Last night my brother and I were watching the new DVD – THE RIGHT SPECTACLE – THE VERY BEST OF ELVIS COSTELLO – THE VIDEOS (sorry – no IMDB link yet) and discovered that it has subtitles for Elvis’s commentary track and not for the song lyrics in the videos. I thought that was odd at first but it seemed preferable to watch the videos with the subtitles on but Costello’s voice commentary track off so the music wasn’t obscured. It reminded me of that VH1 show – Pop Up Videos. My brother Dave said it was like what geeks at conferences call the backchannel – people attending a public event with laptops, meet in a chatroom to talk about the presentation/talk or whatever possibly ragging on the speaker/band/whatever. Sometimes, not often, the backchannel chatroom is displayed on big screen for all to see. He concluded by saying that commentaries are kinda like a backchannel, but later after the fact. This got me to thinking about commentaries. That and listening to the delightfully pretentious commentary on the DVD of Igmar’s Bergman’s 1967 classic PERSONA by Bergman historian Marc Gervais (“oh my goodness, personality disintegration!”). A lot of people never turn on the commentary track – indeed many directors, actors, and other participants can be heard saying “do people really listen to these things?” Well after getting a number of emails from film babble blog readers who said they were offended by my calling listening to commentaries “an extremely geeky process” in my August 28th post I see that many do actually listen to these things and I decided to pay tribute by listing :
10 Great DVD Commentaries
This is by no means a ‘best commentaries ever’ deal. I haven’t listened to enough to judge that – I just enjoyed the Hell out of those below. Some great movies have bad commentaries I must say – GOODFELLAS has a track patched together from interview soundbites (to be fair the other track has the real Henry Hill with his actual arresting officer and that’s actually pretty cool), THE PLAYER has a verbal tug-of-war between director Robert Altman and writer Michael Tolkin, and Quentin Tarantino can’t seem to give commentary to save his life! Plodding through anecdotes unrelated to the action on the screen, Tarantino offers very few insights into RESERVOIR DOGS except to why his other films on DVD are commentary-less.
The best commentaries make it feel like you’re hanging with the directors, actors, crew members or critics watching the movie while absorbing conversationally juicy back stories. Here’s my 10 favorites:
1. CITIZEN KANE (Dir. Orson Welles 1941)
Yes, you should be skeptical of any movie list that begins with this movie but damn it this DVD has good fuckin’ commentary! Whatever you may think of Roger Ebert, his spirited narration is surprisingly a lot of fun while being informative as Hell. Ebert offers that “oddly enough because it broke with all the traditions of editing and photography up until that time many audiences found that it looked anything but realistic. They were put off by the deep-focus photography, the use of long takes, the lack of cutting in order to tell the story, and the relying on movement within a scene” and that because of that “you have to be an active viewer when you look at CITIZEN KANE – it challenges you”. Director and Welles friend Peter Bogdonovich presents a more scholarly and insiderly take on the film, while not as entertaining as Ebert’s, is still worthwhile.
2. THE MAN WHO WASN’T THERE (Dir. Joel Coen 2001) Just a few Coen Brothers movies have commentaries (BLOOD SIMPLE has Kenneth Loring of Forever Films delivering an odd play-by-play, while director of photography Roger A. Deakins does FARGO) but this track with Joel and Ethan Coen chatting it up with Billy Bob Thornton is absolutely hilarious. Notable because the movie alone is anything but hilarious. Discussing the stoical mannerisms of his barber character Thornton says “I know we’re doing a DVD commentary but it’s hard not to laugh about Ed Crane. Joel, Ethan, and I have a sort of weird relationship with Ed Crane. He’s become this guy to us that just exists in our lives.” He goes on to point out the “Ed nod” – Thornton: “Ed would always just accept the most horrible things with a tiny little nod.” Joel remarks that the nod is “the biggest outward manifestation of Ed’s personality.” So as the movie goes on charting the “Ed nod” almost becomes a game – “here comes a classic Ed nod”. Also amusing is when over a shot of Thornton sitting listening to Scarlett Johansson playing the piano, he asks “you notice something? Ed has a boner!” They all giggle. A lot of laughter for a dark morbid film noir piece from the Coens – seems oddly appropriate doesn’t it?
3. MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL (Dir. Terry Jones, Terry Gilliam, 1975)
2 audio tracks split between the directors (Gilliam, Jones) and the performers /writers (John Cleese, Eric Idle, Michael Palin) all the currently existing Pythons enhance this comedy classic with wonderfully amusing tales about where jokes originated, the hassles of cheap location shooting, and the contagious laughing at material that amazes them as well as us that it never gets old. Some random quotes -
Gilliam: “in England blood is called Kensington gore”. (a simple google search confirms that this is indeed theatre slang about stage blood).
Palin: “Llamas – another Python favorite like moose, Nixon and fish of any kind”.
Idle: “Michael Palin clearly had a very bad agent because he gets no close-ups whatsoever in this scene.”
