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Monday, January 24, 2005


A Commentary on Commentaries

I didn’t start getting really big into DVDs until a little over two years ago, in the fall of 2002. I was vaguely aware that they existed and that they were an alternative to VHS analog videos. That was about the extent of my knowledge. I probably first heard of them a few years ago and didn’t pay them much heed until they started taking off in 2001 and 2002.

Suddenly, they were everywhere. DVDs had existed under the radar screen for years before I got wind of them; their makers slowly building up the market until it reached critical mass. Enough people had purchased enough DVD players that the studios could start releasing them on the mass market. Once there were a whole bunch of DVDs on the market, more people started buying players for them. The rest is, as they say, history.

I recall being asked by a fellow dorm room resident back in college (this was around the fall of 1984) about compact disks. He and I were talking one day about how CDs were starting to show up everywhere and he asked me if I thought they would take over the market from tapes and phonograph records. I told him it would depend on if the market would reach critical mass. He agreed with that assessment.

As we all know, the CD market did take off. Phonograph records and players went the way of the dodo (except as props for hip hop acts) and that was that. It’s the same thing with DVDs. Once the market took off, it never looked back. VHS tapes are also on their way to eventual extinction. Basically, the first DVDs in the United States came out in 1997. By 2000, there were over 13 million players in the United States and well over 10,000 titles available. That growth rate is continuing to increase. DVDs are rapidly becoming the standard for home video and may eventually replace audio CDs as well.

In the fall of 2002, I needed a new television. So, with a measure of trepidation, I headed on down to the West Fairbanks Fred Meyer home electronics department to buy a 19" television with a built-in DVD player and a VHS player. It cost me about $400 at the time (it was on sale) and nowadays, I could probably get a similar model for around $300 on the internet somewhere.

I took it home, set it up, and then, over the course of the past two years or so, began building up my DVD collection. I now have a line of DVDs almost three feet long stretching on the floor under my television, with stacks of DVDs above them. I have two or three dozen DVDs by now (I’ve not bothered to count the exact number, needless to say, it is in the hundreds of dollars) and I am sure my collection will continue to grow. Just about every time I go by the West Fairbanks Fred Meyer store, I check their home electronics department to see what new offerings they have in the DVD section. I almost always walk out with another movie to add to my collection.

When my collection started getting bigger, I began to experiment with the Menus section of the DVD. I hadn’t bothered with the supplemental stuff on the first few DVDs I watched, but then I started to take note. There were cast bios, deleted scenes, "making of" featurettes, still photos from the movie set(s), and lots of other stuff to be explored. So, adventuresome person that I am, I started exploring those extra features.

This was my first encounter with DVD commentaries. I was hooked immediately. For an amateur film buff like myself, this was like getting an inside seat at the cast and crew final screening of the completed film. Generally, when a film is finally done, in the can, and completed, the cast and crew will sit down to watch it at the studio theater. A good DVD commentary is like being right there with them as they are watching the film.

There are several different kinds of commentaries, though. The first is the straightforward ones I’ve just been mentioning: the director, producer, writer(s) and/or several cast members or crew members will sit down and comment on the film as it’s playing. Sometimes there will be director’s commentary, often with commentary from the writer(s) of the film and that will be that. Or, there will also be a commentary from the cast, often along with the director’s commentary, sometimes by itself. Then there are the commentaries from the crew, the special effects people, the technical design crew, and the like, which can be very interesting indeed in their own right.

Commentaries are an interesting phenomenon because they are essentially without precedent in cinema. Yes, there have been plenty of “the making of” documentaries, replete with cast interviews, scene setups, explanations of special effects, et cetera, for many years that have provided a very interesting supplement to home videos. But, prior to DVDs, you never had everything in an entire package. Now you can have the movie, with commentary by the director, writer, cast, crew, or whoever else might be interested in commenting on the film. In addition, there is all the other supplemental stuff, the explanation of special effects, lighting design, casting decisions, etc.; all of which add up to a complete package.

I have also noticed that you can watch the evolution of computerized special effects in films over the past 10 or 15 years or so. For instance, the commentary for Shawshank Redemption discusses one particular scene where Tim Robbins is hanging over the edge of a roof, holding on to Clancy Brown for dear life and the film makers note that this scene was one of the first uses of digitally removing something from a scene (in this case, the safety cables holding both actors to the roof.) Then in Deep Impact, there is a sequence toward the end where they are talking about the tidal waves coming up the mountains and how this was one of the earliest uses of computer-generated waves. You can then see (and hear) how that was perfected in The Perfect Storm and see CGI at its highest form in the Lord of the Rings movies.

