Sunday, August 07, 2005

Director Commentaries

Truth be told, I don't make it past the first few minutes on most DVD director commentary tracks. They often tend to dwell on the minutiae of casting, shooting and production that can, frankly, bore me to tears. Neither am I a fan of those that explicate in relentless demystifying detail every frame and every symbol in a movie — it can be murder by dissection. Even the prodigiously articulate Atom Egoyan (poor guy) sounds positively pained while administering a Cliff Notes treatment on the Speaking Parts DVD.

But take The Ninth Gate, a ho-hum movie with a fantastic commentary track by Roman Polanski. He is erudite, relaxed, witty, and with a mysterious edge to him (no surprise there). His comments never descend to navel-gazing detail but instead float far and free from art to philosophy to culture and beyond. It feels like you're hanging out with Roman in your den, having a couple of beers with him, getting to know an interesting artist with a rich personality. Now that's an all-too-rare experience.

Another reliable favorite is Robert Altman, who has fortunately recorded a goodly number of these things: 3 Women, Nashville, MASH, The Gingerbread Man, Gosford Park. His tone is low-key, humble and casual but don't mistake it for perfunctory — he might be, to my mind, the closest thing to what Renoir might have sounded like on a commentary track.

So, here are a few favorites:

  • Guy Maddin, in speech (no exaggeration) among the most dazzling of all directors. Unfortunately, he gets bogged down a bit by his co-writer and former professor George Toles on the commentary to Careful and Twilight Of The Ice Nymphs, but is at his best when flying solo, like on Tales From The Gimli Hospital.
  • Wes Anderson on Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums.
  • Todd Haynes, best by himself, not saddled with cast or crew members.
  • Claire Denis in conversation with Kent Jones on Friday Night.
  • Steven Soderbergh and screenwriter Lem Dobbs on The Limey.

Director commentary tracks you like? And why?


Anonymous Anonymous said...

My favorite commentary is Renny Harlin on Driven. He basically explains how he made a film with a screenplay written by Sylvester Stallone as a, ahem, starring vehicle, and edited Stallone's part down as Harlin thought some of the other characters were more interesting. Stallone tries to remain diplomatic on his commentaries on the deleted scenes.
Second favority commentary - Peter Medak on Species II. Smart guy, dumb movie.
A director I wish had done DVD commentaries (had his respective companies been smart) is Sam Fuller. He always seemed to have lots of great stories.

August 07, 2005 1:19 PM  
Anonymous Jim said...

I remember an excellent commentary at the beggining of "The Conversation," I think by the cinematographer. Very enlightening.

August 07, 2005 2:05 PM  
Blogger Flickhead said...

I rarely listen to commentaries, for the same reasons you site. A severe example: Norman Jewison on the '60s Thomas Crown Affair. Within ten minutes he's completely exhausted his cache of anecdotes.

Here's an odd one: Hubert Cornfield on Night of the Following Day. Please...just check it out for yourself!

The few that have kept me involved would include Tom Tykwer on The Princess and the Warrior, and both of the audio commentaries (by a dozen or so people) on The Last Waltz. Roger Ebert is totally jazzed on Citizen Kane, and Peter Bogdanovich is full of information on The Lady from Shanghai. Rebecca Chaiklin & Donovan Leitch's overlooked The Party's Over has an audio commentary by Chaiklin and star Philip Seymour Hoffman that's almost like watching a different version of the same movie.

August 07, 2005 3:20 PM  
Blogger Tuwa said...

I think my favorite so far has been the commentary to The Man Who Wasn't There, just because they reference B-movies like Sid Davis' Boys Beware and they keep falling silent. You can tell they keep getting distracted watching the film, and eventually Billy Bob Thornton comments on it.

August 07, 2005 7:55 PM  
Anonymous Darren said...

I love Rick Linklater's commentaries, especially those he recorded for the Slacker set. Excuse me for slipping into lame fan-boy mode, but I would really like to just hang out with him.

I agree that Egoyan can be something of a pedant, but his and Russell Banks's commentary on The Sweet Hereafter is pretty good. Or maybe it's just that I found that DVD at precisely the right time. Early-'98 was when I started really trying to understand how films work, so hearing him speak so eloquently about what I still think is his best film taught me a great deal.

August 07, 2005 9:13 PM  
Anonymous dvd said...

Invaluable: the commentary by film scholar Kenneth Loring on the Coen's Blood Simple.

I'll second the recommendations for Altman's and Linklater's commentary tracks. I'd also suggest the two group commentary tracks on Paul Thomas Anderson's Hard Eight; I think I've listened to them more times than I've seen the movie at this point.

August 08, 2005 4:15 AM  
Anonymous Phil said...

right on with the Wes Anderson commentary tracks...

i am fascinated by commentaries, really. they are far and away my favorite dvd feature, but that's just me.

one to stay away from:

ok, its not a movie, but the Arrested Development commentaries are terrible if only for the fact that the ENTIRE CAST is talking over eachother for the whole disappointing, because you only catch the butt ends of what must have been really funny improv stuff from the cast.

one to catch:

still not a movie, but catch Aaron Sorkin's commentaries on the all too few episodes that contain the feature on DVD. that guy is outrageously brilliant. i'll take any insight i can get on him.

August 08, 2005 12:54 PM  
Anonymous Filmbrain said...

