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August 16, 2004

"Unlawful Entry" and Commentary Tracks

Dear Vanessa --

How have you reponded to directors’ commentary tracks on DVDs of movies? Until last night, I hadn’t sat through an entire one. I’d sampled a fair number, but I never made it through. A director’s commentary sounds like such a good idea; how better to learn about movies? Yet I’ve almost always wound up feeling like I’d wasted my time. Backstage anecdotes and on-mike horseplay can sometimes grab my interest; I remember enjoying the goofy commentary track for “Wild Things” for a few scenes, for instance. But it seems that few directors have much of interest to say about their actual work as filmmakers. But perhaps I'm a weirdo. What I want to hear about is how and why they made the filmmaking choices they did. I want to know about lenses, acting styles, visual design, editing strategies ...

More generally, I gotta confess that I dislike on principle the way movie DVDs come stuffed with extras. Always happy to be pleasantly surprised, of course. But I find that the extras almost always detract from the moviewatching experience. Their presence as part of the package shoots holes in the fictional pretense; the movie package now isn’t thought to be complete without a slew of extras.

(Do you find, as I do, that recent technology shoots holes in understandings generally? Cellphones disrupt private and public space; reality TV stitches holes in the TV schedule, overwhelming conventional drama and comedy; web publication doesn’t work well for fiction ... I wonder why this pattern should hold true.)

I do understand that DVD extras represent selling points, and that lots of people like them. And I understand that for many people the fun of a movie isn’t complete without the sales pitches, the backstage stories, the making-of reports, the interviews and gossip, and all the other whoopdedo. And, in many ways, a movie is often a phenomenon that goes beyond itself. But I find it a little creepy that the whoopdedo should be expected to be present on the movie-DVD itself. Its presence turns the film into a pretext for extras; the film becomes less a created world to be savored and experienced, and more like high-priced footage that’s the centerpiece of a digital extravaganza. Exceptions allowed for, of course: I enjoyed the short q&a with the director Catherine Breillat on the DVD of “Brief Crossing,” for instance, a film I loved and blogged about here.

Last night, though, I finally made it through the entire commentary track on the DVD of a movie -- the 1989 thriller Unlawful Entry (buyable here, Netflixable here). The film’s director, Jonathan Kaplan, seems to have arrived at the commentary-recording session determined to let us know what it’s like to make a suspense thriller, and listening to Kaplan talk while watching his movie unspool makes for an EZ and enlightening intro-to-movie-thrillers class. Kaplan seems delighted to play the role of “student of the art of cinema,” and it’s a treat to share his enthusiasms and interests for a few hours.

It’s a treat as well that the movie holds up as brilliantly as it does. Although I remember enjoying “Unlawful Entry” when it came out, when I watched it last night I was really wowed. What a first-class piece of work. Cannily diagrammed-out and paced ... Nearly always an enjoyable step or two ahead of you ... Skillfully tuned-into what you need and want to know ... Brought to vivid life by a super team of techies, artists, and performers (Kurt Russell, Ray Liotta, Madeleine Stowe) ... It’s a zingy, tense, and articulate entertainment.

Kaplan recounts that the film was an attempt to capitalize on the ‘80s genre known as the “from hell” genre, which had been kicked off by “Fatal Attraction” -- if “Fatal Attraction” established the theme with the “mistress from hell,” then “The Hand that Rocked the Cradle” was the theme’s “nanny from hell” variation, and “Unlawful Entry” (sexy title!) was the theme’s “cop from hell” variation.

Kaplan also says that he saw the film as an opportunity to work in the Hitchcock tradition: the visual-storytelling end of the filmmaking job, in other words, would be paramount. (A director working in this line wants the meanings of his film to be perfectly clear even if the soundtrack is switched off.) It’s impressive how successful he was at meeting the challenge. The film’s strategies are consistently gripping; if nothing else, his commentary track is a reminder of how much work, thought, and talent professionals are sometimes able to pour into a work of mass entertainment. This is just a snap judgment on my part that I may think better of in the morning, but the “Unlawful Entry” film-plus-commentary-track package strikes me as being almost as interesting, in filmbuff terms, as the famous Truffaut/Hitchcock interviews (buyable here).

I don’t want to overpraise the disc. Kaplan isn’t a verbally articulate man; his attention wanders about; and he neglects a good deal of what’s visible onscreen. He doesn’t discuss the film’s costuming and makeup choices, for instance, which are strong presences in the film; Stowe’s vulnerability is an especially effective visual element, yet he never speaks about how it was achieved. But the film is a first-class thriller, and over and over again, Kaplan points out choices and issues that you might otherwise miss. I fancy myself a filmmaking connoisseur, yet I hadn’t picked up one of the film’s major strategies until Kaplan talked about it: in many of the scenes, he doesn’t reveal the overall visual geography of the space until the scene’s end. (The more common thing is to establish a scene’s geography right off the bat.)

