[Stop Button Lists] Film School in a Car, Lesson 04

Audio Commentaries discussed…

  • Tron • 1997 • Steven Lisberger, Donald Kushner, Harrison Ellenshaw, and Richard Taylor • Disney Home Video
  • The Seventh Victim • 2005 • Steve Haberman • Warner Home Video
  • Total Recall • 2001 • Paul Verhoeven and Arnold Schwarzenegger • Artisan Entertainment
  • Straw Dogs • 2003 • Stephen Prince • The Criterion Collection

In my more carefree youth, when I wanted to watch a movie I’d order it from Ken Crane’s LaserDisc, in widescreen (usually) and watch it two or three days later, depending on UPS. I distinctly remember wanting to watch Tron, which doesn’t hit many people, and I didn’t want to wait for Ken Crane’s. So I went and got the jumbo LaserDisc “Exclusive Archive” edition from Disney. Tron in CAV.

One thing about CAV, which was sort of uncompressed–real freeze frame, real slow motion, real reverse (stuff I still can’t do on blu-ray or a computer)–is it felt like a big deal. You had to change discs every thirty minutes or less, you saw the frame counter progress. It was cool in a way nothing on DVD has ever been, as that technology concentrates on the user experience, not the geek factor.

But I never listened to the Tron commentary on LaserDisc. I think I watched the movie and felt really bad about having bought it. And when I was going to listen to my next commentary, I went with Tron because I thought I’d have to work hard to convince myself to do it again otherwise.

What’s strange about the Tron audio commentary is it’s fine. Some of the guys are a little annoying in the way they mock the easily mockable elements, but there’s some great technical information. Director Steven Lisberger’s impetus for the film actually explains why it wasn’t more of a hit–he was making it for computer professionals in an era where there weren’t enough of them.

A scene from TRON, directed by Steven Lisberger for Walt Disney Pictures.
A scene from TRON, directed by Steven Lisberger for Walt Disney Pictures.

That said, no one talks about the film in its historical context as a punchline, which deserved some mention. Tron is infamous. Until the sequel, it was probably best known for being a “Simpsons” joke. That episode might have been done after this commentary, but then it was even less known.

Now I’m mad at myself again for buying the discs seventeen years ago.

For my next commentary, I went with one I really wanted to hear–and had to stop myself from listening to in order to get through TronThe Seventh Victim. I first read about Val Lewton when I was in college; I’d heard of Cat People and maybe even seen Curse of the Cat People, but I wasn’t familiar with him. I knew the directors–Jacques Tourneur (thanks to Gun Crazy), Robert Wise (who wouldn’t) and Mark Robson (I Want You and Home of the Brave)–but it was long before Warner released their Val Lewton box set on DVD. But there was a LaserDisc set and I got it. But I didn’t watch any of the movies then. Maybe Cat People.

Fast forward a decade or so (the Val Lewton filmography took me five years to complete–I saw Youth Runs Wild in 2008 and finished with I Walk With a Zombie in December 2013), and Victim is still my favorite Lewton. So I really wanted to hear the commentary. I had no idea there were commentaries on the DVDs; I’d been watching many of the Lewton films off R2 or TCM.

Steve Haberman does the commentary on The Seventh Victim and it’s everything I hated about film textbooks. He lectures from notes, when he does go quiet to watch a scene, he doesn’t really talk about what made him go quiet, which is annoying. He’ll just drop off and come back with more lecture in a bit. Haberman’s strength is talking about the film going from story to screenplay to finished product and the changes along the way (they’re just not interesting because he’s talking about that progression, not the film). However, when he gripes about cut scenes and how happy he is they didn’t make the film… it’s beyond annoying just because it’s not clear he’s seen the scenes. If he’s just read about them, how would he have any idea how they’d have been put into the picture.

A scene from THE SEVENTH VICTIM, directed by Mark Robson for RKO Radio Pictures.
A scene from THE SEVENTH VICTIM, directed by Mark Robson for RKO Radio Pictures.

So Seventh Victim is another one where I love the film and never want to hear this commentary track again.

