Ballad of an Audio Commentator
Introduction: This piece has aroused the most violently aggressive responses of probably anything I’ve ever written. It appeared online for one week in March 2020 (although it had been suggested to me as a topic much earlier by Screenhub editor Rochelle Siemienowicz) before going behind a paywall, at the height of the COVID-19 lockdown – a global context which did its reception no favours at all. In a barrage of complaints – some sent directly to me and some not – I was called everything from a misogynist and a tone-deaf, uncaring prick to a “sad old white man” (ageism, anybody?) who had finally shown his true colours, not to mention the usual slur of “ivory tower academic elitist”, “pretentious intellectual snob”, etc. I was also accused of being petty, territorial, a pathetic exhibitionist seeking “controversy”, positioning myself as the “world’s last cinephile” (I hope not!), complaining about my own lack of work offers (not so!), and encouraging the non-hiring of certain freelancers in favour of myself (very far from the real situation) … Such is public discourse (and interaction) in our social media age. (By the way, I also received just as many complimentary remarks about the piece – all of them in private.) I leave it to the reader to judge how rude and/or polemical this text (which I myself regard as rather measured, and to which I have restored or added a few further, explanatory remarks) actually is. [February 2021]
As someone who has done almost 70 full-length audio commentaries for DVD and/or Blu-ray releases since 2006 – and a couple of those have stretched to 3 or 4 hours – I figure I can count myself as an expert in this field. Certainly, I have both observed and participated in the changes that have characterised this form of activity: from the early days at the Australian company Madman, sitting in their sound-proofed studio in front of a playback screen and uttering (sometimes in a single take!) my observations on a Jean-Luc Godard or Luis Buñuel film; to the “outsourced” labour situation of today, recording and editing commentaries at home on my laptop and then sending them electronically to digital distributors in USA (Olive, Kino Lorber) or UK (British Film Institute, Arrow, Indicator).
Right now, the type of audio commentary I and some others do – the unashamedly “scholarly” or critical appreciation and discussion of a film (or TV episode) – is facing the ominous prospect of total eclipse. The principal reason for this is easy to determine: streaming. As less and less people buy “physical” media to have and hold, the need for the sexy “surplus value” once manifested by a slew of bonus extras falls away; on Netflix, Stan and most other available streaming services worldwide, it seems there is little demand for anything except the movie or TV series itself.
Suddenly, disc collections are looking like precious archives of material that never existed in old-fashioned print (none of my own commentaries, for instance, are written out), and are unlikely, in the vast majority of cases, to ever be recycled in any other medium. So, a particular – sometimes peculiar – form of cinephile expression has perhaps already churned through its life cycle within the first two decades of this century. Even companies devoted to an enlightened vision of World Cinema, such as MUBI or Kino Lorber (in its Kino Now digital streaming service), appear to have unceremoniously dumped this once-thriving archive.
Do I exaggerate? The DVD/Blu-ray format is not yet entirely dead (although it’s hard to find a physical shop, let alone a supermarket shelf, that is any longer dedicated to it) – but it is increasingly becoming a niche, specialist market for diehard connoisseurs. Some streaming services around the world are currently making audio commentaries available: most notably, The Criterion Channel with its “Editions” feature, rotating a selection of its past bonus items (interviews, video essays, commentaries, etc.). However, even in the cases of Disney+, Shout! Factory TV (“cult movie” specialist) and iTunes (with its exclusive commentary track for Joker unavailable elsewhere), the emphasis is on directors and other filmmaking personnel giving a practical, background spiel. That is not the type of commentary whose growing absence I’m lamenting here.
I am labouring under no illusions; just as there are many rambling, excruciatingly awful director commentaries littering the DVDs of yesteryear, there are boring, ill-prepared, poorly focused streams-of-consciousness issuing from the mouths of even some of the most vaunted critics or academics today. It’s little wonder that certain “prestige” directors, including David Lynch and Paul Thomas Anderson, forbid all such “external” commentaries on the authorised digital editions of their films – while themselves refusing to provide such material.
