Thursday, February 8, 2007
We have become so used to extras on dvds that it is easy to forget just how special, and actually how important to film history, the idea of them really is. The ability to see deleted scenes or behind the scenes footage from your favorite film might seem commonplace now but it has really just been since the arrival of the dvd format that this kind of thing has been readily available to anyone outside of the people making the films. There have always been promotional featurettes and on the set documentaries but only a handful of these were available to the home market. Laserdiscs and then DVDs changed the way a lot of us view films, at their best they give us an inside view to the filmmakers intentions and journey. Unfortunately as we have gotten more and more expectant of these extras, they seem to have gotten more and more superficial. Many of the current discs being produced use the special features sections just as back slapping promotion or as a teaser to a future double dip release, it seems to be getting rarer to see quality extras.
Thankfully many smaller companies have, since the dawn of the format, continued to attempt to give us something that speaks about the quality and importance of the film we have purchased. Criterion has, since the days of laserdisc, been at the top of the line in regards to their extra features. The first audio commentary I ever heard was on the laserdisc of Silence Of The Lambs. I still recall the excitement and mystery of it, I just couldn't believe that I was going to be able to listen to the filmmakers discussing their craft and memories for the whole film. We take this so much for granted now that we forget just how revolutionary the idea for an audio commentary was.
Audio Commentaries are a good place to start, in listing some of my favorite extras, and since I am mostly focusing on Euro genre films I won't go into American favorites like the cast commentary on Boogie Nights, Jodie Foster's talks or Abel Ferrara's strange but spellbinding talks on Driller Killer and King Of New York.
The best commentaries can, and should, be fun and insightful. Some can be made up just of special memories and stories. What Italian horror fan didn't rejoice to hear Catriona MacColl and David Warbeck recalling Fulci's The Beyond, or John Phillip Law talking about Bava's Diabolik with Tim Lucas? Many of the best commentaries just have the feel of a pleasant afternoon spent remembering, this can often be as eye opening as an in depth critical commentary and can be as moving as the feature itself.
Commentaries can also be combative, think of Umberto Lenzi and John Morghen's piece for Cannibal Ferox. It's as though the two men are watching separate features and we can hear years of bitter thoughts coming through our speakers. Asia Argento's at times acidic commentary for her Scarlet Diva perfectly compliments the film and places us in the position of an armchair psychologist.
Criterion remains the king of critical commentaries but Tim Lucas has delivered some splendid ones for Mario Bava's work. The upcoming Bava collections promise more Lucas talks and one can hope that future Argento discs continue to have the great work of Alan Jones helming them.
Documentary work has become more and more in-substantial on mainstream dvds, often short promotional featurette's take the place of an actual in depth look at the work. Many companies specializing in Euro obscurities, such as No-Shame, Blue Underground, Grindhouse, Shriek Show and Anchor Bay, have delivered splendid documentary work for their films. Shriek Show as been barraged with complaints about some, admittedly, shoddy work they have done on some of their discs and this has overshadowed that early on they delivered some incredible extras. Their Fulci releases for Zombie and Lizard In A Woman's Skin each contained in depth looks at the films containing dozens of interviews with surviving cast and crew members, they stand as fine examples of how much depth hands on studies of these films can provide.
Edwige Fenech had been absent not only from early dvd extras but her films took awhile to finally start appearing on the format. You would think that her early Gialo work with Sergio Martino would have been prime candidates for early release but it's just within the past few years that her films have started to make a big push into the market. No-Shame dvd has put out the majority of them and it was with them that she sat down and did a series of filmed interviews. Every fan-boy's, including myself, heart jumped into their throat when they saw that she was as beautiful as ever. All of these interviews show a charming, intelligent woman more than ready to talk about her work in everything from giallos to the sex-comedys she filmed in the seventies. No-Shame did a real service to the Euro fan community in conducting these interviews and I don't think it was a coincidence that shortly after they began to appear that Eli Roth cast her in his upcoming Hostel sequel.
A very different, but no less captivating, kind of interview appears on Grindhouse's amazing double disc set of Deodato's Cannibal Holocaust. One of the most interesting extras on the disc is an half hour plus talk with Robert Kerman. It's an incredibly open interview with a talented, seemingly disappointed man who never completely fulfilled his potential. Kerman comes across as arrogant, oddly touching and always brutally honest. The thing I like most about the interview is that it appears unedited, at one point Kerman asks the interviewer to keep something he says in and Grindhouse, to their credit, does just that. The whole disc has an outlawish anarchic feel to it, just like the film it is celebrating.
Finally the best dvd extras are the ones that hit you on a more personal level. Perhaps they point out something small you never noticed before, perhaps a simple small memory of an actor or director can give you more insight into the art of film than you ever imagined you could have. The best extras are inevitably produced by people who love film, which is why more mainstream dvd releases are becoming more and more shallow, they are viewed as promotion and nothing else and are being manufactured by businessmen not artists.
My favorite dvd extra is just about 11 minutes long and doesn't contain any great insight. It's cheaply shot on video and takes place just outside a college in Italy. The pretty casually dressed woman being interviewed outside, under a tree, would go unnoticed by most film fans but lovers of Italian horror know her, and this short interview with Cinzia Monreale on Shriek Show's dvd of Joe D'Amato's Buio Omega is one that I keep coming back to.
I can't really put my finger on what it is that draws me to this interview, at first it was the sheer novelty of seeing the woman who played the blind Emily in Fulci's The Beyond being interviewed. The talk is casual, the interview seems a bit unsure of his questions, and she seems a bit amused at the attention but also honored. She remembers Fulci and especially D'Amato fondly. At one point it seems like she wants to say something negative about a Buio Omega co-star but then just smiles and compliments them. I think the thing that gets me about this short clip is that I just know this woman really from those two films, she is forever locked in time for me in them. There is just something really special about watching this still incredibly beautiful woman who is in between classes recalling, what is for her, also a moment locked in time. I love the clip and I can forgive Shriek Show for their sometimes very careless work just for this short supplement.
This piece, scattershot as it is, was in part inspired by a recent Mobius board talk on why someone should buy two copies of Mario Bava's Kill Baby Kill just because one has an audio commentary. Speaking just for myself, a film like Kill Baby Kill is symbolic for the essence of my love for European films. It'll be a pleasure to add two copies of it to my collection and if I have to sell a couple of discs of commercial modern Hollywood films that really have no meaning for me to get it, I gladly will. Ten or fifteen years ago an audio commentary on a film like this would have been unheard of and the day that I don't support an important release in this genre that I love so much is the day that I stop loving film.....and that day is no where in sight.