Total Recall is not the opposite situation, but sort of close. I don’t know if I want to listen to the commentary again immediately, but it might but fun to listen to again while actually watching the movie. Not because the commentary is particularly good–in fact, it’s not–but because it’s fun. It’s Paul Verhoeven and Arnold Schwarzenegger (making ten grand for the recording–back in 2001) and Verhoeven is treating Arnold like an equal commentator. And Arnold is acting like a salesman. He’s on a publicity tour for the film and he does well with it, but it doesn’t make the Recall commentary valuable as information about filmmaking.

Okay, it’s still somewhat valuable because Verhoeven does talk about some interesting aspects of the film but he needed a better cohost. He needed Rob Bottin or the effects guy or the editor or maybe one of the writers. Even Sharon Stone would’ve been better, as Arnold and Verhoeven talk about her like idiots.

However, just listening to it did make me recognize how much of Jerry Goldsmith’s Total Recall score follows as an Innerspace follow-up. Speaking of follow-ups, even though they talk through the end credits, Arnold and Verhoeven never actually explain the failed Total Recall 2, which somehow ended up as Minority Report much to Arnold’s chagrin.

Arnold Schwarzenegger stars in TOTAL RECALL, directed by Paul Verhoeven for Carolco Pictures.
Arnold Schwarzenegger stars in TOTAL RECALL, directed by Paul Verhoeven for Carolco Pictures.

One thing on Arnold, who’s the most personable person I’ve heard on a commentary track–it’s impressive to see how well he works at making himself likable. It’s strange because, until Twins, he didn’t worry about it. But when Arnold at least sold himself as wanting to be liked as a movie star by everyone, he became a lot more important as a movie icon than almost anyone else in the last thirty years. Arnold never wanted to direct, he never wanted to be respected as a filmmaker; he wanted his brand to be beloved.

He and Tom Cruise should do a movie together.

The next commentary–Straw Dogs–was another perfunctory decision. I had loaded up Basic Instinct, for another Verhoeven, and Batman, just because I didn’t even know Burton had recorded a commentary for it, but went with Criterion’s Stephen Prince commentary on Dogs, which is unlike any I’ve ever heard.

Sure, it’s a scholarly commentary and an in-depth one. Prince explains why every shot is important, how it functions for the narrative, with little bits about director Sam Peckinpah thrown in. Right off, Prince is reductive in his discussion of the film–Dustin Hoffman’s protagonist is “the villain,” Susan George is, apparently, the hero. Everything in his commentary is a defensive of the film against negative critical response, which is just more reductive. It’s a strange commentary. Prince’s defense of Peckinpah as auteur is so complete, he refuses to look at anything else. Even though it’s a great film and many of Prince’s points are accurate–unarguably accurate–his decidedly anti-feminist (while “pro”-female) reading of the film makes it constantly unpleasant.

And he uses way too many adjectives and adverbs in his prepared comments. He’s trying way to hard to make a great film “legitimate” and doing nothing to actually appreciate the film itself. I’m not sure about the history of audio commentaries–other than King Kong being the first back in the 1980s, but Prince’s 2003 scholarly commentary compares terribly to something like Leonard Maltin’s 1987 Night at the Opera commentary (also from Criterion, albeit on LaserDisc not DVD).

Dustin Hoffman stars in STRAW DOGS, directed by Sam Peckinpah for Cinerama Releasing Corporation.
Dustin Hoffman stars in STRAW DOGS, directed by Sam Peckinpah for Cinerama Releasing Corporation.

Maybe the most striking thing about Prince’s commentary track is his inability to think about watching or experiencing the film. Everything is about Peckinpah’s intent and process. Nothing about how the film plays, not to its audience, not even to him.

Nothing worse than a film snob who doesn’t enjoy film.

As a film snob who does enjoy film, I can’t try to fit talking about Joe Dante, Mike Finnell and Chris Walas’ track for Gremlins into under a hundred words. I’m thinking four titles a post is the magic number, especially when I’m going to listen to so many annoying or lame ones.

One thing about listening to commentaries without the film. It focuses you, it makes you try to remember and it makes you think harder about the film. I don’t prefer it, but I do find it rather valuable.

One Comment

  1. Matthew Hurwitz

    “Now I’m mad at myself again for buying the discs seventeen years ago.”

    Ah, the beloved “Discs of Tron”!

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.