So. Recently I've been listening to a lot of DVD commentaries on my iPod. Not sure why exactly, other than to say I seem to go through these obsessive phases every now and then. For example, a short while back I was listening to a newly-remastered Beach Boys song I'd downloaded from itunes - it was the new crisp, stereo version of the previously muddy-sounding 'Do It Again', where you could finally hear the instruments and heavenly vocals - and the moment it was over I had to listen to it again. And again. And again. God knows how many times I played the damn thing, but it was like a switch had been pressed at the back of my brain, and from that moment on I found myself compelled to listen to the rest of the Beach Boys' back catalogue every spare moment I could get. Hell, I know what I'm like, and so I simply gave in and enjoyed it while it lasted. Of course, after a while this mild compulsion waned enough that I was able to move onto other things, like reading books, eating, sleeping, etc. That is, until my next little fixation inevitably came along and took hold.
And so we come to DVD commentaries, my current preoccupation. Now, being a certified movie buff, it should come as no surprise to anyone that I love audio commentaries. I mean, how could I not? They're such a great concept, and so simple too (originally created by Criterion back in 1984 for their King Kong laserdisc, fact fans). In fact, they're the main reason I invested in my very first Cyberhome DVD player all those years ago. ('Whoa. You mean I can actually switch audio tracks and listen to John Carpenter describing in great detail how he directed 'Assault on Precinct 13' while I'm actually watching the film? As though he's in the same room with me? Like we're two buddies shooting the shit? Say no more, my good man. Here, take my money.') And through the years, as I've assembled a sizeable collection of my favourite movies on shiny disc format, the one special feature I always hope for whenever an old - or new - fave of mine gets a release is an audio commentary. Hopefully a decent one, because believe me, there are a lot of bad ones out there - featuring disinterested participants who'd rather be anywhere else than in a stuffy recording studio, or directors/stars/production-crew-members who still haven't cottoned on that listeners don't really want to hear them describe exactly what's happening on the screen for ninety goddamn minutes. That's what the 'visually-impaired' track is for, forchrissakes. Or worst of all, participants who are either deathly dull (hello, Tim Burton) or those who say so little over the course of the film that you wonder why they bothered showing up at all (I'm speaking to you, Rob Reiner).
But the good commentary tracks? Ah, they're to be prized. And to be listened to more than once. In fact the really good ones can almost be treated like entities unto themselves - you know, like an audiobook - where you don't even need to be watching the movie to enjoy it. And these are the ones I've been listening to on my iPod lately. The good ones. Such as...
THE THING (1982) - Commentary by Director John Carpenter & Actor Kurt Russell
Ah, 'The Thing' - one of my very favourite movies from one my very favourite genre directors. I was fortunate enough to see this at the flicks when it first came out - with my best friend at the time - and I recall us both emerging exhausted from the cinema two hours later, completely blown away at how good the film was. It's only gotten better with time. Made over thirty-five years ago, the movie's barely aged a day and I find I can still rewatch it every few years without getting bored. From the smooth, unhurried direction to the great special effects (which still hold up) to the ensemble acting, to the wonderfully atmospheric Ennio Morricone score, everything about the film works.
Unless you've been hiding in a cave you probably know the story already. It's an old one, based on the classic Ten Little Indians premise (see also 'Alien'). This time, a ragtag group of misfits working in a remote Antarctic scientific base find themselves infiltrated by a parasitic alien lifeform that's able to assimilate other organisms and imitate them perfectly (see dog above). Or almost perfectly. As the body count rises, so does the paranoia amongst the remaining survivors. Much blood is spilled. Things don't end well.
Now 'The Thing' was one of the very first DVDs I ever bought - if not the very first - and I still consider it one of the best in my collection. And it's not hard to see why. I mean, not content with including an excellent documentary ('Terror Takes Shape') that's almost as long as the movie itself, the makers go one better by chucking in a fantastic commentary track that's since become a mainstay in every one of those 'DVD Commentaries You Must Hear' lists. Like this one. And the reason for that is ridiculously simple. Want to know what it is? It's this:
John Carpenter. And Kurt Russell. In a room together.
That's it. That simple formula is all you need to make a great commentary track. The two had already proved it once before this with the 'Escape From New York' laserdisc (since transported to the DVD version), and they also proved it again a couple of years after this when they reunited for the hilarious 'Big Trouble in Little China' DVD commentary. But the track for 'The Thing' is still the tops in my book, and most everybody else's, it seems. Right from the start it's obvious that the two are friends of long standing who thoroughly enjoy getting together again to reminisce over old times, and they enjoy a great rapport throughout. It also helps that neither man is afraid to take the piss out of the other at the slightest opportunity, and the good-natured ribbing is often accompanied by Russell's distinctive, and highly infectious, laughter. No other way to put it, this often hilarious yet hugely informative track is simply a joy to listen to. For example:
(During the autopsy scene)
Carpenter: 'We're about to cut to one of the delicious shots that the audience was repulsed by. Basically what you have is a kind of rubber creature where Brimley reaches in and pulls out some fresh liver (laughs). Brimley, having been a real cowboy, had no problem and was trying to tell us what it's like to...
