One of the most pervasive effects that the digital age has had on the way we watch movies (or the way we don’t, if you prefer) is the emergence of audio commentary tracks. If you’re reading this and you’re somehow unfamiliar with this phenomenon, let me give you the quick version: an audio commentary is a separate audio track available on a laserdisc (extinct), DVD (endangered species), or Blu-ray (precarious new life form) that can be played in place of the actual soundtrack of the movie. Usually these are recorded by the filmmakers of the movies (or sometimes critics or stuffy film scholars) and provide details about the making of the film, inspirations, on-set anecdotes, that kind of thing.
Personally, I’m torn about audio commentaries—there are genuinely a lot of interesting insights that they can provide, however it drives me nuts to have something talking all the way through the damn movie. Several times I’ve tried to listen to a commentary only to turn it off because I kept getting distracted by the movie playing underneath it.
For that reason, I’m usually more of a making-of documentary kind of guy—especially the greats, like Hearts of Darkness and Burden of Dreams (seriously…watch Fitzcarraldo and Burden of Dreams back-to-back—best double-feature ever). And the 3-hour doc on the Blade Runner DVD? Heaven. But there is also an undeniable appeal about actually sitting down with the filmmaker for the duration of the film and listening to him talk openly about his or her creation. Some directors are up to the challenge and are a joy to listen to, others not so much.
Kevin Smith is always very candid and funny in his commentaries, and David Fincher, very in-depth and informative. However, there are also great iconic filmmakers who are simply a bore, like William Friedkin, who spent huge chunks of the audio commentaries on both The French Connection and The Exorcist just describing what was happening in the plot of the movie. It was pretty awful.
Another thing that bothers me is that too many movies have commentary tracks that just shouldn’t have them at all. In my opinion, it really ought to be a more selective process as to which movies get them and which don’t. However, it seems that just about anything will get a commentary track slapped on it even when there’s no discernible audience that would be interested in it—did you know that the DVDs for both Cheaper by the Dozen and Cheaper by the Dozen 2 have director’s commentary on them? Who the hell listens to that?? At as certain point, we’ve got to ask ourselves…is it really worth it?
For some directors—a lot of the more interesting ones—it’s never worth it. They have their reasons, and some of them are quite good, but in a world where Uwe Boll blathers on and on about how he made an epic as stirring as Bloodrayne 2, I wish we could hear a little bit more from some genuinely terrific filmmakers about their most intriguing projects. So here is my list five great directors that absolutely don’t do ‘em and they movies they should deign to commentate in the highly likely situation that they ever have a gun to their heads by a madman forcing them to record a commentary. I like to be prepared for these things.
1. Steven Spielberg
WHY HE DOESN’T DO ‘EM: It’s pretty common knowledge that King Spielberg doesn’t do audio commentaries for his movies. Never has, never will, not for anything. His general idea is the most common reason that filmmakers have for not doing commentaries—he believes the movies should speak for themselves. Of course, you can take this for what it’s worth from the guy who put those ridiculous ‘old war vet Ryan’ bookends in the otherwise terrific Saving Private Ryan, but I can definitely understand the sentiment. By a certain point in some commentary tracks the movie ceases to be a movie and becomes more of a specimen…so with that in mind in the interest of Mr. Spielberg, let’s pick the most interesting specimen among the man’s filmography…
IF HE HAD TO DO ONE…I’d pick Hook. Yeah, I said Hook. Frankly, I fear that Schindler’s List might end up a bit too back-patty, and with Munich he’d probably just spend all 164 minutes insisting that he’s not attacking Israel. And, really, what all is there to say about Raiders of the Lost Ark or E.T. or Close Encounters of the Third Kind that hasn’t already been said in countless making-of and behind-the-scenes featurettes? I also understand that Jaws had a notoriously difficult shoot, but I also understand that that’s covered extensively in the feature-length documentary The Shark Is Still Working which has been making the rounds at film festivals for about four years. Hook, on the other hand, is either a forgotten gem or a movie my nostalgia has exponentially glorified. Either way, no one talks about Spielberg’s revisionist Peter Pan story anymore and it’s widely regarded as one of his misfires. Personally, I’d love to hear him revisit the movie, give us his candid thoughts on it, and perhaps tell a story or two about what a pain in the ass Dustin Hoffman is to work with. I have a feeling that there’s a lot to be said about Hook that just isn’t being said. (Fun fact: Quaid and I came so close to naming this site “The Boo Box”…but the URL was taken. Go figure.)
2. David Lynch
WHY HE DOESN’T DO ‘EM: The eccentric director of countless classic mindfuck movies won’t do commentary tracks. And pretty much for the exact same reasons as Spielberg. I have a book by Lynch called “Catching the Big Fish” which was entirely too expensive for the amount of material it covers, but it’s still pretty interesting because David Lynch wrote it and let’s face it—he’s a pretty interesting dude. In it, he addresses this issue and says, “I don’t do director’s commentary tracks on my DVD releases. I know people enjoy extras, but now, with all the add-ons, the film just seems to have gotten lost…Director’s commentaries just open a door to changing peoples’ takes on the number one thing—the film.” Call it pretentious, but personally, I can see exactly what he means. Lynch has another habit of not putting chapter stops on the DVDs of his films because he insists they be viewed as a whole. That’s pretentious.
