Behind The Screens

dvdI recently sat down for a couple of hours with the noted director Ridley Scott to screen his beautiful film THE DUELLISTS. The man loves his cigars, so once or twice he puffed along happily while he talked; that muffled sound reminded me of the time we screened ALIEN together last year. Some cineastes would endure a brick-thick cloud of stogie effluvia to hang with a director of Scott’s stature, but I didn’t have to worry a single cough. Ridley Scott and I weren’t sharing a screening room; he needn’t yet descend to that level of interpersonal marketing. I was simply watching the picture, and listening to his remarks, on a DVD.

Ah yes, the director’s commentary. And the deleted scenes. And the “making-of” documentary. Even with the DVD’s video-shelf domination now complete – and with pundits already predicting its eventual demise — some people believe the format’s anal-retentive lily-gilding detracts from proper enjoyment of a cinematic work. Rob Reiner begins his reluctant commentary track for THIS IS SPINAL TAP (recorded for the laserdisc edition – it’s so 20th century) by deriding the usefulness of hearing gobs of backstage information; to pay any attention to that man behind the curtain can only diminish the filmmaker’s flickering illusion. David Lynch believes such commentary has the unwanted power to “demystify.” In the New York Times Magazine, Terrence Rafferty wrote that DVDs can potentially change the way we watch movies so profoundly that “the art form itself…is bound to suffer.”

Well, the way we watch movies has definitely changed, but it happened more than thirty years ago, when the venue for uncensored, uninterrupted cinema first migrated from the movie palace to the home. The dark auditorium filled with people, dominated by a mammoth screen, suddenly had to compete with the tiny cathode ray tube in the rumpus room, permitting limitless possible permutations of sound, lighting, climate and distraction – much like the paradigm shift when television arose in the first place, but with one important difference: the audience was now in charge. The videocassette enabled us to become our own projectionists, proactively select our programming and its start time, and skip forward or backward or halt the performance at any moment for any reason. (One regrettable byproduct: because of the shape of tv screens, home video 1.0 trained yet another generation to tolerate a horizontally truncated image, an “aspect ratio” which falsifies the photographer’s composition on nearly every movie since the arrival of Cinemascope.) DVDs may add a few bells and whistles, but the sea change of self-directed film viewing crashed over us long ago.

Nor are the DVD’s special features anything new. For years now, aficionados have been able to get great picture and sound in the correct aspect ratio, hear commentaries like Reiner’s, and enjoy direct scene access, on laserdisc. So how come the hand-wringing all of a sudden? It’s because these powers are now arriving in everybody’s living rooms, not just those of the snob elite. People who like movies just love DVDs. The flat silver laser donuts have evolved into a mass medium at what looks like, you’ll excuse the expression, the speed of light. Some people imagine laserdiscs never caught on with the proles because they resembled the LP records we were all in the process of throwing out. Indeed, DVDs looked like familiar audio compact disks, the physical medium we were then keeping instead. But I believe DVD has become the most rapidly adopted consumer electronics format in history for two much more basic reasons. First, visionaries like former Warner Home Video executive Warren Lieberfarb strove to keep software prices in line, and the rest of the industry was forced to follow suit. No more $100 laserdiscs: you can actually afford to buy a movie you like on DVD – several of ‘em, in fact. Then, significantly, unlike a laserdisc, you can watch a whole movie on DVD without getting up to flip the damned thing over. With only a few exceptions, the film streams completely from start to finish, just like in a theater. Just like the auteur intended.

Like most movie buffs, I have favorites that I watch over and over. I’ll spare you the truly embarrassing guilty pleasures, but let’s just say that not much surprises me any more during the first two GODFATHERs. However, I learned a great deal about these movies, and their later-arriving sibling, by listening to Francis Coppola’s DVD commentary tracks. It wasn’t so much that I got newly imparted data; for example, I was already aware that the director’s daughter Sofia portrayed the infant in the first film’s climactic christening scene (that fairly well-known bit of background info has not diminished my admiration for the scene or the movie one whit). Coppola’s leisurely-paced comments produce a subtler effect. As he recalls the production of the GODFATHER saga, it seems possible to discern the young director’s on-set aspect, his mood, straight from the horse’s, as it were, head. On the first picture, Coppola was constantly second-guessed, in danger of being fired, and this pressure wore heavily on him. During the second one, his experience was just the opposite, since he was now the toast of the town; making PART II was comparatively pleasurable. But by the time the third film rolled around a decade and a half later, Coppola faced severe financial reversals, and was now more or less in the same position as Mario Puzo had been when he sat down to write his baldly commercial novel in the first place. Thus, epic drama was unfolding both onscreen and backstage. You can read about this series of events in a history of the studio or the era, but there is no substitute for the exquisite detail in the candid, spontaneous words of the man himself. Coppola’s reminiscences are legitimate artifacts of film history. The only way the comments on GODFATHERs I and II could be any more useful in this regard is if they had been recorded 35 years ago.

