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Towards a Typology of the DVD Commentary in the Context of Scholarly Film editions (March/June 2007)

Drubek-Meyer Natascha
  15. červen 2007


More than two decades ago, in the era of laser discs, the first commentaries which were on the same medium or format as the film itself emerged. They were looked upon not only as an exciting “extra“ but also as a new opportunity for film studies. With the advent of DVD these commentaries, formerly considered as a part of a niche product, started becoming more and more popular and widespread and came to be look upon as a marketing tool.
In the last ten years several genres of commenting upon films on DVD have developed. I would like to evaluate the possible advantages and problems of different types of commentary in a academic DVD environment which has yet to be created.
To open the discussion of the question how scholarly commentaries on film editions on DVDs could look like, I will differentiate three existing types of commentaries on DVDs and outline an alternative type of commentary.
The first type is the audio commentary, moving along in a parallel mode to the film. One could call it the linear sticking closely to the time line of the film running; this is both its strength and weakness. Certain audio commentaries have reached a remarkable quality giving the possibility to follow the commentary while the film is being analyzed and to hear authentic voices of the past and present. The authors of these commentaries are usually pronounced authorial or authoritative figures - on the creative side (filmmakers) or on the critical side (scholars) [1].
The audio commentary has a problematic aspect in that it adds something to the film by interfering directly with the ongoing reception In addition there are problems with the psychology of perception itself: It is difficult to read intertitles in silent film or listen to a complicated soundtrack in sound film simultaneously with the commentary. Some audio commentaries tend to be highly suggestive when using an “acousmatic voice“ (Michel Chion): A voice whose source cannot be seen, that is an unsourced voice in many respects. This happens when the commentator cannot be visually identified but speaks in the name of the author (NB the difference to the appearance of the person in an interview which normally is presented on the DVD as a featurette, see below). The commentator voice often gives the viewer the impression that the words he hears are pure truth (this is even more the case when the commentator conceals his subjectivity and tries to give an objective account or a scholarly description).
From a scholarly point of view it has another shortcoming which is directly connected to the phenomen of the acous(ma)tic: a text which exists only in an audio format is very difficult to search and access; it can hardly be the object of a quotation since the scholarly practise of citation is based on visual texts with pagination or other types of “addresses“. This in a way marks the place of the audio commentary as something easy to consume but a priori less suited for scholarly use.
Audio commentaries are the most common type of commentary on DVDs (no matter whether the films commented upon are highly successful ones like Alien by Ridley Scott or rare archival pieces like the Mitchell&Kenyon collection). They form the only prolific and stable genre which the DVD format has developed – actually having adopted it from the “lecture tour“ as Ronald Haver called his King Kong commentary on a laser disc in 1984.

The second type is a written commentary (text screens). Mostly this is a free standing text, graphically presented on a DVD, accessible from a sub-menue, detached from the film proper. This type is often used when the films commented upon are rather short (e.g. early films as on the DVD More treasures from American Film Archives. 1894-1931, NFPF 2004); a written commentary of that type provides also a possibility to supply quotes from texts not especially produced for the DVD (mostly by the director or from reviews). This type - although it can appear on the screen - is not much different from a short text in a booklet (often it is also reproduced on paper).
The third type is an extra feature on the disc - either an interview or a documentary. Some DVDs are made up of several features and featurettes which together with the film form a patchwork of films of different authors rather than an edition of a film (e.g. the Transit Metropolis edition). This mosaic of individual features does not provide a differentiated access to the content.

There is another possibility to present commentaries on a DVD which would not be confined by the linearity of the film but still connected to the film without directly influencing the viewing experience. This commentary would be based on the principles of hypertext and linking the annotation directly to the film shots commented upon. This means that the first step in preparing such an edition of a film would be to go back to the very making of the film, its smallest units. By subdividing the film into smaller portions (shots and/or sequences) it becomes easily indexable; as a result the film scholar has easy access to the montage structure of the film which can been laid out graphically. Some of the shots will be linked to the commentary units (“footnotes“) which can comprise all media (written word, audio, video, photo etc.). If the viewer decides to watch the film in the hyperlinked mode he can “click“ on a button which will lead him to the “footnote“ – in the meantime the film pauses so that the viewer will return to the same point when leaving the “footnote“.
This type of commentary has been developed by the Moscow film historian Nikolai Izvolov and myself in a method called hyperkino.

What are possible weaknesses of this method? Television screens cannot cope with large amounts of text. It is true that the hyperkino system encourages the viewer to insert the DVD into the computer; this makes the text screens much easier to read and the computer encourages the viewer to develop an interactive approach. A hyperkino DVD needs to be used interactively – it is more than just watching the film. Maybe we don't need to simulate the movie theater situation when watching a DVD but rather we should take the opportunities the DVD format provide seriously, in presenting the film and additional materials. This does not alter the possibility to watch the same DVD in the only-film mode from the same DVD!
It can be said that the viewing of the film in the hyperkino mode encourages to interrupt the viewing and navigating away from the film to a text screen or some other content in the “footnotes“. But this seems to be something we will always dealing be with when it is about non-theatrical viewing of films. Watching films at computers and (inter)actively working with the DVD contents is certainly a feature which is underestimated by commercial publishers. Hopefully it will play a role in future digital film editions which will combine the film itself and a book on film on the DVD format.
Hyperkino commentaries don't tamper with the film, they merely interrupt and – via the back-to-the-film-button – allow to resume the watching at any time. They don't alter the viewing (and listening) experience but rather provide the possibility to get direct access to information about the film and so help our understanding .

This outline might have shown which commentaries can do what in film studies. It also shows how film scholars could be involved in future academic film editions on DVD – that is not as guests of DVD Publishers but as editors, responsible for the scholarly content on the DVD and the selection of the material presented. 


This is an updated version of a talk given at the Gradisca Film School (V MAGIS: Cinema and Contemporary Visual Arts; section: “Critical Editions on DVD“) on Monday, March 26, 2007

The project of “Hypertextual Film Presentation, Designing Digital Editions for the European Cinematographic Heritage" (2006-8) is being supported by the European Community's Sixth Framework Programm with a Marie-Curie Fellowship


[1] Wikipedia supplies a threefold typology of audio commentaries (“edited“, that is “recorded at various sessions, often with various speakers“, “character, which features one or more actors commenting on the movie while in character“ and “scholarly, which is performed by a film critic, historian or scholar, taking the viewer through the significance of the film, the technique, and at times telling the story behind its making. Variations feature fans who would also have some level of expertise concerning a title.“) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Audio_commentary_(DVD). This typology doesnt work: There are scholarly edited commentaries like the BFI commentary for the DVD The Edge of the World which combines the voices film editor and the widow of the director Thelma Schoonemaker, of the actor Daniel Day-Lewis and of Ian Christie, a scholar (http://www.bfi.org.uk/booksvideo/video/details/edgeoftheworld/).

[2] Cf. the following (unassigned;-) claim about the rejection of audio tracks overlaying a movie by a director: “Despite his high profile, director Steven Spielberg has yet to provide a commentary track for any of his films. He feels that the experience of watching a film with anything other than his intended soundtrack detracts from what he has created. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Audio_commentary_(DVD). Another director who does not do audio commentaries is David Lynch.