Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Inventory: The 15 People You Meet Listening To DVD Audio Commentaries

Illustration for article titled Inventory: The 15 People You Meet Listening To DVD Audio Commentaries

1. The Irritating Academic

A longtime staple of Criterion Collection DVDs, Irritating Academics typically introduce themselves, then read whole passages from their books on the semiotics of slapstick (or whatever), while only occasionally noting what's happening onscreen. And even when they do sync up with the action, their observations tend to overscrutinize every element of the scene, as in this tidbit from The Lady Eve commentator Marian Keane: "A silent, random person cuts through the frame, carrying a large object. These quick moments of near-surrealism are Preston Sturges' acknowledgements that just outside this frame, there's a movie set." Um… they are?

2. The Nostalgist

Ah, wasn't the golden age golden? Don't agree? Well, pay attention to the Nostalgist, who will explain why the classic you're watching could never be made today, or in extreme cases, how the film represents an example of a lost art that contemporary filmmakers could never hope to match. In this category, nobody quite rivals Peter Bogdanovich, who uses the term "the classic directors" as an indirect jab against the no-talents of today. From his commentary for The Searchers: "Interesting that [director John Ford] doesn't go to [John] Wayne in a close-up. He does it in the dark. Again, the classic directors were judicious. They knew what an audience needed and what it didn't want."


3. The Narrator

The Narrator somehow imagines that the job of an audio commentator is to painstakingly explain what's happening onscreen for viewers too stupid to follow the action. Though Narrators seemingly derive great satisfaction out of merely explaining a film's storyline in jaw-droppingly literal terms, they're also generally keen on explicating how this relates to resonant themes and character motivation. The ultimate Narrator: R. Kelly, who interrupts his breathless narration-commentary of Trapped In The Closet just long enough to marvel at his own genius.

4. The Nitpicker

The Nitpicker is categorically incapable of seeing the forest for the trees, obsessing relentlessly on irksome details most viewers would never notice, while cavalierly ignoring a film's elephantine faults. On the Glitter DVD, director Vondie Curtis-Hall behaves as if he'd gladly trade an internal organ for an opportunity to redo tiny technical aspects of the film, while remaining curiously silent on slightly more glaring faults, like Mariah Carey's atrocious lead performance.


5. The Bloodless Technician

Bloodless Technicians inexplicably assume that anyone accessing their commentaries has a bottomless need for technical information about every aspect of a film, including where scenes were shot and at what time of day, what lenses were used, and countless other bits of ephemera of interest exclusively to the commentator. (In his commentary for Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind, George Clooney also thoughtfully mentions which film he stole nearly every shot from.) The Bloodless Technician stops just short of FedExing call sheets and itemized budgets to everyone listening.


6. The Strong Silent Type

Shhhhh! We're trying to watch the movie here! Some commentators like to go light on the commentary. Witness Dennis Hopper's Easy Rider track, which contains as many arid stretches as the American southwest seen onscreen. Or listen to virtually any Robert Altman track: They're cheerful and informative enough, but no one seems to be prodding Altman to talk any more than he wants.


7. The Fake Underdog

According to Fake Underdogs, the odds were so ridiculously stacked against them that it's a staggering miracle they ever got the chance to begin production on the movie they're discussing, let alone see it through to completion. Fake Underdogs invariably portray themselves as plucky Davids taking on formidable Goliaths, no matter how big their budgets or how dependable their source material.


8. The Lecher

Generally appearing on commentary tracks for vintage drive-in trash, The Lecher relives past glories by lusting anew after the same naked women he cast in his movies decades ago. The quintessential Lecher is quintessential nudie-flick kingpin Russ Meyer, who used to drop commentary-tracks bons mots along the lines of, "When gals lay down in the brambles, they get their ass scratched, and I like that," and, "I always liked wrought-iron beds, because they're reminiscent of whorehouses." But Meyer is challenged for Lecher supremacy by softcore smut producer Harry Novak, who opens his commentary for The Godson with the line, "I just like watching those big tits there."



9. The Indifferent Cast Member

There's a law of diminishing returns to group commentary tracks, because while two or three people in a room can make for a lively conversation, four or more often prompts awkward silences, as everyone waits for their colleagues to say something. The worst participants are those actors who probably shouldn't have agreed to appear on the track in the first place. Distracted, reticent, even pissy, these contract-fulfillers are usually the first to poop the party by grumbling, "Who listens to these things, anyway?"


10. The Smoker

Listen to the clinking of lighters. Hear the satisfied exhalation of the first drag. Notice the slight mumbling caused by clenched lips. The Smoker can't get through a track without indulging, and doesn't care whether you notice. This type is especially common among the great horror directors. George Romero tends to cough his way through tracks, while it's almost a pleasure to hear how much John Carpenter enjoys his smokes. Almost. (See also Kevin Smith.)


11. The Professor

The Professor turns every commentary track into a Xerox of the most insufferable Film Studies lecture you ever suffered through. Take the Twisted track, in which director Philip Kaufman tweedily discourses on the resonant themes, enduring archetypes, and timeless brilliance of his nearly universally reviled flop. Remember that obnoxious professor who assigned his own books in all his classes? The commentary-track Professor is that insufferable blowhard taken to the nth power.


12. President Of Own Fan Club

The President Of Own Fan Club types don't see the need for false modesty, or modesty of any kind. They view audio commentaries as wonderful opportunities to bask in their creative brilliance and pay reverent homage to themselves all over again. Prominent Presidents Of Own Fan Clubs include Michael Bay on The Island commentary track and the especially shameless Damon Dash on State Property 2.


13. The Explainer

Did a movie not go over well at the box office? Audiences didn't engage with it, or critics didn't approve? Maybe they just didn't understaaand it. Which is why The Explainer—usually a writer-director, often a first-timer—is there to lay out in detail what's going on in the characters' heads, or just under the symbolic surface. Explainers tend to be hyperbolically sincere as they justify their plots and their characters' actions in minute detail, letting listeners know what they're really seeing onscreen. See: David Duchovny's detailed analysis of his own imagery in House Of D, or Rebecca Miller's attempts to take all the ambiguity out of her gorgeous film Angela by putting her characters on the couch.


14. The Party Crew

Man, it was fun making that film. And man, it's cool to be back together again, watching that film and hanging out with some of the people involved. And man, it's really fun to drink a little, smoke up a little, or just get a social contact-high from hangin' out with the buds and our movie. Oh, is this all being recorded? And we're getting paid for it too? Dude, cool. There have been plenty of notable Party Crew commentaries, where the commentators seem far more focused on the fun of getting together than on the film or any potential listeners, but Trey Parker and Matt Stone (Cannibal: The Musical; South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut; Team America) and their associated friends invariably party the heartiest.


15. The Doddering Oldster

It's nice that so many Hollywood veterans are still around to share their memories of working on the classics, but not everyone can be like Stanley Donen, brightening up Criterion's Charade DVD with charming anecdotes. Some are more like the late Robert Wise, who couldn't remember much of interest about the likes of The Set-Up, The Day The Earth Stood Still, or Star Trek: The Motion Picture. And then there's Vincent Sherman, who croaks his way through tracks on Bette Davis and Joan Crawford DVDs, either rambling about his relationships with the actresses, or making assertions about the movies that are plainly untrue. Could these guys not be spared having to deliver a two-hour monologue, and maybe do a short on-camera interview instead? After all, that's why God invented featurettes.


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