The following is the first in a series of reviews of DVD commentary tracks that will hopefully become a recurring feature of this blog site.
When they first began appearing as "added value" material on laserdiscs back in the early '90s, commentaries that ran simultaneously with the movie on a separate audio track tended to be rather dry enterprises. I remember the commentary on the original Criterion laserdisc for Carrie was a none-too-spry affair featuring an obscure French film critic, one Laurent Bouzereau, who has in the years since made for himself a lucrative career as a writer and director of those added value DVD extended advertisements known as "making of" featurettes. Bouzereau read a long essay on Brian De Palma and the film in a stilted manner that not only betrayed his slippery grasp of spoken English, but also suggested that for him print might be a more successful mode of communication. But the track for the original Criterion Taxi Driver boasted probing, feature-length observations from screenwriter Paul Schrader and director Martin Scorsese, and director John Sturges' commentary for the Bad Day at Black Rock laserdisc has been somewhat famously cited by filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson (Magnolia) as the young director's film school-- everything Anderson knows about directing, he claims, was gleaned from listening to Sturges' incisive comments and remembrances of directing the Spencer Tracy-Robert Ryan drama.
In the DVD age, almost every major release gets the commentary treatment, and not surprisingly only about one out of every 10 actually deserves it. After all, just how much illumination can the directors and casts of efforts like The Santa Clause or the mediocre horror cheapie Idle Hands really shed on their films? These newly pervasive and superfluous DVD tracks tend to devolve into exercises in spotting the directors' friends and family members, genial, often overly generous observations about cast members, anecdotes about how hot it was on the set, the pointing out of instances of "homage," or rambling dissections (and demystifications) of the special effects or other tricks of the trade on display in any particular scene. The most successful of these kinds of tracks tend to serve as informal cast reunions and have a disarming atmosphere that allows for a certain level of self-seriousness that gets routinely deflated by the conviviality of the proceedings. Director Joe Dante is particularly good at hosting these kinds of parties, and the DVD commentary tracks for Gremlins 2: The New Batch, The Howling and even Hollywood Boulevard, his first film, co-directed with Allan Arkush under the auspices of Roger Corman's notoriously frugal New World Pictures banner, are terrific fun and, dare I say, even enlightening about the creative processes at work on his sets.
However, the gold standard for group commentary tracks was set by director Kevin Smith and his band of rowdies on the Mallrats DVD. Smith gathered together himself, Ben Affleck (in the days when constantly identifying the actor as "Phantoms' Ben Affleck" was still a funny dig), Jason (Jay) Mewes, producer Scott Mosier and a couple of other production cronies for a truly hilarious bullshit session laid over Smith's most notoriously failed project, his misbegotten but not entirely charmless follow-up to Clerks. But Mallrats goes the routine commentary track one better. At various points during the film an icon pops up in the corner of the screen, at which time is revealed, if the proper button is pressed, video of these ne'er-do-wells sitting around their microphones blabbing about the movie. This video footage runs simultaneously over the film's scenes, and it adds enormously to the viewer's illusion not only of being let in on a private party, but at times even being a welcome participant in it.
The Smith tracks (there are similar ones on the DVDs of Clerks, Chasing Amy, Dogma and Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back) are extremely enjoyable and valuable too for the wealth of anecdotal information they reveal about the realities of independent filmmaking, struggles with the MPAA and, in the case of Dogma, the right-wing religious powers that be, at a grassroots and a national level. But they're also goofs laid on top of films that cannot claim structure or expressive directorial technique as their most potent devices. For my money, some of the most provocative commentaries I've heard are ones accompanying the Steven Soderbergh-directed films Out of Sight, The Limey and Ocean's Eleven. Not only is Soderbergh articulate about his intentions, he avoids merely parroting what's obviously there on the screen, he's lucid when dealing with the thematic strings of his films, and he's confident enough to jump right in there and deconstruct just how his methods often fall short of those intentions. The other thing that raises these commentary tracks above the norm is the participation, on each one, of the screenwriter. The Out of Sight track features writer Scott Frank engaging Soderbergh in some very entertaining comedic back-and-forth about adapting the Elmore Leonard novel, and writer Ted Griffin joins the director in illuminating just how difficult stacking the elaborate Ocean's Eleven house of cards for maximum clarity and comic effect really was. But the best of the three is The Limey. The elliptical crime drama starring Terence Stamp and Peter Fonda is the most formally challenging film Soderbergh has made to date (and that includes Traffic), and therefore it's more than a little intriguing to hear what was going on in his mind regarding his decisions. But writer Lem Dobbs proves a prickly partner in the commentary studio, and he's none-too-shy about voicing his reservations about the way Soderbergh altered the chronology of his original script. The often tense dialogue between the writer and director speaks volumes about the way films are made creatively and is perhaps as good a class for would-be filmmakers in the reality of how two creative visions mesh, and clash, as Sturges' Bad Day at Black Rock laserdisc session was as a basic lesson in directing for P.T. Anderson. I'd rank the DVD commentary track for The Limey as the best I've heard to date.
(Part two of this article, a review of the DVD commentary track for the horror thriller Saw, has been posted separately and can be found directly below.)