In the beginning: Care Bears, needles and a dentist
I’ve loved movies since approximately…forever. I remember going to the dentist as a kid to get a filling and screaming and crying because I just wanted to go home and watch the Care Bears Movie on VHS (having a grown man in a mask try to stick a needle in my mouth might also have had something to do with it, not to mention that it seemed so unfair to go through all that for a baby tooth, which I knew was just going to fall out eventually anyway). A few things have changed since then: my baby teeth have been gone for almost twice as long as VHS, and I now take oral hygiene very seriously. But I still love movies.
It was an exciting day when I came home and found out my parents had bought a DVD player. Everything I’d heard was true. Colours were richer. The image was sharper. I knew some kids at school who did drugs to experience these things. On top of that, it would finally be the end of those stupid neon green or pink “Be kind. Rewind!” stickers. But maybe the most exciting thing about DVDs were the special features. I’ve always been interested in the way movies are made. Interviews with writers, directors and actors fascinate me. In any trivia game, I always go for the entertainment questions. When I found out that DVDs would not only have interviews, but deleted scenes, documentaries, “making-of” featurettes, and other goodies – sometimes a whole extra disc full of goodies – I couldn’t wait to start watching.
What is (and isn’t) special about “special features”
There were two special features in particular that interested me – deleted scenes and audio commentary tracks. I knew all about director’s cuts and how they could significantly alter the film (Blade Runner, anyone?), and I thought deleted scenes might have a similar impact. Even if they didn’t, I thought if I could see something that had been cut out permanently, maybe I could figure out why it had been cut. As for audio commentaries, they offered a chance to hear the professionals who work in front of and behind the camera talk together about one specific film while it played for them and me simultaneously. I could sit on the couch whenever I wanted and listen to the best of the best talk about their craft in relation to a film that mattered to me. And I thought I might learn some little-known facts I could use to impress my movie-loving friends, too.
I think the first DVD I ever rented was Independence Day. Of course I’d seen it in theatres, like almost every other 14-year-old boy, and thought it was amazing. A few years later, when it was out on DVD, I was itching to check out the special features. The local Blockbuster had a sexy two-disc edition in a silver box, issued as part of Fox’s “Five-Star Collection”. This would’ve been in ’99, give or take. When I finally had a chance to rent it, I got home, opened the case, and found only a single disc staring up at me. So, back to the store to complain. The cashier said they didn’t rent out the bonus disc, only the movie. That’s early proof that Blockbuster didn’t understand what their customers wanted or how to give it to them. So I got a refund, went to the mall, and bought the same DVD. I still have it, too.
There have been some big changes in the world since then, but sometimes it’s the little ones that make you laugh. In DVD releases these days, the special features are generally referred to as, well, “special features”, “extra features”, “bonus material”, or (if it’s part of the Criterion Collection) “supplemental material”. The back of the Independence Day box calls it “added-value material”, which makes it sound like something offered in an infomercial to the first hundred callers. Also, there’s a DVD-ROM game included, but to play it you must have “a PC with Windows 95 or higher”. Oh, and if I’ve given you the urge to watch Independence Day (you might need to refresh your memory, because there’s supposedly a sequel coming in 2015 or 2016, for better or for worse), don’t go looking for a Blockbuster Video.
So, did I listen to the commentary track? I honestly don’t remember. Maybe that’s because it’s been almost 15 years since I bought the DVD (still not a scratch on either disc!), or it could be that the commentary, like so many others, wasn’t worth remembering. Although many of my friends and family love movies as much as I do, whenever I mention that I sometimes listen to audio commentaries, they look at me like they’ve caught me wrist-deep in the middle of a very thorough home enema. And sometimes I can’t blame them. The truth is, a lot of commentaries really are shit. Too often you get stuck with two hours of people bitching about how terrible the food was, or reminiscing about how much fun they had. It can be painful to listen to that over dinner with a close friend, and nobody’s going Dutch with me on these DVDs.
But I have heard good ones, delivered by people who understand the opportunities that commentaries offer. Sure, they can be a source of tidbits that may come in handy in conversation or at trivia night at the pub, but commentaries can be more. They can offer some insight to the creative process in the context of a particular film, sequence, scene, or shot. They can include a technical tip or a piece of advice that might be helpful, even indirectly, to aspiring writers, directors, actors, etc. They can even be entertaining.
What’s the plan, Stan?
So what’s my goal here? Well, the plan is to provide some commentary on the commentaries. Every week or two I’ll listen to a commentary and distill the most interesting and useful information into a post so you won’t have to sit through the boring bits.
Finally, the big question: What movies will I choose? Um, ones I like. Offhand, I’d say they’ll generally be horror, sci-fi, thriller, or suspense, but really, it could be anything. Maybe I’ll give Independence Day a try.
Thanks for reading!