Monday, June 13, 2011

Audio Commentaries: The Good, The Bad, The Ugly, and the Bizarre


           Audio commentaries became popular special features of home video releases around the time laserdiscs were released. They acted as an opportunity for filmmakers to describe the production of their films or reveal interesting behind-the-scenes tidbits. Occasionally, noted film critics like Roger Ebert would provide an audio commentary to a classic film such as Touch of Evil or Citizen Kane. 

         As I'm sure you're aware, the commentary track made its way onto DVD's after the unfortunate demise of the laserdisc. It wasn't long before commentaries became a cheap way for distributors to add bonus material to their discs, seeing that a couple of dudes in a room talking into a microphone is cheaper than producing a "making-of" doc. It also adds the entire film's runtime to that ever-growing number of bonus material hours advertised on box art.

         So, as you can imagine, there is a huge spectrum in terms of audio commentary quality. Sometimes it's just some people in a room, not really paying much attention to the film or each other, and sometimes you have lively discussions that highlight several interesting aspects of production while offering the audience a glimpse into the creative process.

          I'm going to give you a rundown on all of the commentaries I find to be helpful, funny, boring, unbearable, and just plain bizarre.

The Good

          Say what you will about his films, but Eli Roth knows how to record a commentary. Not only does he deliver commentaries at a breakneck speed (allowing for almost no periods of silence), Roth also offers viewers an unparalleled level of detail in all aspects of film production. He chronicles his entire process from script conception to distribution rights. Any one of Eli Roth's solo commentaries packs as much information as a film studies course, only his insights represent the voice of an extremely successful independent writer, director, and producer.

          While Roth's solo commentaries are the highlight of his film's releases, he also records commentaries with co-producer Quentin Tarantino that are particularly memorable, if not a little more off-topic.

          If, for some reason, you can't get past Roth's films to enjoy his (admittedly better) commentaries, perhaps you'd do well with David Fincher.

          Fincher, an advocate of audio commentaries, records them for the sole purpose of educating young filmmakers. His commentary for Se7en is an insightful look into the technical side of filmmaking. His sometimes dry delivery is balanced out by his undeniable ability as a visual artist. Additionally, Fincher knows that young filmmakers don't have access to big budget lighting rigs and high definition cameras, and offers listeners low-budget solutions to difficult problems surrounding lighting, blocking, location scouting and editing.

         Robert Altman provided insightful commentaries for Nashville and Short Cuts before his death in 2006. In those recordings, Altman explains the importance of casting and improvisation, going as far as saying that casting is "90% of any filmmaker's job."

         Other interesting commentators include, to varying degrees, Darren Aronofsky, Richard Donner, Jason Reitman, Edgar Wright, Roger Ebert, and Martin Scorsese. These are filmmakers who know what the listener wants (an education of the process/funny on-set stories/insights into the film, not long bouts of silence), and who always seem to have at least partially prepared for their 90-150 minute monologue.

The Bad

Speak up, Meathead
          If clear, educational and fast-paced commentaries aren't your thing, try listening to the commentary for any Rob Reiner movie. Particularly When Harry Met Sally. Good grief, is it bad. There is a forty minute period where Reiner does not say a word. In fact, I completely forgot that I was even watching a commentary. It wasn't until Reiner inexplicably found it necessary to tell me that his father visited the set on the day of the break-up scene that I realized that the commentary track was even on. So, of course, when he finally spoke up with that totally uninteresting fact, I about fell out of my chair.

          And then, as if a fountain of uninteresting anecdotes, Reiner continues to talk about who was on set for each scene. Like a dry, boring, monotonous roll call from a middle school teacher, Rob Reiner reminds audiences everywhere why commentary tracks are usually complete wastes of time.

         Other disappointing commentators include William Friedkin (whose Exorcist extended cut commentary may be the single-most silent commentary track ever recorded), Michel Gondry, Jackie Chan (surprised?), and Richard Linklater. These are filmmakers who either don't like to talk very much, or who find their work so impressive that they just tell you exactly what's happening on screen without any analysis or, gasp, commentary to speak of.

        In William Friedkin's commentary of BUG, he actually says, "and this is the scene where [Ashley] Judd sleeps with [Michael] Shannon. Actually, no, that scene is later on. This is the scene where...actually, yeah, I was right."

The Ugly

That's my neighbor's dog!
          What's worse than Rob Reiner suddenly remembering he's on the air, only to spout out a seemingly endless roll call of the people who were on set?

          Oh, I've got it, a prepared list of all of the people in the background that the directors know. Bobby and Peter Farrelly do just that on all of their commentary tracks. Instead of reeling on the hilarious, zany hijinks of their big name talents like Matt Damon and Jim Carrey, the Farrelly brothers spend literally all of their time telling us who the girl in the hockey sweatshirt is in the car in the background beside Jim carrey's left ear. No, the other girl in the hockey sweater. Wait, I don't think that was her. She might be in a later scene. Yeah, you know, I think the girl in that car is the one we were in French class with our junior year. That wasn't her, either? Are you sure?
         It's horrible. It is an excruciating experience hearing brothers bicker about who the extras were in their movie. It's even more horrible when they interrupt their bickering in order to laugh at a scene that they wrote and directed, only to offer zero insight or commentary on the production, inspiration, or reception of the scene.

        Most middle to low-brow comedies include commentary tracks of this nature. I'll never forget the commentary track to Dude, Where's my Car?, the very first commentary track I ever heard, where Seann William Scott and Ashton Kutcher talk about accidentally entering the women's bathroom for what seems like half of the film's runtime, only to spend the other half of the film's runtime talking about how funny they are in the movie.

       Yes, the ugly commentaries seem to suffer from an intolerable arrogance by the filmmaker. These commentaries usually revolve around how brilliant the filmmaker is because of his work, and how he or she can't possibly explain his or herself in a way that the viewer can understand.

      Tim Blake Nelson comes dangerously close to the arrogant filmmaker's border in his commentary for Leaves of Grass. Nicholas Cage is the complete embodiment of the arrogant filmmaker in his commentary for Sonny. And Quentin Tarantino somehow becomes the arrogant filmmaker for somebody else's movie in his commentary for Edgar Wright's Hot Fuzz.

The Bizarre

          Leave it to the Coen Brothers to poke fun at the audio commentary. For their DVD release of Blood Simple, their debut feature, the Coen brothers wrote a commentary and then hired an actor to play Kenneth Loring, a "film historian," to read it. The commentary includes all sorts of completely false information, such as claiming that the opening scene was shot upside down, with all of the actors speaking in reverse, in order to give the beginning a dream-like feeling. He also claims that the brothers had reserved roles for Rosemary Clooney and Gene Kelly, who "For some reason or another, dropped out of the film due to creative differences."

        Other bizarre commentaries include the Ghostbusters commentary (with the actors appearing on the bottom of the screen Mystery Science Theater 3000 style), Adam McKay's commentary for Talledega Nights (in which McKay lies about literally every detail of the film's production, one highlight being that all of the child actors were played by well-behaved robots), and Sylvester Stallone's commentary for Cliffhanger (where, at the end of the film, Stallone apologizes for pretty much his entire cinematic output).

Am I missing any great, awful, terrible, or strange commentaries?

Do any of you people even listen to commentaries, or am I the only one?

Let me know in the Comments Section!!