When Audio Commentaries Stick in My Craw

Sidney Lumet: Dementia sufferer…Robert Altman: Stoner…Frank Sinatra, Jr: Numbskull.

What a lazy commentary producer might look like.

These aren’t things I want to think about when I listen to an audio commentary, however, before this post is done, you’ll understand why I almost did.

I’ve produced, engineered and/or edited several commentaries over the years, and one of the reasons I was hired is because I’m very a detail-oriented film geek. And since some of my subjects were people that hadn’t watched their films in years, I was there to help out, to make sure they had the names right or, at the very least, to give them printout of the credits from IMDB.

I always looked at my job as a responsibility to the filmmaker (or whoever is commenting). I want to show them in the best light possible; to protect them oversights that are a by-product of the ravages of time; and to capitalize on the fact that I have spent way too much time pondering their work.

I’d think—hope–I have a solid track record of producing factually accurate audio commentaries. And therefore when I’m listening to one I didn’t produce and there’s a glaring mistake, you can understand why it stokes my ire.

I have some examples, and you’re may think I’m a old grump that’s getting hung up on details. But that’s exactly what a producer should do: get hung up on details.

-In director Sidney Lumet’s great commentary for Dog Day Afternoon, he talks about the real life events that inspired the film and their relation to the gay rights movement that was blossoming in NYC: “[The robbery was] way in advance of the gay movement. Stonewall had not happened yet.” However, the robbery detailed in Dog Day Afternoon took place in August, 1972; the Stonewall Riots happened in June, 1969. Would it have killed the commentary producer to say, “Uh, Mr. Lumet, can we go back to this one section and take another shot at it. I think your timeline is a little off”? Or if that opportunity was missed, then the producer could say to the editor, “Ditch that section about Stonewall. Lumet’s got it backwards, and we don’t want this great man to look old and doddering.”

-It’s clearly noted in Nashville’s closing credits (and on the soundtrack) that the song “For the Sake of the Children” is written by Richard Baskin and Richard Reicheg, yet during the commentary, director Robert Altman has an isolated moment where gives full credit to actor Henry Gibson. And when I say “isolated,” I mean isolated: it could have been easily removed with a keystroke. Instead it was left in there, and when I saw the songwriters’ names in the credits, I thought, “Oh, man. Some producer fell asleep at the wheel.”

-On Frank Sinatra Jr.’s commentary for the Rat Pack film Sergeants 3, he makes this bold statement about the film’s director John Sturges: “Like his father before him, Preston Sturges, John just had a way with the movie camera.” Which is all the more daring when you realize that not only were Preston and John not father and son, but that Preston Sturges’s first born was hatched 31 years after John Sturges was born.

Rocky has a wonderful cast-and-crew audio commentary, including director John Avildsen, actors Talia Shire, Burt Young, Steadicam operator/inventor Garrett Brown and others. About 99% is great—and well edited—but this one spot really pissed me off. There’s a scene at Philly’s legendary Pat’s Steaks. Now I know this because I was raised in the suburbs of South Jersey and am therefore familiar with this establishment. Oh, and I also know because it’s incredibly clear in the scene’s establishing shot. That being said, why, oh, why did the commentary’s producer leave this in?

Did the person driving that ship even watch the film?

And it didn’t even need to be in there! Steadicam operator Garrett Brown says “Jim’s Steaks” apropos of nothing; it was purposely edited into the tapestry, in between Avildsen’s comments. Lame. (By the way, Stallone gets the name right on his commentary track, which was recorded a few years after this multi-person one.)

(I’ll take it a step further: As someone who grew in that area, I have news for Mr. Avildsen: Rocky did not put Pat’s Steaks [est. 1930] on the map—or Jim’s Steaks, for that matter. On any map. But that’s just me being a local boy, being all hair-trigger.)

Full disclosure: I’m partial to this scene because as the shot continues, Rocky crosses S. 9th St and we see the front of the St. John Nepomucene Catholic Church, which is where my grandmother was baptized in 1921.

Good thing Rocky put it on the map.

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “When Audio Commentaries Stick in My Craw

  1. Jansen

    Ahhh Stephen,
    I totally get your annoyance, for all the reasons you stated, but it also occurs to me immediately that these mess ups are like your Japanese Axis: Bold As Love CD. It gives you a chance to find those little details that would be utterly overlooked by most people…And thus, reinforce all that is the glory…the intricate mental minutia detector…
    Of you

  2. Jansen

    Which leads me to What are your favorite commentaries…
    Two jump to my mind

    Sideways..Almost an anti commentary. The two leads basically making fun of themselves the whole time.

    and Excalibur..
    The first ten minutes just blows my mind.
    Boorman calmly describes how the opening night battle was the first thing they shot and how they re shot it three or four times. First day of rushes..black negative..they reshoot…blurry unuseable..First DP quits in a nervous breakdown. New DP..Re shoot..still not quite there..Re shoot again..Ok
    What a way to start a film..
    His whole manner is just hysterical to me..
    Calmly describing filming his daughter in a crazy sex scene..Purposely casting Hellen Mirren Against Nicol Williams (merlin) because they had a bad breakup and he knew there would be tension..All blithely told

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