you've seen the limited edition laserdisc, you've never even seen the director's cut "including footage not seen in the theatrical or home video versions," as it says on the back of the box. It's not fair to judge the film based on a version the director doesn't endorse, right, when you haven't even seen the whole thing? So, just what is different about the two versions?
"Hasta la whatever" is actually Paxton's exit line in this scene - how can you not love that?
Basically nothing. Despite rumors on the imdb message boards of a scene where Fenn "poops herself," there is not a single scene, or even a single camera shot, in the director's cut that is not in the unrated version, or vice versa. I have synced up both versions and they do not go a single frame out of time with each other from the opening credits to the closing credits. There are no alternate shots in the sex scenes to make them any more or less explicit. The director's cut is unrated, so any references you hear about missing shots do not apply to the laser or the DVD. Neither version has any different music in any scenes.

There is exactly one change differentiating the director's cut. Sands' very last line of the film (which I won't spoil here, of course), that plays in voice over at the very, very end... does not play in the director's cut. She didn't want it to be in the film, so the music plays out into the credits and it's all exactly as you see it on the DVD, video tape, etc... but you don't hear that line. That "footage not seen" claim only applies because the old VHS release was the edited R-rated cut.
Orion laserdisc on top; MGM DVD middle;
and a combination of the two bottom.
So let's talk about picture quality. That is very different. The laserdisc opens with one of those "the image has been formatted to fit your screen" messages, because surprisingly - the special edition director's cut is fullscreen! So was the previous, standard laserdisc, for the record. The laserdisc is... mostly open matte. The majority of the film plays where the framing is the same except the laser has more information at the top and bottom which has been matted out of the DVD. Sometimes there's more above, sometimes there's more below, often it's centered, but that's how most of the movie looks.
Orion laserdisc on top; MGM DVD below.
Some scenes, however, have been "Pan & Scanned," so the laserdisc is missing information on one or both sides. Notice how in this second set of comparison shots, there's now a lot more on the sides of the DVD version. On the one hand, that's better, because it shows they've made an intelligent decision about what is kept in the frame; but on the other hand, the DVD is in the correct aspect ratio and the laserdisc really should've just been widescreen, end of story.  ...Although Nicole Scorsese fans might see a benefit in the open matte transfer, I'll admit.

...The image is also fuzzier, lacking detail and over-saturated, but part of that can be blamed on the imperfect nature of capturing an analog image from a laserdisc onto a computer to screencap it. So give the laserdisc maybe a 10-15% benefit of the doubt when judging the image quality based on these frames. But yeah, the DVD looks yards better.
I'm sorry; I just don't buy that those are her curtains.
So the director's cut is kind of disappointing... But what else is in this laserdisc set? A load of excellent extras? Yes! Real great stuff. First there's a feature -length commentary by Lynch and her producer Carl Mazzocone. The discussion is lively, thoughtful, self-effacing, addresses all the questions we as viewers want answered about this movie (including the reasoning they had for adding and removing that missing last line from the movie), and tackles some interesting topics (did the TV series Dynasty spoil the depiction of dreams in cinema for everybody?). Julian Sands even pops in about halfway through and shares some thoughts.

The usual collection of non-video extras that laserdiscs often have, which I don't think work so well or add much value, are also on hand. There's the complete screenplay, production stills, the shooting schedule. That kind of stuff. But then there's plenty of good video extras, starting with an on-camera interview with Lynch and Mazzocone, this time being interviewed by a moderator, that pretty much fills in the blanks of anything they didn't cover in the commentary. It goes on pretty long, taking up almost the entire side of one disc.

Then there's a short, but very fun featurette with the guy who built and designed Helena's titular box - he makes similar boxes for magicians and illusionists, so he refuses to tell us all its secrets, but it's still a cool little piece. Then there's a comparison of alternate scenes between the R-rated and unrated cuts, where we see full versions of both, with optional audio commentary by Mazzocone, where he takes the opportunity to talk about Madonna and Kim Bassinger, who both agreed to star in the film and later backed out, rather then the footage on screen, but it's still quite interesting. They also include the alternate ending with that last line of dialogue put back into the final scene. It's a pretty thorough set. Curiously, the one absent extra in this set is the theatrical trailer. And it's the only other thing on the DVD.
And you can't argue with the packaging. The set comes in a cool, black box with a note from Lynch and full color photos on the insert. An entire second laserdisc is devoted entirely to the extras. And there's also a bonus 19-track soundtrack CD, which includes both the score and pop songs - a 24K gold CD, no less! And remember, that one techno/ choir song by Enigma got more famous than any other aspect of the movie, so the soundtrack was a big feature.
So look, I respect the director's vision enough to say that the ideal way to see this film is without that last line, but I don't think it's a big enough difference to recommend anyone spend over $100 (the going rate, apparently) to cop the director's cut laserdisc from EBay. Especially not with the drastically inferior picture quality. Just watch the DVDs. BUT for any major fans of this film or the Jr Lynch, the wealth of extras do make the set worth owning. So whether you should track this down boils down to how much you care about the special features... the fact that it has the "director's cut" sound difference would just be an extra little bonus. And as for the movie itself? Yeah, more people might be inclined to laugh at it rather than with it; but I think there's enough there to make at least one interesting viewing.

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