I’m briefly back on the topic of audio commentaries thanks to popular demand (i.e.: two people). This time I’m covering the worst the format has to offer. I’ve probably listened to more bad audio commentaries then most people, so this entry could simply boil down to a sad list of sad-ness, but I think I’ll focus instead on types of bad commentators, and tracks that I expected greatness, or at least entertainment from, that didn’t deliver. ‘Guiltiest Offender’ is a bit of a misnomer in most cases, but what’s the fun in complaining about Joe No Name Director’s bad commentating practices?
The Narrators: Commentators that mostly describe what’s happening on screen, as if an audio commentary were somehow comparable to a televised sporting event.
Also Known As: Descriptive Track For the Blind, The Books On Tape, Team Miss-The-Point.
Guiltiest Offender: William Friedkin (Bug, Exorcist, Exorcist: The Version You’ve Never Seen, French Connection)
William Friedkin’s commentary track street name is Mr. Loud, because his volume knob is apparently stuck at eleven. His bombastically noisy tracks are often entertaining for all the wrong reasons. I’ve learned a bit from the first Exorcist and French Connection tracks, but the follow up Exorcist and especially the Bug track are simply exhausting. Friedkin takes the narration to extremes by actually describing the scenes as if he were reading from the novelization of the script.
Arnold Swartzeneggar is actually quite entertaining when he narrates, as are other ESL commentators, but Paul Greengrass’ United 93 track broke my heart with its lack of insight. Greengrass’ tone is the complete opposite of Friedkin’s, and the end effect is both uninformative and unentertaining.
The Prisoners: Commentators that sound so uncomfortable with the process there very well may be a gun against their head.
Also Known As: Tell Me When it’s Over, The Sighers, The Trapped, Need Help Call Police.
Guiltiest Offender: Park Chan-Wook (Oldboy)
Chan-Wook flat out says he doesn’t like doing commentary tracks, which is strange when one considers he recorded three of them for Oldboy. He’s uncomfortable and thus very boring, and his focus on technical jargon, the look and physical filmstock over talk of the story or character doesn’t help. I picture him recording the tracks in the exact room Oh Dae-su was trapped in during the first act of the movie.
Dario Argento only recorded two commentary tracks in his life, and between them he spoke perhaps eight words. Either let the guy speak in Italian or let him go home. The members of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre group track, one I expected many great things from, each sound as if they’d rather be eaten alive by backwater cannibals than be recording a commentary track, and their ‘enthusiasm’ rubs off very quickly.
The Disc Whisperers: Commentators that might have something good to say, but thanks to their flat and quiet tones you won’t be awake long enough to care.
Also Known As: I’m Sorry, What?, Could You Repeat Yourself?, Speak the Fuck Up!, The Slow and The Passionless.
Guiltiest Offender: John McTiernan (Predator, Die Hard, Hunt For Red October, Die Hard with a Vengeance)
I like McTiernan a lot, and his tracks are often packed with interesting behind the scenes facts, but his basset hound inflection brings sleeps to my eyes. Ben Stein sounds downright lively in comparison.
Wes Anderson’s commentaries are again, very informative, and as a massive fan I welcome his extra input, but listening to him speak is as exciting as listening to a 22 year old teaching assistant reading from a text book on Whitman. Ben Affleck (normally a very lively contributor) also suffers acute whisperitis on his somber Gone Baby Gone track. One gets the impression that the track was recorded in the middle of the night, and the neighbours had already banged on the wall a few times.
The Mute: Commentators that simply don’t commentate.
Also Known As: The Pin Drops, The Alternate Dolby Surround Track, Corpses, Is This Thing On?
Guiltiest Offender: Mel Gibson (Braveheart)
It’s hard to pick one mute commentator when the problem is so widespread, and because comparing nothing to nothing still equals nothing, but due to sheer volume of not talking I think Mel Gibson may be our winner. Braveheart is almost three hours long, and Gibson’s total comments might total three minutes, assuming the stopwatch is a little fast.
Other Offenders: Honestly, just about everyone does this.
The Reigning King of Awkward: Tim Burton (Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, Batman, Batman Returns, Edward Scissorhands, Sleepy Hallow, and I’m sure every other track I haven’t heard)
Tim Burton is so positively terrible at commentary recording that his tracks almost count as must listens for their car accident rubber necking effect. Timmy rarely speaks, and when he does speak he speaks softly, stumbles over his words, narrates the on screen events, makes terrible jokes (which he usually proceeds to laugh at), and he sounds entirely uncomfortable in his own skin. He’s like the bastard child of Woody Allan and Helen Keller.
Other common plagues on audio commentary goodness:
Insistent Back-Patting: When a commentator feels the need to felate every single other member of the cast and crew, rather then allowing us to assume no news is good news. This isn’t an acceptance speech.
Bad Film Historians: Commentators that say something along the lines of “We’re (I’m) the first to ever do this”, even though a simple glance at a list of popular films would prove otherwise.
“This is my favorite part”: A common phrase for bad commentators, usually spoken at least ten times on a track, thus negating all previous mentions of ‘favorite parts’.
Comedians: Commentators that have fun with the track by pretending the film really happened (see Buckaroo Banzai), or those that purposefully decide to go all Dadaist and talk about anything but the film or show. This works so rarely (see Muppets in Space) that I’d like to call an end to it now.