“Quality control” of content has never been much of a watchword in the audio commentary department, and that is partly because the format arose almost by accident, and in a freeform, haphazard, cheap-as-chips way. When, back in the 1990s, directors such as Michael Mann disapproved of full-blown audiovisual extras that dared to “re-edit” and discuss their work (unless those directors were expressly in charge of the re-editing), the audio commentary presented itself as an unfussy, “take it or leave it” option that legally avoided, in most cases, the need for the makers’ (or studio’s) explicit approval of the contents. (This is also why, of course, audio commentaries tend to be overwhelmingly about classic films whose directors and other key creative personnel are no longer around to complain!)
Nowadays, as work-from-home, DIY digital culture has thrived, the chips are even cheaper: in many cases, whatever gets delivered as the audio commentary file tends to get mixed straight onto the finished disc product.
There have been experiments with the audio commentary format. Criterion, which prefers (in a very American, ultra-professionalised editorial mode) to carefully co-ordinate, supervise and control its bonus features, sometimes opts to assemble a mosaic of diverse voices on any one commentary track. In other cases (on releases from Arrow or Masters of Cinema), two or more critics are gathered to engage in a semi-spontaneous conversation on an unfolding movie; the results can be hit-and-miss, with a lot of dead air, chummy laughter, repeated assertions, weak jokes and loose, unresolved trails (the now ubiquitous podcast style of group discourse – and many regular audio commentators are also podcast-people). But, ultimately, in my view, the audio commentary comes down to the insight (or lack of it) that can be imparted by a sole, speaking voice.
Personally, as a cinephile-consumer, I welcome the opportunity to hear such a “lecture” – one that, in most cases, I would never have any other opportunity to hear in my lifetime – when it is well-prepared and engagingly delivered; and that’s the level of commentary that I myself aspire to as a critical practitioner in this field. It’s not the only, or even the best, form of film criticism-analysis (considered in its most expansive definition) imaginable, but it is one viable form. And whether or not the sole speaking voice offers the only format for audio commentary, it remains, in my opinion, the best – or at least, the one that has, so far, given the best material results.
Increasingly, the question that occurs to me as I encounter audio commentaries made available today is: what was the research and decision-making process, on the part of the disc producers, that led to the commissioning of particular “experts”? Because, on this necessarily deregulated plane, the choices seem to me more and more eccentric and less and less accountable. The giveaway here is the tag “film historian” pasted (in the DVD cover art and related publicity materials) onto some commentators – or even claimed by them in their audio self-introductions – when they are clearly no such thing. A film historian is someone who works with archives (of all sorts), who knows and negotiates the complex methodologies and theories of archival practice, and/or contributes to those archives with their own primary research material. By contrast, a person who watches a lot of old movies, has opinions about them, and reads a pile of Hollywood-style celebrity biographies, is not automatically a film historian. Even old film actors (however much gossip they can pass on) are not film historians. I do not even consider myself a film historian, because I have only done a little of the type of archival work (my research into the letter correspondence between Siegfried Kracauer and Parker Tyler) that counts in this respect. I am a film critic. But some of the people contributing bonus DVD materials at present cannot be validly called decently knowledgeable film critics, by any margin.
I can put my worry about this matter in the following nutshell. If you took the vast majority of currently employed freelance audio commentators and told them: “In two weeks time, you will have to give a two-hour lecture on such-and-such a film to an assembled, knowledgeable audience at Oxford, Harvard and the Sorbonne”, most of them would run screaming, out of fear, in the opposite direction. But the prospect of gabbing for the same duration, at a moment’s notice, on a digital audio track destined (potentially) for an even wider public, leaves them seemingly unfazed. There is a definite disconnect here: it is as if the private (or chummy-chummy) podcast recorded at the kitchen table has suddenly morphed into the seemingly “authoritative” discourse of and for the masses. Give ‘em a stage, and these bulls will rage …
Let us look more closely at the current market spread of DVD/Blu-ray in its newly reduced state. As I see it, the targeted audience that still desires the luxury of an audio commentary is splintered into three major sub-groups – groups that may overlap, but also exhibit sharp differences.
First, there are the cinephiles (the group with which I identify) who want some meaty, intellectual, analytical content, however accessibly phrased – as well as (and this is important) aspiring cinephiles, people who seek some initiation into an elevated level of understanding film.
