Commentary on commentary

By Tom Chick

The Fight Club DVD will be released next week. There are commentary tracks from David Fincher, Brad Pitt, and Edward Norton. In interviews, Fincher comes across as opinionated and outspoken, so I'm looking forward to hearing what he has to say. I expect the Norton/Pitt commentary track might be entertaining.

Hello, my name is Tom Chick. I'm the writer of this column and I'll be doing the commentary for it. Do I just type what I want to say right here? Here? Okay. Can you hear me? Hello, hello. Good. Can you just edit that first part out, where I'm figuring out the keyboard? Thanks. In the opening paragraph of the column, I was trying to ease the reader into the whole concept of commentary tracks. I started with a reference to Fight Club because I thought it would be topical and grab the audience's attention right off the bat. I decided to soft pedal my expectations for the Brad Pitt commentary, since I figure it's probably going to be just a bunch of goofing around, but I didn't want to be too harsh right off. I mean, come on, Brad Pitt? If I want to hear from him, I'll read People magazine or interviews with Jennifer Aniston.

Unfortunately, commentary tracks don't get as much attention as they should in DVD reviews. And even when they are mentioned, the reviews aren't terribly critical. Unless you've had access to a laser disc player for a while, commentary tracks are probably so novel that they're hard to criticize. Besides, many DVD aficionados are preoccupied with looking for artifacts and listening for the quality of the separation in the 5.1 sound channels. They couldn't care less about whether the director has anything interesting to say.

This paragraph was probably our biggest technical challenge. I had to look up the word 'aficionado' and whether or not 'disc' was spelled D-I-S-K or D-I-S-C. To get the phrasing right about the artifacts and the sound separation, I had to check with our consultant, my friend Trevor, who bought a DVD player like ten years ago. I'm pretty happy with how it turned out, but if we ever do a director's cut of this column, I'd like to go back and rework some of that paragraph.

Some commentary tracks aren't just the director mumbling about how cold it was the day they shot that scene. Take, for instance, Roger Ebert doing commentary for Dark City, not because he had any role in the making of it, but because he loved it. Criterion cuts together documentary quality voiceovers for their movies. The commentary on their release of John Woo's Hard Boiled is a carefully arranged narration alternating between Woo himself, producer Terence Chang, film critic Dave Kehr, and scriptwriter Roger Avery. I came away from that commentary with a much deeper appreciation for the movie.

I really was unsure about using the phrase "deeper appreciation". It's a kind of touchy feely phrase that doesn't really mean anything. It actually sounds like something you say in college about Henry James or the German Expressionist movement when you're trying to suck up to the professor. Or something you say to a girl you're trying to pick up when you describe how you felt about the environment after you read Jonathan Livingston Seagull. My producer, Lisa, convinced me we should go with it anyway and I think it kind of works. Me and Lisa first worked together on Are you there, God?, a column I did about a year and a half ago. She's been producing most of my columns since then and I've learned to trust her judgment.

This past week, I've listened to the directors' commentaries on three of my favorite movies from last year: Blair Witch Project, Election, and Three Kings. I love all three movies, but their commentaries, which couldn't be more different, are an excellent example of the range of quality you can expect. For Three Kings, David O Russell is informative and articulate. For Blair Witch Project, Daniel Myrick and Edward Sanchez are basically just goofing off with their friends. For Election, Alexander Payne is, well, umm, not very talkative.

So here's where we're getting into the meat of the column. I'll just sit back and let you read on.

David O. Russell gives one of the better commentaries I've heard on a non-Criterion DVD. He's passionate and articulate about the movie and you get quite a bit of insight into his creative process. "I took a basic action engine and put layer upon layer of textures on it," he says. He rightly gives a lot of credit to his production designer, Catherine Hardwicke, who created Iraq in the middle of an Arizona desert. Without lapsing into jargon, he talks about the techniques he used on the film to get the movie's sun-leached look. Russell tells a great story about screening Three Kings for President Clinton at the White House, where they have a lousy sound system. "Someone should give them some money for that," he quips. He even hints at tension with George Clooney, who was unhappy with being handed re-writes.

Lisa didn't care for the part where I mentioned tension with George Clooney -- she figures Clooney was just busy with ER and he shouldn't have to deal with David O. Russell changing the script every five minutes. We had several meetings about whether to put that in the column, but at the last minute, I decided to leave it in. Lisa's not exactly impartial when it comes to George Clooney. She's always talking about how cute he is and how she'd lick an ice cream sundae off his toes. That's pretty gross if you ask me. Anyway, we had an earlier cut where I talked about what a jerk Clooney was, but we changed it to what you just read.

