“Hey, roll it, cause I’ll tell you, you know, you’re listening to a guy who learned a lot about ripping off movies from watching laserdiscs with director commentary.”
That’s Paul Thomas Anderson at the start of his Boogie Nights DVD commentary track. Long before he started directing his own masterpieces, Anderson was obsessed with these crucial bonus features, which perhaps explains his gung ho attitude when it came time to record them. In addition to a standard solo studio session, in which he discusses the technical aspects of the film and more, he also opted to go guerilla-style. The filmmaker brought a six-pack, a DVD, and an audio recorder to the residences of many of the film’s stars and just watched the movie with them, asking pointed questions along the way. Between the two commentary tracks, fans get enlightened about exactly which shots and ideas Anderson ripped off directly and which ones he was merely inspired by, why and how certain actors were cast, how test audiences reacted to key scenes, whether Heather Graham had a thing for Mark Wahlberg on set, and whether Luis Guzman was high during production. In other words, this is indispensable listening. The problem is that the only way for fans to get it into their ears is wildly outmoded. Much like the way porn movies eventually moved out of theaters and into home video, as documented by Boogie Nights, it’s time for a revolution in commentary tracks. It’s time for them to become podcasts.
Yesterday, Joshua Malina released a commentary track for the first episode of The West Wing, a show he co-starred in. Fans of The West Wing itself, or just the loquacious, Twitter-gifted actor, can choose to listen to this recording, and subsequent ones slated to follow, either while watching along or just waiting on line at Trader Joes. Julie Klausner did something similar last year, turning episodes of her podcast, How Was Your Week, into de facto commentaries for her TV series, Difficult People. The difference between Klausner’s experiment and Malina’s is that she already had a platform and something to promote (i.e. a show currently airing) while Malina is looking back to the past, and inventing a platform to get there. It’s exciting to imagine other actors and creators following suit. At the same time, though, they sort of needn’t bother. There are already enough existent commentary tracks to keep movie and TV nerds busy until we’re all dead—they just need to be unshackled from the physical DVDs and Blu-Rays they’re trapped within like thetans in Scientologists’ bodies.
Viewing habits have shifted dramatically in the last decade—both in the way we watch and our options. There are currently more shows and more ways to see them than any rational person would require. Just when you think you’re caught up, Netflix is premiering a new show, reviving an old one, and you decide to spring for HBO Now so you can finally see if Deadwood lives up to the hype. It’s also rarer at this point to find snobs who dismiss TV as a decaying trash island and just stick to films. In other words, most voracious movie watchers also have a full slate of shows they follow. When there’s always so much new material to consume, when exactly is the optimum time to sit back and revisit a beloved movie or show again with the commentary option on?
Personally, I used to reserve commentaries for cooking and cleaning time. They were perfect to have on in the background while I was performing some other task and could only offer up half of my visual attention. Now that smartphones have turned all of life into a second-screen experience, I’m used to only paying half visual attention to most things, so I tend to catch up on low-maintenance TV series when I’m cooking. (There is a chance I will one day burn down my house during a particularly engrossing episode of Gilmore Girls.)
Along with viewing habits, though, the last decade has seen the enormous proliferation of podcasts. It is now possible to have fresh audio content pumped into one’s ears at all times, and so many of us ever-earbudded commuters appear locked in an audio arms race to do so the fastest. Perhaps owing to the parallel rise of TV recap culture, single-subject podcasts like Gilmore Guys and Denzel Washington Is The Greatest Actor Of All Time Period are popular ways for listeners to go deep on the movies and shows they love. As entertaining as these kinds of shows are, what’s lost in most cases is the insider perspective that commentary tracks offer.
The way that directors and stars talk about their work on commentary tracks is not all that different from the way they do when interviewed on some podcasts. Since the user experience can be so similar, pop culture podcast fans have trained their brains for commentary tracks without a visual component. Sure, some of these dispatches are heavy on useless tidbits like “We shot this scene at night, even though it takes place during the day,” and others would be disorienting and vague without watching along, but those descriptions can apply to any number of podcasts having an off-episode. And there are so many gems like the Boogie Nights commentaries and the This Is Spinal Tap one in which Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, and Harry Shearer stay in character the whole time, it would be a waste if these weren’t retrofitted to hear in a convenient way.
There’s no easy solution here, unfortunately. Each studio could start releasing commentary track downloads for a small premium, perhaps, or put them into podcast form somehow. There might be too many proprietary rights clauses, though, to ever make it possible to listen to, say, Scorsese’s Goodfellas commentary while doing power-squats at the gym.
It will be interesting to see if more creators and stars follow Malina’s and Klausner’s lead and start creating fresh commentary tracks. Until then, those of us with DVD libraries will just have to put “Watch More Commentary Tracks” on the Netflix Queues of our life goals, and get around to them in the great, ever-shifting eventually.