Commentary tracks

One of the great pleasures of my life recently has been my ability to watch many of the greatest films ever made. In light of the disaster that is modern Hollywood, these movies have provided me with a laid-back, low-key form of entertainment which on one hand did not take itself too seriously and on the other churned out many extremely compelling combinations of plot, score, subtext, and visual presentation.

I am so amazed at these films that I often also watch the commentary tracks. Many of these contain useful information about the circumstances surrounding the actors’ appearances in these films, the histories of the studios, the directors, the producers, the challenges that unfolded between screenwriters and editors, between directors, producers, and studio executives, also between the producers and the censors, the relationships between the actors and the directors, the actors and their co-workers, and so on and so forth. In many cases challenges with specific scenes are presented in a useful way: the decision between shooting on location and on set, the impact of the weather on the person’s involved, also on the cameras and scenery, the specialists who helped with the presentation of scenes which require specialized skills, and so on and so forth. Sometimes they discuss cinematic techniques that audiences aren’t aware of that are used in a particular scene; on occasion they will talk about the composer’s work in drawing up the score; in others they make suggestions about inferences that can be made about what has happened to a character off-screen but which might not be obvious to a casual viewer.

As you can see, this is quite a range of information, all quite useful, very intriguing. Very often these commentary tracks are made by the director of the film, highly regarded critics, or film scholars, most of whom have spent years studying the director of the film or its primary star. In some cases the leading actor or the primary villain are part of or do the whole commentary, and sometimes they are extremely informative—but not always. Commentary tracks of this sort include the one for the 1939 Robin Hood, for The Good, The Bad and The Ugly,

But then there are some commentary tracks which are made by people who held non integral positions in the filming process, or by persons who claim to have spent their lives studying a particular director but who have published only a sloppy biography of him, or by family members, usually the children, of the Star in question who themselves had no place in the film and sometimes in the world at all at the time the film was made. These commentary tracks inevitably devolve into lengthy accounts of personal interactions between these people and the Hollywood legend whose association they are profiting from; they detail plane flights or car rides many years after the film, third-hand accounts of the unhappy end of the director’s relationship with someone, post-premiere dinners where nothing of any note occurred, lengthy anecdotal conversations that provide no effective information about the film or its production, meaningless recollections of what other more important people might or might not have done with regards to the production of the movie or a scene in it, and so on and so forth. The overwhelming ego of the person on the commentary track results in 2 hours of talk without any value. The track for Double Indemnity comes to mind, but tonight I was watching the one for Vertigo and it definitely falls into this category.

My question in this post is, why if you are producing a commentary track for the DVD of a GREAT MOVIE, you would settle for these terrible, wasted commentary tracks? Why add them at all if they are no good? What’s the deal, yo?

Get a real critic and have them go through the film shot by shot. It’s worth it!


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