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Jun 3, 2007

A Commentary about DVD Commentaries

I love DVD commentaries. I loved them on Laserdiscs, and am overjoyed at the fact that the onset of the DVD has brought us in many cases, multiple commentary tracks on a single feature film or TV series. But I am wondering if some of these commentary sessions couldn’t be better prepared. I do like the idea of the filmmakers speaking off the cuff about something they just made, or were involved in years ago…and letting them run free. But I have noticed recently a trend of commentary participants who will: a) get off topic and start discussing something that viewers won’t connect with at all like Kurt Russell and John Carpenter discussing their sons hockey tournament on BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA, b) talk about inane things or really do not offer any sort of interesting information about a film like Christian Slater stating for a good 30 minutes of TRUE ROMANCE “look at my hair” or c) on a classic film with an academia or historian who gets so clinical that you wonder if they actually enjoy watching the movies they are discussing at all.

This weekend I listened to a few DVD commentaries that cover the examples I listed above. First off there was the 1936 Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers film SWING TIME directed by George Stevens (available from Warner Home Video separately or as part of the Astaire/Rogers box set volume 1 or ultimate collection), with a commentary by historian John Mueller. During this commentary, Mueller drones on about the film as if he were discussing trigonometry and not a lively Hollywood musical from the 1930s. At one point Mueller tells his listeners that the film has so many dull and inane scenes that he is happy the DVD era has come along so he can skip over these and get to the good parts. Hmmm….really instilling us with a lot of confidence about how great this movie is, aren’t you Mueller. There is one point where he is discussing the top RKO movies of the 30s, and includes a little joke before mentioning KING KONG. But again the joke falls flat because Mueller puts no amount of life into it, and sounds like he’s reading a script – which he probably is. Mueller sounds bored, and his comments are probably making his listeners feel the same way (it was working on me).

Then there was Scott Eyman, a John Ford biographer who has a featured commentary on the special edition of 1939’s STAGECOACH (available from Warner Home Video separately or as part of the John Wayne/John Ford box set). Mr. Eyman does what Mr. Mueller cannot, and that is instill us with a glimpse of why he enjoyed the film, and he injects all his information, historical background and personal recollection with a feeling that yes, Mr. Eyman loves watching STAGECOACH, and can watch it time and time again getting that same warm glow that he got the first time viewing this masterpiece.

That brings me to the multi-participant commentary on New Line Cinema’s SNAKES ON A PLANE (featuring Samuel L. Jackson, the director David Ellis and various crew members). This commentary is a blast to listen to. Not only are the participants having fun, but they are making fun of each other and giving relevant stories about the making of the movie and the impact of the film itself. I love these multi-person commentaries as they provide a bit of camaraderie that can be missing with a single person who at times can struggle to fill a full 2 hours with comments. The participants riff off each other, and in most cases, you get the sense that they enjoy their jobs and the work they have done on the film that is in question – and SNAKES is just one of those films given its Internet connection and the logistics of making a film with hundreds of live snakes that you want those kind of behind-the-scenes insights.

My guess is that most commentary sessions are probably very difficult to put together with scheduling conflicts and perhaps egos, that preparation time and pre-viewing of the movie may not always be possible. I can think of several examples of commentaries that just have spots where a little editing or shifting would have gone a long way to make the commentary more engaging. One example is the first DVD release of THE MATRIX which has Carrie Ann-Moss with Editor Zach Staenberg and several visual effects artists. During the key fight scene on a subway platform between Keanu Reeve’s Neo and Hugo Weaving’s Agent Smith, one of the FX artists goes into deep detail about the technology behind rendering software. Moss sounds like she’s about to doze off and one wonders why this gentleman chooses this exact exciting moment in the film, to discuss such a dull topic. I always wonder if the producer of the session ever tries to steer the topic or jump in. I guess they want the recording to go on seamlessly – and there is the difficulty of jumping and trying to get a superstar to say what you want him or her to say. Sometimes the end result does not really reflect the film nor gives us the viewers/listeners a good enough reason to stay with it.

If you are ever wondering what some of the best commentaries there are to listen to, keep and eye out for anything done by Oliver Stone, or the actors track on BOOGIE NIGHTS (pure genius given the fact that some of them are completely wasted), or William Shatner discussing immortality with Leonard Nimoy on STAR TREK IV, or anything by director/historian/critic/author Peter Bogdanovich. Bogdanovich is an interesting person in that he went out of his way to befriend his heroes, and got to know them on a personal level – particularly Orson Welles. There is a lot of hero worship in Bogdanovich’s work, including in his two books WHO THE DEVIL MADE IT? and WHO THE HELL’S IN IT?, and some complain that he comes off as a bit of a fan boy. I tend to like this approach. His stories are personal and offer an insight none of us will ever get to see of these people when they are off camera, and often times in their later years well after the pictures were made. We get to live vicariously through Bogdanovich, and you get the sense that he just loves his position, and letting us in on the lives of these people. Then there is someone like historian Rudy Behlmer, who is a regular contributor to classic Hollywood fare. You can tell he loves his job, but he gets so dry and so technical it can get a little boring after a while listening to him read memos that he uses to get his information across (he’s more interesting than most of the academics though, and you’ll never hear him name dropping or showing off or trying to push any of the books he has written). Leonard Maltin would be great to listen to, but generally he sticks to giving introductions and very rarely is featured on a full-length commentary. Many people complain that he is biased towards old movies and that he doesn’t like anything new. On the contrary Maltin is one of the most well-rounded film historians there is. One only needs to pick up his yearly Movie guide to see that. He shows an enthusiasm that is unequaled by many, and unlike some, never comes off sounding like a film snob.

Some people may find the act of listening to a commentary a difficult task in that it requires re-watching the film in its entirety. There are 4 commentaries on each of the special editions of the LORD OF THE RINGS movies, meaning that combined, the three films contain almost 24 hours (plus) of audio commentaries. That’s a lot to sift through, and if you haven’t the patience to sit through a movie repeated times with little time between each viewing, often some of the tracks won’t get listened too for some time after your viewing of the film, if at all. Some of them can get so technical; it can scare the average person off who wants to hear the gossip and stories about the actors. Then there are the ones that are so watered down that every participant spends the time praising his fellow craftspeople when really the film could have been a nightmare to make. Thos commentaries that feature people complaining about fights and creative differences and on-set problems are an absolute breath of fresh air as you know you’re getting the story as it happened and not fabricated as part of a PR mandate.

Commentaries are an essential part and the most engaging feature of a DVDs enhanced content. They allow us to have questions answered by the filmmakers, and give us essentially a private one-on-one with people telling us how our favorite films and TV shows are made. It brings the film industry closer to the average viewer, and allows them to pull back the curtain living vicariously through those that brought us these memorable images that keep us coming back to the darkened theatre or weekly TV station for more. If you have never considered listening to one of the commentary tracks, why not do it sometime for one of your favorite films – you never know what you might find out.