Commentaries are like the Cliff’s Notes for a film. When they’re done right, they make you feel as though you were there in the film-making process. When the director explains why he or she chose to use or not use a particular scene, you understand that comment in conjunction with the “deleted scenes” section of the DVD. Or an actor will explain why he or she chose to read a certain line of dialogue in a certain way. It’s funny to listen to Kurt Russell and John Carpenter commenting on Big Trouble in Little China. It’s almost like you’re over at one of their houses, watching the film with them. When commenataries are done wrong, they are boring as all hell and contribute little to the film or your understanding or appreciation of the film.

DVD commentaries will be an invaluable resource for film historians and critics yet unborn. This is because the commentaries will provide a priceless insight into the minds of the director, producer, cast members, crew, etc. as they were filming the movie and assembling it.

This brings up another thought about DVD commentaries. Nowadays, movies are being released on DVD and are generally done with commentaries already on the disc. After the movie is in the can, the director, cast, crew, writer(s), etc. assemble one last time and record the commentaries. Then everyone goes their separate ways and that is that.

It is not quite so easily done with a movie more than say, five or six years old, before the major advent of DVDs. If you’re a studio and you want to release a movie from 10 or 15 years ago, you have to reassemble the cast, crew, director, writer(s), or whoever (if you can find them), and have them sit down and record the commentary. If it’s a movie from 10 or 15 years ago, that can be done, but it takes time.

Sometimes only the director and writer can be rounded up to do a commentary. Other times only two or three of the actors can be found and that leaves the studio with an incomplete commentary because every one else who was involved in the movie are now working on other projects. For an actor, that could get very tricky because recording a commentary for a movie you did six or seven years ago means dropping what you’re doing to go fly off somewhere to record the commentary, meaning the director of the movie you’re working on now has to shuffle things around to let you take a day or so off to record the commentary.

If the movie is 20 or 30 years old, many of the cast and crew are dead. Unless you want to have a seance, you’re out of luck. If the movie is 40 years old or older, that’s pretty much the case all the way around. Some studios have been known to have film critics or historians do a commentary on a movie that is that old or older. I don’t know about you, but having a film critic or film historian commenting on a classic movie is like reading a classic of literature, Shakespeare or Dickens, for example, and having some English professor looking over your shoulder, commenting or explaining over some particular passage or why the author chose to narrate this scene from that character’s POV. It would be annoying, in other words.

I suspect there will also be a difference between DVD commentaries from recent movies as opposed to those of movies from 10 or 15 or 20 years ago. That difference is this: the people commenting on their movies from the past have had 10, 15, or 20 years to reflect on a movie, its impact on popular culture, how it affected their lives, etc. They can then bring that perspective to the commentary when they sit down together to record it 10, 15, or 20 years after the fact.

People commenting today have no such perspective. They are commenting from the immediacy of the moment and don’t have the historical perspective that they might have 20 years from now. They are too close to the finished film to have any appreciation for its impact, scope, and place in cinematic history, if it indeed has such a place.

In whatever case, DVD commentaries will make for a great resource for film historians and critics of the future to look back on this time in cinematic history and to gain a deeper appreciation of certain films and how they were put together.

Perhaps when movies are re-released on DVD for their 10th, 20th, 25th, or whatever anniversary editions, the surviving cast and crew will be able to come together again to record their comments on the film after some time has passed.

Commentaries are also interesting from the standpoint of character. Several commentaries (This is Spinal Tap most notably) have had the cast members make their comments either completely in character for the movie or parts of their commentaries in character. This makes for an oblique perspective into the making of the film because you will have one of the film’s characters commenting about what’s happening on screen and why he or she felt that scene or dialogue was important.

The most interesting commentaries are when the director/writer(s) do a commentary separate from the cast member(s) sitting down to record a commentary. Then you get to see both sides of the film-making process and you get to see why the director liked a particular scene and what the cast member(s) felt about that particular scene and why they did or did not agree with the director about it.

The most fun I’ve had with commentaries is to realize that they provide a different insight into the filming process. It is almost like taking a crash course in how to make a movie. You learn something from the process and you learn something about how a film comes together (or doesn’t come together, as the case may be) and you learn something about the people who made the film.

For that reason alone, I like DVD commentaries.

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