IF HE HAD TO DO ONE…My choice would be his most recent film, 2006′s Inland Empire. It seems that this one affords him with the most interesting things to talk about. For one thing, I’d love to hear what he has to say about his new love for digital filmmaking and why he chose for Inland Empire to look so grainy and unpolished (as opposed to the pristine shine of 2001′s Mulholland Drive). I have my own ideas about why he did it, and I know that’s what’s most important to Lynch, but I’d still like to at least hear him talk about the format. And of course there’s one other reason that a commentary for this movie would be intriguing, and it’s sort of the obvious reason…
I mean, look, the movie is three hours long. Don’t you think in that time span he might drop some kind of hint as to what the hell you’re watching? And knowing Lynch, I’m sure it would be a hint that steered you down the right path while making you even more confused, hence making the movie even cooler! Damn, I love Lynch.
3. The Coen Brothers
WHY THEY DON’T DO ‘EM: The Coens surely have the most respectable reason on the entire list, which is quite simply that they have no interest in the obnoxious ego-stroking that goes into each and every director commentary track on the planet. In an interview, Joel Coen said “Usually I don’t want to sit down and listen to the director gas on about his movie. I just can’t actually imagine myself sitting down and having that much to say.” The more and more I learn about them, the more I’m convinced that the Coen brothers are the most humble (for-real humble) and likable great filmmakers…maybe ever. They actually did record a track with Billy Bob Thornton for 2002′s The Man Who Wasn’t There and while I have the DVD, I’ve never listened to it because I’ve heard there’s a lot of dead air and they don’t really say much of interest about the film. Also, the original DVD release of Blood Simple contains a famous mock commentary track, for which the Coens themselves wrote the script. In it, a fake film historian talks about the making of the movie, providing preposterous details the whole way through (such as the claim that the first scene was shot upside-down, with the actors reading their dialogue backwards). Is it just me, or are the Coen brothers awesome people?
IF THEY HAD TO DO ONE…I’d like to hear their insights on 2009′s A Serious Man. Obviously, it’s one of the brothers’ more personal films, drawing largely on their very Jewish childhoods, so I’m sure there’s lots to talk about there. Also I’d like to hear them talk about their decision to make a film comprised of a cast of almost exclusively unknown actors, especially after just having come off their biggest box office hit (to that point), Burn After Reading, which boasted quite the star-studded cast.
4. Quentin Tarantino
WHY HE DOESN’T DO ‘EM: You got me. Tarantino is one of the most ego-centric, not to mention really damn chatty, filmmakers on the planet who makes no bones about how much he loves his movies. Which is fine, really—if he didn’t love them he wouldn’t make them. Filmmakers should be allowed to be fans of their own movies. But what’s really strange is that Tarantino will do commentaries for other peoples’ movies. He’s on the track for From Dusk Till Dawn which he wrote and starred in, but didn’t direct. He’s also shown up on commentary tracks for Hot Fuzz, Hostel, and a few others I believe. Just not his own movies. Perhaps it’s his way to have his cake and eat it too—he can rub his ego all over other peoples’ movies—which clearly must be lesser films—while letting his own movies “speak for themselves.” You know, Tarantino is an immensely talented dude, but sometimes I just want to smack him.
IF HE HAD TO DO ONE…It would have to be Inglourious Basterds. Tarantino loves to talk about movies—and that’s what all his films are about just below the surface: movies. Now, depending on the specific subject at hand, listening to him talk about movies can be either extremely interesting or extremely boring. Personally, I have no interest in listening to him go on and on and on about 70s genre movies or martial arts movies, all of which I don’t believe to contain nearly the level of veiled artistry that he sees in them. (He tends to have a hard time distinguishing personal nostalgia from real art. Thankfully, it doesn’t effect the quality of his work.) So that leaves out Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown, Kill Bill, and Death Proof. And we’re left with Inglourious Basterds, his best movie and an homage to truly great classic war pictures and silent-to-WWII era European cinema. And I’d love to hear him talk about those movies. I’m sure getting this track recorded wouldn’t be too difficult. Just sit really close to him at any screening of the movie and be sure you’re wearing a wire. He’ll do the rest.
5. Terrence Malick
WHY HE DOESN’T DO ‘EM: Well, to be perfectly honest, he doesn’t do much of anything besides make his movies and disappear. He’s a very private person, that Terry Malick. He doesn’t grant interviews; he doesn’t even allow for his photograph to be taken. It would be ridiculous to expect him to record a candid commentary track for a DVD. Malick recently supervised the Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray restorations of both Days of Heaven and The Thin Red Line but sat out for both when it came time to record the commentary tracks, leaving his production designer, Jack Fisk (who has also worked with David Lynch a few times), editor Billy Weber, and a small handful of others to take the reins in his stead. I recently listened to the Days of Heaven commentary and it’s a very good track, but I would have loved to have heard what Malick himself had to say. The damn guy just won’t come out of his hidey-hole…
BUT IF HE HAD TO DO ONE…Ugh!! This one’s tough. Real tough. In the 38 years since his first film, he’s only made four movies from which to choose, but this still manages to be the toughest call to make on the whole damn list. I suppose what makes it such a hard choice is Malick’s mysterious nature and his notoriety for having many a lengthy post-production. I wouldn’t pick Badlands, because I’ve actually read some quotes from him about making the film, so there’s one that doesn’t exist in absolute secrecy. I don’t think I’d pick The New World either simply because the remaining two films, Days of Heaven and The Thin Red Line, bookend his twenty-year filmmaking hiatus and would surely provide for the most interesting discussion. It’s still a tough call between the two, but I suppose I’d opt for Thin Red Line, if only because it’s my favorite film of his. In fact, while I’m off in this death-threat dreamland, I’ll request that this commentary be recorded by Malick and the three editors that he worked with for a year and a half shaping and completing the film—that would be positively ideal. Alas, it will never happen.