DVD Commentaries as Film Studies

The Criterion CollectionA couple of days ago, I was commenting on The Q Filmcast episode on Ichi the Killer after writing my own review of sorts. In the crew, I think of James Savage as the intellectual. He was, for example, the one who made them watch Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. (Have I mentioned that I’ve made up a song for that?) But during the episode, he mentioned that he just didn’t get Japanese films. This shocked me coming from him of all people.

But I understand the sentiment. There are a lot of problems with enjoying Japanese cinema. Part of it is just the language—I can always tease out a little Italian or German or French, but I don’t know any Japanese. A bigger problem is that the cultures are quite different. But you could say the same thing about just about any country’s films. When I first saw Satyajit Ray’s Charulata (“The Lonely Wife”) I really didn’t get it. It seemed like a whole lot of nothing was going on, but now I consider it riveting. But the biggest problem with Japanese films is our lack of understanding of Japanese history.

The most popular Japanese films are those about samurai. But the samurai class existed in varying incarnation for hundreds of years. At one time it was all about the sword. Later the bow became the symbol of the class. And then during the Sengoku period, the gun becomes a big part of it all. And the issue isn’t just with the samurai pictures. A lot of films were made in the context post-WWII Japan and a lot of modern crime pictures require an understanding of the Yakuza. Clearly, people are not going to study Japanese history to enjoy Japanese films. (But those who do enjoy them may do so.) Luckily, it isn’t necessary.

Movies are wonderful in that you can sit through many of the greatest ones and have an expert explain it to you. I mentioned this to Savage, encouraging him to check out especially the Criterion Collection releases of Japanese films that add enormously to my enjoyment of all Japanese films. You simply don’t get this kind of opportunity if you want to improve your enjoyment of music or art. But this is generally only true for older art films. If Kurosawa were alive today, they would probably have him do the commentaries and he might provide a few insights but it would be nothing compared to what an academic like Stephen Prince provides.

So here is my list of DVD commentary types from worst to best:

Actors have almost no insights into move making. They might be able to give you a little insight into the characters, but that’s good for at most ten minutes. Comedians are the worst because they will just riff during the film, perhaps being amusing but not worth the time.
It depends upon the director, of course, but in general they provide a lot of stories about the production. “Oh, a funny thing happened during the shooting of this scene…” Really, I don’t care. The one thing that I’ve learned from listening to director commentaries, however, is that most directors are fairly unconnected to the film. They are like kings. They say what they want done and it is done. And most of them don’t have much of a reason for why they want things done. There is an exception here for low-budget directors because they do have to be involved in all aspects of the movie making. But they too tend to focus on trivialities. I would add producers to this group, although they are generally a bit better than directors.
Department Heads
Editors especially can provide some interesting insights into not just the filmmaking process but also the story itself. Sometimes cinematographers have interesting things to say. Composers can also be interesting. But these commentaries are rare regardless.
Screenwriters are often very informative, because they understand the context for the story and what at least they were trying to do. But they are so often pushed to the margins of filmmaking, that their eagerness can be downright embarrassing, “You mean you actually want to listen to me?!” And better than screenwriters are the writers of the original source. Sebastian Junger’s commentary for The Perfect Storm is a great example.
In general, I prefer academics—film historians who not only know the film but its full context including everything about the people who made the film. But experts don’t have to be academics. An ex-CIA agent did a very useful commentary for RED; I didn’t learn anything about that comic book film, but I learned a few things about how CIA agents work. Number one asset for an agent: knowing how to steal a car.

That’s more or less how I see it. There are exceptions. Any person can in theory make a good commentary track. Just the same, I don’t always like academics. Michael Jeck, for example, annoys me because of his full embrace of the auteur theory. But I am willing to put up with that because he also says a lot of non-annoying stuff and I’ve learned a lot from him over the years.

I know that a lot of people think that commentaries are just for nerds. And I suppose that is to a large extent true. But pretty much everyone I know who is really into film is a nerd. The non-nerds are out dancing or having sex or whatever it is that non-nerds do, because how would I know? But commentary tracks really can be like attending a lecture in a film history class. If you are interested in understanding film as art, these commentaries are a great addition to your viewing experience.

Obama Is Too Weak for Mercy

Dick CheneyIt is not the case that Dick Cheney has been able to go everywhere in the media and complain about Obama’s policy on Iraq without push back. Most notably, on Fox News, Megyn Kelly said to Cheney, “You said there were no doubts that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. You said we would be greeted as liberators. You said the Iraq insurgency was in its last throes back in 2005. And you said after our intervention, extremists would have to ‘rethink their strategy of jihad.'” Cheney’s response in general has been to deny that he was wrong. But more generally, as Steve Benen noted, Cheney Doesn’t Want to Talk About “What Happened 11 or 12 Years Ago.”

