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
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
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
Technical Consultant ...................Trevor
Guy I Rent DVDs From ..............Dave
Editors ........................................John Newlin and
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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