DVD Lovers Do It with Audio-Commentary

(Photo: M. Keefe)

I’ve decided I should blog more in English (to cater to that great international audience out there), and since this post is the start of a new series that I will be loosely posting in fits and starts whenever I feel like it, I decided that I might as well begin (and continue) it in English.

What will this series be about? It will be about one of my favourite features of the DVD age, other than being able to watch movies in their original language: the audio-commentary. The feature has intrigued me ever since I started discovering DVDs in the late 90s, and I try to listen to as many commentary tracks as I have time for. So this series will feature a few musings about commentaries in general and some examples of what I find to be outstanding audio commentaries. Because, as most people who have listened to commentary tracks will know – there are good ones, bad ones and ugly ones.

“Most people” is a good way to start this series off, because I have noticed that the “most people” above does not equal “most people who watch DVDs”. Even a lot of film lovers rarely bother with the bonus material on DVDs and even if they do, the audio-commentary is usually last on their list. It’s not too hard to understand why. They take a long time (because you have to watch the whole film again) and they can be a very boring rehash of stuff you knew anyway or read in interviews. Sometimes they spoil the illusion of the film – and if you don’t like that, well, then you just don’t.

I recently linked to College Humor’s Commentary: The Movie – and a lot of audio-commentaries really are like that. They consist of people who love to hear themselves talk being either condescending towards the viewer, congratulary towards themselves or annoyingly admiring towards their actors and people they worked with. Other bad commentaries have directors speaking who clearly didn’t want to do a commentary track at all and have nothing to say.

But there are exceptions to the boredom. I truly love the feeling of watching a movie with the filmmaker right next to me, telling me what he was thinking while shooting or writing a scene, explaining how the filmmaking process worked its magic in a particular setpiece through a collaboration of people and fate. There’s two ways to watch a film: There’s the “suspension of disbelief” mode, in which you hope to drown in the diegetic world, and the “curious about how it was done” mode, in which you imagine that you’re actually standing behind the camera, shooting the scene you are watching. For the latter, audio-commentaries are perfect.

Good audio-commentaries often consist of a group of two to five people having a chat about making the film while they are watching it. It’s often better to have more than one person in the room, because this way it sounds less like an audio book and more like you, the listener, part of the team. And it’s better to actually have the people watching the film rather than having one narrator who then goes: “Let’s hear what Person X had to say about this scene” after which you can hear a clip from an interview.

Good audio-commentaries offer a mixture of insight into the filmmaking process (people actually explaining about how certain things happened) and fun (people joking about the process and giving you a little peek into the human side of filmmaking). Actors are rarely good audio-commentators unless they were involved in the movie through more than acting a role or a friends with the director. Writers are good commentators, as are special effects people. Composers usually have a hard time speaking about their music, although there are exceptions.

I wanted to follow up these general remarks with the recommendation of one great commentary I recently watched and that inspired the series, but since this post is already very long, I will save it for the next post.

Because there is everything on the internet, there is also a site that rates and recommends commentaries. I only just discovered it, so I am not sure if it recommendable itself.

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