X-tra: Ebert: fan commentaries

You, Too, Can Be a DVD Movie Critic

This is the article that defined and inspired fan commentary tracks. By Chicago Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert, it appeared on the now-defunct Yahoo Internet Life site in February of 2002. It is reproduced here with respect, but without permission.

By Roger Ebert

I have an idea for a new kind of marriage between film criticism and the Web: Do-it-yourself movie commentary tracks.

The commentaries on DVDs are one of their most popular features, turning viewers into experts who end up knowing almost as much about a movie as its makers. Commentaries have been recorded by directors, actors, editors, cinematographers, producers, critics, and even impostors (“Kenneth Loring,” who does the commentary on Blood Simple, is a practical joke by the Coen brothers). Some of these individuals are good; some, fair. Some seem to be watching the movie while killing a six-pack. The tracks all have one thing in common: They’re inside jobs.

I’d love to hear a commentary track by someone who hates a movie, ripping it to shreds. Or a track by an expert who disagrees with the facts in a film. Or a track by someone with a moral or philosophical argument to make. Or even a Wayne’s World–style track from dudes down in the basement who think The Mummy Returns is way cool.

Well, this is one case in which freedom of the press doesn’t belong only to the person who owns one. Although movies are copyrighted and pirating is a crime, as we all know from endless FBI warnings, there is no legal reason why outsiders can’t record a commentary track about any movie ever made. It’s no more illegal than talking in a theater, and a lot less annoying.

DVD and MP3 technologies make it simple. With a microphone hooked up to your computer, you can easily record your voice to an MP3 file. Just synchronize your track with the first frame of the studio logo and talk during the whole movie. Better yet, create multiple files synced to the first frame of every chapter stop, so people can start in the middle if they want to hear your comments on a particular scene (and you don’t have to rerecord the whole thing if you screw up an hour into the movie). Once done, you would upload your insights to a DVD Web site, which would offer them to the public. (Since voice can be recorded at a much lower bit rate than music, the file sizes should be quite modest.) At the other end, those interested in your commentary would play it back over their computer or on an MP3 player, with the real movie playing in the background.

This idea intrigues me because I know there are critics and fans on the Web who have a special relationship to movies that even a film’s makers can’t duplicate. I’m curious, for example, about the depth of the fanaticism for the martial arts and anime genres. I can understand why Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Princess Mononoke are great, but it might be enlightening to listen to a running commentary about Revenge of the Drunken Master or the Sailor Moon series. I would also like to hear a psychologist analyzing Memento, a Vietnam combat veteran talking about Platoon, or Harry Knowles taking us one shot at a time through The Giant Gila Monster, one of the neglected classics he has resurrected for his annual birthday Butt-Numb-a-Thon.

If the approach caught on, treasures might result. I received, for example, a letter from Ronan O’Casey, the actor who played the dead body in Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blowup. He reveals that his character originally had a name and dialogue, and was part of a plot that led up to and followed from his murder. By eliminating that plot in the editing room, Antonioni turned his film into a brilliant meditation on perception: It seems to a photographer (David Hemmings) that the body was there; it can be seen in his photographs, and then it disappears. The commentary by O’Casey might talk about shreds of action and dialogue that remain in the movie as clues to the missing scenes. And what about a movie where the disgruntled cast and crew members were fed up after working with a megalomaniac director? What if they got even?

“We’ve all got this running DVD commentary in our minds, we actors, watching the movies we’ve made,” Faye Dunaway said at October’s Chicago International Film Festival. For goodness’ sake, let’s hear it, already.

The original article featured a following page where readers could download an mp3 of Roger Ebert’s 9m 37s sample commentary on Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious.

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