The commentary also gives you quite a bit of insight into David O. Russell as a person. Although Three Kings isn't a heavy-handed message movie, you get a sense that Russell is actually a bit of a reactionary. He talks about his experiences in Nicaragua with the Sandinista government. He constantly attacks American commercialism and he says things like "military industrial complex", which is one of those loaded terms you can almost always associate with a particular political viewpoint. But even though he's critical of U.S. foreign policy, he clearly understands how bad Saddam Hussein is. He even compares him to Hitler at one point. His own inner conflict about the righteousness and the realpolitik of the Gulf War is a fascinating backdrop to the movie.

Lisa thought realpolitik was a bit showy and that we should use a different word, so we went to Trevor, the column's technical consultant. He thought realpolitik was the name of a punk band in the 80s. I don't know, I kind of like the word. I get these warm pleasant images of Henry Kissinger puckering up his lips to sound out the word for a U.N. delegation or something. I think it's kind of sexy, so I left it in.

The polar opposite of Russell's intelligent Three Kings commentary comes from the directors of Blair Witch Project. They're basically sitting around with a bunch of friends and goofing off into the microphone. While you're listening, you realize that the movie is largely a happy accident. Many times they remark how glad they are the actors happened to compose a shot the way they did. It's surprising to hear how little direct input they had on the performances, which makes the actors' work all the more impressive. This is not to diminish the value of the post-production work, though. One of the extras on the DVD is a scene of the actors slogging through some awkward amateurish improv. This turd from the cutting room floor demonstrates that a lot of Blair Witch Project was made in the editing.

We debated whether or not to use a stronger word than "turd", but we wanted to avoid an R rating. When we sent the column to Imagine Media for a preliminary reading, they said "turd" was even a little strong and they wanted us to cut it. But we offered to do a few extra days on the press junket if they let us keep it in there. They went for it.

The Blair Witch Project commentary does, however, point out several things I hadn't noticed, such as Josh Leonard's brief and almost imperceptible breakdown and some of Mike Williams' finer moments. In fact, the directors had intended that the witch would kidnap Mike near the end of the movie, but they were so pleased with his work, they changed their minds and took Josh instead. One of the directors also points out that their best decision throughout the entire process was casting Heather Donahue. There's a great comment on her Ahab-like quality.

Lisa thinks Heather has a fat ass. She kept saying that while we watched the movie. It was pretty annoying. Besides, I knew where that was going. Ten minutes later, Lisa pauses the movie and asks if I thought she was fat. You can imagine where that went.

Finally, the director's commentary for Election is a textbook example of a great director who's a bad commentator. Long passages go by in which Alexander Payne doesn't have much to say. And even when he does speak, he doesn't have much to say. During the most dramatic face-off between Matthew Broderick and Reese Witherspoon, what does Payne comment on? The ceiling and a container of butter in the background. It doesn't help that he has the tonal quality of a professor bored by his own lecture. He reminisces about the neighborhoods in Omaha where you grew up or how cold it was the day they shot that scene. "It was so cold that day," he recalls.

I really struggled with this part, because I loved Election. I thought it was a great movie, so I felt bad about slamming the director. He probably should have come in with notes or something so he wasn't just rambling. Also, I was cranky because it was really hot that day. I also just had this awful pizza. I had ordered pineapple and mushroom and they left the pineapple off, so it was really bland with just the mushrooms. And the coke in the fridge was flat. That's the thing with getting those two liter bottles. You just can't keep them around very long. I really hate flat coke. The only thing worse is cold french fries, but I'll eat them if I'm hungry enough. I once came into my dorm room late one night and I was really hungry but my roommate was asleep so I made a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in the dark and ate it and the next morning, when I got up, I saw that the loaf of bread I made the sandwich from was all green and moldy.

Sometimes it seems things in Election just happened for no reason. "There's an obsessive sense of people throwing things away in this film and I can't really explain it," Alexander Payne muses, "It's just there." The best moments in the commentary are when he sounds like a kid playing with new toys. "I love wipes," he says, "Kurosawa used a lot of wipes." During Matthew Broderick's fantasy drive sequence he says, "I've come to fall in love with rear screen projection". He talks about not liking cars in a movie when they've obviously been just washed for the shoot. He refers to the Ford Festiva as "the car of an impotent man".

I'd like to point out, for the record, that I drive a Jeep.

So next week, we'll find out how good the commentary is on Fight Club. I fully expect Fincher to sound more like Russell and less like the guys from Blair Witch Project. But as long as he's more dynamic than Alexander Payne, I'll be happy.

Thank you for listening to my commentary. I'll just sit here now and let you read the read the credits.

Writer .........................................Tom Chick
Producer .....................................Lisa
Technical Consultant ...................Trevor
Guy I Rent DVDs From ..............Dave
Editors ........................................John Newlin and Chris Bushnell
Publisher .....................................Imagine Media

Special thanks to the people of Los Angeles for their cooperation. No animals were harmed in the writing of this column. Any similarity to persons living or dead is really weird.


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