Ask The A.V. Club - July 11, 2008
Step One: Procure $180,000,000
I was just wondering if there were any documentaries or TV shows that really showed the complexities of making a movie. It seems like such a huge coming-together of so many different departments, I'm amazed any movie gets made, but has there ever been a definitive document that compiles the process right from the start to its finished product?
Check the "Ask The A.V. Club" Special Edition DVD to go behind the scenes of how this answer by Noel Murray was written:
Ryan, if you're referring to documentaries that start in pre-production and follow the making of a movie all the way to its release—something deeper and with more access than the typical DVD puff piece, in other words—then yes, there have been a few. Not many, but a few. Eleanor Coppola brought a home-movie camera along while her husband Francis was making Apocalypse Now, and later, George Hickenlooper and Fax Bahr took her footage, added some new interviews, and made Hearts Of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse, a harrowing, occasionally hilarious look at Francis Ford Coppola's attempts to turn a Joseph Conrad novel into a statement about the Vietnam War. Equally top-notch: Les Blank's Burden Of Dreams, which documents Werner Herzog's particular brand of insanity during the making of Fitzcarraldo. (Sample quote: "The trees here are in misery, and the birds are in misery. They just screech in pain. It's a land that God, if he exists, has created in anger. There is some sort of a harmony. It is the harmony of overwhelming and collective murder.") As for TV, there were three seasons of Project Greenlight, each of which—in spite of their reality-competition origins—get at the compromises that Hollywood forces upon the well-intentioned.
There have also been several good documentaries either made exclusively for DVD special editions of movies, or made independently and later included on those DVDs. Peter Jackson allowed a crew to follow him through the whole process of making the three Lord Of The Rings movies, and though the resulting documentary is itself epic in length, it's also thorough and frequently fascinating. I'd also recommend Full Tilt Boogie, about the making of From Dusk Till Dawn, and The Hamster Factor, about the making of 12 Monkeys, from the directors who later documented Terry Gilliam's failure to complete Don Quixote in the riveting Lost In La Mancha.
Don't get too hung up on movies and TV, though. Though comprehensive "making of" stories are rare in the visual media, you can find any number of set diaries and reportage at your local libraries and bookstores. Two of the all-time greats: Steven Bach's Final Cut, about how the era of the '70s "Hollywood Brat" ended with the making of Heaven's Gate, and Julie Salamon's The Devil's Candy, which shows how Brian De Palma and company seemed to be making good (or at least necessary) choices during the making of The Bonfire Of The Vanities, and still ended up with one of the worst movies of its decade. Both are gripping reading, and essential for film buffs who want to understand better what a rare and wondrous thing a truly great movie is.
Skittles And Bits
Considering we're roughly a decade into the MP3 age, does The A.V. Club have any sense if hip-hop groups are including fewer skits on albums?
Though they're classic artists, Dr. Dre, Snoop, Wu-Tang and OutKast were all huge skit offenders. For every time it worked as a statement of purpose to give more insight into the artist (the intro to The Chronic or Wu-Tang Forever Disc 2 come to mind), there'd be the completely pointless track (I think GZA's Beneath The Surface had five or six filler intros/skits, and Stankonia had plenty, too.)
What I see more of these days is the seemingly-endless closing song that surpasses seven minutes and includes nothing but shout-outs, rants, or autobiographies (see Food & Liquor, Tha Carter III, and College Dropout.)
I like musical interludes in an album, but the filler must be stopped. Do producers realize that most of these MP3s are getting deleted after the first listen?
Nathan Rabin shouts out to his homies:
I have noticed that phenomenon as well. Skits are almost inherently worthless in their original context, but become borderline-surreal when sandwiched between incongruous tracks via iPod shuffle. It's bad enough when you're subjected to two incoherent minutes of Ghostface's posse shouting, punctuated by fake gunfire: When a track like that comes between, say, a Scharpling & Wurster routine and an Ella Fitzgerald standard, it's utterly jarring.