4. THE WAR OF THE ROSES (Dir. Danny Devito, 1989) You may scoff at this appearing on this list – but this being one of the first commentaries ever (recorded for an early 90’s laser disc release if I’m not mistaken) Devito made the most of the warts-and-all approach for an essential listen. Consider how he starts off : “In 1933 this famous fox logo theme was written by Alfred Newman. In 1990 Alfred’s son David Newman re-recorded it for WAR OF THE ROSES enabling it to have the final note of the theme segue into the overture of our film.” Very few commentaries begin with that sense of purpose. It also seems appropriate that this Michael Douglas/Kathleen Turner dark marital disaster comedy is decorated by occasional Devito self-criticisms : “boy, do I look fat – look at me!”
5. JFK (Dir. Oliver Stone, 1991) The grand-daddy of all conspiracy films gets a passionate paranoid Stone audio guide that goes through its whole damn exhausting 3 hour + run. Theories on top of the theories in the movie abound : “If for example the hit had taken place in Miami it is quite possible what I’m trying to say that there was an Oswald that could of has a Miami identity in the same way that Oswald had a New Orleans and Dallas identity. They have people who have patsys ready to go.” I’ll take your word for it Oliver. Also you hear career defining statements like : “I don’t care what they say, this is my GODFATHER! As far as I’m concerned NIXON is GODFATHER II for me and this is my GODFATHER I. I feel good about it even if nobody agrees.”
The often un-remarked upon sentiment in JFK comes out best when Stone recalls that he wrote much of his own life strife with his soon to be ex-wife into the arguments that protagonist Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner) and his wife Liz (Sissy Spacek) had over how JFK assassination obsession had come between them. After Liz has stormed off, Jim escorts his kids (Sean Stone, Amy Long) out the front door and onto the front porch swing comforting them by saying that telling the truth can be a scary thing. Stone chimes in : “It’s my Norman Rockwell scene, so leave it alone! Everyone has a right to their Norman Rockwell moment.”
6. ELECTION (Dir. Alexander Payne, 1999) Payne gives good commentary. This is interesting from start to finish – the comparisons to the original novel, the pointing out of the “obsessive use of garbage cans”, and most surprisingly his admitting when talking about Matthew Broderick – “his casting has for a lot of people played with his image, almost his iconography as Ferris Bueller, but not for me because I’ve never seen the film (FERRIS BUELLER’S DAY OFF).” Another great commentary moment comes when Reese Witherspoon is setting up a table in the High School lobby by extending the legs one by one – “Tracy is introduced with straight lines – the chair legs. Careful viewers may want to go back and count how many chair legs.” He says chair but it is definitely a table she’s setting up and there are 5 separate shots of individual legs being extended – on a 4 leg table. Oh Alexander, you wacky cinematic prankster!
7. The Simpsons (1989-1996 Seasons 1-6)
I figured one TV show DVD set ought to make this list and while such worthy shows as The Sopranos, Mr. Show, Six Feet Under, and even Newsradio have fine commentaries – the chaos, the camaraderie, and fly-on-the-wall fun Simpsons commentaries contain blow them all away. Usually populated by series creator Matt Groening along with writers, producers, show-runners, voice-actors, and other relevant parties they come packed with statements like:
Jon Vitti: “You guys were very specific that we shouldn’t come up with clever original tag-lines for Bart Simpson – they were supposed to be things he had heard from TV and repeated and then when the show got so popular it somehow seemed as if we were claiming these were original sayings. So I’d like to say that at the outset we never thought ‘eat my shorts’ was an original tag-line.”
James L. Brooks: “I thought we weren’t going to do mea culpas!”
A early classic – Bart Gets Hit By A Car – epitomizes how the show’s themes have changed drastically from the financial pressured world the Simpsons used to live in as opposed to the pop culture parody social satire status of recent years. Marge blows a huge cash settlement and Homer goes into a dark funk. Confronted by his wife at Moe’s Tavern Homer even says that he may not love her anymore. A dramatic moment is finally punctuated by his declaration: “Oh who am I kidding? I love you more than ever!” Mike Reiss (I think) responds “the writers being very offended including John Swartzwelder who wrote the episode saying ‘why does he love her more than ever? We’re happy to see it, ah – life goes on but why does he love her more than ever?”
But the cream of the commentary crop is “Marge Vs. The Monorail” from the 4th season – mainly because it was written by Conan O’Brien who contributes (albeit on satellite from New York while Groening and the other participants are in LA) a consistently funny commentary:
Conan: “I am the author of this episode. I created the character of Bart.”
