[Stop Button Lists] Film School in a Car, Lesson 01

Audio Commentaries discussed…

  • The Thing • 1998 • John Carpenter and Kurt Russell • Universal Home Video
  • Sabotage • 2008 • Leonard Leff • MGM Home Entertainment
  • A Night at the Opera • 1987 • Leonard Maltin • The Criterion Collection
  • The Passenger • 2006 • Jack Nicholson • Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
  • The Bride of Frankenstein • 1999 • Scott MacQueen • Universal Home Video

I can’t remember the last time I watched an audio commentary. Wait, no, I do remember. I watched the commentary track on Swamp Thing. I can’t remember if I watched both of them, but I definitely watched the Wes Craven one and realized I don’t like Craven’s commentaries (since he had so little to say about the film) and I really don’t like Sean Clark as a moderator. Doesn’t seem like a single person commentary track should have a commentary track.

And I had listened to Jim Wynorski’s Return of Swamp Thing commentary. But I’m not sure if I listened to anything in between. I used to listen to commentary tracks all the time, then I stopped. I can’t remember if it had to do with the quality of commentary tracks nose-diving as every DVD added one or if I just focused more on watching more movies. Initially, it was probably the former, then gave way to the latter.

When I started recording commentary tracks for “Stop Button Favorites,” one might think I would have gone back and listened to commentary tracks I loved to try to capture it. Nope. I did not start listening to commentary tracks again until last week, after recording four commentary tracks, after reading someone on Twitter talking about how they were great for commutes. And, between a ninety minute commute (round trip) every day and multiple runs a week, I’m running out of podcasts.

A little context on my audio commentary fixation–I collected them. I bought old laserdiscs, turned the commentary tracks into VCDs, sold the laserdiscs off on eBay. For years. In addition to the commentary tracks I have on blu-rays and DVDs and HD-DVDs, I have a box of VCDs with nothing but commentaries. So there are a lot of listening choices.

A scene from THE THING, directed by John Carpenter for Universal Pictures.
A scene from THE THING, directed by John Carpenter for Universal Pictures.

But I had just gotten The Thing on HD-DVD (for a second time; at least this time it was only fifty cents) and it has the wonderful John Carpenter and Kurt Russell commentary track from the Universal Signature Collection LaserDisc. In the late nineties, before DVD, we LaserDisc aficionados used to get to dub our discs onto VHS for friends. Twice (flipping the disc at least once, usually more) because people wanted the commentary tracks. John Carpenter commentary tracks are amazing. I fell off after LaserDisc, never getting around to Starman. I’ll have get to that one.

By 2007 or so, I’d stopped listening to commentaries (save those Swamp Thing ones); response to them frustrated me. It didn’t seem like people were listening to better understand a film (or film in general), they were listening to them to “understand” why they should like a film. There was a discussion on a forum about how Miami Vice’s commentary made people like the film. I hated that idea. Why bother critically thinking about a film if you aren’t going to critically think about its commentary track.

So I knew I wanted to only wanted to listen to films I’d already seen, already had a solid thought about. Obviously, watching a film alongside a commentary is rather helpful, but I don’t have time for that dedication. Not for everything.

And it hasn’t been much of a problem. While I remember a lot of The Thing, I saw Sabotage months ago and could still follow Leonard Leff’s fine. I’ve never been particularly well-read on Hitchcock’s filmography (even when I was seeing a lot of Hitchcock), so hearing about the “thriller sextet” was cool. The discussion of the editing was similarly awesome.