I do not want to taint my answer with the sickening stench of research or thought, so my fuzzy, uninformed sense is that rappers are increasingly moving beyond skits as hip-hop evolves from the CD era to a period dominated by iPods and (shudder) ringtones. There also seems to be a promising shift toward shorter, tighter albums, as rappers and producers come to realize that most music fans have an "all killer, no filler" mindset that's downright hostile to the bloated self-indulgence that has come to characterize so much hip-hop from this decade and the '90s. Hopefully the days of 75-minute rap albums and double-disc monstrosities are coming to an end.
Kanye West is a good example of this evolution. College Dropout and Late Registration boasted bloated running times and eminently skippable skits aplenty, but his last album, 2007's Graduation (which, it should be noted, is not as good as his last two) is short and devoid of skits. Like you, former Texas congressman and subject of an entertaining if ultimately disappointing Mike Nichols movie, I have noticed the tendency toward long, rambly final songs filled with spoken-word parts, autobiographical asides, and angry attacks on Al Sharpton, as found on recent albums like the ones you named and Common's last two discs. I find this development a lot more encouraging than the proliferation of skits. At least these rappers are generally trying to say something substantive, instead of just wasting everyone's time with stupid shit that cracked up their buddies when they were all high in the studio.
Say What You Have To Say
I've two questions regarding user comments:
1. How heavily does the number of user comments weigh in deciding whether to continue/discontinue/duplicate a column or feature? Would great features like My Year of Flops or Popless been allowed to wither and die without reader support?
2. Which five articles have generated the most user comments?
Tasha Robinson pauses for comments:
Comments aren't much of an indicator of success here, actually. While we always feel a certain level of accomplishment when the comment count on a given feature really takes off, that doesn't actually mean people are reading the piece, or engaging with it—just as often, they're chatting among themselves or playing one-upsmanship games with each other or whatever. More significantly, it doesn't mean that piece is necessarily bringing new, regular, unique readers to the site; the number-one metric we watch is our unique monthly visitor count, which is more likely to interest the advertisers whose money helps keep the site going. So rather than judging pieces on comment count, we check how many people are actually clicking on a given article—and the best-read ones often aren't the ones that draw the most comments. For instance, our best-linked and best-read article of all time—the one that was consistently making the most-emailed list and still drawing in an average of 5,000 new readers a day nearly six months after it was posted—garnered less than 300 comments total. (As of this writing, anyway.) Of course, the comment boards were significantly less developed as a community back then.
So a low comment count on its own won't kill a feature. And considering that both the features you cite were launched as yearlong experiments by their creators, I doubt a low view rate would have killed them off early either. But in either case, it would have been the creator's choice, not a mandated editorial decision. These days, we drive traffic in part through variety; A.V. Clubbers actually have quite a bit of freedom to launch and try out their own content and see how it flies. At most, an underperforming (i.e., little-read) feature might be moved to the blog rather than given feature space, or might be retooled over time. And we're more likely to kill a feature because the creator gets bored with it and feels it's played out (as happened with Games Of Our Lives, for instance) than because it isn't drawing enough traffic all on its own.
But since you asked, we had our handy web staff run the numbers and find out what our top most-commented-on articles were. Because we love you so much, we're giving you 10 instead of the five you asked for. Unsurprisingly to us, since our readership and the comment boards are both steadily growing, these skew toward more recent articles. They're also mostly Inventories, which tend to be our most-linked articles, and tend to run up a lot of comments from people both adding to our lists and separately discussing every single item in them. Enjoy.
3) Noel's season-four Lost finale write-up for TV Club (1164 comments)
4) Hang on to your ego: 16 great bands with more than one prominent lead singer (1101 comments)
5) Steven's blog tribute to terrible late '90s hits (1085 comments)
7) Little more than a cameo: 19 stellar cinematic one-scene wonders (1057 comments)
9) Not Again: 24 Great Films Too Painful To Watch Twice (1051 comments)
10) Let It Die: 23 Songs That Should Never Be Covered Again (1045 comments)
Next time: Lead actors vs. supporting players, our interviews, and more. Send your questions to email@example.com.