Russell: 'He's just skinning a deer there.' (laughs)
Carpenter: 'That's it.' (laughs) 'That's basically all there is. Look at how he sells it, he kind of squishes it around (raucous laughter) brings it out...'
Russell: 'Attaboy, Will!'
Carpenter: 'One of the reviews at the time called me a 'Pornographer of Violence' (laughter from both) which really made me have second thoughts about my career.'
Carpenter: 'We're really going to blow this whole place to smithereens now. And now, in comes a tractor, with someone who looks a lot like you driving it (laughter from Russell) Kaboom! as it goes through the stage floor...'
We learn that not only was it an all-male cast, but an all-male crew too. There was a female script supervisor for awhile, but she was heavily pregnant at the time and had to return home partway into the shoot. (Although not mentioned on the commentary there is a very brief female presence in the movie: the voice of MacReady's chess computer at the start - supplied by Adrienne Barbeau, Carpenter's wife at the time. She wins, by the way.)
A beautiful half-wolf/half-husky named Jed plays The Thing in its early stages (again, see photo above) and Carpenter and Russell are still in awe at how great he is during the scene where he strolls along an empty corridor calmly checking rooms as he seeks out his next victim, without once looking at the camera. And all in one continuous thirty-second take too. Carpenter: 'Here comes the dog, this is quite an amazing shot. He's doing this all by himself. The dog hesitates at the door... he looks in... he stops... he checks out somebody in the other room. He pauses... then moves, doesn't look at us, as we pull back... Then he stops and stares... and goes in. Amazing work for an animal.'
We also learn that not only did they make up the ambiguous ending pretty much on the day, but Kurt Russell himself came up with the perfect last line. Nice one, Kurt.
Okay, let's get the obvious out of the way first. Capricorn One is not a masterpiece by any stretch of the imagination, and Peter Hyams sure ain't no Kubrick, but who cares? The movie's been a fave of mine since I first saw it on VHS (remember VHS?) back in '80 or '81, when I was but a callow youth of indeterminate age. Call it a guilty pleasure if you must. Except I never feel guilty about liking something, so scratch that. No, what we have here is a cracking little 'seventies conspiracy thriller about a faked mission to Mars, featuring Elliot Gould in his prime as a tenacious reporter trying to get to the truth, while evil NASA agents in helicopters chase after the three escaped astronauts in question (James Brolin, Sam Waterson, OJ Simpson) before they can reach civilization and spill the beans. Let's face it, you've probably seen it on TV so you know the story already. And while the film doesn't have the most believable of plots, it still moves along at a great pace, is accompanied by an awesome Jerry Goldsmith score, and the script is smart and funny, and the cast (including small supporting roles for the lovely Karen Black as a rival reporter, and Telly Savalas as an ill-tempered crop-duster pilot) are great value.
So when I learned a while back that Hyams had provided a commentary for the US Special Edition DVD of the movie (Region 1 only, folks), I felt compelled to go online immediately and snap up a copy for myself. And I'm so glad I did. The erudite and droll Hyams is a pleasure to listen to, and somehow manages to keep talking for almost the entire film, only occasionally lapsing into silence if a particular scene takes him by surprise by being better than he remembered. He's also surprisingly self-deprecating ('I'm somebody who doesn't think he's the best director even on my street, much less the world.'), engagingly honest ('It's kind of impossible to look at this and see O.J. and not get a certain amount of chills, knowing what he did later') and supplies a plethora of behind-the-scenes info that even I'd never heard before, such as the fact that the rattler Brolin kills and eats in the movie was a prepared carcass that had been cleaned and filled with the rawest of raw fish, then sewn up again so Brolin could cut it open on camera ('No snake was killed in the making of this film,' Hyams assures us. 'That snake was already dead, I promise you.'). And the blood was honey with red dye. Jesus. One can't help thinking that eating actual dead snake might have been tastier.
He also finds time to disclose one or two amusing factoids that had never occurred to me at all, such as: 'Some directors have won lifetime achievement awards. Some have won multiple Oscars. But I think I'm the only director who had two leading men formally charged with the first-degree murder of their wives.' (The other one's Robert Blake, in case you're wondering). Later, he confesses that he also holds the dubious honour of being the only director to make a movie - this one - where the two lead roles are played by Barbara Streisand's husbands. Bet you didn't know that, huh?
