It is one of those DVD special features that folks tend to look past. Admittedly, it takes a certain type of person to watch a movie without actually watching a movie. However overlooked it may be, filmmaker commentary truly is an invaluable resource for those with even just a minor interest in the production and filming aspects of a movie. And, for those with no interest at all in either of those things, cast commentaries offer fun and almost always interesting insights into the process of acting (which seems to be more enjoyable than one could even imagine).
That said, many people just can not stand to watch the images on the screen go by and not hear what the actors are talking about, and that is fine, too. First of all, and I am not sure why anyone would do this anyway, it is entirely inadvisable to watch a movie you have never seen with commentary. That just does not make sense. But, beyond that (should be) obvious fact, it does generally help to be quite familiar with a film before attempting to watch it. I generally try to see a movie at least two or three times before turning on the commentary track.
There seem to be three categories of DVD commentary: insightful filmmaker commentary, entertaining cast commentary, and just plain bad commentary. A good commentary track by a filmmaker should also be entertaining, but first and foremost, it should illuminate the filmmaking process and behind the scenes activities of the cast and crew. Entertaining cast commentary tends to be just a couple of the actors sitting around in a room and chatting with one another. Sometimes this chatter is related to the movie and occasionally it is not. But, with our already celebrity obsessed culture, it is nice to listen to them talk about their craft rather than their groceries or hairstyles.
Finally, bad commentary tracks are those that generally contain very little information about anything in particular. Most of the time, it is the director of a film that is guilty of the worst commentary. Some directors are just not talkative people. The late-great Robert Altman was one of the finest filmmakers of all time, but his commentary tracks tend to hide that genius. He just doesn’t say a whole lot. But, then, why hide all the all of the magnificent dialogue in an Altman movie anyway.
The best cast commentary I have come across has been Paul Giamatti and Thomas Hayden Church’s hilarious viewing of Sideways. Their rapport in the film seems to carry over into life as they banter back and forth about everything from their own physical shortcomings to the strange minutiae that encompass the process of shooting a movie. Throughout, they are engaging, intelligent, and downright hilarious. Other fun cast commentaries include: Superbad, Brick, and The 40-Year-Old Virgin.
For filmmakers talking about filmmaking, you can’t beat Sam Mendes and Alan Ball discussing best picture winner American Beauty. For any aspiring filmmaker, it is the cheapest master class in directing a motion picture that I have come across. Twenty dollars for the special edition DVD and you can learn pretty much all of the secrets behind making one of the finest films of the last decade. Also, Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights commentary is well worth checking out, as well as Francis Ford Coppola’s commentary track for the first Godfather film.
This is kind of like one big advertisement for DVDs, but it really isn’t. It is a push to make use of some of the wonderful resources the medium has to offer. Let’s face it, you’re buying DVDs anyway. So, all I am saying is, the next time you go to watch your favourite movie, when the menu comes up, check out the special features. And, if it has it, try out a filmmaker commentary once in a while. The worst that is going to happen is you will learn a little bit more about a movie you like. So, give it a shot.