I love watching great movies with great commentaries, because it’s something I can keep with me every time I watch or think about the movie afterward. But sometimes they’re not so great–and I recently found one of these unfortunate entries quite unexpectedly on a Criterion bluray. On the surface, it may not have seemed outright awful, but it got me thinking about what my ideal qualifications for a perfect commentary would be.
This one was fine–as with many vintage movies nowadays, there was no filmmaker remaining on this mortal plane to impart their wisdom, so the honor went to two experts in the field, one who was an authority on the director and the other on the lead actor. The issue with that was that both of them were very clearly used to being the smartest guy in the room, particularly when it came to this movie, so there was a great deal of passive-aggressive bickering, undermining of facts, and somewhat unrelated tangents just to assert some sort of verbal dominance. It almost sounded like they had both prepared enough material to talk the entire 2 hours, then arrived at the recording studio to discover that they were going to have to share their time. So while they were imparting very valuable information, the context of the discussion (a brainy cinematic pissing match) really affected my ability to appreciate it.
Obviously, having someone involved in the actual making of the picture is best–no matter how smart or well-read a third-party is, by necessity their information is coming from somewhere that it already exists. It might be in a book, or documents they’ve researched from the making of the film, or an interview they conducted with the filmmaker. Some of it may be new to the viewer, but the scholar is always limited to the available information. By contrast, a filmmaker can drop completely new and unknown tidbits that may have never come up before, and could be appearing on this commentary for the first time–just because they’ve never thought to share it until this very moment.
Although I do love the commentaries with just the director or the producer or the writer, I also love any additional commentary that may feature a more diverse spread of the crew–bring in the production designer, the VFX editor, the composer–all bringing their different perspectives to the table. These are the people who aren’t necessarily talking to the press about their influences or whose personal correspondence isn’t kept in an archive.
My ideal commentary definitely teaches me something new about the movie–preferably many things–but that can come from a filmmaker or a scholar. If I love a movie, I want to know everything–its historical influences, why the lamps were all shaped that way, how the director got the actor to perform that reaction so naturally–they’re all valuable elements of an education on film. Because really, film isn’t just about the individual script, or the actor, or the director–it’s a collaboration of different ideas and ideamakers that can sometimes turn magical.