I can't remember when I first got hooked on the commentary tracks that accompany some DVDs. I do know when I recognized that it was time to pull back a bit. That would be the afternoon about a month ago on which I was brought to my senses by my teenage daughter.
She was strolling through the living room when she looked over my shoulder and saw--and heard--what was on the television screen. And then she cracked up. "You're listening to the commentary track for 'Toy Story 2'?" It was not a question so much as an expression of disbelief, and even I had to laugh. "OK, OK," I said. "Enough is enough." Or words to that effect. I can't remember what I said exactly. I do remember that I very definitely did not say what I was actually thinking. Like poor Norman Bates wrapped up in his blanket at the end of "Psycho," I had to show that I was sane. But what I wanted to blurt out was that the commentary for "Toy Story 2" was one of the very best I'd heard yet. A model of its kind. A benchmark.
Let me explain. Once you buy a DVD player, you quickly realize that superb picture and sound quality are merely the baseline attributes of the medium. Or that, at least, seems to be the thinking of the people who market DVDs, because they can't stop adding bells and whistles to the movies they package. The most bare-bones DVD will give you the movie, cast and crew biographies and maybe the theatrical trailer. But those are the exceptions, not the rule. Apparently every movie made now has a crew hanging around filming "The Making of ..." whatever is being made. So in addition to buying "Fight Club," for example, you also get a second disc that contains, among other things, a documentary about the making of "Fight Club." It's the same for "Tombstone" or "The Abyss" or "Lawrence of Arabia" or dozens of others. And now you can see what wound up on the cutting room floor, because many DVDs supply you with scenes cut from the version of the movie that played in theaters. The biggest and most ubiquitous extra added attraction, though, has to be the commentary track.
If, on the menu that precedes every film in this format, you select the commentary, what you get is the movie with the volume turned way down and a voiceover that continues throughout the film. Sometimes it's one speaker, sometimes several. Often, if he or she is still alive, it's the director's voice you hear, sometimes one of the actors, or one of the producers or the writer. On "Die Hard," you get the director and the production designer. If it's an old movie, you're likely to get a film scholar, and a staggering number of these academics remind you in short order that the pedantic Fleeber character in 1990's "The Freshman" is based solidly on reality. But sometimes you get lucky.
On "Citizen Kane," the commentary is handled by Peter Bogdanovich, who does a great job because he is a film director himself and because he knew Orson Welles intimately. And while Bogdanovich has published a book of his interviews with Welles and written extensively about his friend, there is real benefit to sitting there in the dark watching "Kane" with Bogdanovich at your shoulder, as it were, pointing things out, showing how the movie is put together, beginning with the factlet that in the opening montage, when the camera is showing various views of Xanadu, Kane's mansion, the lit window (Kane's bedroom) in the mansion, is always positioned in exactly the same spot on the screen (about one o'clock), no matter what's being shown in the foreground. This is of no great importance when it comes to understanding "Kane," but it speaks volumes about the fastidious care with which "Kane" was made.
It's moments like these that make me say that the DVD commentary track is one of the great breakthroughs in movies in the last half century. It is not an art form. It doesn't stand alone. It doesn't improve the movie it accompanies. But it can profoundly enhance our enjoyment of that movie--and it's a heck of a lot of fun.
The proliferation of videos pretty much killed off the movie houses that showed old movies. But how many cities had those revival houses? Videos made old movies and hard-to-find indie movies theoretically accessible to millions of hungry film buffs who'd never had access to theaters showing new releases. DVD commentaries significantly improve that situation. Don't have a good film school near you? Now you check out a DVD of "The Blue Angel" or "Vertigo" and listen--and watch--while scholars and filmmakers tell you about film history or the making of a particular film. The immediate effect of all this yakking is that you start watching movies a lot closer, and your understanding of how movies get put together is deeply enriched.
For my money, Francis Ford Coppola is the king of comment. Nothing can improve the first or second "Godfathers," but nothing beats sitting there listening to Coppola, always a world-class talker, tell about how these movies got made, scene by scene, as the movies unfold. The same is true of "The Conversation," the beautiful, small-scale film that Coppola made between the two Godfather movies. (Actually, watching "The Conversation" with commentary--and you can pick Coppola's or sound designer and film editor Walter Murch's, both good--is almost the only way I can watch this affecting movie. It's too painful otherwise. That gives the commentary track another role: esthetic intermediary: it distances up just enough from this scalding movie that we can watch it without winding up terminally depressed.) In the early scene where the paranoid Harry Caul, played by Gene Hackman, discovers that someone has been in his apartment, Coppola points out that he uses the camera in this scene as though it were an electronic device eavesdropping on Hackman. It's kept in a fixed position, swiveling slowly, when it moves at all, like a hidden camera. And while Hackman sits on his sofa, chewing out his landlord on the phone, we can see through the window behind him that a building across the street is being demolished, as though to show that no one's privacy is ever sacrosanct. Right there I felt like a dummy for never noticing these two small but salient details, and I began watching the rest of the movie a lot closer. (Now, will someone please tell me why, after they went to the trouble to rerelease "Apocalypse Now" with a new print and new scenes, nobody bothered to twist Coppola's arm to do a commentary on the new DVD?)
Some thrills are much cheaper, but no less pleasurable. Commenting on "The French Connection," director William Friedkin explains that the famous car chase scene is shot with the cars actually going 70 mph on New York City streets and that the drivers of the other cars in that scene have no idea that a movie car chase is going on around them. Yes, you could read this statement in an interview with Friedkin, but it would have nothing like the impact it has coming from the director while you're watching Gene Hackman chase that elevated train through New York.
There are bad commentary tracks. On "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," director Ang Lee and screenwriter-producer James Schamus employ a jokey tone wholly at odds with the movie we're watching. Some film scholars merely plod along pedantically, telling you what you've already seen quite well for yourself. And there are countless average movies accompanied by commentaries by directors who were plainly given the privilege as a sop to their vanity. But sometimes a bad commentary teaches things without meaning to. Compare, for example, the deadening, totally unspontaneous and often downright corporate commentaries Disney puts on its classic cartoons with the jokey and anarchic and completely beguiling spiels of the gang at Pixar: the comparison tells you everything you need to know about the very different approaches to creativity in these companies.
But when things go right, they delight us in a hundred different ways. Because you never know what you're going to get, because there are no rules and nothing is set in stone. Criterion Films, which is surely the gold standard on DVD releases, has the gold standard of the gold standard in "Seven Samurai," on which film scholar Michael Jeck tells you everything you could ever want to know about this movie, director Akira Kurosawa, Japanese films in general and the history of Japan. At the other end of the scale is something like "Spaceballs," a middling Mel Brooks movie even to those of us who worship him. But his commentary is worth every dime you'll pay for the DVD. He rambles all over the place, talking sometimes about the movie, sometimes about his career, and sometimes he'll just pause to say how much he enjoys someone's work in a particular scene. "If I'm silent," he says at one point, "if you don't hear anything, it's just because I have nothing to say."
That, of course, never happens. And on "North by Northwest," commentary by script writer Ernest Lehman, I heard what has become my favorite Hitchcock anecdote. Describing his working relationship with Hitchcock, Lehman said that on scenes that weren't working, he'd go off and write new versions and then bring them to Hitchcock to see what he thought.
Hitchcock, polite to a fault, would sometimes say that Mrs. Hitchcock did not like something in the script. But sometimes he would read a new version and then stare sadly at Lehman and shake his head and say, "Oh, Ernie, that's the way they do it in the movies."