Next, the fan-cult-trash types (a taste for giallo is a common denominator, plus absolute reverence for the Word of John Waters), that I associate with publications such as the now-defunct Video Watchdog (whose co-editor Tim Lucas is high among the most prolific and celebrated audio commentators presently working), or more recently Diabolique – it is from this latter source that a new wave of commentators, including Kat Ellinger, Heather Drain and Samm Deighan, has recently emerged. Others circulating in this general sphere include Troy Howarth, Nathaniel Thompson and Scott Harrison.
The severe limits drawn by this highly self-sufficient sector of film culture are striking: its members (with only a couple of exceptions) display little interest in, for example, the progressive film festival fare of Rotterdam or Locarno (or, indeed, almost any festival beyond the horror genre). One is unlikely to find there celebrations of the documentaries of Wang Bing or the experimental works of Laida Lertxundi; or citations from the critical work of Alanna Thain or Gilberto Perez. Some avant-gardists (like Rouzbeh Rashidi) embrace Jean Rollin, but few Rollin specialists, it seems, embrace the avant-garde in return! Even Raúl Ruiz (dozens of his films cross over with the fantastique) hardly cracks the hard shell of this in-grown, nerd-fan, often aggressively anti-intellectual culture.
The style of commentary emerging from this scene favours solid, production-background information (sometimes derived from Wikipedia or IMDb: some archive for a “historian”!) leavened with displays of enthusiasm (purely loving films – being a breathless enthusiast rather than a “pretentious” or “elitist” cinephile – seems to be the main prerequisite here), and occasional attempts at interpretation (“drilling down deep” or “taking a deep dive”, as they love to say, in the same breathless tone that they extoll the amount of “research” they’ve done). But, at its worst (and there’s a lot of junk on this field now), this manner also frequently betrays a lack of wide (indeed essential) reading, and a relatively unsophisticated grasp of analytical and theoretical tools – the giveaway on this being the frequently sloppy use of the maddeningly vague word subtext to describe any and every level of meaning generated in a film (and ditto for the fallacy of always seeking the “filmmaker’s intention”, or describing the work of film style as a mechanical matter of offering “visual cues” for understanding).
Lastly (and most minor, in my estimation, although even Criterion today clearly displays a need to appease them), there are the “old Hollywood” nostalgia buffs, who mainly just want to wallow and have fun with all the glamour and spectacle on the silver screen – Rudy Behlmer is a prime example of a commentator who speaks to this crowd. And those retired, chatty actors I alluded to before.
Naturally, these three categories I have posited are not rigidly separate. In the UK context, for instance, former Sight and Sound columnist Brad Stevens is someone who easily crosses over between the intellectual and fan-cult spheres. In Australia, Eloise Ross provides another outstanding example of an expanded critical practice that bridges different cultural spheres: writing, the university, DVD commentaries, and so on – plus, she is a genuine researcher. Good work can be done in any sphere. But it’s the lesser or outrightly bad work that is now prevailing, by a wide margin.
The Australian situation (which is the one I know best) offers an intriguing case-history in this context. In Madman’s heyday of audio commentaries recorded for their “Directors Suite” releases (2006 to 2010), it was common to hear savvy academics including Angela Ndalianis or Ross Gibson speaking about Douglas Sirk or Akira Kurosawa; while an exceptionally clued-up critic like Philip Brophy would do duty on the popular Japanese anime releases. When Madman eventually abandoned this particular niche of the market (my 223 minute commentary on Kenji Mizoguchi’s The 47 Loyal Ronin did not, strangely enough, sell terribly well!), it fell to Umbrella to ably pick up the slack. But the taste-preference of this company is firmly in that middle-tier of fan-cult appreciation identified above: commentators regularly used include Lee Gambin, Dean Brandum and (at the more scholarly or Senses of Cinema end of this spectrum) Alexandra Heller-Nicholas (who at least reviews film festivals).
