Commentary about Commentary

So, there's two different kinds of commentary on DVDs: unscripted and scripted. Unscripted (which may actually be more scripted than it sounds) are when the actors or committee or whoever get together in a studio and watch the movie and say things like, "Isn't this the part where you spilled jello on your shirt, Keanu?" And unless the actors or committee are actually clever conversationalists, it's like listening in on any two-hours of small-talk: deadly dull. It also proves what people should know but forget. Dave Foley is funny on-stage, on-screen. That isn't the same as sticking him in a studio and telling him to be witty and funny to a microphone. Some people can be unrelentingly funny and amusing all the time. They become radio commentators. Or Dave Barry. But a lot of actors are funny only when they are inside a part or in front of a camera. And expecting them to come up with ever so amusing commentary is very unfair.

(In the Lord of the Rings commentary, Billy Boyd and Dominic Monaghan (Pippin and Merry) are worth listening to, being amusing people in their own right so to speak. My favorite bit is when, Hugo Weaving on-screen, they whisper, "It's . . . it's . . . the guy from the Matrix!")

Scripted commentary is when a professor of film or an expert in something reads a lecture. These can be fascinating, and they are far, far preferable to the written biographical texts sometimes included on DVDs (which I can never read). The commentary on Brigham Young (1940), for instance, is especially good. The problem here, of course, is that it's a lecture. The Brigham Young commentary made a real effort to have the lecture correspond to what you see on the screen, but the last commentary I listened to (for that great black & white film, Laura), while interesting, didn't correspond at all to the images. Which was kind of pointless. The reason I watch movies with commentary is because I want to hear the inside scoop on how a scene was put together: how many takes were involved; whether there were prior versions. (The one thing I learned from the Laura commentary was that there was a director before Preminger who had shot some footage, but Preminger had a different concept of how the film should look and eventually, scholars think, reshot almost all of the first director's material. The main thing that struck me from the commentary was how backstabbing and nasty Hollywood was--makes the Mafia look frivolous and kind-hearted in comparison. It's probably still the same, only there's more press so directors have to try harder to pretend to be nice.)

The thing I detest the most with scripted and unscripted commentary is the commentator who says, "There's Dana Andrews. Now he's walking across the floor." Yes, I can see that. I'm watching the movie! Dean Cain does this in his commentary for an episode he wrote for Lois & Clark. However, there's something incredibly guileless about Dean Cain (despite the fact that he played Scott Peterson in the made-for-TV movie). "There's me," he says at one point, and you've got to forgive so much well-meaning astonishment. I turned it off because he kept doing it: "There's Lane Smith." "There's Justin Whalin." But I put that down to the don't-expect-actors-to-be-intellectuals-and-amazing-conversationalists issue referred to above.

On the other hand, the Laura DVD has two commentaries, and the other is awful. The one I've been referring to is by Rudy Behlmer. The other commentary starts almost exactly the way I've described ("There's Dana Andrews. He's walking across the floor.") It's ridiculous. At least Behlmer says, upfront, "If you haven't watched this before, go watch it first." The commentator is not supposed to be a narrator. The whole point of a movie, especially a great movie like Laura, is that it is an entity unto itself: not flawless but whole. If a director puts in voice-over, it's because the director wants that voice-over. If a director doesn't put in voice-over (a la, the second Blade Runner), it's because the director doesn't want voice-over. It is not up to the commentator to supply it!

Frankly, I've given up on commentary. There's very few commentaries that actually do what I want: talk about the craft. The commentary for Other Side of Heaven is actually the best I've heard; the commentator addresses different parts of the movie (while you are watching them): why certain decisions were made, etc. etc. I wish M. Night Shyamalan would do commentary (especially on Signs, which I want to see again, but it's way too scary to watch without commentary: really, it scared me way more than The Village or Sixth Sense), but maybe a certain kind of director feels there shouldn't be commentary at all. Which I can respect.



Henry said...

I recently saw In America. The director's commentary was pretty good. Some of it is dead air, but in a lot of it he talks about what he was thinking about in terms of story. It's really interesting for anyone interested in plot and story. For example, for one scene, he says something like, "this is one of the two least important scenes in the movie. But I put it in, because I needed to reassure the audience at this point, that the hero isn't just an irresponsible father..."

Eugene said...

My nomination for a commentary that may actually be better than the movie is the 1985 anime classic Megazone 23, principally by Matt Greenfield, one of the founders of ADV Films. He essentially treats you to a history of the company and the early days of the anime importing business. And makes note of all the gaping plot holes in the story along the way, plus the eerie resemblances to The Matrix, fifteen years before the The Matrix was made. Fascinating.

Anonymous said...

This may sound dumb in the midst of of all these smart people, but I love the Moose Commentary on "Brother Bear." Classic.

Anonymous said...

Joe said...

I tend to agree commentary is a waste of time. There are exceptions:

Black Hawk Down; the commentary by author Mark Bowden and screenwriter Ken Nolan.

The commentary on Monty Python and the Holy Grail wasn't great, but rather interesting (especially to find out how much of the movie was filmed in so few places.)

Anonymous said...

Going against the consensus, I, on the whole, love commentaries. True, a lot of them are not that useful or interesting but a lot of them are. I actually enjoy the "non-scripted" chit-chat ones as much as the informative ones. I've been known to watch commentaries as much as the movie.

Joss Whedon and Nathan Fillion’s commentary on Firefly's pilot (the real one, not the one shown on TV) is pretty interesting and entertaining, but Joss always loses me halfway through his commentary in Objects In Space.

One of the Buffy guys--David Greenwalt, I think--did a commentary in season 2 of Buffy which was a narration. It bored me silly, of course. But on another DVD (Buffy s3, I believe) he said "My last commentary was like, narration for the blind, I promise not to do that this time." so I forgave him.

I'm a sucker for Julie Andrews and Anne Hatheway's commentary of The Princess Diaries, but hate Gary Marshall's, as he spends the whole time talking like his audience is five.

Anonymous said...

PS. Signed, Carole :)