Wednesday, September 28, 2011

A Few of My Favorite Audio Commentaries

by ScottDS

One advantage of DVD and Blu-Ray is the audio track. These can be used for foreign languages, Descriptive Video Service, and, best of all, audio commentary. The very first audio commentary was recorded in 1984 by film historian Ron Haver for the Criterion laserdisc release of King Kong. Whereas this feature was once reserved for classic films with scholarly merit, today the feature has been co-opted by marketing departments and can be found on such cinematic dreck as Epic Movie and Meet the Fockers.

While some filmmakers (like Steven Spielberg) have no interest in recording commentaries, many have become masters of the medium and, in this writer’s humble opinion, you can’t go wrong with a track featuring Terry Gilliam, Kevin Smith, Ridley Scott, David Fincher, John Carpenter and Kurt Russell, Bruce Campbell, film critic Roger Ebert, and film historians like Rudy Behlmer, Nick Redman, and Jon Burlingame. Some commentaries are done solo, others in groups, and yet others consist of multiple speakers recorded separately, their comments weaved together into a seamless presentation. Some cover only select scenes; the vast majority last for the entire duration. Here are my favorites.

Brazil – director Terry Gilliam (“When you’re going well [in Hollywood], you got lots of friends but the minute you start having any problems, it’s amazing how they disappear.”)

Originally recorded for Criterion laserdisc in 1996, Gilliam discusses the controversy over the film’s release and his epic battles with the studio, somewhat mimicking the battles fought by lead character Sam Lowry. He delves into design, music, working with actors and co-writers Charles McKeown and Tom Stoppard (whose verbal humor usually went over Gilliam’s head), and, of course, editing and the effect the removal of a scene can have on the narrative of a film. He also touches on the film’s politics, insisting Brazil is a critique of Thatcherism though, from what I understand, it can be seen as the exact opposite of that as well. He talks about film criticism (on Gene Siskel: “F--- him!”) and discusses the effect this film has on audiences: how the unassuming viewer will be thrown from one end of the emotional spectrum to the other in a matter of seconds with no warning.

Aliens – writer/director James Cameron and many members of the cast and crew (Cameron: “At the time, I knew diddly-d--- about how big corporations worked so to me they were just this big shadowy entity.”)

James Cameron takes the lead as he discusses the origin of the characters (mostly taken from a sci-fi spec script of his titled Mother), design contributions (he designed both the alien queen and the power loader), as well as more arcane details such as lenses and film stocks. Along with producer Gale Anne Hurd, he also goes into detail about the British crew’s seeming lack of ambition, a mutiny led by a disgruntled first A.D., and the annoying British tradition of “tea time.” FX gurus Robert & Dennis Skotak and Pat McClung analyze the visual effects, most of which still hold up. Cast members Michael Biehn, Bill Paxton, Lance Henriksen, and Jenette Goldstein are clearly enjoying themselves as they make fun of each other, point out now-iconic lines of dialogue, and reflect on their loyalty to Cameron. The late Stan Winston discusses the creature effects and actors Carrie Henn and (in the extended cut) Christopher Henn talk about what it was like for two little kids with no acting experience on the set of a big science fiction film. Cameron also talks about the weapons and Sigourney Weaver’s reluctance to use them, until she fired a few practice rounds: “Another liberal bites the dust!”

Kentucky Fried Movie – director John Landis, producer Robert K. Weiss, and writers David Zucker, Jerry Zucker, and Jim Abrahams (Weiss: “The first time we showed this to lawyers, the guy said this was unreleaseable. And then we asked the financial guy, ‘What do we do?’ and he said, ‘Get different lawyers.’”)