The stories about the conception of the episode get increasingly more amusing as the show progresses:
Conan O’Brien: “Originally when I wrote the episode the guest star was supposed to be George Takei (Sulu) from Star Trek. We contacted George Takei, just certain he would do it ’cause this was after Michael Jackson…I mean everybody was killing themselves to be on the Simpsons. We contacted George Takei and he told us he wouldn’t do it because he was on the San Francisco Board of Transportation and he didn’t want to make fun of monorails. We were just stunned and I was heatbroken. Then I came into work and Al said ‘hey, we just got a phone call and George Takei and he won’t do it but Leonard Nimoy will’ – I remember thinking that’s better!”
It sure was, Conan It sure was.
8. AIRPLANE! (Dir. Jim Abrahams, David Zucker and Jerry Zucker, 1980) This is a particularly funny commentary because after describing how much of the film was based narratively and shot-wise on the 1957 airport disaster movie ZERO HOUR and making fun of the cheap production values – “you can see tape holding the set together there!” – the directors (the Zucker bros. and Abrahams) run out of things to talk about and even start discussing other movies – “I saw GALAXY QUEST yesterday.” Also notably towards the end of the flick they all state that they made a pact to never see AIRPLANE II – THE SEQUEL which was made by others. Wish I had made that decision.*
9. BOOGIE NIGHTS (Dir. Paul Thomas Anderson, 1997) Paul Thomas Anderson opens before the movie has properly begun with “Hey roll it – ’cause I’ll tell you, you’re listening to a guy who learned a lot about ripping off movies by watching laser discs with director’s commentary. My favorite is John Sturge’s BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK.” Man, I’ll have to check that one out. Interestingly enough after acknowledging the influence of Scorsese over the first scene with the long tracking nightclub shot Anderson declares that Jonathan Demme is his “most profound influence”. There’s a separate track with Anderson and various actors (Mark Wahlberg, Julliane Moore, John C. Reily, Melora Walters, Don Cheadle) recorded at diferent times – at Anderson’s apartment with phones ringing, lighters flicking, and a lot of alcohol being consumed. While I don’t usually like commentaries that are hodgepodges of different recordings – this one works because of actors comfortably speaking over their specific scenes relaying that apparently everyone enjoyed their wardrobe fittings as much as the actual shooting and the constant questioning by P.T. Anderson of the cast “was Luis Guzman stoned during filming?”
10. THIS IS SPINAL TAP (Dir. Rob Reiner, 1984)
Just to get it straight there are 2 different DVDs of this movie with notably different commentaries. How notably different? Well I’ll tell ya – the CRITERION (1998) version (you know the company that does high-brow deluxe DVD editions of classic cult movies) has a commentary by Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, and Harry Shearer as well as a separate track by Rob Reiner with producer Karen Murphy and a few editors. The MGM special edition (2000) has a commentary by Spinal Tap (that is Guest, McKean, and Shearer in character). Since the Criterion one is out of print and copies of it go for $85.00 and over on Amazon we’ll just concern ourselves with the MGM version.
Approaching the film with the oft-repeated “hatchet-job” accusation on its maker Marti DiBergi (Rob Reiner) – Nigel Tufnel, David St. Hubbins, and Derek Smalls (c’mon play along) have a lot of axes to grind 16 years later. On their first interview session in the film:
Nigel: “you know when he was asking us these questions you you remember we didn’t know what he was going to say…
Derek: “and he had notes!”
Nigel: “yes, he had notes.”
David: “That’s not fair. That should have tipped us off.”
Derek: “It’s cheating! He had an agenda.”
On David’s current stance on his astrologically guided controlling girlfriend Janeane who shows up mid-way in the tour – “a turning point” says Derek:
David: When the millenium changed so did she.”
On Derek being trapped in the stage pod which sabotaged the number “Rock ‘N Roll Creation”:
Derek: “This only happened once – why doesn’t he (DiBergi) show any of the other nights?!!?”
When band manager Ian Faith and Nigel leave because of tension within the group, horribly mangled gig scheduling, and Janeane’s ambitious infiltration David has this to offer about his girlfriend’s managerial style when she took over from Ian:
David: “Things went more profressionally wrong.”
In the final segment at one of the last shows on the tour Nigel returns to tell them that “Sex Farm” is a hit in Japan and would they consider regrouping. After some harsh words the band leaves with David and Nigel sharing a silent stare at each other. In the now reflective commentary which also is silent for a moment, St. Hubbins breaks the mood:
David: “You had me at hello”. *
Post Note: The Zucker bros. and Jim Abrahams commentary for their follow-up to AIRPLANE! – the Elvis meets World War II spy thriller satire TOP SECRET! plays like the Onion’s “Commentaries Of The Damned” – you know the AV Club’s feature about less than worthy films adorned with inappropriate commentaries. For TOP SECRET! the filmmakers/writers complain about the movie never making a profit, how the slow pace ruins the jokes, and most amusingly they forget why they originally thought certain material was funny – a theater marquee for the film’s protagonist Nick Rivers (Val Kilmer) says beneath his name “with time permitting – Frank Sinatra”. “Why did we pick on Sinatra?” one of the Zuckers (I think) wonders out loud. Good question.