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Captain Canada's Movie Rodeo: DVD Commentary Edition

Image copyright Miramax Films

Image copyright Miramax Films

The first audio commentary I ever listened to was for Clerks. IFC ran the movie frequently when I was in high school, but they decided to do something different one weekend. They were going to show the film with commentary (the one Smith and several people involved with the film had recorded in 1995), deleted scenes, and even the Soul Asylum music video “Can’t Even Tell.” In other words, it was pretty much everything that existed on the original DVD release of the movie.

It was probably the highlight of that weekend. You better believe I taped every single thing they ran. I didn’t get a DVD player until 2002 (life is hard, man), but commentaries were one of the biggest driving forces behind my desire to get one. I was hoping for entertainment and cheap film school. Back when I still believed I was going to one day be a filmmaker, I thought commentaries would be a great way to soak up information until I could have what I perceived then as an actual film education (going to college).

It would just be one more thing about film that I could pick apart, obsess over, and take from the experience more trivia that I could bore people with. Conversations about things I care about appeal to me for obvious reasons. Commentaries are one-sided conversations, but it’s a kind of conversation nonetheless.

Depending on how you feel about being in the physical company of people, and depending on how your life is going, you can also pretend audio commentaries are running into people who serve no other function in the universe but to regale you with stories. I would imagine that mindset also involves a lot of crying and eating dry Frosted Flakes by the fistful.

Something I like about audio commentaries is that they have the same kind of potential as the movies themselves. They can be sober, straight-laced explanations of every scene, every line, and every weird thing somebody’s doing with their eyebrows. They can be anything from informal to completely chaotic. Completely chaotic can actually be a lot of fun sometimes. Then again, some commentaries are self-serving training seminars on how to self-fellate for 100 minutes. How can they talk? It’s a lot like the ventriloquist trick where they drink the water but the dummy keeps talking.

Fair enough to those who helped make a movie, but it usually doesn’t make for very interesting listening.

I’ve spent the past month going through a number of films with commentary tracks I’ve been meaning to listen to. Some of them have been along the lines of attending the best kind of lecture. Others were so tedious that my brain tried to talk my central nervous system into a murder-suicide pact. The best commentaries provided insight on acting, directing, setting up scenes, editing, and on the minds of the casts and crews themselves. It’s hard to sell people on listening to one of these with you. If you ask someone to choose between listening to an audio commentary for a movie and listening to their coworkers discuss life-affirming Applebee’s experiences, a lot of people are going to choose the subtle nuances between the restaurants in Miami and the ones in Delaware.

That’s okay. Listening to commentaries tends to be a solitary activity. However, if you’re the kind of person who doesn’t mind listening to people talk over the movie without making fun of it, there are a lot of films with supplemental audio tracks to choose from.

Dog Day Afternoon (1975)

The Participants: Sidney Lumet
The Film: A+
The Commentary: A+

As much as I love the first two Godfather films, I’ve always believed that Pacino’s best 70’s work came out of his two collaborations (the other one is Serpico) with Sidney Lumet. Dog Day Afternoon is not only my favorite Al Pacino performance to date, it’s also my favorite Sidney Lumet movie, as well my favorite who-knew-that-robbing-a-bank-would-be-fraught-with-peril movie. Dog Day Afternoon builds and raises tension, leads to a perfect culmination of that tension, and manages to be pretty funny as things get increasingly worse for everyone involved. Lumet is the only contributor to the audio commentary for the film. After listening to him recount his approach to the story (loosely based on true events) as a filmmaker, praise actors and crew, and recall events from the making of the movie, I’m not surprised he continued directing until very close to his death at 86. Lumet here is sharper than people half his age. His love of Dog Day Afternoon as a finished product is infectious. His commentary is as informative as it as charming.

The Exorcist: Extended Director’s Cut (1973/2000)

The Participants: William Friedkin
The Film: A+
The Commentary: F-

Did I pick the wrong commentary? There were two commentaries recorded for the original 1973 theatrical release of The Exorcist. Then there’s the commentary Friedkin recorded for the 2000 extended edition of the film, which is ultimately the commentary I chose. Someone can let me know if the other two commentary tracks are worth listening to, but my motivation to find out on my own is not terribly high right now. Not after I listened for to Friedkin spend over two hours doing nothing but telling me exactly what was going on in the movie. It wasn’t that he was describing the scene and then following that up with something about the making of the film or his feelings about the material. The only thing I learned from Friedkin’s commentary for the 2000 extended director’s cut of what remains one of my favorite horror films of all time is that the woman who rides past Max Von Sydow in the beginning was really, really, really old. I also learned that whenever Friedkin, who is still a very good filmmaker, says the words “little girl”, I feel like something just licked the bone that makes up the back of my skull.

Batman Returns (1992)

The Participants: Tim Burton
The Film: A-
The Commentary: B+

If we’re just going on personal reasons, Batman Returns is still my favorite Batman movie. Part of that is because I saw it in theaters. Another part is because it still has my favorite overall cast for a Batman film to date. The third part is the music, set designs, and makeup coming together to make Batman Returns feel like a silent film with a huge budget and unrestricted access to mushrooms. Burton clearly had more creative control for his second (and last) turn as a Batman director, and he made the most of it. Burton doesn’t seem to be entirely convinced that he has anything of value to offer on the making of the film, but he’s selling himself short. The commentary reveals the various stylistic obessesions and old horror movie references that exist in a good deal of his work. Listening in is helped along a great deal by the fact that he’s not nearly pretentious as he sometimes comes across. The thought process that shaped this film is distinctly at play during the film, and it makes for fascinating anecdotes and opinions for the most part.

