One of my fellow film connoisseurs took unfair advantage of my near-addictive weakness for making lists and suggested that I write about some of my favorite DVD audio commentaries. Having taken the bait, here are my personal top ten, in alphabetical order by film, along with my own brief commentaries. (This is not finished, Joel!)
Julie Jones on Belle de jour. As smart and insightful as it is, I include this commentary mainly for the way the genteel, Southern-speaking voice of film scholar Julie Jones is interspersed over some of Luis Bunuel’s most blatant depictions of his privately erotic (and male-oriented) obsessions. The juxtaposition makes for an extended surreal gag worthy of Bunuel himself.
Francis Ford Coppola on Bram Stoker's Dracula. Heartfelt, affectionate, and sometimes quirky (especially when he’s talking about reading Stoker’s novel to young boys at summer camp or renting a hot air balloon for the cast), Coppola’s commentary for his underappreciated horror epic—my favorite of his films, and certainly a lot more fun than his Godfather saga—reveals a true cinephile as obsessive as Guy Maddin, but thankfully without the Freudian excess.
Zak Penn, Werner Herzog, and various others on Incident at Loch Ness. I’m still not sure how successful Penn’s mockumentary of Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and of Herzog fandom in general actually is (perhaps because Penn is too much of a fan himself to properly skewer Herzog’s persona), but his commentary—featuring Penn, Herzog, and a number of others—is a laugh riot, especially when Herzog, disgusted by Penn’s exploitation of his actors, exclaims “Jeff Goldblum is your clown!” and leaves the session within the first fifteen minutes.
Roman Polanski on The Ninth Gate. Despite the lackluster critical reception it received when released in 1999, The Ninth Gate has always been one of my personal favorites by Polanski, and his commentary—a rare treat, given his admitted reluctance to revisit his work—helps to explain why. Polanski’s self-analysis highlights the meticulous (and conservatively classical) craftsmanship he brings to material that lesser directors would treat as just another money-making genre exercise. He also instructively suggests that this subtly humorous film, sometimes critically dismissed for being not as scary as Rosemary’s Baby, is probably closer in spirit to the similarly underrated The Fearless Vampire Killers.
John Fawell on Rear Window. Expectations are pretty high for the man who wrote the book Rear Window: The Well-Made Film, and although I’m still not convinced that this is Hitchcock’s most “well-made” feature (that would be Vertigo), John Fawell’s commentary is fairly outstanding and exhaustively researched. Fawell analyzes just about everything, and I mean everything, from the family outside Stewart’s window who often escapes his gaze (revealing, Fawell explains, Stewart’s aversion to starting a family of his own) to the symbolic significance of the various photographs in his room. Avoiding platitudes, Fawell keeps the majority of his observations centered around his simple, yet endlessly provocative, thesis: that Rear Window is ultimately a movie about movie-watching itself.
Jeffrey Angles on Sansho the Bailiff. I usually prefer Tony Rayns as my guide when exploring Asian territory in Criterion land, but Japanese-literature professor Jeffrey Angles is probably the appropriate choice for my favorite film by Mizoguchi Kenji. What Angles lacks in Rayns’s cinematic eclecticity he makes up for in national specificity, contextualizing the film within a steady grasp of Japanese history, geography, literature, politics, and language. Listening to Angles’s insightful commentary is a reminder of how limited English subtitles are in fully conveying the various cultural nuances of films outside one’s native country.
Peter Bogdanovich on Targets. For me Bogdanovich has always been one of most aesthetically pleasing of film commentators—even when what he says is not particularly interesting or remarkable, his relaxed, old-geezer-in-a-rocking-chair manner is always agreeable to the ear and the perfect cure for insomnia. However, Bogdanovich’s commentary for his striking first feature—still one of the scariest movies ever made—is exceptional for the numerous insights it provides into the film’s conception and production, much of which is more fascinating than the film itself and serves as a final testament to the creative energy that can be sparked by studio-mandated restrictions. Particularly enlightening is Bogdanvich’s acknowledgement that Samuel Fuller had a hand in the script and, I strongly suspect, in the direction as well.
Adrian Martin on 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her. You have to give Australian film critic Adrian Martin credit for simply agreeing to tackle one of Godard’s first forays into essay filmmaking that, in its encyclopedic and referential nature, is already a kind of commentary in itself. However, Martin does a capable job at juggling everything Godard’s film throws at him and, in the justly famous coffee cup scene, even helps to situate the French director as more than a mere political agitator but rather as a filmmaker whose unorthodox techniques oftentimes reach for the spiritually transcendent.
Robert Zemeckis, Bob Gale, and Kurt Russell on Used Cars. A fun and nostalgic group commentary for Zemeckis’s horrifically hilarious (and still only R-rated) second feature that serves as a welcome reminder of the kind of anarchic and slightly avant-garde sensibility Zemeckis once was capable of before Forrest Gump signaled a decision to move away from this so-called “kid’s” stuff. If all the uproarious laughter and fond memories shared here says anything, Used Cars was clearly a blast to make—one only hopes that, after joining his old buddies for this infectiously affectionate get-together, Zemeckis has thought about someday directing another savagely satirical send-up of Americana (perhaps this time in performance capture technique?).
Edward Yang and Tony Rayns on Yi Yi. I’ve always been impressed by the sheer breadth of Tony Rayns’s cinematic knowledge (he’s just as at home talking about Dreyer’s Vampyr as he is Oshima’s In the Realm of the Senses), but what makes his co-commentary with Taiwanese director Edward Yang something special—aside from the fact that Yang just recently died about four years ago—is the manner in which Rayns modestly downplays his obvious credentials as one of leading critics of Asian cinema for the sake of paying respect to the master. When Rayns, for example, asks Yang if the bright colors in the film’s opening wedding sequence are meant to be satirical and Yang replies that this is actually how Chinese weddings are decorated, it’s testimony to Rayns’s gentlemanlike demeanor (not to mention his self-confidence as a critic) that he doesn’t respond defensively at all to Yang’s correction. This and many other cases provide an exemplary model of how to be a film critic without losing one’s humility.