Come to think of it, the elements Kaplan returns to make for a decent list of the basic elements of filmmaking generally:


  • The manipulation of point of view.
  • How to move the audience’s sympathies about.
  • The art of the red herring.
  • How to direct attention and focus within the frame.
  • How to shade and balance the meanings of a scene.
  • How to move people on and offscreen.
  • The difference between suspense and surprise.
  • How, when, and on what basis to parcel out information.
  • How to establish plausibility and win the audience’s assent and trust.
  • How to handle a story’s inevitable implausibilities.
  • How to establish what’s emotionally at stake.
  • How to prepare, and how to pay off.
  • How to shift perceptions.
  • How and on what bases to make the major camera choices -- static, moving, or agitated; long lens or short lens; etc...
  • How to treat audience expectations. At a thriller, for instance, the audience often arrives already knowing who the bad guy is. How to involve them in the story despite this kind of pre-knowledge?

Maybe one reason that discussing the suspense-film form can be so enlightening and enjoyable is that the elements of the suspense genre are of the essence of the craft of moviemaking generally. (At least they’re of the essence of movies prior to about 1990, when movies started morphing into electronic media things.) The “art” end of a given work -- the transcendent, the magnificent, the immortal, the inspired, etc -- may or may not be present, and its presence is in any case is highly dependent on the person doing the experiencing. Which means that the “art” of a given film is often really difficult to discuss; even the best critics often make a hash of it. But a work’s craft elements are objective facts, and are always available for discussion. And since suspense as a movie genre -- which tends to be high/low, very formal, manipulative, audience-centric, sensationalistic, and voyeuristic -- seems to be close to the nature of movies, its craft elements can seem like the craft elements of movies generally. Brian De Palma often said that Hitchcock’s achievement was to lay out a good deal of the “grammar of film,” and I’m happy to accept that assertion. Camera angles and movement; sympathy and point of view; suspense itself; expectations and payoffs; bringing the package to life ... Aren’t these concerns that are basic to all movies? Well, to all non-electronic-media-thing movies, anyway?

Can you recommend any DVD commentary tracks? Eager to hear from any and all about the good ones, of course.

Best,

Michael

posted by Michael at August 16, 2004




Comments

Like you, I rarely make it through a commentary track. However, I like Paul Thomas Anderson's commentaries a lot. He talks about moviemaking philosophy, film heroes, and the artistic process, and throws in some on-set trivia, too. You get the sense that Anderson is a truly creative soul who loves his craft. Check out "Boogie Nights", "Magnolia", and his first film, "Hard Eight" (aka "Sidney"). (The latter stars a pre-fame Gwyneth Paltrow in a performance that by all rights should have won an Oscar. It's so rare to see an actor brave enough to play a character of lesser intelligence without winking at the audience. I'm not sure that explains what I mean exactly, but just watch her work, watch her eyes; it's truly impressive.)

Also, the commentary for Richard Linklater's "Waking Life" is enlightening, as it delves into the philosophy behind the screenplay.

On the lighter side, the commentary for "Ghostbusters" and for the "Mr. Show" episodes are a stitch.

Posted by: Stumax on August 16, 2004 02:00 AM



Thanks for the tips. PTAnderson's an odd one for me. I suspect I'd enjoy gabbing about movies with him, and he's certainly talented, but I don't like his movies, all of which I've seen. (Well, except the second half of that Adam Sandler thing.) For me, he's like Tarantino -- better to read an interview with than to watch the films of. But I know good moviebuffs who love Anderson's movies and see him as the real heir of the '70s crowd. You're a fan of his generally?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on August 16, 2004 02:49 AM



Come to think of it, you're making me think of another couple of topics and points: movies that have better commentary tracks than they are movies. As well as: movies you might watch for the commentary track but you've already seen the movie and don't really want to watch it again.

Which explains why I haven't tried out many of the Criterion DVDs -- I've already watched most of those movies and am not currently in the mood to re-watch most of them. But maybe their extras are worth the effort.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on August 16, 2004 03:33 AM



The near requirement of extras on a DVD is pretty much like "checkmark" features in software, that is features included so that the software can sucessfully compete in a "checkmark" comparison of features with its competitors.

Namely most people won't use about the extras, but will often base their decision to buy on the existence of those extras because they provide a concrete metric on which to judge their decision ("Do I buy X or Y, both where okay... Wait Y has commentary, I'll get Y - even if there's little chance of doing ever listening to the commentary). Magazine comparisons between DVDs are *especially* guilty of this.

