DVD Commentary Tracks a Criterion for Success
Recently, I was raving about the bonus features on some DVD movie I'd bought. That started a friend of mine--who has a sort of hate/hate relationship with technology--railing against the mentality that presumes consumers ever asked for or wanted such things to be attached to movies. His attitude is this: he doesn't care where something was filmed or how the caterer nearly ran out of roast beef that day, nor does he want to know the boring details of how movies get made. It's just studio detritus and cutting-room scraps tossed in for marketing purposes.
My gut reaction was to refute him with examples of great commentary tracks, insightful production documentaries, and fabulous deleted scenes that the DVD format has provided me, but soon the steam leaked out of the conversation and the issue was left unresolved. Still, it has gnawed at me ever since, because in many respects I see his point. Having been a DVD consumer for more than four years, I've gone from devouring every shred of information to rarely deigning to look at the features at all. With several titles I've rented, I haven't even bothered to take the second disc out of the case, much less spend a bunch of time pressing the Up and Down buttons and Enter key on my remote, even for movies I liked. Most of the time I'll go as far as watching a short making-of documentary, but that's about it.
The main problem is that most movies aren't worth the detailed treatment that DVDs make available. I love the potential of the format but recognize that much of the time that format is just used to present uninteresting facts. Yet there's still something about all this material simply being made available that excites the film geek in me. After all, once in a while a movie is really good and those features are a delightful revelation.
Part of the cachet surrounding bonus features--for me, anyway--derives from the two-pronged nature of their origin in the pre-DVD days. On one side, starting in the late 1980s, you had LaserDisc, which became the preferred format for rich people's home theatres. Almost at the same time, the concept of multimedia was developing, the idea that you could present various forms of information together--video, audio, text, animation--and navigate through in a carefully designed, interactive manner. Unfortunately, good multimedia is hard to create, and once the Web got famous, most companies abandoned the effort.
LaserDisc movies never captured a very impressive share of the consumer market either, but they did spawn a pretty active subculture, with a lot of titles and a great many enhanced features compared to the VHS movies the common folk watched. Because DVD was originally conceived as the next LaserDisc--rather than the next VHS, as it became--many of those classy extras became standard for DVD early on: wide-screen picture, additional documentaries, and original movie trailers, for example. A lot of the first DVD titles available were essentially reissues of LaserDiscs, but at about half the cost.
One aspect of LaserDiscs was that they could play back different audio tracks, a completely novel thing unique to that technology at the time. Most studios used it to offer two language versions on one disc, but somebody must've got up one day and said, "Or we could have a great filmmaker talk about the very film we're watching." The commentary track was born. Back then, and in the early days of DVD, such commentaries mostly appeared on prestige films and not really on mainstream efforts. But once everybody figured out that all it cost to make one was the price of a one-day studio rental, commentaries became quite a bit more common, in more than one sense of the word.
Looking back, it seems that DVDs borrowed several things from multimedia, like content-navigation pathways, page layouts, even surprise interactions. (Check out the menu screens for recent animated kids' films.) Yet somehow the format also incorporated some of the best aspects of LaserDisc's film-snob aesthetic, which I still see as a boon despite all the dreck that abounds. Interestingly, there's one company, now known as Criterion, that bridged the LaserDisc and multimedia worlds during the 1990s, and I believe it is the principal reason that DVDs offer as much as they do.
The Voyager Company began as a high-quality multimedia producer that created fascinating CD-ROMs on very diverse subjects (Glenn Gould, Marshall McLuhan, the Beat generation, even the movie A Hard Day's Night) that took full advantage of multimedia's power to present information in multiple ways. In the early 1990s, the company acquired the rights to the Janus collection of films, classy stuff like The Seventh Seal and Seven Samurai, and began releasing them on high-end LaserDiscs as the Criterion Collection, with lots of extra features like commentary tracks and documentaries. The company also championed more recent films, such as The Long Good Friday, and gave deluxe treatments to Brazil and This Is Spinal Tap.
Well, the Voyager part drifted off down the river when it became clear that multimedia was not the new coffee-table-book publishing medium, but maybe that experience gave the company a head start on recognizing how big DVD could become. Renaming the collection Criterion (www.criterionco.com/), the company got into DVD early and has prospered, despite disc prices that are two or three times the usual. Still, it has a long tradition of quality film transfers, an eye for the obscure gems few people have seen, and enough wisdom to put out the occasional mass-market title to help balance the books on the arty stuff (Armageddon, Robocop), so maybe this time Criterion has found a medium that'll last long enough for people to recognize its contributions. For good or ill, those contributions played a large part in making commonplace the features my friend loves to hate.