Harpo Marx, Allan Jones, Chico Marx, and Groucho Marx star in A NIGHT AT THE OPERA, directed by Sam Wood for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
Harpo Marx, Allan Jones, Chico Marx, and Groucho Marx star in A NIGHT AT THE OPERA, directed by Sam Wood for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Leonard Maltin’s commentary for A Night at the Opera, on the 1987 Criterion Collection LaserDisc, was either the first or second commentary track I ever heard. My dad got a LaserDisc player either in ’88 or ’89 and we had to go to the dreaded Blockbuster to rent LaserDiscs. Night at the Opera was one of the first two rentals. I’ve never forgotten Maltin’s anecdote about Harpo going back to get harp lessons as an adult and discovering he’d learned it all wrong as a kid so he just stuck with what already worked. I just didn’t remember it was Maltin doing the commentary. That Night at the Opera commentary track, first heard when I was ten or eleven, contributed a great deal to my holistic interest in cinema. It was particularly interesting to hear now, having just watched Opera and A Day at the Races, as Maltin discusses the former’s superiority.

But, given there are only so many audio commentary tracks out there of films I’ve seen, won’t I run out if I only listen to the ones for films I love. I recently watched The Passenger, after many years of it sitting in my collection unwatched (from back when there was only a R2 release). Since then, there’s been a special edition, complete with star Jack Nicholson doing a commentary track (about thirty years after the film’s release). And that Nicholson commentary track is rather interesting. And full of humility, which one doesn’t really think about Nicholson. He’s a natural storyteller and there’s something about hearing him get lost in the film viewing (which often happens to me during my own commentary track recordings). It didn’t change my opinion of The Passenger, but it does make me even more irate at that Wes Craven Swamp Thing commentary.

Maria Schneider and Jack Nicholson star in THE PASSENGER, directed by Michelangelo Antonioni for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
Maria Schneider and Jack Nicholson star in THE PASSENGER, directed by Michelangelo Antonioni for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Still, I had some interest in The Passenger; it’s Antonioni, after all. And Nicholson doing an audio commentary. Bride of Frankenstein, however, I went into trying almost hostilely. I liked the film as a kid, but never as an adult. Scott MacQueen’s audio commentary–which declares Bride the perfect horror film–is shockingly awful. MacQueen makes director James Whale sound like a disagreeable drama queen (quite literally), more concerned with manipulating the censors than making a good movie. Maybe it’s just MacQueen’s voice, but his remarks sound stilted and way too prepared. There’s no enthusiasm, no distraction. During the long silences, it doesn’t sound like MacQueen’s watching the movie, just waiting it out before continuing reading his notes.

Obviously, I’m not the target audience for a Bride of Frankenstein commentary track (I’d forgotten what a low rating I gave the film and had to reread my post) but still… if it is the “perfect horror film” (which is ludicrous; this commentary track was recorded after 1974–i.e. Texas Chainsaw Massacre, a film I can’t even watch, was extant), shouldn’t MacQueen be excited about it? Maltin and Leff, the other film historians, couldn’t keep their enthusiasm contained. When it comes to Bride, I sometimes wonder if its perceived greatness hasn’t become its greatness. So what else to talk about except details to reinforce and validate that perception.

The best part of the Bride commentary is when MacQueen gets contradictory. Towards the end, his conclusions in tangents often don’t work with his thesis; he’s too wrapped up in filmmaking trivia.

And it’s xenophobic. And MacQueen makes awful puns.

Ernest Thesiger and Colin Clive star in THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN, directed by James Whale for Universal Pictures.
Ernest Thesiger and Colin Clive star in THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN, directed by James Whale for Universal Pictures.

But did I learn anything from it? Sure. A purely positive “scholarly” commentary is hideously useless. Then again, Bride is a Universal Home Video release, not a Criterion. MacQueen got his check for being positive, which is an interesting concept. Of course, Leff was far better on Sabotage, but Universal seems fairly desperate to sell their catalog. To be fair, their restorations are often gorgeous. But their approach to commentaries is questionable.

Much as I would like to continue, I do think there needs to be an upper limit to these Lists posts and we’re getting close to it.

Next time I do a “Film School in a Car” post, I know for sure they’ll be some John McTiernan. Not sure what else yet. If you have any commentary suggestions, please do let me know.

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