Disappointing DVD commentaries

1st September 2008 – 2.17 pm

Despite the wealth of extras that often accompany a film's release on DVD I rarely watch many of them, only occasionally enjoying a behind-the-scenes feature or the out-takes, with the exception of the audio commentary, which I am generally quite keen to experience. I enjoy listening to the commentaries along with the films for a couple of reasons. First, I am a bit of a dunce and it is enlightening when the filmmakers point out the subtle, or glaringly obvious, references and plot directions that I invariably miss the first three times I watch a film. Second, I find the process of filmmaking interesting, and insights in to how the film was shot, where it was shot, how it was editted, and other hidden aspects of the film is fascinating.

It is shame then that quite a few DVD commentaries fall short of my expectations. I recently started watching Michael Clayton with the director's commentary, and yesterday watched Hellboy with the Guillermo del Toro commentary, but neither held my interest for too long. That is not to say that either commentary wasn't interesting, for they indeed have insight in to the production of the film as well as insightful anecdotes, it's just that they often bore no relevance to what was being shown on the screen. Del Toro had plenty to talk about in relation to the comic books and authors and how he was keen to bring the script to life, how the film was practically ready before other films like X-Men and Spider-Man were shot, and other such titbits of information, but there were not too many scenes talked about specifically.

I find it difficult to concentrate on the kind of commentary that talks about aspects of the film other than what's on the screen because of the disconnect between what I am hearing and what I am seeing. Part of me wants to watch and understand the film being shown, and part of me wants to listen to the commentators and learn or be entertained by them. When the commentary doesn't match with the film I will either lose interest in the commentary and try to concentrate on the film or lose interest in the film and listen to the commentary. With the former, I would rather be watching the film and will be unlikely to return to the commentary, so I try to do the latter instead, and when I concentrate on the commentary I find that I cannot also concentrate on the film because it is mostly irrelevant. I cannot sit and listen to the commentary with no visual stimulus without getting fidgety, and the video serves as nothing more than a distraction.

I could turn the television off and just listen to the commentary, but then I am left with nothing for my body to do. I am quite happy to relax and let my visual and aural systems be entertained by a film, but if my visual system isn't being stimulated I will look for something to do, and most of the time that something will end up stimulating my mind too, thus causing a lapse of concentration on the audio. I have yet to find anything I can comfortably do whilst listening to an audio commentary that doesn't distract me from the commentary or lead me to fall asleep from lack of stimulation. Perhaps the best option would be to rip the audio commentary to my iPod and listen to it on walks or on a train journey. I would much prefer a commentary that I can watch with the film, though. I found the commentaries disappointing because they did not enlighten me about the film as much as I would have liked, and because of that I thus could not enjoy the separately interesting aspects of the commentaries themselves either.

I was quite happy, therefore, to listen to Bennett Miller and Philip Seymour Hoffman's commentary on Capote last night. Not only were there the usual anecdotes about the struggles and fortunes of getting the film made, and how every actor was simply fabulous, darling, but they were nearly all relevant to the scenes being played. Even when the commentary wasn't an insight in to the plot or character motivations, which was still wonderfully frequent and helped to advance my understanding and empathy with the film, the comments were directed to where the extras came from, what the shooting schedule was like, how freezing cold it was, the editting used to cut in reaction shots taken months apart, and other such snippets of information. The commentary was able to hold my attention whilst letting me keep up with the film, and that's just what I am after.

To end, I shall note that one of my favourite commentaries is still that of Christopher Nolan for his remake of Insomnia. Using the flexibility of DVD Nolan presents the commentary with the scenes in the order in which they were shot, not in the film's chronology, so we get to see first the actors on the first day of shooting and end the film with the wrapping shot. Whilst other films often mention which were the first and last days of shooting it is not as effectively presented as in the Insomnia commentary, and it is truly insightful to the filmmaking process to see what the actors have to get to grips with early on and how they have to fit the character emotions in with the anachronistic shooting schedule, and watching it can give a much better appreciation for the job.

  1. 2 Responses to “Disappointing DVD commentaries”

  2. Ironing is the traditional thing to do in the Bug household while DVD commentaries are on.

    I thought the commentary on Once Upon A Time In The West was good, and that one does stay relevant to the scene then playing. (Also, darn good film!)

    By BugBot on Sep 1, 2008

  3. That sounds like a good plan, although it would require me to start ironing my clothes.

    By pjharvey on Sep 2, 2008

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