But the absolute best quote on the track comes when a parched OJ Simpson's in the desert looking desperately for water while the bad guys close in. After describing how he applied spots of glue to Simpson's face to double as sun blisters while also restricting his facial movements - and thus preventing any possibility of overacting in the scene - Hyams ends with the immortal words, 'Amazing how a little glue can sometimes make an actor better.'
Words to live by, Peter. Words to live by.
TROPIC THUNDER (2009) - Commentary by Director/Actor Ben Stiller & Actors Robert Downey Jr and Jack Black
When you think of in-character commentaries (assuming you think about them at all, that is, which seems unlikely), the track that immediately springs to mind has to be the one on 'This is Spinal Tap' featuring the three main cast members as the Tap, still as gloriously dumb as ever, and mostly bemoaning how bad Marty di Bergi made them look in the 'rockumentary' ('All the times that we found the stage with no problem - why show this one?'). And, yes, it's a delicious side-dish to one of the funniest films ever made. But in my opinion there's another in-character track that tops even that for laughs, and that's the one for the recent comedy, Tropic Thunder, starring Stiller, Black and Downey Jr. Except in truth, it only partly qualifies, as Stiller and Black are most definitely not in character during the track... um...
See, in the movie, which purports to recount the filming of a hugely expensive Vietnam War epic that goes terribly wrong, one of the main characters is a ridiculously talented Australian method actor named Kirk Lazarus (Downey Jr) who's playing a black character named Sergeant Lincoln Osiris in the film-within-the-film, even going to the lengths of undergoing pigmentation surgery to darken his skin, and adopting a gravelly bass African-American voice at all times. Known for being deadly serious about his craft, Lazarus even says at one point, 'I don't break character til I done the DVD commentary.' Now Downey Jr obviously thought that was too good an opportunity to ignore when it came time to record the actual commentary track for the Thunder DVD, and so does the whole thing as 'the dude playing the dude disguised as another dude'. Throughout, Ben Stiller does his best to provide us with some genuine info regarding the actual making of the movie, while Jack Black constantly apologises for being late and chips in whenever he can with some cool character stuff, but this is essentially 'The Robert Downey Jr. Show' and they all know it. And so they quite wisely just sit back and let him roll with it for the rest of the movie.
Humour's totally subjective, of course, and the listener's enjoyment of the track will kind of depend on a) how much he/she liked the movie, and b) how funny he/she finds Downey Jr's improvisational skills. But as far as I'm concerned, what could have been a tiresome one-joke gag ends up as an absolute riot and often had me laughing more than the film itself. Even better, when the Osiris character switches back to Lazarus later in the movie, Downey Jr switches to that character's Australian voice in the commentary, only giving in and switching back to his own voice during the end credits.
Now that's meta.
Stiller: 'This scene actually went really smoothly, I thought, when we shot it. You guys had a really good rhythm going with each other.'
RDJ: 'Yeah, and we only did like sixty, seventy, ninety takes o' this. Fuck! (laughter) 'Member when you had him smack me all goddamn day, Ben? I 'member like it was fuckin' yesterday.'
Stiller: 'This was a fun scene to shoot.'
RDJ: 'Was it? (laughter) I was there, and I don't remember it as such.'
Stiller: 'How do you remember it?'
RDJ: 'As unadulterated torture. (more laughter) Oh, here I come, though. Everybody shut up.'
Stiller: 'I love that that we've actually accepted Robert in this voice for the whole commentary. And again, I find myself strangely liking this guy more than the real Robert.'
RDJ: 'You was all over him about the knittin' and how to make the knittin' look a certain way. You were fuckin' up his head that day, man. I don't know how he made it. You toxic motherfucker. (laughter) Damn, you wouldn't let it go. 'Cut. Back to one. Get the thread up. Doesn't look like you're threadin' the needle'. And, like, you don't even give a fuck in this scene. Man, you was trippin' on him.'
Black: 'One time I heard the commentary for Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon. Did you ever listen to that? With Ang Lee and, like, the head writer or...?'
RDJ: Hold on, man. You show up here tardy, and now you're talkin' about another fuckin' commentary?' (laughter)
THE LIMEY (1999) - Commentary by Director Steven Soderbergh & Writer Lem Dobbs
Oh, I do love this movie. In fact I think it might be Soderbergh's best, which is really saying something. Granted, the basic revenge plot (Brit gangster, fresh from long prison term, goes to America to get to the bottom of his estranged daughter's death) is about as thin as a bible page, and on the surface the low-budget film seems like an excuse for the filmmakers to play a modern-day riff on such classic crime movies like 'Get Carter' and 'Point Blank'. But there's so much more to it than that. With its heavy nods to the sixties, and its fractured non-linear narrative and wickedly witty script, Soderbergh instead gives us an almost touching meditation on regret and loss and bad choices and missed chances, all wrapped up in a gorgeous modern-day sun-drenched noir package. In this, he's aided greatly by Terence Stamp, who gives a fantastic performance as the single-minded Wilson, and there's some sterling support from other '60s icons such as Peter Fonda, Barry Newman and Lesley Ann Warren, amongst others.
