Tag Archives: Straw Dogs

[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.

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Straw Dogs (1971, Sam Peckinpah)

Little known fact: the British Tourist Authority actually funded for Straw Dogs. They were sick of Americans moving over.

Obviously not true, but it would explain a lot. Not many films have such singularly evil human beings as those portrayed in Straw Dogs, but then few feature such textured evil human beings either. The film’s perfectly comfortable with assigning features by crap shoot and the complexity of the result is some of the film’s point.

But it’s hard to say if Straw Dogs really ends up having a point. It’s an amazing piece of American cinema, not just for its influential status in film history (the list of films inspired by the conclusion goes on and on), but because it’s so constantly unexpected. Jerry Fielding’s score changes drastically from the beginning to end–it starts out ominous, but ends in a rousing, glorious spirit (Straw Dogs, with the empty English skies and Fielding’s score, often reminds of Jaws). The editing–from Paul Davies, Tony Lawson and Roger Spottiswoode–is always competent, but it slowly becomes astounding. The first hints–sound from one scene playing over another–are discrete, to the point the first full scene of that type seems like a syncing error. But nothing can forecast the end, with its constant fast cuts from angle to angle. John Coquillon’s photography is similarly essential.

Peckinpah’s direction is masterful. Every single shot in the film–and given the rapid cutting at the end, there must be a lot–is perfect. Every move Peckinpah makes here is more than perfect, they’re unequaled.

The majority of the film isn’t calm discomfort–I think the end sequence runs longer than it seems and the initial conflicts kick off early–but the beginning’s scenes introducing Dustin Hoffman and Susan George are nice, concise storytelling. During their first scene at home together, I wondered why the film didn’t open with Hoffman and George boarding a plane for England. It soon becomes apparent the two don’t know each other very well or at least aren’t prepared to spend every waking hour together. As the story progresses, even after all she endures, it becomes hard to empathize with her, if only because Peckinpah treats her so hostilely. Following a scene all her own, which clearly illustrates her suffering, George still manages to perplex. She and Hoffman, though married and in almost all their scenes together (with the one monumental exception), are on completely different paths.

As for Hoffman–who didn’t like the film and only did it for the money, which accounts for my earlier statement about the film successfully having a point, as the lead working disingenuously seems to effect such things–he’s fantastic. Straw Dogs is frequently cited as being a “pushed too hard” story–the poster even advertises it as such–but the film never necessarily pushes Hoffman over any edge. In fact, it seems more like Hoffman would have responded in the first five minutes as he did in the last thirty. It makes the film even more confounding (and rewarding).

I haven’t seen Straw Dogs for a while, but I’m sure I had the same reaction at the end I did this time–it’s better than I remembered.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Sam Peckinpah; screenplay by David Zelag Goodman and Peckinpah, based on a novel by Gordon Williams; director of photography, John Coquillon; edited by Paul Davies, Tony Lawson and Roger Spottiswoode; music by Jerry Fielding; production designer, Ray Simm; produced by Daniel Melnick; released by Cinerama Releasing Corporation.

Starring Dustin Hoffman (David Sumner), Susan George (Amy Sumner), Peter Vaughan (Tom Hedden), T.P. McKenna (Major John Scott), Del Henney (Charlie Venner), Jim Norton (Chris Cawsey), Donald Webster (Riddaway), Ken Hutchison (Norman Scutt), Len Jones (Bobby Hedden), Sally Thomsett (Janice Hedden), Robert Keegan (Harry Ware), Peter Arne (John Niles), Cherina Schaer (Louise Hood), Colin Welland (Reverend Barney Hood) and David Warner (Henry Niles).


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