Posted by: Tom West on August 16, 2004 08:18 AM



Check out the "Comedian" DVD. Version with commentary by Seinfeld and Colin Quinn (though neither is the director) is interesting in their takes on choices made, difficulties transferring live performaces to film, and commentaries on the cast are worth seeing, oce you've seen the film w/o commentary. Out takes were also particularly interesting, especially the bit where Seinfeld explains the nurturing of a comic bit.

Posted by: DarkoV on August 16, 2004 09:02 AM



The best commentary track, and the only one I've actually sat through from beginning to end, is on the special edition of "This is Spinal Tap". The lads of the fictional band add their commentary completely in character, and it is like a whole new version of the movie. If you are a "Tap" fan, it is hilarious. The same DVD also contains one of the best collections of deleted scenes, where the director, Rob Reiner, had strung together about 45 minutes of deleted scenes in chronological order, and since the movie is so episodic in nature, the extra scenes play like a short sequel to the film, filling in some gaps and providing a bit of background info.

Posted by: Rick Coencas on August 16, 2004 09:42 AM



I do enjoy the occasional enlightening extra. Por ejemplo, the Criterion release of La Strada includes a 20-min introduction presented by Scorcese where he gives a wonderful talk about the Fellini, the Italian neo-realists and their influence.

Though it's billed as an introduction, it's best to watch it after you've seen the movie (if you haven't already) b/c it's full of spoilers.

Posted by: The Bizness on August 16, 2004 09:52 AM



I would recommend "The Train" directed by John Frankenheimer. The movie is quite exciting (after a slow start) and a visual feast. The commentary on the DVD by Frankenheimer is quite interesting. He does discuss technical details (lenses, etc), framing issues, story points as well as oddball trivia (for instance, why certain characters met their fate in the movie).

Posted by: Michael T on August 16, 2004 09:54 AM



The Train is great. If your looking for nuts'n'bolts commentaries, anything from Frankenheimer fits the bill. "This shot is a fifteen millimeter... or is it twenty? No, it's fifteen." And all this after thirty years.

I've been told that the Coen Brothers and the Trey Parker/Matt Stone team both do very funny mock commentaries, but I haven't heard either.

Posted by: Brian on August 16, 2004 06:17 PM



I'm not sure I'd call it "great," but for sheer entertainment value you'd be hard-pressed to beat Hunter S. Thompson's commentary for the Criterion edition of Terry Gilliam's "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas." What made me a fan of this particular track was the fact that every fifteen minutes or so, you'd hear Thompson suddenly break out into a loud, howling squeal, followed by a smattering of "Hoo! Hoo! Hoo!" sounds. I wondered what the hell was going on, until just before the third or fourth time he did this... when I heard the faint sound of a balloon squeaking. It took several minutes for me to stop laughing at the thought of Doctor Gonzo doing whippets while recording his commentary track.

Posted by: Dirk Deppey on August 16, 2004 07:51 PM



you really have to either love the movie or be very dedicated to art to watch a commentary track.

most people watch the movie first, and then maybe look around the dvd for deleted/unrated scenes and alternate endings. I always watch those.

but the commentary tracks are usually useless, because you can't really *watch* the movie. I wouldn't mind reading the commentary track as text, but it's basically only useful if you're writing a paper or article on the movie and want to know why director X did Y.

It's sort of like reading the comments to code that's given to you as a package - only necessary if you're goign to do something technical with it.

Posted by: gc on August 17, 2004 05:10 AM



Roger Ebert's commentary on Citizen Kane talks about all the technical stuff, although you probably already know everything about that film. Commentaries on Kurosawa's Seven Samurai and Ran also have interesting technical discussions by film critics.

It seems that if you really want to know how movies are made, you've got to go to the critics.

In the commentary for Star Trek II (Wrath of Khan), the director mentions that to get a good performance out of William Shatner, you have to keep doing a scene over and over again until he gets bored and stops "acting". Just though I'd throw that out there :)

If you're interested in TV cartoons, the commentaries on the Simpsons and Futurama DVDs are informative and hilarious...

Posted by: ben on August 17, 2004 08:40 AM



The Lord of the Rings ones are good, although occasionally frustrating when you're longing to hear about why they did a particular bit that way and they finally get to that section and spend it prattling away about some backstage gossip. But Ian Holme's comments on acting, as you expect, can be very insightful and I find the technical side just plain interesting though I don't intend to do anything with it.

Generally I curl up and do some embroidery or sewing or something else that keeps my hands busy but my mind pretty unoccupied, so it doesn't feel like the time's wasted watching a movie I've already seen.