Similar to other modern auteur directors, such as David Fincher and David Cronenberg, Soderbergh chose to embrace DVD commentaries from the very beginning and has not only provided comprehensive tracks for many of his own movies, but has even appeared on tracks for films by other directors (such as John Boorman's 'Point Blank'). As Soderbergh said in one interview: 'The key is to never do them alone.' And so for this one he takes his own advice and gets together with his primary collaborator on the movie, cranky screenwriter Lem Dobbs - who, it quickly becomes apparent, is not afraid to speak his mind ('I'll say, in your defence and mine, that screenwriting is a hopeless profession') and berate Soderbergh for some of the directorial choices he made. It's sometimes a testy affair, to be sure, but it's also obvious that this isn't a new experience for them and they clearly both enjoy needling each other whenever possible. It's that kind of relationship. But as far as I'm concerned, honesty is always preferable to false pats on the back, and it's clear that Soderbergh (who remains fairly good-humoured and unruffled for the most part) feels the same way.
But not content with that, Soderbergh then decided to take things that little bit further by editing the track until it matched the fragmentary nature of the film itself, in order to throw the listener off his/her guard whenever he/she least expects it. So, like the movie itself, the first minute of the commentary becomes a fragmented preview of what we can expect over the course of the next ninety minutes. 'We are rolling,' a sound engineer says, which is then followed by seemingly random snippets of heated dialogue between director and writer. Finally, the recording shuts off and then we start again, for real this time. But later on there are still instances where the audio is double-tracked, then sped up, and snippets are edited back and forth to mimic the fractured narrative of the movie. It's really well done, and it quickly becomes clear that Soderbergh has put a lot of thought into making the track as interesting as possible, and that's something I really appreciate.
Soderbergh: 'Now here's a scene a lot of people have commented upon, which you indicated very clearly in the script, that the camera stays outside as Wilson goes in. Because this is so much more interesting, to see him come out with the blood on his face.'
Dobbs: 'Well, yeah, tell me about it. I've read enough reviews that have praised the bravura direction - most notably that motherfucker in Variety - yeah, the brilliant direction of Steven Soderbergh. But that was one of the examples of a detail in the script that you actually directed that way. Thank you very much.'
Dobbs: 'When I read reviews that say 'style over substance' I blame you. I can't actually say they're wrong.'
Dobbs: 'It's your fetishist nature, and you want it to be very clear that there's a side street there, but you don't want any back-story for the human relationships or characters, but - goddammit - people are going to know there's a second way down that hill.'
Soderbergh: 'Yeah, I like knowing where people are. I don't care who they are. I just want to know where they are.'
Dobbs: 'I should say I hate this scene too. This Tarantino/Barry Levinson 'Whaddaya mean? I don't... What's a sliding scale?' I don't get it.
Soderbergh: 'I'm trying to develop character here.'
Dobbs: 'Ha! I can certainly do without that scene. Which I didn't write... Did I?'
Soderbergh remarks that the movie is 'a series of duos. Everyone has their sidekick. Terence Stamp has Luis Guzman, and Peter Fonda has Barry Newman. And then there are these two goonish hitmen.'
Dobbs: 'David Lean once said, "Never pop out the same hole twice."'
Soderbergh: 'Yeah, he was noted for his short films.'
To be honest it would be easy to carry on quoting gems like this, but since it's all like this I'd only end up transcribing the entire commentary and I have to end this somewhere.
On a related note, I should add that this is actually only the first of two commentaries on the DVD. The second one - featuring Terence Stamp, Peter Fonda, Lesley Ann Warren, Barry Newman and Joe Dallesandro, all seemingly pieced together from interview segments, plus further comments by Soderbergh and Dobbs - is actually labelled a '60s docu-commentary' and rarely touches on scenes in the film at all. Instead the actors - and Stamp and Fonda, in particular - give us some insight into their lives and careers during the sixties and how much of themselves they put into their onscreen personae, while touching on the actual culture of the decade as they remember it. It's one of those rare commentaries that seems to have been purposely designed to be listened to on its own, and is really fascinating stuff. All in all, a highly recommended disc.
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Okay. Now I had about eight or nine commentary tracks I wanted to discuss, and while I originally planned to cover them all in a single blog post I can see that was nothing but wishful thinking on my part. As usual things got a little out of hand and what was intended to have been a simple, one-paragraph, capsule review for each commentary turned into something a little more in-depth and convoluted. So I think what I'll do is cut this short right here and then cover the rest of my choices in part two, which should be ready in a week or two.
So do check back, and I'll see y'all soon.