The Irresistible Perils of Watching a Film's Deleted Scenes

They're a DVD staple meant to satisfy fans, but they can forever alter viewers' perceptions of the movies they love.

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A scene from The Master's deleted-scene package, titled "Back Beyond." (The Weinstein Company)

In the weeks leading up to the release of The Master, viewers looking forward to Paul Thomas Anderson's latest were given a few glimpses of what was to come in the form of two short teaser clips. At the time, little was known about the film apart from it being inspired, at least in part, by L. Ron Hubbard and Scientology. The teasers did little to clarify matters, offering glimpses of the film that only hinted at its narrative. Both, however, captured the feel of The Master, a film that remains elusive even when seen in full and that seems destined to be puzzled over for years. Trailers that conspicuously featured images not seen in the final cut only added to the enigma. What, for instance, is to be made of a shot in one trailer of Freddie wielding a gun? Or rhythmically beating his hands against a window? Or opening a case that later catches on fire?

The new Blu-ray and DVD editions of The Master provide some answers. Rather than collecting the deleted scenes individually, Anderson has compiled them into "Back Beyond," a 20-minute special feature set to Jonny Greenwood's score and period-appropriate song. Much in the oblique style of the film it accompanies, "Back Beyond" plays like a B-side to The Master, but it does fill in some blanks in the narrative. In The Master, Freddie's decision to leave the side of Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is spurred in part by a conversation with Dodd's agent, who expresses disappointment with his latest effort, The Split Saber. This moment arrives after a scene in which Freddie accompanies Dodd into the desert to dig up a case that Dodd calls "my unpublished work," though its exact contents and its relationship to The Split Saber remains unclear. (We've seen Dodd writing throughout the film, presumably on a book of some kind.) The deleted scenes both expand on the The Split Saber's origins and the contents of the case by having Dodd's son-in-law Clark (Rami Malek) refer to it as containing Saber and saying Dodd wrote the book after a near-death experience, one Clark claims has driven past readers insane or led them to commit suicide.The scenes showing Freddie guarding the case with the gun come from a deleted sequence in which he is charged with protecting its contents. Unable to resist temptation, he opens the case to and is greeted with flames.

If the sequence had made the film, it would most likely be discussed as a corollary to one of The Master's most talked-about scenes, the moment in which Dodd presides over a party filled with suddenly nude women. Like a later scene in which Freddie receives a phone call from Dodd in a movie theater, the events shown can't literally be true. But Anderson offers no explanation for them either. Are they Freddie slipping out of reality? Or do they suggest that there's something to Dodd's teaching, that Freddie has somehow been granted a gift of vision? Of the combustible moment, what's really inside when he opens the box: flames or something more mundane? And when it comes to talking about The Master, should that remarkable image of Freddie opening the box count at all?

That's really part of a bigger question: Do deleted scenes count? They are, after all, deleted scenes. In assembling The Master, Anderson had the choice of including any of the scenes featured in "Back Beyond" and chose to cut them all. They are consequently not part of The Master. And yet there's no getting around them. Once watched, they're hard to forget and certain to cast a shadow over future viewings, however apocryphal their status. Even though within the context of the proper film Freddie is never left in charge of the box, viewers of the deleted scenes know otherwise, or at least know in the alternate universe where Anderson made different choices the box places a crucial role in the film, just as we also know that—maybe in the same universe—Dante dies at the end of Clerks and that the first name of Sigourney Weaver's character in the Alien series in Ellen.

To watch a great film is to see a director making all the right choices. To watch the deleted scenes is to risk coloring that impression by exploring some potential wrong choices.

Even though they shouldn't, deleted scenes affect the way we look at movies. Take Blue Velvet: When David Lynch's landmark 1986 film was released on Blu-ray 25 years later it contained nearly an hour of previously lost footage. That's nearly half the running time of the final film, which allows for plenty of room for perception-altering scenes, even one in which the film's hero Jeffrey (Kyle MacLachlan) watches and initially fails to stop an apparent date rape, a moment that, as Bill Wyman noted in Slate "would have made Blue Velvet a different movie." On the one hand, I'm not sorry I watched that scene or the other lost Blue Velvet footage. They're examples of a filmmaker working at the height of his powers. On the other hand, I wish I had the ability both to watch those scenes and forget it. I've seen Blue Velvet many times over the years and I'm sure my next viewing will find me attempting to plug what I've seen into the narrative. So that's what the college Jeffrey's left to take care of his ailing father looked like. And who knew he dated Megan Mullally while there?

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Keith Phipps is a Chicago-based writer and editor who focuses on film and pop culture.

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