Is It Just Me... Or Are DVD Commentaries A Waste Of Time?

Insightful illumination or inane chatter?

For the sake of journalistic integrity, I recently spent five hours listening to a random selection of filmmakers discussing their work through the medium of commentary, an experience so boring I honestly thought I’d died.

It was only William Friedkin’s ear-bleedingly obvious pronouncements (“Father Merrin... he is an exorcist”) during The Exorcist (The Version We Can’t Believe You Bought) that kept my pulse moving at all.

Debuting on the King Kong (1933) laserdisc released in 1984 and becoming ubiquitous in the days when interactive menus were still considered pretty spiffy, commentaries have two main flaws: 1) they’re terrible and 2) they’re a terrible idea.

There are four types.

The first, as evinced by Friedkin’s say-what-you-see flannel, turns classic films into terrible monologues by someone who can’t act.

The second, accompanying most sci-fi efforts, turns cinematic gold to making-of lead. “The Brooklyn Bridge footage actually is the Brooklyn Bridge,” explains Cloverfield’s Matt Reeves as if commentating on a snooker match.

Livelier, but just as useless, is the likes of Superbad, in which the filmmakers enjoy a party to which the listener is only sporadically invited (EuroTrip’s alumni play a drinking game during theirs – you should probably do the same).

Last, and least, are the tracks in which everything is so awesome the speakers may as well just tug each other off. “How was that done?” marvels Johnny Depp on the Pirates track. “It’s a completely synthetic stock shot!” explains the ridiculously OTT Gore Verbinski. “It’s beautiful,” decides Depp.

Though some (Carpenter, Cronenberg, Aronofsky) are better than others, commentaries are antithetical to the cause of cinema.

Spielberg, Lynch and Allen won’t do them (“I want my films to speak for themselves. And hopefully they do,” explains the latter), and they know a smidgen more about film appreciation than most.

Even those who partake seem unconvinced. “These things are bullshit,” says Will Ferrell during the Anchorman track. “Does anyone even listen to them?”

While films represent years of careful birthing, commentaries represent a case of verbal squits.

It’s a format that ignores the deaf, the foreign and filmmakers whose talents are non-verbal (The Road’s John Hillcoat has a voice so dull he could hypnotise bears); one designed not to complement but to obliterate.

Why don’t DVD makers use the material for unintrusive text commentaries (à la Die Hard) or separate documentaries?

Ghostbusters has a filmed commentary, for all those watching the film and wishing they could see a static doc about it at THE SAME TIME.

Movies require our complete attention, and replacing their second most important aspect (sound) with bad radio just doesn’t work. It’s like reading a rubbish book about plays at the theatre or receiving a pedantic telegram while playing computer games.

Besides, the cardinal rule of cinema is no talking.

If someone talks through a film, that’s it – end of, money back – even if it is the director. Or is it just me?

VOICES OF REASON

Matthew Leyland
I say bring on the ropey chat tracks. Bottom line is, if you don’t like it, switch it off. Or in this case, don’t switch on in the first place...

Jane Crowther
I like to listen to the mundanity of chat tracks, it often seems more truthful than the garbage trotted out at junkets and for that creepy Inside The Actors Studio.

Sam Ashurst
Commentaries can be a school for aspiring filmmakers, a comedy masterclass (check Arnie’s Conan track) or a sleep aid for insomniacs (I put on the Attack Of The Clones VFX audio commentary for this). Also, they’re not compulsory!
 

Do you enjoy DVD commentaries? Let us know below

Comments

    • Hadouken76

      Dec 16th 2012, 9:56

      Even though I avoid commentaries, I would say The Thing and Fight Club are the best I have heard. With the latter, there is some great banter between Pitt and Fincher, like making the stuntman fall down the stairs 12 times, even though the first attempt was the one they used in the film..ha!

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    • joshareynolds

      Dec 16th 2012, 11:10

      I enjoy commentaries...sometimes. It all depends on who its with. Listening to the Michael Bay commentary for Transformers is just him telling you what CGI he used. The commentaries I want to listen to are by directors who don't seem to do one e.g. Christopher Nolan.

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    • CaptainCrazy

      Dec 16th 2012, 11:16

      Remember the good ol' days when you got easter eggs on DVD menus? I think Hollywood just got lazy and, gasp, greedy. Now we have to make do with vanilla discs the first year until the super-duper director's cut premium golden high-falutin' special edition DVD is released a year later.

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    • CTurner1

      Dec 16th 2012, 13:14

      I personally like them, and, like Joshareynolds I wish Nolan would do them. He is a rare example of a director yet to do a bad film

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    • willchadwick

      Dec 16th 2012, 13:22

      Fincher's commentaries are the best and the only ones I can listen to all the way through.

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    • martrj

      Dec 16th 2012, 13:54

      Directors aren't always the best at commentaries, but when you get critics and authors in for older films it can get interesting (they often have more to say because they've analysed the film and can talk about subtleties that were probably unconscious for the director). For example, I'm writing an essay on Straw Dogs and the commentary from three Sam Peckinpah biographers is invaluable.

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    • rhowse

      Dec 16th 2012, 14:10

      You've forgotten about the unofficial commentaries on Star Wars and Raiders, by Jamie Benning. Which put all the pros to shame.

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    • Neillbert

      Dec 16th 2012, 16:26

      If the commentaries are available via subtitle then I tend to flick it on. The commentary on Once Upon a Time in Mexico is brilliant. Rodriguez's enthusiasm and helpful tips about how things were done were like an extended episode of his 10 minutes flick school things.

