Thursday, February 19, 2009

Audio Commentary Commentary

As anyone who has spent any time around me will attest, I love audio commentaries. Good or bad, I listen to them all. Not only do I listen to them, I judge a DVDs worth by them all the time. Sure, there may be 3 hours of documentary footage and EPK this and that, but if there isn't an audio commentary, I get a bit chafed. In fact, if a seven minute EPK style featurette is the only thing on a disc, and you just know there should be a commentary, I won't even buy the thing. There are several witnesses who will give a sworn statement to that effect.

I just don't think there is an excuse for not having one. I mean, sure there are cases as with Steven Spielberg who refuses to do them so as not to colour the viewers experience of the film, but come on, those Indiana Jones DVDs could have had George Lucas, Robert Watts, Frank Marshall, Kathleen Kennedy and any number of cast members chiming in with thoughts on the movies, their experiences making them, and giving a more personal touch to the, admittedly, very good documentaries on the 'bonus disc' of the set. Something like what George did with the Star Wars movies. He is co-creator of the darn franchise, am I right?

I just can't help myself when there is an opportunity to hear a great director discuss the choices he made in his film or, in some cases, defending them. Those instances where the movie is 'bad' or indecipherable are almost the ones I enjoy the best, too. Really, I watch the 'bad' movies more than I watch the good because I can't help but try and figure out specifically what went wrong with them. Good ideas gone bad mean someone screwed up somewhere, right? Is it the filmmakers fault? Is it an accountants fault somewhere further up the studio chain? Alien 3 remains one of my favourite films of all time, so if that doesn't spell it out for you, I don't know what will.

Anyway, getting closer to the point of the whole thing, here, what a lot of people don't realize is that commentaries are an art unto themselves. Not everyone can do them, and most can't do them well. There are giants in the 'field' like Soderbergh, Fincher, Raimi, Campbell, Meyer and Cameron (to name a few) who all do entertaining, informational, anecdotal and educational (is that the same as informational) commentaries, and there is everybody else. On the one hand, you have a group of talented people home schooling you in the craft, and then there is the everybody else category which usually includes people who tell you what is going on in the movie as you watch, are a bunch of actors who can only remember if it was hot or cold that day, and people who get so wrapped up in the movie they're watching that they fail to commentate. Sometimes at all.

To be fair, some of the 'greats' even slip into that bottom category from time to time. William Friedkin can do a mean commentary but his Exorcist: The Version You've Never Seen track is like listening to stage direction. John Carpenter is another guy who goes from brilliant commentator (with Kurt Russell on Escape From New York and The Thing) to casual bystander (like on In the Mouth of Madness and Ghosts of Mars). And educational isn't always a great thing either. Some of the Criterion 'historical' commentaries are B-O-R-I-N-G, and I'm a history major. I like to hear about this stuff.

So when I find a good, a great commentary, I like to let people know. Apparently, so does 'The New Cult Canon' from The Onion's A.V. Club. Last week they shone the spotlight on Steven Soderbergh's lean, mean, revenge picture, The Limey, and it's sparklingly brilliant audio commentary. Soderbergh and screenwriter Lem Dobbs share the track and spend the movie's 90 minute running time sparring over choices made and scenes dropped. Anyone who looks at Soderbergh's films knows he's a director that tends to favour economy, and often trims his films down to a razors edge. I remember in the commentary for 2002's Solaris John Cameron recalled a conversation he had with Soderbergh where he told him to stop cutting and to start putting things back in the movie. He had made it lean to the point where it began to hurt the storytelling. Well, Dobbs takes him to task for every cut, every change, every missed characterization and it is entertaining as all hell to listen to. Not only does Soderbergh take the hits, but he gets in some playful, but well executed, shots of his own and which are just as valid because if you've ever seen The Limey, you know there is little to fault it with. To have two guys arguing over a movie you find to be perfect is worth the price of admission.

I will qualify that, although heated, the discussion never gets ugly and the feeling I have is that these are two guys who have different sensibilities but ultimately respect each others work. I could be wrong, but it never feels like they genuinely dislike each other. I mean, this is the second time they have worked together, the first being 1991's Kafka, so there was an obvious draw, there. Then again, they haven't worked since, so...

Anyway, I just wanted to send some props out to 'The New Cult Canon' for covering this cool little bit of cinema that some people may not know about and for giving me a chance to talk, yet again, about my love for the Audio Commentary. If you have time to browse around, there are some good articles up on that site with some good commentary of their own that is worth checking out. I'd also be curious if any of you have any commentary that you just loved hearing.



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