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.

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