A good commentary track is not just a record of the thousands of banal decisions required to make even a lousy movie. Nor is it a simple film-school explication of the plot and the obvious motivations, the kind that one Best Director of a Best Picture seems unable to shake. A good track is a piece of oral history, as reliable or unreliable as is anyone’s personal opinion, a fixative that joins an underlying reality to the movie’s preternaturally unchanging images. On the commentary to THE SAND PEBBLES, an elderly Robert Wise will occasionally look at one of his grand widescreen compositions and fall silent, recovering with a gentle, wistful, “What a lovely shot.” That tells the film student nothing. But it speaks volumes about what motivated Wise. On the same track, actors Richard Crenna, Mako and Candice Bergen each talk about befriending soldiers on their way to Vietnam on the film’s Far Eastern locations. Because the actors were recorded years after the fact, they are all obliged to tell us that Vietnam hadn’t been on their cultural radar back in 1965. Imagine what we might know – at least those of us who care —  if we could have heard from them at the time, possibly from Steve McQueen as well. The DVD editions of the James Bond movies include featurettes and comments regarding films which date back to 1962. They’ve all been produced and recorded fairly recently, to address this new technology. So we’ve missed, alas, the first generation of Bond filmmakers, that bygone swinging era of Ian Fleming and Terence Fisher, but we can still hear from people who knew them and worked with them first-hand. In years to come, we will be glad that the cultural tent was finally pitched, that somebody documented even such lightweight pieces of pop more promptly.

I never listen to a commentary until after I’ve seen the movie; I doubt there’s a single person who does. And there are plenty of movies on DVD where the existence of a commentary track may seem unwise: the makers of Britney Spears’ CROSSROADS may have worked their little hearts out on the flick, but after sitting through it, I just don’t care. Somebody else might, though. Anyone bemoaning the death of our cinematic sense of wonder at the hands of DVD’s seductive powers should note that I avoided the CROSSROADS commentary the good old-fashioned way, a method I would recommend to anyone who’s genuinely disturbed by these things: I didn’t listen to it. But I was genuinely interested in what might have gone through James Mangold’s mind while he was making his clever little B-thriller IDENTITY. Sometimes, though, you want to share the pain: with the critical and financial catcalls for the flawed but nonetheless chuckly DEATH TO SMOOCHY still ringing in his ears, Danny DeVito cheerfully told his DVD commentary audience, “the mourning period is over.” As time passes, we will want such records of even our failed movies, because what people reject is as significant to popular culture as is what they embrace. Any contemporary commentary is worth recording, even if nobody wants to hear it at the time and it turns out puerile or maudlin enough to qualify for The Onion’s very funny feature, “Commentary Tracks of the Damned.” Still: roll tape!

Perhaps as a response to this new backstage interest, The New York Times tried commentaries in print a while back in a feature called “Watching Movies With…” The paper chose an actor or director, who then chose a film, screened it, and commented for the Times’s tape recorder. (These pieces were later collected in a book.) The flaw in content was that the commenter had nothing to do with the picture in question; s/he was simply reacting to the film as a member of the audience, something anyone at home can do. Kevin Smith may be an eccentric talent, but does he really give us any insight into A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS that would trump Robert Bolt’s, or Paul Scofield’s? Woody Allen watched SHANE; Q.E.D. The flaw in form was that the dutiful Times reporter was forced to conjure specific cinematic moments in print. How would you communicate PSYCHO’s shower sequence, using nothing but words, to someone who’d never seen it? At what point would you finally become flustered? In contrast, when we hear a track on DVD, we and the commenter have a common visual referent. There’s something ineluctable between us, that same nonverbal shared illusion which makes movies movies in the first place, best represented by the single most common yet most unnecessary sentence in all commentary-trackdom: “Watch this!” It’s easy to tell when a commentary is “scene-specific” – that is, the cast or crew member is actually watching the film unspool in real time, as are we – and when it has only been pieced together in response to an interviewer’s questions. Frequently, a single commentary will employ both methods. But one never comes away empty-handed; there’s always something to learn about the film or, in extremis, about the speaker.

