When my sister and I were teenagers, we were obsessed with Mean Girls. We watched the DVD over and over again, memorising quotes, music and sound effects; plus finding continuity errors. We devoured the DVD extras: bloopers, deleted scenes, the film trailer. But we wanted more. And one afternoon when I came home late from band practice (a story for another time), she announced that she’d found something new: the director’s commentary.
In the commentary, director Mark Waters, writer Tina Fey and producer Lorne Michaels reveal the ins and outs of making Mean Girls. They react to different parts of the film, just like any other viewer. During the scene where queen bee Regina George (played flawlessly by Rachel McAdams) sticks copies of her ‘Burn Book’ all over the school, the commentary team questions why some paper seems to stay without any adhesive – something we had wondered too.
Going through our own troubled teens at the time (as all teens do), it was of course satisfying to repeatedly watch a film that satirised high school life. But in the added layer of audio commentary, the creators spoke to us directly, and hinted that they knew exactly what we were going through, that we were in on the secret of how the movie really got made.
In the added layer of audio commentary, the creators spoke to us directly, like we were in on the secret of how the movie really got made.
There was something so calming, so wonderfully comforting, about the quietened audio track of the film with Waters, Fey and Michaels speaking over the top of it – as if we were experiencing it simultaneously. It was the cinematic equivalent of going to a cafe solo; I felt less alone, without the burden of having to interact with people.
The first ever commentary track was recorded on LaserDisc, for the 1984 release of King Kong (cinematically released in 1933). In it, film historian Ronald Haver takes audiences on a ‘lecture tour’ uncovering various special effects and technical information. It is now revered not only for revealing revolutionary special effects of the time, but also as a pioneering moment for film trivia itself.
When DVDs started to surpass LaserDiscs in popularity, the commentaries were transferred over with the films, along with numerous other special features – film marketers’ way of enticing people to take up the new format.
DVD special features stretched the limits of film add-ons, creating and packing in as much as their new storage capabilities allowed – occasionally flowing over onto a second disc. Covers were adorned with big, bold letters telling viewers to unpack the bonus extras! uncut versions! special edition! hours of new content! never-before-seen footage! They were like side dishes to a meal – sometimes making content more pleasurable to consume, other times sampled but ultimately left to the side to go cold.
In that early 2000s era of plucking DVDs from shelves at Video Ezy, or getting favourite movies on DVD for Christmas, my own hunger for special features grew. Tucking into these extra treats became part of the structure of home viewing – a habit I fell into for films I loved and watched over and over.
It was a joy exploring the clunky mechanisms of special features – from getting horoscope-style life lessons from a badly animated pug (Men In Black) to a virtual safari (The Lion King 1½). The awkwardly placed imagery, the robotic interactivity, the whirring of the disc every time you selected something, the same five bars of music that played repeatedly with a small pause in between – all were exciting territory waiting to be uncovered with each disc. But now the humble DVD is nearing antiquity, and with it, DVD special features.
Of this year’s Academy Awards Best Picture nominees, only one was released with a DVD commentary track (Black Panther – most likely due to demand from Marvel fans). Even researching this article, I have found it difficult to obtain and view DVDs with special features.
Tucking into these extra treats became part of the structure of home viewing – a habit I fell into for films I loved and watched over and over.
While I, like the rest of my generation, have given in to the allure of streaming services, I am saddened by the decline of the commentary track, an extra that pairs so easily with its source material. People have now nearly abandoned DVDs completely and shifted to streaming services. With the overall cost of living increasing, this makes sense. As Generation Y and Z move out of home, they aren’t buying televisions, and they certainly aren’t buying DVD players. Most new laptop models don’t have a CD/DVD drive. And a one-month subscription to Netflix is half the price of a new release DVD.
By leaving the director’s commentary behind, we lose a valuable and tangible way of accessing film trivia. How frequently can you listen to a director saying ‘this scene was hard because…’ and see the very scene they are referring to?
In the same way that the advent of satellite navigation technology means we no longer explore the streets on the way to our destination, so too has technology meant that we get to our answer, our destination, the fastest way possible. There’s no extra exploration of small delightful nuggets of knowledge we might have once found along the way. As streaming services rush to compete with ‘originals’ and ‘exclusives’, the obsessive, in-depth exploration of a single film is becoming a thing of the past. There is now less room for movies to explore and share the in-depth stories behind their creation.
Film commentaries do still exist, floating around the internet. They’re on YouTube, and in the form of podcasts. Websites such as the Playlist, IMDb or RogerEbert.com offer healthy backlogs of behind-the-scenes trivia. Reddit has plenty of film insights if you search for the right thing. And there are more than enough listicles and quizzes on websites like BuzzFeed.
But for hardcore fans still wanting to break down the illusion, these new media methods of finding film trivia aren’t the only way to stay abreast of insider film information. Tumblr blog The Director’s Commentary claims to be ‘the repository of LaserDisc, DVD and BluRay audio commentaries’ – even hosting tracks for recent creations such as BoJack Horseman, Veep and Chernobyl. And podcasts such as Office Ladies give fans an episode-by-episode insider view, from two of the show’s stars (although as with Black Panther, this is the kind of thing that only exists because The Office has a huge fan base).
As streaming services rush to compete with ‘originals’ and ‘exclusives’, the obsessive, in-depth exploration of a single film is becoming a thing of the past.
As for whether commentary will make an appearance on our streaming services, that remains to be seen. Netflix’s attempt to recreate this experience is a podcast series called Watching With…, the very title of which harks back to the companionship of watching film commentary. It features tracks for three of its original films. However, these don’t live on the Netflix platform itself – the viewer is required to time their podcast to the film. It’s more work for us (something that the entire streaming market tends to avoid).
For the most part, special features are a relic of the DVD era. Commentaries give audiences the chance to see films through the director’s eyes, but without viewer demand they have dwindled. The spread of streaming services has meant that the entire model of film consumption has changed – from purchasing and owning a film, thereby unlocking all of its additional goodies, to simply watching it once then forgetting about it.
No doubt film trivia will live on, even without being housed in a reflective shiny disc. But in its current form, it is intangible, accessible only once but then discarded, or lost forever. It is not as convenient, legitimate or perfectly tied to the film as special features were.
Perhaps like vinyl, typewriters and vintage clothing before it, the DVD will need to become completely archaic before it can rise again. But until then, people like me who want more out of their movies will continue to hope for a future resurgence of director’s commentary – if only to feed our obsessions.