[Stop Button Lists] Film School in a Car, Lesson 02

Audio Commentaries discussed…

  • Die Hard • 2001 • John McTiernan and Jackson DeGovia • Fox Home Video
  • Godzilla • 2011 • David Kalat • The Criterion Collection
  • Godzilla • 2006 • Steve Ryfle, Ed Godziszewski and Keith Aiken • BFI DVD
  • The Thomas Crown Affair • 2000 • John McTiernan • MGM Home Entertainment
  • Psycho III • 2013 • Charles Edward Pogue • Shout! Factory

The problem with these commentary list posts are immediately obvious—if I pick a commentary because of the last one I listened to, there’s not going to be the context in the same post. For example, I listened to Die Hard after finishing the Bride of Frankenstein commentary I didn’t find useful.

Bride and Scott MacQueen’s mindless positivity compares interestingly to John McTiernan and Jackson De Govia’s commentary for Die Hard. They aren’t recording together and the track is heavily edited (someone, off mike, is clearly prompting at least McTiernan) but it’s utterly fantastic. De Govia has substantial, informed enthusiasm for the film and McTiernan. He describes Die Hard as a film where the filmmakers hadn’t figured out they were capable of genius yet–he’s talking about McTiernan, which seems accurate, cinematographer Jan De Bont, again accurate, and producer Joel Silver, questionable–and so part of the film is seeing it all come together. I was wondering why he was picked for the commentary track, if it was just availability, but given the importance of Die Hard’s setting, he’s a perfect choice.

As for McTiernan, listening to him talk about Die Hard is astounding because he gets it. I loved Die Hard growing up–have I ever recounted it being the first R-rated movie my mom let me watch (we had to look away for the Takagi scene)–but it wasn’t until after high school I really understood how and why it worked so well. And it’s intentional. McTiernan talks about the choices he made to make the film work. The commentary track isn’t just great for Die Hard, it’s also great in how McTiernan (and De Govia to some extent) understand what made the film special. The reusable Die Hard element as MacGuffin. It’s sort of difficult to listen to it and remember how bad the sequels have been lately; maybe Bruce Willis should give the track a listen.

Bruce Willis stars in DIE HARD, directed by John McTiernan for 20th Century Fox.
Bruce Willis stars in DIE HARD, directed by John McTiernan for 20th Century Fox.

McTiernan, who’s made some really bad films (and at least one more really great one), sounds like a great, collaborative blockbuster director. If he has an outrageous ego, he hides it well.

The commentary track is for the first Fox special edition of Die Hard (I think). Does Die Hard deserve a “scholarly” commentary? Undoubtedly. Would it be better than the director’s? Probably not. Again, McTiernan seems to get it. Die Hard, while rather fluid in its making, isn’t an accident. It’s a bunch of talented professionals figuring out a film. The commentary documents their successes pretty well.

After starting the Die Hard commentary, I looked up to see if McTiernan had done a commentary on Thomas Crown Affair, a personal favorite. He did do a commentary, so I dug out my copy of the DVD. However, I didn’t want to be interrupted during that one and I had a forty-five minute workout (not a couple hours running, which would give me time), so I made the questionable decision of listening to David Kalat’s Godzilla commentary.

Godzilla, the 1954 original Japanese version, a film I like and have a great interest in. I’m unapologetically nostalgic for Godzilla movies. Figured it was a safe bet. The commentary was from Criterion after all. And it’s atrocious.

Kalat never really talks about Godzilla, the film, except in pointless anecdotes. He’s not giving a commentary, he’s giving an academic lecture. But not about the film, but a lecture about the film being worthy of an academic lecture. Because of its content? No, because of its cultural significance. Godzilla sounds like validating the academic pursuit. Kalam doesn’t even mention the director by name until eight minutes into the commentary.

Then there’s the weird stuff. Like Kalat constantly being an apologist for Japan’s involvement in WWII (I’m assuming Criterion didn’t bother subtitling this commentary in Chinese), or how he does like the character Ogata because he’s good-looking. Oddest has to be Kalat calling Momoko Kōchi’s character Emmy. It’s Emiko. Kalat wrote a book on Godzilla. He should know the characters’ names.

Even as a commentary about the Japanese film industry, it’s not interesting because Kalat doesn’t provide enough context.

