Sunday, February 20, 2011

Confessions of an Audio Commentary Freak

The first time I watched "The French Connection," I thought it was a fine 70s thriller with a great chase scene toward the end, but I didn't understand why it was considered to be such a classic. So once the movie was over, I watched it again with director William Friedkin's commentary track, which clued me in on masses of historical and cultural context that helped me to better appreciate and enjoy the film. Much as I like saying that I'm pretensions movie fan, I have to admit that there are a lot important films that have gone over my head upon initial viewing, and left me confused and adrift. Sometimes a fangirl needs a little help, and I acknowledge that I wouldn't have warmed up to many beloved titles if it weren't for available supplementary material like Critereon essays, Wikipedia plot summaries, and audio commentary tracks. Commentaries are especially near and dear to my hear. I love listening to them, and I've actually bought and rented DVDs of films just to be able to access them.

Why do I enjoy them so? I think this stems from a love of meta and a fascination with the filmmaking process. The "making of" documentaries often packaged with a film are usually fun, but often too slick and superficial. I like commentaries better because they're more unfiltered, and if someone is talking for the entire length of a feature, there's a greater chance that they'll say something honest or useful or interesting, even if it's by accident. Documentaries will pick out the most memorable incidents and trivia from the production of the film, but you tend to get a better sense of what the day-to-day experience was like, listening to the creative personnel chatter about difficult shoots or scheduling problems or what it was like to work with so-and-so.

Not everyone is cut out for commentaries. Some directors are absolutely miserable raconteurs and some actors can't refrain from speaking in sound-bites. I often find a more technically-minded director like Bryan Singer less interesting to listen to than a producer who had to go do battle in order to secure the financing for the picture, or an editor with insights into how and why the visual storytelling works. I wish there were a wider selection of commentaries you could get for a film. And heck, just because Steven Spielberg and Christopher Nolan don't like doing them doesn't mean that their pictures should go without commentaries entirely. I'd gladly fork over a few dollars for an iTunes download of a commentary track by the writer, or cinematographer, or art director, or makeup artist, or composer for certain films. The "Lord of the Rings" folks had the right idea, giving us four tracks apiece for the Extended Edition DVDs.

However, my favorites are the analytical commentaries by historians, academics, and critics, which tend to pop up more often on older titles. I really enjoy other people's enjoyment of films, sometimes more than the films themselves. It's one of of the reasons why I like award shows and tribute programs so much. I get a lot of vicarious thrills through other cineaste's geek-outs, and an outsider who had nothing to do with the production of a film will often be better at articulating why a movie had such impact or achieved such artistic excellence. Or failed to. One of my favorite extras for the "Matrix" sequels was the audio tracks by a pair of critics who lambasted the movies. Sometimes you don't even need a professional. Those free alternative commentaries recorded by amateurs floating around on the Internet can be fun too, though you often get what you pay for.

And then there are the commentaries where people get creative. "Shaun of the Dead" had a zombies-only track, "Tropic Thunder" and "This is Spinal Tap" had actors staying in character throughout, and the "Dr. Horrible's Sing Along Blog" DVD comes with "Commentary: The Musical." Some of my favorite commentaries come from creative types who seem intent on ignoring the content they're supposed to commenting on. Jackson Publick and Doc Hammer of "The Venture Bros." are famous for having highly entertaining conversations during their audio commentaries that have nothing to do with "The Venture Bros." And of course there's Rifftrax, which carries on in the grand tradition of "Mystery Science Theater 3000," offering audio tracks full of sublime mockery to accompany Hollywood's worst crimes against cinema.

I used to watch films over and over again as a kid, and now it's harder to justify doing this when there are so many good films around that I haven't seen yet. Because they provide a different experience, audio commentaries make it a little easier to convince myself to revisit the great movies, and the not-so-great ones, and that episode of "The Simpsons" where they go to Duff Gardens. I suspect that the day that they start offering audio commentaries on Netflix or Hulu or Amazon to play over streaming media, it will be the day I say goodbye to physical media entirely.

But for now, it's off to the DVD player, to see if David Lynch's audio commentary will explain what the hell was going on in "Eraserhead."

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