Without a doubt the worst commentary track I've come across is on the limited edition Korean boxset of Oldboy. Amidst the other (in Korean only) commentary tracks, they hired Harry 'Aint It Cool News' Knowles to provide a running commentary. If I didn't already loathe him before, I certainly would after hearing him drone on for two hours about how "cool" each scene is. Torture. Pain.

One of my favorites is for a film I didn't particularly like that much - Roger Dodger. Director Dylan Kidd uses the track to offer a course in how to (and not to) make an independent film. He speaks very openly about the various problems they ran into, and how he overcame them, as well as offering advice on how to avoid some of them.

Others worth sitting through:
Terry Gilliam on Brazil - to hear about his struggles with Universal.
Myra Breckinridge has two bitter, nasty tracks -- one by director Michael Sarne and the other by Racquel Welch -- real bitch-fests that play out in an almost Rashomon-like fashion.
Steven Soderbergh on Schizopolis basically parodies the idea of a director's commentary. As good as the film itself.

August 08, 2005 2:07 PM  
Anonymous Chuck said...

I like Anderson's "Tannenbaums" commentary, too. Gilliam's commentary on the "12 Monkeys" DVD is also quite good, and for some reason, I remember Richard Kelly's commentary for "Donnie Darko" being pretty solid. Roger Ebert's laudatory comentary track for "Dark City" is one of the best I've heard, even if I disagree with him about the significance of the film (we both like it for different, almost contradictory reasons).

But generally they are disappointing. If I'm interested, I usualy treat director's commentary trcks like radio. I'll play them while I'm doing something else without really watching the film at all. That makes life a little easier.

August 08, 2005 8:33 PM  
Blogger ben said...

Aah - a favourite subject!

Yes, The Limey is a good commentary, if only just to hear Lem Dobbs' criticisms of Soderbergh's cuts to his script (and some additions that Dobbs hated - I think he calls them "second-rate Tarantino"). It begins amiably enough and then gets genuinely tense.

The group commentary for I Heart Huckabees, which takes place in David O Russell's house, and includes a phone-call with Naomi Watts from the set of King Kong, is definitely an enhancement of a flawed and underwhelming film. There's a lovely sense of cameraderie and how things played out on the set.

The 'Kenneth Loring'-Blood Simple commentary is insanely funny for the opening sequences. After that the joke does wear thin.

Probably my favourite is Wim Wenders' commentary for Paris, Texas. Which is tender, moving, full of insights and fits perfectly with the mood of the film.

His commentary for Lightning Over Water is also inavulable - that strange, haunting film is far better and more poignant with him explaining the levels of reality and fiction.

I think with those two tracks I fell in love with Wim Wenders' voice.

August 08, 2005 8:40 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Wow, what a gold mine of recommendations. I shall have to find a way to thank you all. In fact, I'm working on it. Please do check back Thursday, I'll have a small surprise waiting.

August 08, 2005 10:38 PM  
Blogger Booklad said...

My favorite is Anthony Wong's commentary on his black, black comedy "Untold Story" (1992). His english is halting, but he offers real insight on acting in film. He won the Hong Kong best actor award that year for a category III (U.S. equivalent of X).

Guy Maddin's commentary have to be heard to be believed. Of course, he's kidding you. But, boy howdy, is he funny.

Another great commentary by a director is Richard Sarafin's for his 1971 classic "Vanishing Point". He doesn't mince words. It's a folksy, but insightful trip through the film and through filmmaking in the 70's.

August 09, 2005 12:58 AM  
Blogger Lee Hill said...

Fab commentary...Steven Soderbergh and Mike Nichols on the grossly underrated Catch-22. Nichols to studio: "Don't screw with me...I've got the twelth largest air force in the world." Priceless. Essential.

August 09, 2005 5:08 AM  
Blogger Sam Adams said...

For sheer unintentional hilarity, you can't beat Paul Verhoeven on Starship Troopers. "Digital Johnny... real Johnny... digital Johnny..." A tip for the (semi) techno-minded: use audio hijack to record the commentary, then transfer it to your ipod and use the audiobook option to speed it up -- you can listen in 3/4 of the time and not have to be stuck to your TV while you do. Very few "screen specific" commentaries actually require you to be watching the movie, especially if you've seen it recently.

Of late, I'm learning tons from the trio of Peckinpah experts who seem to have cornered the market on all his DVDs, regardless of studio.

August 09, 2005 9:11 AM  
Blogger Brian said...

My favorites left unmentioned are David Cronenberg and Werner Herzog. Listen to their commentaries for Videodrome and Fata Morgana for starters, and see if you don't then want to hear their takes on every single one of their respective films.

It helps that they both have voices that are pleasant to listen to.

August 09, 2005 2:34 PM  
Blogger MEM said...

I think any Soderbergh commentary is worth listening to, but the sex, lies + videotape commentary is the one I've most recently listened to. It's almost spoiled by a surprisingly fawning Neil LaBute, but it's still an illuminating discussion about Soderbergh's first feature and all of the budget-oriented casting and production decisions that needed to be made.

August 09, 2005 5:47 PM  
Blogger MEM said...

And actually, the North by Northwest commentary by writer Ernest Lehman was also kind of refreshing...not "good" in the, well, normal way, but very interesting to hear someone from his era doing a commentary track and shining some light on how that picture got made.

August 09, 2005 5:53 PM  

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