Collectively, these guys are (partly or wholly) responsible for Airplane!, Animal House, The Blues Bothers, Police Squad!, Top Secret!, The Naked Gun, Hot Shots!, and more. To put it mildly, they helped shape my childhood. Anyway, this commentary is a riot from start to finish even though the film isn’t. Given the episodic nature of the film (it’s a series of sketches and commercial parodies, based on the ZAZ team’s Kentucky Fried Theater revue), the guys always have something to say. They discuss raising money and all the shady characters they had to deal with and the humor gets quite self-deprecating as Weiss asks if they ever figured out the profit participation and Jerry Zucker says they should’ve put their wrap party mariachi band in the film. Both Landis and the ZAZ team talk about their humble origins and everyone has kind things to say about the various performers (many of whom came from the KFT ensemble). Landis talks about the trouble they had getting an R rating and Weiss reveals that the original title was Closed for Remodeling but theater owners didn’t want that on their marquees!

Used Cars – director/co-writer Robert Zemeckis, co-writer/producer Bob Gale, and Kurt Russell (Zemeckis: “Why is that funny?!” Russell: “It’s a dead man driving a car!”)

Robert Zemeckis is best known for Serious Movies™ like Forrest Gump and family adventures like Back to the Future so to hear him and co-writer/producer Bob Gale (also of BTTF) reflect on their raunchy R-rated second film, complete with nudity, profanity, and a healthy level of “social irresponsibility” (to quote producer John Milius) makes for quite a listening experience. Throw in a jovial Kurt Russell and let the good times roll. Apparently, a large portion of the crew was into the drug scene, other crewmembers were stealing money, and Zemeckis has a blast as he talks about a hypoglycemic child extra full of chocolate who, when “Action!” was called, just decided to run down the street. Given the film’s political subplot (Russell’s character wants to run for State Senate and is involved with graft and there’s a mention of Arab terrorists), both Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter get some jabs. The trio has nothing but respect for Jack Warden who got to do two things in this film that actors love to do: play dead and play two roles (he plays twins). Zemeckis also complains about certain shots, including one where the camera operator missed a stunt. This film isn’t the funniest in the world but these guys are clearly fans, even though Zemeckis admits he’s glad to have outgrown it.

Mallrats – writer/director Kevin Smith, producer Scott Mosier, Ben Affleck, Jason Lee, Jason Mewes, and View Askew historian Vincent Pereira (Smith: “I’m fatter than Ben Affleck in Mallrats.” Affleck: “That’s not me, that’s my twin brother: Barney Affleck.”)

Mallrats was Kevin Smith’s second film and first for a major studio after the indie success of Clerks. Over the span of 90 minutes, we learn what went wrong. The studio wanted “a smart Porky’s” but after a disastrous test screening, the opening was reshot and many lines that referred to it had to be dubbed with alternate dialogue. These guys still like the movie but Smith admits the studio simply didn’t know how to market it. Affleck finds himself the butt of many jokes and Lee reflects on what was his first film and how nervous he was. Mosier and Pereira discuss the various deleted scenes and subplots and Smith mentions a few gross-out gags in the original script that would be considered downright tame today. They all have fun pointing out little Easter Eggs and odd-looking extras while Affleck nitpicks the film’s camera work and Smith’s lack of skill in that area. They all have kind words for the name actors like Michael Rooker as well as Stan Lee (who appears in a cameo). On the original 1999 DVD, you can watch footage of the commentary recording session. It only works for select scenes but it’s still pretty neat. (See below.)


The studios have managed to add bells and whistles to the standard audio commentary though one could argue that it’s all useless gimmicks. For the 1999 DVD release of Ghostbusters, Sony not only included a great audio commentary but also used an extra subtitle track to present the speakers’ silhouettes in the style of MST3K. Ivan Reitman and Harold Ramis have some fun pointing at certain things but they don’t quite take full advantage of the feature. For Men in Black, Sony went a step further and gave director Barry Sonnenfeld a telestrator allowing him to “draw” on the screen. Again, kinda gimmicky. Some DVDs and Blu-Rays utilize the multi-angle feature to present footage of the commentary recording session but, for the most part, it’s usually just a couple of guys in a room.