I can hardly blame him. Of course, if you listen to him in full, you will notice that he does want to talk about what happened back then. That’s because he wants to blame Obama for what is going wrong in Iraq now and the subtext (and sometimes the actual text) is that things were great in Iraq a decade ago. So he’s being disingenuous when he claims that he doesn’t want to look back. But I think people like me are on solid ground when we ask why Cheney’s solution for problems in Iraq that worked so badly in the past ought to be considered good now.

Obama Question MarkWhat really bugs me about this is that Cheney actually can get away with saying, “I don’t want to look back.” And the reason that he can get away with it is that Obama and all the elites of the Democratic Party went along with this idea that we had to “look forward as opposed to looking backwards.” I’ve always been for a truth and reconciliation commission. You could pardon everyone. I don’t care about punishing these people; I really don’t see the good that it would do. But there would be enormous good that would come from the country admitting publicly to its many recent errors.

If that had happened, then there would be no problem with Cheney running everywhere talking about what to do in Iraq. Everyone would know that he was wrong and even criminal before. But he has a right to be heard. None of us are perfect. Make the case. But instead, we get this kind of pseudo argument, “Well, mistakes may have been made in the past but if we had just continued to make those mistakes for longer everything would have been great so Obama is all wrong.” It’s madness.

More and more, I see the United States like a dysfunctional family where mom is plastered all day and in denial about dad raping the daughter. Everyone knows what’s going on but no one talks about it and so it just continues on. And this problem doesn’t stop with Cheney on the Sunday political talk shows. It just continues to fester right through late 2017 when President Ted Cruz stages a preemptive strike against Ghana and local police departments are encouraged to use “enhanced interrogation techniques” against alleged cannabis smokers.

Meanwhile, the Republicans have spent the last six years licking their lips at the prospect of something Obama might do that they can look back on. To them, Obama’s grand gesture to forgiveness without admission of guilt was just seen as the pathetic move of a weak president. Another Jimmy Carter. It reminds me of the “real power” speech in Schindler’s List: power as mercy.

Obama missed an important point in Schindler’s theory. “A man stole something. He’s brought before the emperor. He throws himself down on the ground. He begs for mercy. He knows he’s going to die. And the emperor… pardons him.” Obama didn’t do that. Obama just closed his eyes and covered his ears and pretended that nothing happened. And the Republicans were right to think that was weakness. Mercy is not pretending that a sin was not committed. Mercy is forgiveness for sins committed. All he did was tell the Republicans that Democrats are too weak to look at reality — something that is an established fact among most Republicans anyway.

So why not Cheney on This Week saying, “But if we spend our time debating what happened 11 or 12 years ago, we’re going to miss the threat that is growing and that we do face”? Why not Cheney implicitly accusing President Obama of treason? When it comes to civilians in Afghanistan killed by drone, Obama has plenty of that old fashioned Amon Goeth style power: the power to kill randomly. But when it comes to Oskar Schindler style power as mercy, Obama has no power — at least when it comes to Republicans and Wall Street. He will just ignore new slights and lies the way he ignored old war crimes and financial malfeasance.

The Devil and Ambrose Bierce

Ambrose BierceOn this day in 1842, the great writer Ambrose Bierce was born. Like most writers of most times, he wrote a lot of different stuff. He was especially known in his own time for his short fiction—especially ghost and war stories. Today, he is known for his satire, especially, The Devil’s Dictionary. In contained definitions like this one for “conservative”: “A statesman who is enamored of existing evils, as distinguished from the Liberal, who wishes to replace them with others.” That definition actually makes him quite a lot less cynical than I am.

Fundamentally, however, Bierce was a journalist. And that is what is ultimately most interesting about him. At the age of 71, he traveled with Pancho Villa I assume to report on the Mexican Revolution. But then he just vanishes. It’s not terribly surprising, I suppose. There was a war going on. He was probably just killed. There is a legend that he was killed by firing squad. Although that sounds far fetched, Bierce was known for his biting wit, and maybe the old man made the wrong remark to the wrong man. Or maybe one night he had a heart attack and died. He wasn’t exactly a celebrity in the United States; in Mexico he was doubtless just some old Gringo who was hanging around.

But I like the idea that it was all a final joke. He split off from the army’s advance, went to a peaceful place on the coast and drank wine and enjoyed an anonymous retirement. Regardless, he’s dead now.

Happy birthday Ambrose Bierce!