Editor’s note: Back again for another round is Andrew Egan, who most recently brought us the story of Scatman John. Tonight, he tells us about his time digging in the menus on random DVDs. (By the way, a quick shout-out to Kenn Messman, who recently made a big donation to the site. Thanks!)
Today in Tedium: As the formats hosting our favorite movies, music, and games change, some things will be lost. (Sometimes, even the formats themselves.) By some estimates, 75 percent of silent films were never converted to more stable mediums. They are gone forever. On the bright side, most of it was crap unworthy of saving. But there were a few gems, like Charlie Chaplin’s A Thief Catcher, though a copy was found in 2010. In an age of Gmail, Dropbox, and Netflix, people rarely worry about losing their favorite entertainment. One artform, inextricably tied to a dying format, is endangered—damn near extinction, even. Today’s Tedium looks at the lost art of DVD commentary. — Andrew @ Tedium
The runtime, in minutes, of the 1998 film Armageddon. The Criterion Collection release of the film includes commentary (recorded separately) by Bruce Willis, Ben Affleck, and Jerry Bruckheimer.
“I mean, this is a little bit of a logic stretch, let’s face it.” (Touchstone Pictures)
Ben Affleck’s Armageddon commentary shows just how epic audio commentaries can be
After the success and accolades of his breakout film, Good Will Hunting, Ben Affleck found himself in demand. Jerry Bruckheimer cast him as one of the leads in the popular but scientifically lacking blockbuster, Armageddon.
Despite these opportunities, Affleck found himself drinking to excess. Some time during this period, he was asked to provide commentary for one of the biggest films of his entire career. The result is amazing.
“I asked Michael (Bay, the film’s director) why it was easier to train oil drillers to become astronauts than it was to teach astronauts to become oil drillers,” Affleck says over scene between Bruce Willis and Billy Bob Thornton. “He told me to ‘Shut the fuck up.’ So that was the end of that talk.”
(Affleck eventually went to rehab and worked with Bruckheimer and Bay again just a few years later.)
DVD commentary tracks offer unique insight into a film while giving fans a reason to buy multiple copies of the same movie. Behind-the-scenes featurettes were nothing new. Board cinematographers and actors had long filmed “making of” segments for their projects. Much of this was limited to film festivals and fan conventions.
The release of the 1984 Criterion Collection Laserdisc edition of King Kong, however, offered a new take on a well-worn classic.
“I’m going to take you on a lecture tour of King Kong as you watch the film. The Laserdisc technology offers us this opportunity and we feel it’s rather unique—the ability to switch back and forth between the soundtrack and this lecture track,” said Ronald Haver, historian and film preservationist at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
This was the first documented use of commentary as a special feature on a movie, and it came about decades before the format that made it famous. First released in 1933, King Kong is the perfect film to pioneer the audio commentary phenomenon. The film’s influence on filmmakers, artists, and the general public is difficult to exaggerate. The film is so important that the 1984 Laserdisc edition was the second ever release by the now-venerated Criterion Collection, a company with a reputation for distributing classic and underappreciated cinema. (The first film released by Criterion, also on Laserdisc, was Citizen Kane.)
A tour-de-force in method acting, one not broken even during the audio commentary. (Paramount Pictures)
The five most entertaining DVD commentaries you’ll ever find
- Edgar Wright and Quentin Tarantino, Hot Fuzz: Two major film geeks, Wright and Tarantino indulge in movie references while Tarantino praises Wright for the second of his Cornetto trilogy.
- Jack Black, Ben Stiller, and Robert Downey, Jr, Tropic Thunder: Downey remains in character throughout, fulfilling a promise his character made in the film, also Jack Black shows up late.
- Trey Parker and Matt Stone, Orgazmo: Parker and Stone watch their first movie while playing a drinking game they created.
- Unknown, Kung Pow: Enter the Fist: Rather than comment on the film, this track removed all characters’ dialogue and replaced it with a single man reading all parts in a British accent.
- Harry Shearer, Christopher Guest, Michael McKean in character as Spinal Tap, This Is Spinal Tap: The band reunites to discuss their “documentary” and impact. The actors slide into their old roles quite well and never break character.
Where does the art of audio commentary go next? Streaming services haven’t found a way to make it work
After finishing his work on the seminal cult series Mystery Science Theater 3000, Michael Nelson needed something to do. He needed it to be cheap, and it needed to play on his unique talent of providing humorous commentary to otherwise bad films.
Those circumstances helped spawn RiffTrax in 2006. Offering streams and downloads of their humorous commentary paired to popular releases and B movies, the company is trucking along, though it perhaps doesn’t have the profile of the show that inspired it. Some imitators are following in the MST3K and RiffTrax tradition and offering their own takes. Odds are, those kinds of commentaries won’t go anywhere.
On the other hand, the intimate commentary offered by the cast and crew might be disappearing forever as personal movie libraries continue to shrink.
Consumer spending on physical media such as DVDs and Blu-Rays has been falling steadily since reaching a peak in 2004. Sales of physical disks fell 10.9 percent in 2014 and 12 percent in 2015. And many of the special features used to market disks are not being picked up or used by major streaming services.
Netflix briefly introduced audio commentary for the first season of House of Cards. However, this is no longer available.
A still showing commentary from House of Cards director and executive producer David Fincher.
Amazon released a version of Transparent with audio commentary by Jill Soloway, the show’s creator, and lead actor Jeffrey Tambor. So far, this is the only streaming show on Amazon Prime with audio commentary. Hulu, meanwhile, also offers commentary for one of its BBC co-produced original series, The Wrong Mans.
None of the larger streaming services offers commentary for licensed content, i.e. the things they didn’t create. Considering Netflix’s notoriously data-centric approach, their brief dalliance with commentary, and subsequent retreat, does not bode well for the future. (Netflix and Amazon did not respond to inquiries from Tedium. Fitting, considering the nature of the piece.)
Salvaging a lost film is hard—according to the Film Foundation, it can cost between $80,000 to $450,000 to preserve a full-length feature film with color and sound.
But films have always had their saviors, no matter how unlikely they might be. Hugh Hefner, for example.
An epic episode of MTV’s Cribs is dedicated to the features and amenities of the Playboy Mansion. In between the garage and the not-so-subtle shots of buxom beauties, one spare detail shined in the episode: Hef fucking loves movies.
The Cribs crew managed to catch Hefner at an interesting time in his archives. They were in the process of converting his entire collection from VHS into DVD. And if you watched the clip above, you’ll notice that Hef said “most of ’em”.
The question, when it comes to this sort of preservation, then, is this: Will interest in obscure films extend to these for-the-fans commentaries?
Those of us of a certain age might recall the time and patience required to burn a CD or create a digital copy. Tech in 2017 can tackle these processes in short order, but across the entirety of media, complete conversion to modern formats doesn’t often make much economic sense. Which is a shame, because many of the special features used to market DVDs might be gone forever.
Much like with retro video games, the ultimate savior might be piracy.
While commentary and other special features may not be readily (or ever) available on Netflix and Amazon, they will still be found on YouTube, torrents and places like RiffTrax, only sought by maniacal aficionados obsessed with every detail of their favorite movies and TV shows.
To be honest, that was probably the case from the very beginning.
Andrew Egan is writer and editor of Crimes In Progress. His work has appeared in Forbes Magazine, ABC News, Atlas Obscura, Tedium, and more. He is a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin. His novel, Nothing Too Original, is available now for Kindle and paperback. You can visit his website at CrimesInProgress.com.