Q&Amp;A: Dvd Evolution

Peter Becker is president of the Criterion Collection, a 17-year-old company that has specialized in high-quality laser disc and DVD versions of classic and contemporary films. Their catalog runs the gamut from "Armageddon" to "Amarcord," from "Spartacus" to "The Seventh Seal." They work very hard on film restoration, they include lots of supplemental material to enrich enjoyment and understanding of a film and no one does better commentary tracks. NEWSWEEK's Malcolm Jones spoke with Becker:

NEWSWEEK: What are the origins of the commentary track?

Peter Becker: Film scholar Ron Haver's commentary on "King Kong" came out on a Criterion laser disc in 1984. It's still one of the greatest tracks ever. The Criterion idea has always been to push the limits of the medium we're working in. In those days, a laser disc had two analog audio tracks--stereo, L[eft] and R[ight]. "King Kong" was a mono, so what do you do with the other track? Commentary.

The laser disc?

A big analog platter, now the video equivalent of the LP.

Was that where the idea of putting on a lot of extras along with the movie came from?

Actually, no. "King Kong" was Criterion's second release. The first Criterion laser, "Citizen Kane," had extras, just no commentary. A laser disc could hold more than 50,000 still frames, so "Kane" included tons of images and text--shooting and continuity scripts, storyboards, behind-the-scenes photos and drawings--an early multimedia book.

How are the people chosen who will do the talking? Some of the choices seem very conservative (a film scholar for Preston Sturges's classic screwball comedy "The Lady Eve") and some seem equally wacky and inspired (matching Michael McKean and Christopher Guest, both of Spinal Tap fame, with a pair of critics for another Sturges classic, "Sullivan's Travels").

You try to do what's right for the film and for the audience. When the filmmakers are alive, we always try to record them for posterity. Otherwise, each Criterion producer has a slightly different style. It's a lot like being a curator. You're creating a context for the film.

Have you ever done a track that simply did not work? Why not? Or any funny situations that developed?

It's not really fun when tracks don't work. It's a lot of hard work, both for the commentarist and the producer. It happens every once in a while, and you just have to put it behind you.

Do you encourage people to improvise as they watch the film or are their comments, ad-libbed or scripted, left up to them?

Scholars usually prefer to script, but in most other cases we conduct commentary interviews where the subject can talk at length, with or without the picture playing. The producer has to be very well prepared to sustain an interview that may go on for three or four hours. It's grueling for both parties.

Do you have any dream combinations of films and commentors that you'd like to try?

We've always wanted Woody Allen to do an Ingmar Bergman film.

This may sound odd, but has an esthetic developed for commentary tracks? That is, a right way and a wrong way of doing things. For example, is reading your comment considered less admirable than simply talking your way through the movie? Or vice versa?

There may be, but we don't have any rules. Some tracks are scripted, some are built from interviews, some are a combination of both. Some tracks have one voice, some have as many as five. The new "Traffic" disc coming out in May has three commentaries: one with two voices, one with five, and one solo with music cues. Whatever it takes to do the job right.

By the way, if anyone tells you scripting is less admirable, they've never scripted. First of all, a scripted piece may be held to a higher content standard simply because it is prepared in advance. And scripting to time-code and performing a script to picture is extremely difficult. The people who do it well and make it sound effortless are artists in their own rights.

Do filmmakers, critics and scholars volunteer their services to you, i.e., can I do "The Palm Beach Story?"

Sure. But Sturges is spoken for.