Besides Lynch, there are other directors, like Steven Spielberg and M. Night Shyamalan, who don’t do voiceover commentaries. But it’s not necessarily because they want to remain behind the curtain. Those last two guys in particular regularly authorize detailed documentaries that usher the viewer deep into the filmmaking process, thereby demystifying their asses off. And what’s this? On his superbly mastered, self-published DVD of ERASERHEAD (available only from, none other than Lynch himself smokes a few ciggies on camera and talks entertainingly about the film’s raggedy production history for 90 minutes. It’s not a commentary – the section is listed as “Stories” — but when it’s over, you realize that the existence of ERASERHEAD is a minor miracle. Like the flick or lump it (you’ll be part of a crowd either way), a talented and obsessed young filmmaker was fiercely opposed by art’s twin demons, time and resources, and simply would not be denied. Lynch doesn’t say this; he’s far too decorous for such preening. But after spending an hour and a half with him, you know it.

Postmodern DVDevotees like P. T. Anderson and Peter Jackson have quickly sussed that this medium gives them a way to communicate directly to their audiences, with no studio suit or talk-show host in between. Re Jackson, much was made of New Line Cinema’s decision to release two DVD versions of THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING: the theatrical version, then a steroid-fueled four-disc “extended edition” with half an hour of reinstated footage and more commentaries, documentaries, featurettes, and assorted glitz crackers than you can shake a shtick at. The prosecution’s two arguments are: Time Warner is trying to scam us into buying the same title on DVD twice (admittedly, this particular corporation could use the dough), and Jackson is defying nature by tampering with a movie after the fact. I too disapprove of the practice of retro-fitting E.T. or STAR WARS with new footage decades later. Yet after digitally removing firearms and adding the option of hearing a new live orchestral score, Spielberg was persuaded to include the established version of E.T. on its DVD release, and George Lucas followed suit on his classic STAR WARS trilogy in the new format (he couldn’t resist tweaking a few scenes for the late-Nineties theatrical re-release, but that had nothing to do with DVD at the time).

Jackson’s actions are different. First, New Line plainly and clearly announced its intentions well before the first FELLOWSHIP DVD was released; an extended edition with all kinds of glitter would definitely follow some months later. Nobody was trying to fool anybody. Further, as is often the case, the extra footage was trimmed out of the theatrical release for reasons mundane, not poetic. Everyone involved wanted to bring in an uninterrupted three-hour film: that’s the extent of most supersized-soda-filled bladders, and it also enables daily performances sufficient to add up to the blockbuster which the studio needed to recoup its nine-figure investment. Fine. But, as we’ve already noted, the experience is different when we screen movies at home. We can pause to grab a sandwich or take a phone call, even break the experience up over several sessions. We don’t have to, but we can. At home, total running time is no longer an issue. There may be only so many seats at the metroplex, and this inventory may have to be turned over like a warehouse full of shoe boxes. But it’s not so in the living room. Tolkien’s saga happens to be so langorous, so full of luscious color and detail, that a gentler pace in the film fits the source material even more snugly. (Also note that the extra footage was reinstated immediately, not after decades had passed and the movie had already assumed a place as a cultural benchmark.) Thus the opinion of most who have seen it that the extended DVD edition of FELLOWSHIP supersedes the one shown in theaters. This process was repeated, to the same critical acclaim, for THE TWO TOWERS and THE RETURN OF THE KING. But, fully aware that fatter editions were coming, DVD owners still busted theater doors down to see the latter two films in their original engagements, sure to become known as “truncated” versions. They seemed to be saying, so what?

Certainly, that project represents the exception. Most deleted scenes richly deserve their deletion. More problematic are bits of character that, in a parallel universe, might have become fixed in our collective cinematic memory, like the exchange in THELMA & LOUISE where Brad Pitt explains to Geena Davis the difference between a robber and a burglar. You saw the scene in question, all right, you just didn’t hear those lines of dialogue, which are presented on the DVD in an “extended” scene. They too were snipped for pace. It’s often instructive to ruminate about what might have been. The deleted lines or scenes can feel foreign, unwelcome, second-rate, partly because we aren’t accustomed to them in context, maybe because they had no business in the picture in the first place. But now, for weal or woe, we can judge for ourselves. If DVD gives a director the opportunity to prove beyond doubt what cretins the studio butchers are for mangling his art, then bring on the deleted scenes, pal, and let us at least be amazed that the actors knocked themselves out for stuff that we never even got to see!

By their nature, deleted scenes skip around through the story of the movie, jumping in narrative time like a real shooting schedule does. Similarly, a DVD allows you to hop directly to a particular spot, even view scenes out of order if that’s your poison. But, DVD pornography aside, will it be? When audio CDs first appeared, one of the most heavily promoted features was the ability to refresh an album of music by re-sequencing at your pleasure, even listening to tracks at random. But after a generation of living with CDs, let’s admit that very few people are going around playing the movements of Beethoven’s Ninth out of order – even though they most certainly can. It wasn’t until iPods made musically-related shuffle play possible on a grand scale that this became more popular, but I still listen to my favorite albums front to back, like the unit that each was created to be.