Akihiko Hirata, Momoko Kōchi, and Akira Takarada star in GODZILLA (Gojira), directed by Ishirô Honda for Toho Company Ltd.
Akihiko Hirata, Momoko Kōchi, and Akira Takarada star in GODZILLA (Gojira), directed by Ishirô Honda for Toho Company Ltd.

When he does talk about the film itself, his observations are either condescending or obvious. They’re often hostile towards “the establishment” (my phrase) who doesn’t see Godzilla films as important. Of course, Kalat does nothing to make the film seem important as a film, only as a cultural relic.

When Kalat attacks Godzilla fans who prefer calling it Gojira, the whole commentary falls apart and I changed my mind about not turning off a commentary. Life’s too short for Kalat’s kind of nonsense.

It also changed my schedule—I wanted to hear the British Film Institute’s Godzilla commentary from their 2006 special edition release, just to see if anyone could talk about this film intelligently. Bruce Eder was supposed to record commentary for the Criterion’s cancelled laserdisc releases in the 1990s. Shame he didn’t, probably would’ve saved me from Kalat’s.

The BFI commentary–from Steve Ryfle, Ed Godziszewski and Keith Aiken (they’re indistinguishable)–contains a lot of the same information as the Criterion commentary. One assumes someone at Criterion saw it. But the BFI commentary’s a lot looser, a lot more interested in the film. It’s far from a perfect commentary, but it’s not a lecture. It exists alongside the film, not removed from it.

Both commentaries go into tangents, but the BFI tangents are far superior. Are they more informative? Not always; they’re far less thorough. But the commentators aren’t obnoxious or hostile to the listener so they don’t have to be as thorough. They can have an interesting detail without needing exhaustive explanation. Between the history and culture lessons, the commentators’ comments on the filmmaking are far superior to the Criterion track.

I’m still not sure I learned much valuable from the Godzilla commentary. Both commentaries have a decided distance from the film. I wish I understood Japanese; I’d love to hear the Toho commentary on the film (if there is one).

Pierce Brosnan and Rene Russo star in THE THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR, directed by John McTiernan for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
Pierce Brosnan and Rene Russo star in THE THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR, directed by John McTiernan for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

When I did get to Thomas Crown Affair, it was clear McTiernan didn’t have the perspective on the film he had on Die Hard. There hadn’t been enough years (which is the difference between a scholarly commentary fifty years later and a contemporary one done a few months after theatrical release–or less).

Again, McTiernan shows a real understanding for how he made Thomas Crown work. There’s a bit about him doing walk and talk shots with a dolly instead of steadi-cam to get a retro, deliberate feel and he’s right. Ditto how Faye Dunaway works in the movie. It’s a fine enough, post-DVD commentary track. But a disappointment considering I rushed to hear it.

So next I listened to the Psycho III commentary with screenwriter Charles Edward Pogue. I’ve never had a good opinion of Pogue (after a year of looking forward to Dragonheart, it was a stinker) but I did appreciate his Psycho a bit when I saw it. So much so I bought the blu-ray with the commentary.

It might be the first screenwriter commentary I’ve heard (not counting writer-directors). Pogue’s a strange commentator. He’s somewhat likable, if inexplicably full of himself, and enthusiastic. When he mentions his stage background, he gets obnoxious real fast.

The commentary has a moderator–Michael Felsher–who keeps Pogue on track as the film progresses. Felsher’s promptings are more about the film’s making than Pogue’s writing, which is fine. Pogue’s a talker and he has a lot of stories. So if you’re interested in Psycho III, the commentary works out.

Anthony Perkins and Diana Scarwid star in PSYCHO III, directed by Perkins for Universal Pictures.
Anthony Perkins and Diana Scarwid star in PSYCHO III, directed by Perkins for Universal Pictures.

Did I learn anything? Pogue can’t take criticism, which is problematic. Humility goes a long way in an audio commentary. I also felt better about turning off Kalat’s Godzilla commentary; I never liked Pogue during his commentary but I was interested in what he had to say. Personality aside, he’s got valid recollections about the film’s making. He can talk about it. At length.

Pogue’s far from the perfect commentator. He was only on set a couple times. He didn’t see much filming. I also wasn’t super-wild about the film in the first place, I remember having problems with his script.

For the next set of commentaries, the first will definitely be for Tobe Hooper’s The Funhouse. A horror movie I am super-wild about, which I saw recently, and the director does the commentary track.

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