On DVD Commentaries
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 9/25/04
Last year I
interviewed indy filmmaker Josh Becker on my Internet radio show & he made
this cogent point regarding the recently aired tv miniseries about Adolf Hitler.
He complained that nowhere in the script was there even an attempt to understand
what drove Hitler or- more importantly- what drove the German people to follow
him to depravity. Instead, he said, the film merely was a 1-note rant against
the evils of racism, fascism, & genocide. That being the case, where was the
art in the film? A bumper sticker could suffice.
I agreed, & have found that the best films do go far beyond mere bumper stickerism. 1 of the best innovations to come along in recent years has been the DVD. Not only is the sound & picture quality vastly superior to VCRs, but there is no need to worry over programming issues if you’re a Luddite, an ability to jump to a scene, to forego lengthy rewinding of a videotape, & to see plenty of extras. But, to me, best of all, most major DVD releases include audio commentaries that you can watch along with the film.
Now, the downside- the overwhelming majority of DVD commentaries consist of the director, writer, or stars of the film merely practicing fellatio upon each other: ‘Oh, Julia Roberts is such a sweetheart to direct- the things she can do are- well, fabulous.’, ‘Yes, [director’s name] is so wonderful to work with, this film was the highlight of my career.’, ‘That’s right, we’re supposed to dislike this character because we’ve just seen him commit a brutal double homicide in the last scene. That’s the emotion I was going for when I had him sever the heroine’s 2 breasts.’, etc. & this is among the more insightful canards out there. Some directors avoid this by refusing to provide commentaries- the most notable being Woody Allen, who believes the film is its own commentary. Say what you will about the Woodster, but you have to admire his view on art.
Fortunately there are a few DVDs that have great & insightful commentaries. I want to clue you in on a few. ‘Dark City’- the great sci fi noir from 1998 has an especially good commentary by film critic Roger Ebert. As exasperating as he can be as a critic his breakdown of the film’s scenes & details which lend to character development are sharp. The 2 commentaries for the Millennium Edition of the original ‘Night Of The Living Dead’ are often hilarious- as 2 sets of the film’s original stars share anecdotes & explain how ad hoc much of the film was. Another surprisingly good DVD commentary can be found on ‘Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan’- the 2 disc Special Collector’s Edition. Director Nicholas Meyer gives an impressive overview of the effects & the use of the characters’ histories to craft the tale, & an especially insightful take on the influence of Moby-Dick & submarine movies on his film.
Sense a pattern here? None of the named films are big Hollywood productions. Some of the best commentaries are on films that are not too well known, including some indy films. John Sayles’ ‘Sunshine State’ has some good info on how the film came together, & Josh Becker’s shoestring heist film ‘Running Time’ is chock with info on how shots were set up & why, as well as anecdotes of interest provided by star Bruce Campbell.
Yet, some big name directors also can put aside ego-stroking to provide insights. The commentaries that Francis Ford Copolla provides for ‘The Godfather’ Trilogy is justly praised, but the commentary he provides for the great little film he made between #s 1 & 2- ‘The Conversation’- may be the best filmmaker on filmmaking commentary around- from anecdotes about star Gene Hackman’s reluctance to submerge his machismo, to the technical hurdles involved in the famed opening bugging scene. Oliver Stone is another director who does not feel that commentary is just a marketing ploy. The 2 best examples of this are on his great political epics ‘JFK’ & ‘Nixon’. On both Stone not only talks film stuff but gives copious background information on the milieu of the times that is well worth the listen.
Another set of films that have good commentaries are the 1950s-60s epics such as ‘Spartacus’ & ‘Ben-Hur’. Notable on the former are the comments from Peter Ustinov on the preparation for scenes that some of the actors did. Kirk Douglas’s accounts on the troubles getting the film made are also a lesson in studio politics. While Charlton Heston does not give much insight into the art of the latter he likewise has interesting anecdotes on the making of his epic, while some of the technical people explain all the details that went in to the special effects & the famed chariot race. The class of this genre, though is the David Lean’s ‘Doctor Zhivago’. The comments & anecdotes by Omar Sharif are insightful & engaging. Unfortunately, Lean’s other 2 epics- ‘The Bridge On The River Kwai’ & ‘Lawrence Of Arabia’ have yet to be treated with commentaries, but 1 can hope they will soon be.
1 other run of films deserves mention for having especially good commentaries, & that is the series of comedies that Christopher Guest has starred in & directed. The classic ‘Spinal Tap’ has a hilarious commentary track where the fictional members of the band comment on the hatchet job done on them by director Rob Reiner’s character. It’s a unique & riotous twist on most commentaries. Would that other DVDs would be as inventive. Then, the trilogy of films Guest helmed- ‘Waiting For Guffman’, ‘Best In Show’, & ‘A Mighty Wind’ all feature occasionally insightful, but always funny commentaries by both Guest & star Eugene Levy.
As for those DVDs you should avoid. The commentaries on almost all action films blow- save those done by James Cameron. Steven Spielberg films are a barf bag. & almost all mainstream comedies & romances are of the fellatric variety. The best commentaries are often on the films you’d least expect, while those that are deliberately artsy almost always are self-indulgent. This baedecker is just a warning, & I accept no responsibility for it if you prefer to hear the winds which blow between the ears of an M. Night Shyamalan. You’ve been warned.
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