In accordance with the official by-laws, I may be required forthwith to resign from the Film Geek Society for the following contrarian viewpoint: I hate DVD extras.
We who make movies a significant part of our lives aren’t supposed to harbor such heretical notions—though the sentiment may be gaining more support, if film critic Terrence Rafferty’s May 4 New York Times feature is any indication. It is conventional wisdom that the digital era’s boom in home release supplementary material can only make a good thing better. Directors’ commentaries, deleted scenes, behind-the-scenes featurettes ... who in the name of film critic Pauline Kael could find the inclusion of such goodies anything but a mitzvah?
It would be easy enough simply to mock the application of these extras to even the most mundane example of multiplex effluvium, like a “Special Collector’s Edition” of the Britney Spears vehicle Crossroads that stretches the definition of “Special” beyond the snapping point. But there’s a darker side to mass-marketing the last available scrap of information pertaining to a film. Somewhere along the way, home video audiences have come to accept the idea that the movie itself just ain’t enough.
In a way, you have to congratulate distributors for the balls behind the types of things touted as extras. Original theatrical trailers have become a typical feature of “special edition” DVDs, as have the “making of” documentaries showcased on programs like HBO’s First Look. They were created as marketing tools; their entire reason for being was convincing people to buy a ticket for the movie in question. Throw them onto a DVD label and they become “bonus material.” Hollywood has convinced us to buy their commercials back from them as value-added, and we have thanked them for the privilege.
Ditto for deleted scenes and outtakes—the cutting room floor leavings deemed irrelevant enough to miss the original, awe-inspiring theatrical cut of The Adventures of Pluto Nash. “Director’s cuts” are merely a snooty-fied version of this same phenomenon, perpetuating the idea that an artist’s pure “vision” is inevitably superior to the one constrained by social or commercial considerations. A message to the directors of the world, drunk on the auteur theory: You work in a collaborative medium, not in a vacuum. Get the hell over it.
But then we get to the sacred cow of DVD extras—the filmmaker commentary track—and it would seem all grousing should cease. Surely this is what it’s all about for the avowed cinephile or aspiring Spielberg. Here is a chance to peek inside the artistic mind and find out how your favorite movies came to pass—a little slice of film history at your fingertips.
What this approach fails to appreciate is that great artists are often so intuitive that even they can’t always explain the “why” behind their work—which is why some filmmakers, like the Coen brothers, never bother with recording a commentary track. That leaves the Hollywood hacks to deconstruct their shot-by-shot creative thinking. Maybe it’s just me, but I suspect we have little to learn from the wit and wisdom of directors Brett Rattner or Michael Bay.
Worse still, we have fallen under the nefarious sway of what lit-crit types would call authorial intent—the idea that what an artist wanted to accomplish somehow holds as much weight as what he or she did accomplish. Individual viewers are being encouraged subtly not to trust their own critical faculties. We have the work itself, but that’s no longer sufficient to permit a viewer to render judgment. Thanks to the helping words of the director, all that judging can be done for us by people whose interests lie in convincing us they did a great job.
Certainly there are exceptions that prove the occasional value of extras. They may even mock the whole extras format, like Blood Simple’s hilarious faux commentary track by a fictional film historian, or This Is Spinal Tap’s in-character commentary by the band members disavowing “Marty DiBergi’s” version of events.
But at their worst, they pass off publicity as part of the art of filmmaking and promote the stuff of academic research as essential background data. Maybe it matters to the costume designer that I see the wardrobe testing reels, but it shouldn’t matter to me. Once upon a time, we could be trusted to enjoy a movie without having to rely on the footnotes.