The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)

The Participants: Martin Scorsese, Willem Dafoe, Jay Cocks, Paul Schrader
The Film: A-
The Commentary: A+

Criterion has a long-standing reputation for offering the kind of audio commentaries that cause people like me to react internally like Justin Bieber fans discovering amphetamines. As far as I’m aware, the audio commentary for The Last Temptation of Christ is only available through Criterion’s edition. If you’re still a physical media kind of person, and you’ve been meaning to buy this movie for a while, it’s worth a few extra dollars to get this. Anyone who has ever listened to Scorsese talk for more than two minutes knows that keeping up with his hyper-ventilating brain is kind of like an intellectual aerobic marathon. It’s not a passive activity, and it’s rarely boring. His films often depict a true passion for the medium and any discussion of films with him emphasizes that. Whatever opinions you have about the casting of the movie or about the accuracy of the Nikos Kazantzakis novel, this film is capable of being moving to various spiritual philosophies without compromising its obvious Christian overtones. Scorsese’s thoughts on the movie are the highlight of the track, but Willem Dafoe offers amusing recollections and practical tidbits on his personal process as an actor. Screenwriters Jay Cocks and Paul Schrader (also a good director) weigh in with their intriguing experiences on the difficulties in adapting such a complex book to film.

Hot Fuzz (2007)

The Participants: Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright
The Film: A+
The Commentary: A+

There are five audio commentaries available on the three-disc edition of Hot Fuzz. All of them are distinctive enough to warrant inclusion. My second favorite is the one that features several of the actors who played Sanford residents, which is heaven for anyone who is genuinely interested in hearing the ruminations of several old English actors, a lot of which has absolutely nothing to do with Hot Fuzz. The prize for most engrossing however has to go to Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg. Their longtime friendship makes for good, ridiculous banter, and they each have a lot in the way of observations and opinions on the making of the movie.

Alien (1979)

The Participants: Ridley Scott, Dan O’Bannon, Ronald Shusett, Terry Rawlings, Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skerritt, Veronica Cartwright, Harry Dean Stanton, and John Hurt
The Film: A+
The Commentary: B-

“I was mostly thinking about pussy” Harry Dean Stanton mutters on the crowded audio commentary for Alien. The commentary for Alien offers a number of perspectives. O’Bannon in particular offers some very strong thoughts on the art of storytelling. Thankfully, all these people are not in the room at the exact same time. The proceedings are split into groups (actors, director/star, writer, and crew) that comment at different times. It makes for an erratic, occasionally dull experience, but a nice option nonetheless for those who really, really want to know more about the movie. I liked Scott and Weaver’s discussions of what they were trying to achieve as director and actor. The parts you like best will depend on which aspect of the film you want to learn about.

This is Spinal Tap (1984)

The Participants: Spinal Tap
The Film: A+
The Commentary: A-

There really aren’t enough in-character commentary tracks out there. The only other one I can think of off the top of my head is Bruce Campbell as Elvis Presley for Bubba Ho-Tep (which is pretty goddamn amazing). To date, the only way you’re going to hear Rob Reiner’s commentary for This is Spinal Tap is if you track down Criterion’s laserdisc/DVD release. That’s fine. I can’t imagine Reiner being nearly as enjoyable as Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, and Harry Shearer in character. They make constant references to being screwed over by Marty Di Bergi (Reiner) and manager Ian Faith (Tony Hendry), mourn various deaths, and try to wax philosophic on their careers since the film’s release. If you absolutely can’t leave this world behind at the end of the film, the commentary gives you an easy excuse to watch the movie again.

Spaceballs (1987)

The Participants: Mel Brooks
The Film: B
The Commentary: F+

Mel Brooks doesn’t have to try very to be a hysterical, captivating storyteller. It’s absolutely bizarre then that his commentary for Spaceballs consists of a man who doesn’t have a lot to say about the film, tries very hard to think of things to talk about anyway, and completely runs out of ideas about a fourth of the way in. Honestly, someone who made Blazing Saddles, this, and Young Frankenstein doesn’t really owe us peasants a goddamn thing. But if you’re hoping for Brooks’ trademark wit and a free visit to comedy film school, you’re going to think something as disappointing as this was Brooks deliberately screwing with what we wanted. If that had been the case, this would have a masterpiece unto itself.

Citizen Kane (1941)

The Participants: Roger Ebert
The Film: A+
The Commentary: A-

Ebert was never shy about his love of Citizen Kane. It’s clearly his own pleasure to provide one of the commentary tracks for a movie that’s either one of the most enduring triumphs of style and creativity ever made, or a film that’s infuriatingly dull and undeserving of 70+ years of praise. It all depends on your perspective. If you love the movie and want an impassioned deconstruction of it on every conceivable level, Ebert provides absorbing perspective as both a fan and scholar. For fans of Ebert, the commentary is a reminder that we must continue do without the voice of one of film’s greatest champions and writers.