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    • martingreechan

      Dec 16th 2012, 18:22

      Some DVD commentaries are fantastic - The commentary on the Dish is one I would suggest anyone looking to learn more about film listen to. The Director discusses his lighting choices and decisions for filming certain scenes that allow him to know when he may be breaking the 180 degree rule. The cast commentary on oceans 11 is also worthy if only for Matt Damon's admiration of the cinematography with nods to some simple but effective touches.

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    • russellemery

      Dec 16th 2012, 19:38

      I like directors commentaries on discs, and it's actually a deciding factor for me when buying a dvd or bluray - do i buy the film with no commentary or the one with - the one with commentary will always win if short on cash. Having studied directing at college and dabbled in it in my twenties - i love hearing how other film makers thought process goes into their projects.

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    • mitchsn

      Dec 16th 2012, 21:24

      The Cast commentary from the Lord of the Rings Trilogy is absolutely hilarious. Listening to Billy Boyd and Dominic Monaghan joke around and hear about all the silly games they made up and jokes they played on a young and gullible Elijah Wood is endlessly entertaining. Everyone is fun to listen to except Orlando Bloom who, as I expected, is as intelligent and interesting to listen to as a plank of wood. Also, Tropic Thunder commentary is very entertaining as well and as advertised, Robert Downey Jr doesn't break character until the commentary is (almost) finished. He does break character as soon as his character does in the movie.

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    • Ali1748

      Dec 16th 2012, 22:26

      I enjoy commentaries especially ones for comedy movies. I loved the cast and director commentaries on the LOTR extended editions.

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    • thejonner

      Dec 17th 2012, 6:43

      They're very hit and miss, I find. Some of them offer genuinely interesting information or anecdotes about the films and their making. Bey Logan's commentaries on Ong Bak and Tae Guk Gi showed a deep knowledge of and affection for Asian cinema and I thought that they were interesting and enlightening. Danny Boyle's usually pretty good value (as it were), too. Hellboy II has a great director commentary. Nick Love and Danny Dyer's attempt to justify Outlaw is hilarious for all the wrong reasons, Spinal Tap's in character commentary is a stroke of genius and the drunken cast commentary on the Dog Soldiers DVD kills me every time.

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    • RaveyDaveyGravy

      Dec 17th 2012, 10:33

      I understand why people could like them, and how they may be useful especially to students. But Im not interested. Its a gimmick, the same as 3D, if the film is no good nothing will make it better. I just want a great film, if I want to learn more thats what IMDB is for. If the film is good enough, thats all I need.

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    • sawanichaudhary

      Dec 17th 2012, 13:29

      well i think that film comentaries can be pretty awesome..n we can know what everyone or a specific actor or crew member was experiencing..i find the LOTR trilogy commentory pretty awesome...

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    • Ichi1

      Dec 17th 2012, 17:15

      "For the sake of journalistic integrity"....hahaha...insta-fail.

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    • henryjr

      Dec 17th 2012, 23:43

      i'm actually quite a fan of commentaries, so long as the people in them are happy about doing them. I listened to the Anchorman one mentioned and found it irritating, and the cast & director all leave 45 minutes into the Animal Kingdom one. I enjoy directors' commentaries the most, as i find them the most interesting - I think the best and most entertaining to listen to are Edgar Wright, David Fincher, Nick Winding Refn (although he does talk some nonsense) and Ben Wheatley - i am yet to listen to an Aronofsky one and am annoyed at Nolan reluctance to record one.

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    • NickyC

      Dec 18th 2012, 16:36

      I used to listen to them all the time, but now I find they get in the way of my enjoyment. They take me out of the movie next time I watch it, because I can remember how it was made. Same for 'Making Of ...'documentaries as well. Too much technical knowledge spoils the magic. I don't care what kind of brushes were used to paint a picture, I only care about how it makes me feel. What I really like is content that complements the feature without giving the game away. For instance, on Tyrannosaur Paddy Considine included his short 'Dog Altogether' and that was much more relevant to my mind. I hate it when it all gets out of hand. I'd rather eat my own vomit than look at yet another as-yet-unseen photo from the set of Empire Strikes Back. "Oh look, it's Carrie Fisher in a coat ... AGAIN!"

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    • dsmeek36

      Dec 19th 2012, 15:18

      frankly, the only commentary on a DVD that i've ever enjoyed and, in fact, thought was indispensable was from "Fight Club", where the director, Brad Pitt, Edward Norton, and even Hellen Bonham Carter, talked about each scene the whole way through. it was truly interesting, enlightening and wholly funny. DO watch the entire movie with the commentary. it is totally worth it.

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    • Shiftybea

      Jan 6th 2013, 0:45

      I have never understood the anti-commentary argument of 'you shouldn't talk during a movie'. I agree that you shouldn't do so at the cinema but why shouldn't you be able to listen to film-makers talk about their movies from the comfort of your own home? Also, and this is really important, nobody is forcing anyone else to listen to them. There are people who enjoy listening to commentaries and there are those that don't. Those people who don't actually have the choice not to therefore moaning about their existence is a bit pointless. Plus, some of us like to know how films are made so listening to the right commentary track with the right participants can be very enlightening. I don't think hearing a particular track about the making of a film has ever ruined any future viewings of that particular for me. Then again, I studied film-making at college so the subject fascinates me but I can still happily watch and enjoy the film despite knowing how it is put together :)

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