The opportunity for a more expansive representation of the dynamics of film culture has been, at least for the present moment, lost – and not only in Australia (where a new player, ViaVision, may help to balance the situation). Cultural commentary is a democratic field and everyone can play on it, for sure (I’m not talking about university degree certification – I didn’t have any such degree myself until I was almost 50); but let’s try to keep a decent balance, and maintain a certain level of rigour and intelligence, please. However each of us gets it, we all need a proper education in film analysis! And let’s not be afraid to evaluate the public results – every critic, after all, needs to prove themselves, and constantly reaffirm their tacit contract with their readers or listeners. All the hand-wringing about how, in the time of COVID, we need to be especially “kind” to each other has no sensible relation to the enduring tasks of critique. If we are fearless about criticising films, we should be fearless about criticising critics, too. Those who decry the practice of “calling out critics by name” wouldn’t last five minutes in the lively and combative film cultures of Italy, Brazil, Germany or France – and a wider reading habit would have informed them of that, too, long ago.
A case in point: how about a halfway decent match-up of films, directors or genres with the people out there who are genuine experts on them? We’ve reached an anything-goes situation in which filmmakers even vaguely assimilable to “cult” cinema and its circuits of fan appreciation – Buñuel, Bergman, Godard, Jodorowsky, Chytilová, Borowczyk, Melville, Pasolini, you name it – automatically get the down-home treatment. I often have the sense that some disc producers are simply unaware of the best writings (and thus potentially the best contributors) out there, including those that are easily accessible online. It’s just too easy to draw on back-slapping social – or social media – circles of immediate contacts. At the very least, better curatorial advice and guidance is sorely needed, and should be sought by those in the positions to ask for it. Academic book publishing and serious film magazines are no longer always the high-standard bearers we once may have imagined (or longed for) them to be – but, in comparison, the DVD/Blu-ray extras market is currently, far too often, an unchecked, chaotic free-for-all. To pick up the Dylanological allusion of my title: something’s happening and you don’t know what it is, do you … ?
And it’s not only me who thinks this! In an article titled “Supplements That Aren’t and the State of Things” in the print version of Film International magazine (Vol. 18 No. 1, March 2020), Christopher Sharrett declares his doubts about the current state of audio commentaries. While praising the brave, hold-out efforts of companies including Arrow and Kino Lorber in providing “plentiful supplements”, Sharrett remarks:
Commentaries and video essays are increasingly assigned to a group of rather snide boy-men, who seem to reappear constantly, often approaching films from a superior position, and with what a friend calls “the IMDb approach”, i.e., giving us endless data on every character actor who pops on the screen, neglecting the film’s visuals and themes. At times the commentator conveys the idea that “this piece of junk” is hardly worthy of his time, except to acknowledge a phase of US kitsch culture. One can almost see a smirk on the commentator’s face. Such people are an insult to those of us who believe that anything worthy of study is worthy of serious study.
I can only add to Sharrett’s worst-case scenario that it is not only the “boy-men” who constitute this reigning problem; anti-intellectualism is, alas, not confined to a single gender. If audio commentaries (as well as the older-style bonus of booklet essays) on DVD/Blu-ray are indeed on the way out, let’s at least collectively try to raise the general level of their quality before “twilight’s last gleaming”.
Ten Excellent Audio Commentaries (as selected by me):
Philip Brophy, Tezuka: The Experimental Films (Madman)
Ian Christie & Thelma Schoonmaker, The Edge of the World (BFI)
Mary Ann Doane & Thomas Elsaesser, Pandora’s Box (Criterion)
Ross Gibson, The Bad Sleep Well (Madman)
Tom Gunning, Sansho the Bailiff (Criterion laserdisc only)
Alexandra Heller-Nicholas & Christian McCrea, Merchant of the Four Seasons (Madman, re-used by Arrow)
Tim Hunter, Mad Men Season 1, episodes 7 & 10 (Lionsgate)
Joseph Kahn, cast & crew, Cheat Mode: The Unbelievably Mind Melting Making of “Detention” (Sony) – the best & most ingenious ‘director commentary’ I’ve ever encountered
Laura Mulvey, Voyage in Italy, in The Roberto Rossellini/Ingrid Bergman Collection (BFI)
Angela Ndalianis, Imitation of Life (Madman)
© Adrian Martin March & August 2020 / February 2021