Sony pioneered the text commentary (or trivia track), which simply displays informational text on the bottom the screen via the subtitle track. Ghostbusters was the first DVD to include one, presenting material from Don Shay’s book, Making Ghostbusters. I believe the first text commentary not based on prior material was found on The Abyss. DVD producer Van Ling, who had worked on the film as director James Cameron’s researcher, presents biographical info on the cast and crew, breakdowns of the visual effects, details on editing and production design, and even the lyrics to “Willing” which plays during a scene in the Special Edition version. Ling topped himself on the DVD re-release of Terminator 2 in which he not only presents a text commentary but graphics, including moving lines and arrows to point out the separation of elements in visual effects shots.

Lest you think this is all a pretentious waste of time (and some commentaries certainly are!), the studios can also have fun with this stuff. MGM’s 2000 DVD release of This is Spinal Tap features a commentary by band members Nigel Tufnel, David St. Hubbins, and Derek Smalls. In other words, actors Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, and Harry Shearer improvise 90 minutes in character and the results are frequently hilarious as they badmouth director Marty DiBergi (Rob Reiner) for making them look like fools. Paramount’s 2009 Blu-Ray release of Galaxy Quest includes the “Galactopedia,” a trivia track that treats the Galaxy Quest TV series as if it were real and features information on plots, characters, and more.

The Ones That Got Away

In the heyday of laserdisc, Criterion was releasing quality titles supported by thorough supplements. Unfortunately, once their licenses reverted back to the original studios, the studios rarely licensed the Criterion features. While there are some exceptions, this means that film students and fans who were too young to get into laserdisc will most likely never have the chance to listen to these commentaries, short of purchasing a player and discs on eBay. Some lost gems include film historian Ron Haver’s commentaries for Casablanca and King Kong, Terry Gilliam’s commentary for The Fischer King, film scholar Howard Suber’s commentary for The Graduate, the original (NOT in character) commentary for This is Spinal Tap, and, perhaps most infamous of all, the original “banned” commentaries for the first three James Bond films, which led to a massive recall after EON Productions decided the tracks were a little too politically incorrect at times.

What are some of your favorite DVD/Blu-Ray bonus features?


AndrewPrice said...

Scott, Thanks for the interesting article.

I'm of two minds on the commentaries. On the one hand, I've enjoyed some of them very much. On the other, most are a waste. You should check out the commentary to Lost in Space some time if you want to see a delusional waste of time. The director apparently thought he'd created Citizen (not-Herman) Kane and everyone in his cast was "the best actor of his/her generation."

I'll be back with more thoughts in a few... work calls.

TJ said...

I really like when they include the blooper reels, some of them are pretty funny.

I recall these being in the end credits of Smokey and the Bandit (it may have started with the 2nd one - I can't really remember), but that was the first time I remember seeing that and I have always enjoyed watching the actors mess up and then laugh at themselves.

T-Rav said...

Scott, interesting topic. I haven't listened to a lot of DVD commentaries--at least not for movies, I have listened to a few for TV shows. However, I have enjoyed watching AMC recently, as they're doing this "Story Notes" feature where they display tidbits about the script, casting, production, etc. down at the bottom of the screen while a movie's playing. It's not quite the same thing, but I have learned a few interesting things from it. That's about all I've got.

Unknown said...

I barely have enough time to watch the movies, and have almost never used the "bonus features." Having a bunch of Hollywood dumb-clucks try to convince me of their brilliance just doesn't appeal to me. If the movie needs their comments to turn a turkey into a golden eagle, it's probably not worth watching in the first place.

That said, I think I may use some of those features in the future, if only because of some of the interesting things you pointed out in your article. I'd probably do that more on movies based on real happenings rather than those based on fiction or science fiction. Hollywood and "artistic" angst, leave me cold.

Kentucky Fried Movie is in my comedy pantheon, along with Amazon Women on the Moon.

AndrewPrice said...

TJ, I like those too a lot of times. And I think it was Smokey and the Bandit II, but I could be mistaken. I remember then for Cannonball Run and a few others.