In order to skip to a scene on a DVD instantly, though, you need bookmarks known as “chapter stops.” David Lynch has famously refused to include these scene indicators on his more recent DVD releases. It’s too bad, because the breathtaking MULHOLLAND DR. almost completely comprises a string of non-sequitur setpieces; you’re dying to re-view one or two in particular just as soon as the flick’s over. Maddeningly, it’s one of the few DVDs I own on which chapter stops would actually be helpful. At any rate, you can sample forward and backward using a DVD much faster than you can with a tape cassette. Even on a disk without chapter stops, direct scene access isn’t impossible, only a tad more troublesome. Yet make no mistake: the Pandora’s box of viewer-driven narrative flow was shocked open by the development of home video tape, not by DVDs, which have done nothing more sinister than make the exercise a bit easier.

Nobody can deny that the emergence of the crisp, clear DVD format has had a salutary effect on the presentation of movies on home video. As any cinephile should applaud, not only has widescreen anamorphic or “letterboxed” presentation become the DVD default (it happened even before larger home screens sealed the deal; “full-screen” editions of movies hang on mainly in TV-centric children’s fare), but the format has also introduced Criterion-like snobbishness to the masses: films originally exhibited in “roadshow” engagements are presented exactly as audiences first saw them, complete with overture and intermission. It’s hard to explain the frisson that 2001’s spacey walk-in sound can produce in someone who last heard the track in 1968. (Now, if we only still had Cinerama…) Thanks to DVD, this is where today’s bar of authenticity has been set: not just at Cahiers du Cinema, but also at Wal-Mart.

DVD enthusiasts’ obsession with background details is a target ripe for parody, and the jackanapes have already begun. The GALAXY QUEST DVD includes an alternate commentary track translated into “Thermian,” the shrieking, screeching tongue of the film’s alien co-stars. It’s amusing for about thirty seconds, and I can’t imagine anyone listening to the whole thing, but as far as I can tell, the recording pixies keep it going for the entire picture. The most entertaining commentary I’ve ever heard was recorded for the Coen brothers’ BLOOD SIMPLE. It’s done by one “Kenneth Loring” of “Forever Young Films,” the unlikely “restorer” of an ultra-low-budget movie that, as he speaks, is only fifteen years old. Sporting an erudite British accent, the deadpan “Loring” proceeds to deconstruct in absurd detail what is obviously, from our concurrent visual evidence, hand-to-mouth filmmaking: according to him, a fly that happens to land on M. Emmet Walsh’s temple was created digitally; to get the illusion of oncoming headlights in what our eyes tell us is a standard “poor man’s process” shot, the performers were suspended upside down and recited their lines backwards; a common phone-filter voiceover was achieved by having the actor, just off camera, pinch his larynx and speak into a Dixie cup. Then “Loring” ignores the film altogether and launches into an epic rant about a complex discarded subplot involving esoteric Eastern European dictators, breathlessly culminating in an account of his own assault by a periwigged Nick Nolte in the office of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. This magnificent vocal performance, by an uncredited Jim Piddock, is made even funnier by the fact that all the while, BLOOD SIMPLE is earnestly playing out on the screen. You can’t learn anything about the film from such a stunt, of course, but man, is it fun. And even the super-hip Coens eventually sat back and commented away with Billy Bob Thornton for the DVD of THE MAN WHO WASN’T THERE.

DVDs would have earned their welcome in the marketplace if they did nothing more than give us superior picture and sound at home, without fear of demagnetization or tape-chewing capstans. If our copy of IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE simply lasted until we passed into the next, that would be enough. But for those who are more curious, able to suspend disbelief and then employ it once again when the lights come up, these disks are becoming inadvertent time capsules, each one packed with information which can only gain in significance as we bid farewell to the milieu that produced it. As a practical matter, DVD commentaries and on-set documentaries will likely dissuade more young people from filmmaking than they entice, for the journey is shown time and again to be an upstream swim, the director an overloaded general trying his best to manage a tenuous wartime bureaucracy. But more often than you might guess, somewhere within the maelstrom is a notion, an inspiration, a hard-shelled kernel of imagination that cannot be pried away by limitations of budget or schedule. As you dig into the process, as you spend time with these inspired, self-obsessed lunatics, your moviegoing experience isn’t demystified at all. Quite the contrary. You’re mystified, amazed, thrilled, dazzled that lumbering groups of fallible and disputatious people can join to produce something, anything. Maybe the end product has turned out to be sublime, maybe ridiculous, but at least hand them this: at least they put it together, together.


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