Friday, July 29, 2011

Commenting on Commentary

As a film fan, after I watch a film, I listen to the audio commentary if it is available to enhance my viewing of the film. When I watched Chloe (2009) and Charade (1963) last week with the commentary, I notice that I tend to evaluate the commentary as well as the film. When I see that the writer/director/producer/actor will comment, I expect to learn about the process of making the film. My main criterion in evaluating the quality of the writer/director/producer/actor commentary is the balance between anecdotes and the technical and creative aspects of making the film. When there is more than one person doing the commentary, I want to listen to a good conversation with minimal crosstalk.

With Chloe, Amanda Seyfried, who plays the titular character, barely contributes to the commentary while director Atom Egoyan and screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson discuss their process in adapting Nathalie (2003), the French film that Chloe is based on. Usually an actor’s commentary involves what his or her process was in creating the role. However, I feel that Chloe is an ambiguous character that we are not supposed to know. Therefore, Seyfried should have been left out of the commentary completely. Egoyan and Wilson have a pleasant rapport with each other that reminds me of two friends discussing their favorite film in a cafĂ©. I enjoy listening to Wilson explaining how she had to choose words and phrases that will turn everyone on as well as Egoyan explaining his use of mirrors. The one thing I learned in the commentary that slightly sours my viewing experience is Egoyan’s explanation for deleting the scenes where we learn why Michael is so angry at his mother Catherine. According to Egoyan, those scenes made the film too heavy and dragged it down. However, in watching the deleted scenes, Michael’s anger is justified. In the film itself, his anger seems too over the top for teenage boy angst.

Unlike Chloe, I had already seen Charade multiple times before. So I just decided to watch with the commentary. Oddly, Charade is my first experience with a Criterion Collection DVD that contains commentary from the writer and director as opposed to a film scholar. So for me, listening to commentary that did not involve some form of academic insight that I have come to know from watching a Criterion Collection DVD is a strange experience even though I am used to listening to writer and director commentary in contemporary films. Listening to screenwriter Peter Stone and director Stanley Donen is like listening to two guys at a bar reminiscing about a particular moment in their lives. Although there was some information that I already knew (i.e. Cary Grant insisting that Audrey Hepburn’s character pursue his character), I enjoy learning about Charade’s origins as a screenplay, then a novel, and back to a screenplay. Although I appreciate the academic essay, I would have appreciated another track of commentary from a film scholar to understand why Charade deserves the Criterion treatment.

While I am having trouble deciding which film has the best commentary, I can tell you that my most miserable commentary listening experience comes from Ric Meyers, Jeff Rovin, and Frank Djeng commenting on Perhaps Love (2005). This trio of film scholars constantly complains about the flaws they find in the film and repeats their ignorance on the production of the film giving them no credibility in my eyes. I am sure that there are other film scholars who specialize in Asian films that would have jumped at the chance at sharing their professional yet enthusiastic thoughts on this film. If you ever watch this film, just watch the film and skip the commentary.

Do you listen to the audio commentary? Do you find that it enhances your viewing experience or hinders it? Do you find yourself judging the quality of the commentary? If so, how do you define good commentary? Do you prefer commentary from a film scholar or writer/director/producer/actor commentary? Or both? Share your thoughts in the comment section.


  1. I never seem to get round to listening to the commentaries, they distract from the film too much. Or the film distracts me from the commentary not sure which. I really should try to listen in...

  2. I think you have to be in the right frame of mind in order to listen to the commentary. Ask yourself "How much do I really want to know about this film?" or in the case of a film scholar commentary, "Do I really want to listen to an academic analysis of this film?"

    Also, I normally put the subtitles for the film on while the commentary is playing so I can remember what is going on in the scene.