T-Rav, I like those too except when they do something truly silly. Last night, for example, on The Mummy, they had a note pop up that said, "We're about to find out what caused that noise." Gee, thanks.

AndrewPrice said...

On the positive side, I have run into some great commentaries. I actually developed a lot of respect for Roger Ebert watching his commentary on Dark City where he walks through the film on a technical level -- very interesting.

I also loved the commentary on Seven Samurai, which was done by a professor of some sort. Very educational.

Some interesting things I've found are that many of the actors have no idea what they are talking about or what is going on in the movies they are in... a lot of tech guys are boring... and few of the comedians are funny when you put them in this environment. I think studios need to be careful about who they ask to do this. They should also avoid large groups, as that rarely seems to work.

P.S. I still remember bits of Kentucky Fried even though I only saw it one time in 1984. It had its moments!

Anonymous said...

I have some stuff to take care of so I'll be back to chime in hopefully within the hour. :-)

T-Rav said...

Andrew, I was watching that. Yeah, I agree, a lot of those "notes" are pretty corny, but some of them are kinda interesting, like the fact that the director took out insurance policies on the cast when they went to North Africa to shoot. I think some of the others, for movies like "GoodFellas," are good as well.

Anonymous said...

Andrew -

Yeah, I know you mentioned the Lost in Space commentary to me before. That's why I read reviews: The Digital Bits, the Home Theater Forum, etc. There are dozens of websites that review DVD/BR audio, video, and extras. Of course it's subjective but I usually have a good idea if a commentary is good or not before I start listening to it.

By biggest fear is, once all the studios commit to streaming, they'll stop producing extras. But I'm not gonna worry because extras are a selling point and even iTunes and other places have started peddling "deluxe editions" of streaming titles. I downloaded the Beatles Collection and it includes artwork, documentaries, etc. I imagine it'll be the same for movies: $9.99 for a movie; $19.99 for a movie with all the bells and whistles.

Anonymous said...

TJ -

I love a good gag reel. Speaking of Smokey and the Bandit, I wasn't a big fan of Will Ferrel's Anchorman when I first saw it...

...BUT one thing I loved was the gag reel at the end. Why? Because they actually included a blooper from Smokey and the Bandit! I had never seen a gag reel with content from a different movie.

Anonymous said...

T-Rav -

I've never seen "Story Notes" but if you like it, then you'll love the aforementioned text commentaries. The ones for The Abyss and T2 are like mini-film schools on a disc. And it helps that they were written by a guy who actually worked on the films.

Airplane! also has one which points out all the mistakes in the film with animated arrows and word balloons, etc.

As far as new movies, what sucks is most DVD/BR extras are completed before the movie is out so the filmmakers aren't able to properly reflect on their work in a greater context.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, the Story Notes thing is the same as the old MTV Pop Ups -- where they put up written facts as the movie runs. Fortunately, there is no annoying bubble popping sound with these.

Anonymous said...

LawHawk -

I agree that a movie shouldn't require a commentary to improve it but it's nice to sometimes hear filmmakers admit when they're wrong (see my article on Star Trek Generations). Of course, that rarely happens. :-)

If you'll excuse an aside... I know what you mean, but it ain't all angst. I was just listening to an interview with a writer/director named Mike Binder. He did Reign Over Me, The Upside of Anger, Indian Summer, and a few other things. He started as a comedian and he was talking about the lost art of the joke and complaining about how young people today (not me!) aren't into joke-telling because it's not edgy and it's not trying to make a statement. So there are some filmmakers out there who would agree with you!

As for me, like everything else, moderation is the key. A little angst... okay. A lot... not so much. :-)

Kentucky Fried Movie is not in my comedy pantheon but, if I maybe so bold, the commentary is funnier than most of today's comedy movies.

If you want commentaries on real events, Apollo 13 features a commentary with Jim and Marilyn Lovell and Black Hawk Down features one with some of the real Task Force Rangers.

Anonymous said...

Andrew - I remember Pop-Up Video and I even remember thinking it would make a great DVD extra. This was in 1998 or 1999 and then Ghostbusters was released on DVD with the trivia track - they stole my idea! :-)

Unknown said...

