Thursday, January 16, 2014

Extras, Extras! On DVD

At the moment all of my TV and movie watching is via DVD or even--yes, I've still got a VCR--tape.  During the school year when Margaret likes to relax with no more than an hour in the evening, we watch episodes of a TV series on DVD.  We catch up on the latest release year of a series we like, but much of the time we've never seen the series before, so we start at the beginning.

That's why we watched an episode of the first season of Leverage, from 2008, last night.  And later, before winging it back to Netflix, I watched it again with the commentary.  It reminded me what I like best about DVD commentaries, the subject of a short piece I published in a local paper some 9 years ago, when they were sort of new.

This particular episode was a late season story directed by Jonathan Frakes, who cast three actors from Star Trek's 24th century.  Frakes was by then an experienced TV as well as feature film director, and the persona he may have developed at Trek conventions--quick, funny--is a delight on the commentary.

 Also commenting were a couple of producers and the episode's writer.  They did what is increasingly rare on commentary--they commented on the background to the episode itself, and how it developed within the series.  They talked about influences--Hitchcock and Rockford Files moments, Judgement at Nuremberg as a model for shooting the courtroom scenes.  They talked about the pros and cons of establishing shots, about when to move the camera and when to let it dwell. They talked about the genesis of the story (they had a courtroom set left over from Boston Legal) and that it started with the ending, and worked back. It was great.  It's what I value in commentaries: a combination of a painless film/drama class and some modest gossip.

However I've learned to my chagrin that this is increasingly rare.  I sat through a series of commentaries to a series we like, Bones. Though some commentaries were fun if not overly informative (those with the show's two stars who are also producers and one is a director) there were examples of almost everything that's wrong with commentaries: a group of people who have no idea of what to say or why they are there and wind up talking about utter irrelevancies, or producers etc. who note that every single actor with a line is a great, great actor, and a really great person.

 Meanwhile, where a key episode fits in the arc of the series, the story's genesis or what was learned, goes uncommented upon.  There's the rare gem (a case of the actor whose character was supposed to die but the producers changed their mind and kept her as a regular--something that started Julianne Margulis' career on ER.)  But you have to slog through a lot and somehow stay awake to get there.

Sometimes it's enough that the commenting voices are good company, and it's like hanging out with them for awhile. But you have to be able to understand them--sometimes a problem with fast-talking Brits, especially when they aren't talking about what's on the screen. There are a few commentaries that have little to do with the show that are entertaining anyway, like some of Tom Baker's for Doctor Who. (His often-parodied but easily understood RSC diction is a blessing as well.)  

As for movie commentaries, I've noted at least two other examples of directors who say "this is my favorite scene in the whole movie" a half dozen times--something I mentioned in my earlier piece.  I see fewer new movies these days, and I still enjoy retrospective commentaries on reissues of older films, at least when the people have something to say beyond--I forgot that!  Look how young we were!

What I wrote about deleted scenes still pertains.  Since then I've seen at least one movie I like--called Pirate Radio--which deleted so many scenes that there's another movie there.  Several of the deleted scenes are among my favorites-- better and more memorable than what's in the release version.

More than anything, it may look like I really know how to waste my time.  There's some rueful truth in that.  Still, if I spend the time watching this stuff at all, and I like it, the bonuses become an important part of the experience.

Anyway, here's my first published thoughts on the matter from 2005, prompted by a local columnist who found commentaries and bonus scenes annoying:

I love the bonus features on DVD. If I didn’t, I just wouldn’t watch them. But sometimes they are the main reason I rent or buy a DVD movie, apart from the image quality, especially if I’ve already got it on tape.

 Bonus features typically include short documentaries related to the film, a commentary track for the movie itself, and scenes that weren’t in the theatrical release version, either reintegrated into the film or by themselves. They are all hit or miss, of course, but they often add new layers to the experience of the movie.

 The documentaries I often like best are retrospective interviews with directors and actors years after release, when they can put their efforts in perspective, and they can say things that maybe they couldn’t before. But I also like to know how movies are made. I enjoy learning about the process.

 Commentary tracks can be maddening, especially when the voices don’t bother talking about what you’re watching, and what you’d like to know. The worst I’m come across recently is “Spiderman II.” The director is cueing the star (Tobey McGuire) to talk solemnly about how he learns his lines while I’d like to know why they kept that scene with the neighbor bringing Peter Parker a piece of pie is the movie.

 It’s also nearly impossible to follow both the commentary and the movie, even when you select for subtitles (which I usually do). But much of the time, the commentary is enlightening (between descriptions of how effects shots were done, George Lucas describes a surprisingly serious intent for the Star Wars cycle: “how a democracy becomes a dictatorship, and a good person becomes a bad person”) or it’s just entertaining (counting the number of times that director Roland Emerich says “this is my favorite scene” during “The Day After Tomorrow.”)

 Sometimes the commentaries are even better than that. The dialogue between writer/director Nancy Meyers and actor Jack Nicholson on the DVD of “Something’s Gotta Give” is hilarious, and a master class in film acting as well. So not only is this movie worth repeating, so is the commentary.

 If DVDs have done nothing else, they proven how stupid movie studios can be in editing scenes out of movies just to make them shorter. They leave gaping holes in the story and make the actors look dumb, just so they can have more showings to confuse more people. But without the need to sell more tickets on opening weekend at the multiplex, DVDs can restore the scenes that at least give the movie a chance to make sense. That’s a more a restoration than a bonus.

 That works best when they actually put the scenes back where they belong in the movie (and the commentary track can tip you off to this). Sometimes when they offer them as “deleted scenes,” you wonder what they were thinking when they cut it. I remember several of the deleted scenes from the second Harry Potter movie better than I do a lot of the scenes that are in it. They tended to be mood pieces, like Harry and his owl sitting on a hill high above the landscape, but the movie needed some quiet moments, some beauty that evokes magic.