Sunday, February 18, 2007

Track Marks, Part One

You never know what you’ll get with DVD commentary tracks. Some are pointless recitations of the action you’re already watching; others are brilliant and insightful companion pieces. Some will keep you rapt, others will have you hitting the STOP button after five minutes.

In the Netflix era, many commentaries probably go unheard in the rush to return the disc and get another. And if you weren’t that crazy about the film the first time, why watch it again? But occasionally the commentaries are hidden gems, sometimes more compelling than the films themselves.

They can also be instructive, specifically about how certain scripts were conceived, developed and eventually filmed. In his commentary for the special edition of THE FRENCH CONNECTION, director William Friedkin refers to the film’s handful of deleted scenes as “scaffolding.” You need them during the construction of the building, he says, but once it’s built, they’re redundant.

That’s true of writing fiction as well, I think. I had Friedkin’s remarks in mind when I cut nearly 20,000 words out of THE HEARTBREAK LOUNGE before delivering it for the first time. The initial draft had a lot of backstory on the characters, which was necessary for me to know as I was writing it. But once I’d completed that draft and understood the characters more, I could mercilessly trim what wasn’t essential.

Commentaries can also be master classes on the film in question, even when they’re recorded by someone not involved in the production of the film. The best example of that right now is Eddie Muller, a k a The Hardest-Working Man in Noir. Muller, who’s also the author of the novels THE DISTANCE and SHADOW BOXER, is one of the principal commentators on the Fox Film Noir series (he also co-authored the recent autobiography, “Tab Hunter Confidential: The Making of a Movie Star,” and runs the annual “Noir City” film festival in San Francisco.). Muller’s scene-specific commentary on films such as NO WAY OUT (pictured), ANGEL FACE and I WAKE UP SCREAMING are both entertaining and packed with information. Muller not only does his homework, but his enthusiasm for the films comes across as well. Often, as the final credits are rolling, you feel he still has more to say.

Over the next few days, and periodically after that, I’ll be listing (in rough alphabetical order) what I feel are some of the best – or at least most entertaining – DVD commentaries out there today. Comments and recommendations welcome.


Donna said...

I agree with you about the Eddie Muller commentaries - they are great (the man's a genius. His non fiction is superb, but his fiction is...a word that is beyond superb but it's 3.30am and I can't think of anything suitable...gobsmackingly brilliant, maybe). My favourite DVD commentary is Eddie's on BORN TO KILL with Lawrence Tierney and Claire Trevor. It's a mine of information - all of it interesting, that really brings the film and its stars to life. And there's a story about Lawrence Tierney that made me laugh out loud.

wstroby said...

In his great commentary on NO WAY OUT, Muller recalls a conversation he had with James Ellroy about which 1940s female noir stars would be worth going back in time to try to ... eh, you know. Muller's choices were Linda Darnell (one of the stars of NWO), Gloria Grahame and Ella Raines.

Other opinions out there? Guys? Gals? Don't be shy.

AnswerGirl said...

The scaffolding metaphor is brilliant, if only because I use it all the time myself...

I'd travel back in time gladly for one night with the "Cape Fear"-era Robert Mitchum.

David Terrenoire said...

I recently watched The Searchers again with commentary by Peter Bogdonovich. I'm not so crazy about him as a director, but as a film historian he's terrific.

And this may come from out of left field, but Slither is fun with a brilliant commentary by the director/writer who gives insight into making low-budget fright flicks.

JMags said...

What about commentaries that were once released and now are gone due to the ORIGINAL DVD being Out-of-Print.

For example on the Special Edition of FIRST BLOOD, there is a commentary by David Morrel, the author of the book. on the Ultimate Edition of FIRST BLOOD, it is not there. Gone!