Scott: Black Hawk Down is one of those I mentioned that I actually did go to the comments on. And you're absolutely right about it being enlightening.

T-Rav said...

Scott, I can imagine the T2 commentary being a blast. I'd also like to check out those Black Hawk Down and Apollo 13 pieces as well.

Unfortunately, most of the time I don't have either the time or the spending money to pick up a lot of DVDs, so I haven't had much opportunity to look at those bonus options. But you've piqued my interest, so next time...

Ed said...

Scott, you've mentioned some interesting things. But I hate to say it, but I never bother with the extra features. I just watch the films and not the rest.

Anonymous said...

T-Rav -

These certainly aren't required viewing/listening and even I find myself skipping a lot of this stuff. When I used to have a long commute, I ripped the commentaries from DVDs and listened to them on my iPod... yes, I'm a nerd! I can't rip Blu-Rays, unfortunately. (Such is life for a Mac owner.) :-)

Anonymous said...

Ed -

No worries! Some directors don't bother with extras features either. :-)

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, Like Lucas, I hear he's not really into extra material. ;-)

Anonymous said...

Lucas is just into the wrong extra material. :-) (I assume we're talking about George.)

To go off-topic for a moment... looks like Paramount/CBS is bringing Star Trek: TNG to Blu-Ray next year. But unlike George Lucas' tinkering, they're actually recompositing the original FX to bring them up to HD resolution. The show was originally edited and posted on video so they've been going back to the original negatives and re-editing every episode from scratch. And yes, I wish I was there. :-)

(Check out the link and scroll down for a comparison.)

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, That's a good use for modern technology. The Enterprise looks nice.

I have to say that what they did to the original series was not good. I won't watch the cartoon versions CBS has put out as "remastered." A~~holes.

Also off topic, I just followed a link at BH from the ScottDS Link-tacular, and I have to say it's made me want to become a terrorist. The guy listed 10 things we should thank Spielberg for. Thank.... uh. It's reads like an indictment for crimes against movies. Every one of those has helped to destroy movies. Here's the link: Utter Bullsh!t.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, I sent that link :-) I totally get your point and I have my own issues with Spielberg, but I won't blame him for three of those things: I won't blame him for other filmmakers' misuse of CGI, nor will I blame him for any of his WW2-related activities, and I won't blame him for bringing back a sense of wonder, though one can argue if he wasn't around, another filmmaker would've done it.

To paraphrase Voltaire: "If Spielberg didn't exist, it would've been necessary to invent him." :-)

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, then you will at least vote to convict on seven of those counts right? We could move to sentencing!

Also, let me point out that while maybe Spielberg should not be blamed for CGI, that still does not make it something we should be thankful for.

Same thing with the blockbuster. First, it's pretty stupid to credit the blockbuster to Spielberg. There were blockbusters long before he came along. But in any event, there's zero reason to be thankful for the blockbuster. How has crappy, mindless, marketing-created films improved the world?

Finally, the value of his World War 2 work is pretty debatable.

Anonymous said...

I'm sure this is fodder for another article and God knows there have been volumes written about it but, re: the "blockbuster," there had been successful films before Spielberg (and Lucas) but, for better or worse, Jaws and subsequently Star Wars changed movie-going and "blockbuster" became the big buzz word. It may not be 100% but that's how history will remember it.

On one hand, if every summer blockbuster we had now was as good as those two movies, I doubt we'd be complaining!

On the other hand, while I'm not defending anything and I actually agree with you on this one (the sense of wonder was a different item), I read a very interesting defense of summer blockbuster filmmaking but I can't remember the link. Basically, the idea was: "What if these guys never came along? Would you really want a Hollywood dominated by Mike Nichols and Robert Altman films?"

It would be interesting to take Spielberg out of the equation and chart the progress of Hollywood from the 70s till now. Again, if he hadn't come along, someone else would've done it. And taking into account the corporate take-over of the studios in the 80s and importance of foreign sales today, it's possible this all would've happened anyway; it would've just been delayed a decade or so.