Posted by: Tracy on August 17, 2004 11:37 AM



I got turned around in Mansfield, Ohio one night last year and found myself a bit lost, looking through the prison fence at some really Gothic bit of incarcerational architecture. Thanks to the commentary track on the movie "Air Force One," I knew the Deja Vu that I was suddenly feeling was not spurious. (Though it does take some of the romance away to find out that a movie supposedly taking place in mysterious Russia and exotic Kazakhstan was mostly shot in Ohio...)

Posted by: Dwight Decker on August 17, 2004 02:28 PM



I myself am a sucker for commentary tracks. I sat through all FOUR on the "Fight Club" special edition. Yes, I have no life. I'm comfortable with that fact.

I'd have to say that the best one I've ever listened to would have to be the one on the criterion edition of Olivier's "Henry V". I can't remember his name but the film scholar who does it manages to pack a huge amount of information about the film, the play, and the historical Henry V and the battle of Agincourt into the running time. The entire thing is meticulously timed - he might comment on a scene as it plays, and then when there's a bit of exposition he will say "While they're doing this, we can talk a bit about..." The same guy did a track for Criterion's "The Lady Vanishes", and it's just as good.

A particularly interesting one is on Soderbergh's "The Limey". Taking the form of a conversation between Soderbergh and the screenwriter Lem Dobbs, some sparks fly as Dobbs accuses Soderbergh of missing the point of the script. Soderbergh mostly shrugs and says, "If you have such a problem, direct your own damn movie". Even more interesting is how the track is edited to mimic the film's looping time-structure: at various points, the flow of the conversation is halted and snippets from the beginning, middle and end of the track are played...

For all around fun, check out Kurt Russell and John Carpenter's track on "Big Trouble in Little China" - plenty of good insight into the process, and all around good cheer (at one point, the two forget what they're doing and start talking about their kids - it's priceless)

Another great conversation is Amy Heckerling and Cameron Crowe on "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" - they're having such a good time talking about the movie, they go on for 15 minutes after the credits have rolled...

The worst? That would have to be Mel Gibson's attempt at a commentary for "Braveheart". About all he manages to say is "It was really raining hard this day", and then lapses into long silences.

Posted by: jimbo on August 17, 2004 04:02 PM



Michael B -

Yes, I do like PT Anderson's films. I don't know what it is. I think he's one of those love him or hate him kind of guys. Magnolia really got to me, and I thought Punch Drunk Love was sweet and quirky and something worth seeing Adam Sandler in. I think Anderson's soulful and thoughtful. It feels like he's turning thoughts over rather than reaching conclusions, and I like that, and his commentary tracks are like that too.

Ben -

Thanks for reminding me about the Kurosawa commentary... really good stuff!

Jimbo -

No, worst commentary track ever is American Beauty. It's basically the director describing every scene in the movie as it's happening, while the writer, who's very interesting and insightful, speaks only twice at any length.

Posted by: Stumax on August 19, 2004 04:30 AM



Wow, commentary-track buffs everywhere! Who knew. Thanks for tips and suggestions.

I just remembered that I tried one that I'd been looking forward to -- the commentary track on "Buckaroo Banzai." Supposed to be smart, funny, a put-on but informative too, etc. I guess it was semi-kinda all those things, but I tired of it. I like the movie a lot, and some of the stories and details about making it were semi-interesting, though Richter didn't really talk much about filmmaking decisions. But the spoofy-put-on side finally wasn't very entertaining. Sometimes it seemed like he was turning his own movie into an episode of Mystery Science Theater, if you know what I mean.

The one thing he said that I really remember was about how hard it is to make a feature movie, something I've heard from other filmmakers too. I think Richter has only made two movies, and he seems proud of and pleased with both. But he also says that it's murderously exhausting to make a feature movie -- all the selling, pitching, casting, drama, arguments ... Tending to crew and cast ... Making one shot after another ... You spend days fussing over things like latex masks ... Anyway, he said that that's the reason he's only made the two movies; it just took too much out of him physically. Which left me thinking, not for the first time, about how filmmaking pre-selects the people who do it, if that makes any sense. In other words, by and large, the only type of people who make many feature films are people of enormous physical stamina (and presumably cast-iron egos). Not a field for the tubercular, or for shrinking violets ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on August 19, 2004 10:22 AM



I've been reading a biography of Fritz Lang, who directed his share of movies. He used to enrage his casts by expecting them to do take after take so he could get the visual aspects of the film more or less perfect--resulting in endless days (and nights) of filming. Apparently the secret behind his ability to keep on pushing his movies forward, year after year, was that he was a pretty heavy amphetimine user. (It also pissed off his cast and crew that he never wanted to take breaks for meals--heh, heh.) I'm sure it also helped that he was the Steven Spielberg of the German silent cinema, and mostly he got to make any movies he could think up--and to make them the way he wanted to make them--at least until he got to America and ran into studio executives.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on August 19, 2004 05:15 PM






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