This topic is too big for me to handle. :-)

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, I haven't traced the history of it, but I truthfully think the modern blockbuster is something very different than Jaws and Star Wars. I think those were "films that became events."

By comparison, the modern blockbuster is a marketing event around which a film is built. Modern blockbusters are not films, they are manufactured products put together under the direction of marketing departments. And that is exactly what happens when corporations take something over. You see it in product after product.

So I don't think anything would have changed if Spielberg had never existed. You still would have had corporations taking over, developing a formula, and turning to that as the safest way to make films.

T-Rav said...

I'll ignore the other stuff about Spielberg for now and just say that, while I appreciate the work he's done with WW2 preservation--I mean, the "Band of Brothers" miniseries is just some really great stuff--I find some of it, mainly "Saving Private Ryan," a little off somehow. It's a very well done and captivating movie, but it just seems a bit nihilistic. I don't know.

Oh, and like Scott, I'm not inclined to blame him for the CGI debacle, because it can have its place in a movie; I blame the subsequent directors who have made it 90% of the scenery and the plot (their names rhyme with "Hameron" and "Shmucas").

AndrewPrice said...

And don't forget the one whose name rhymes with "Michael Bay". If there were film police, they would have rounded him up and shot and raped him "while resisting arrest" already.

The reason you have problems with Ryan's Privates is that the film IS off. Spielberg is trying to give you Platoon as a World War II film. It's nihilistic, anti-American, and dehumanized. Everything about their attitudes is wrong. And I feel like punching those conservatives who think it's a conservative film. Grrr.

Anonymous said...

Andrew -

I won't be able to reply until later this evening but, re: Saving Private Ryan, surely labeling it anti-American is a bit of a stretch...? Isn't there some middle ground here? I know you're not one of those conservatives who thinks every war movie should be all rah rah flag-waving with soldiers who are flawless paragons of virtue... but is this film really that bad in your opinion?

Retro Hound said...

A few days late here, I think, but I did want to chime in. I just read Hal Needham's biography, Stuntman! He's the director of Smokey and the Bandit and Cannonball movies and he gladly takes credit for starting the trend of using outtakes.

I've listened to a few commentaries, usually the stars are worthless, the director or writer is better. One exception is The Outsiders which is a group commentary by the stars, many years later. I find some interest with commentaries by scholars on classic films.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, No, I don't think all war films should be rah rah. In fact, the best ones deal with the vagueries of war and give an accurate portrayal of what the guys on the ground really experienced.

But this isn't that.

After the opening, when the film settles down with its characters, it shows American soldiers as cowardly, murderous and conflicted. If he had portrayed the Germans as humans rather than as subhuman murders, you would have been disgusted at the Americans' actions. It also tries to interject this idea that Americans were tired of war and somehow had no idea what they were fighting for. None of that is true. That's the leftist anti-American, Vietnam attitude being foisted back onto World War II.

If you removed Spielberg's name and replaced it with someone whose patriotism is in question like Oliver Stone, people would have been furious about this film. They would have called the opening unnecessarily gory and the rest defeatist and anti-American. And people would have been really upset that Stone aimed his BS at a treaured piece of American history -- D-day.

Keep in mind, I like and respect Platoon, I actually think it's a masterpiece. I do recognize Stone's attacks on the American military and America in general, but I still respect what he's achieved and I respect his right to say what's on his mind.

Ryan, on the other hand, bothers me because it's underhanded. In the guise of presenting a truly patriotic film, Spielberg slips in Platoon at the same time he's wrapping himself in the flag. It's the war film version of High Noon, which appears on its surface to be a heroic western, but underneath is a cauldron of anti-Americanism and defeatism.

So I do stand by my statement.

AndrewPrice said...

Retro Hound, Hal Needham is great! I love the story of how he made Smokey and the Bandit a success despite Hollywood's efforts to sink the film.

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