Total Recall and The Greatest DVD Commentaries of All Time

Forget gag reels and studio promo footage, where else can you hear directors bitch about actors or Arnie discuss the nuances of his acting for 90 minutes straight?
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Forget gag reels and studio promo footage, where else can you hear directors bitch about actors or Arnie discuss the nuances of his acting for 90 minutes straight?

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It's hard to believe that DVDs have been part of our lives for over thirteen years now. In fact there's a whole generation of movie fans who never experienced the joys of buying ex-rental video tapes in giant display cases from dodgy market traders.

My first taste of the digital revolution came in 1999, when I snapped up a copy of The Exorcist on the shiny new format. At the time I didn't even have a DVD player, but I was so excited that William Friedkin's masterpiece was finally available for home viewing after years in the censorship wilderness, I couldn't resist splashing out the extra few quid. A few weeks later, with the necessary hardware duly connected (Scart-enabled plug & play, God bless you), I loaded the disc and sat in wonderment as a twenty five year-old film came to life, looking as pin sharp as the first time it gave ex-BBFC boss James Ferman the collywobbles.

But even better than the remastered picture and sound, was the promise of extra content. It used to be that the film itself was enough reason to buy a sell-through video, but DVD ushered in the era of bonus features. Out-takes, documentaries, gag-reels, EPK footage - all designed to gradually pick apart the magic of the movies, like watching a Nigel Slater cooking show in reverse.

As much as I love the behind-the-scenes footage, my favourite DVD extra has always been the director's commentary. A relic from the long-forgotten laserdisc format, commentaries invite viewers into an exclusive screening with the film's makers, as they lay bare the struggles and pressures of getting a film onto the big screen. Unlike the studio-endorsed promotional footage, where an endless parade of grinning actors wax lyrical about how "Rob Schneider is a true renaissance man," or how "Adam Sandler has singlehandedly transformed the concept of modern comedy," the director's commentary is where you find the real meat.

For instance, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre commentary features director Tobe Hooper and original Leatherface Gunnar Hansen, complaining about the fact that the actor who played Franklin was an insufferable arsehole. Elsewhere, you'll find film-makers bitching about studio interference, failed effects work and the perils of censorship. Locked away in a dark screening room, often with plenty of alcohol on hand, the artifice is stripped away, leaving you with a much clearer insight into what went on during filming.

Robert Zemeckis might be a dynamic and visually inspired director, but his talk-tracks are about as much fun as giving Michael Winner a pedicure.

However, not all commentaries are created equal. Robert Zemeckis might be a dynamic and visually inspired director, but his talk-tracks are about as much fun as giving Michael Winner a pedicure. Likewise, many once-vibrant auteurs quickly reveal themselves to be depressed geriatrics, less concerned with exploring the magic of movies than they are with staving off their inevitable return to the care home.

And then there are the literalists. The ones who can't help but describe what's happening on screen. Occasionally, this lapse in focus can be excused - when the film is truly compelling, it's easy to understand how someone can momentarily lose their train of thought and get hooked on what's taking place in the movie. Thankfully, most of them remember why they're there, and get the commentary back on track.

Arnold Schwarzenegger is not one of them. His two-hander with Paul Verhoeven (usually a must-listen commentator, thanks to his unapologetically brutal honesty) on the chat-track for Total Recall is a sublime exercise in stating the obvious. A 'best bits' edit is currently going viral and it's worth five minutes of anyone's time - it's almost as if he thought he was providing the audio description track for partially sighted viewers. Particularly entertaining are the moments where he explains the subtle nuances of his scenes with Sharon Stone. Clearly, these are two acting titans at the top of their game, so it's understandable that we'd need their inner motivations explaining in graphic detail: "Because she's trying so hard for me not to see the news, you can see here with the eye, and then no matter what I do - the kissing, the hugging with her, I'm more interested in what's going on on Mars." Let's just hope that James Lipton is taking notes.

Elsewhere, there are other priceless gems, such as a shot of Arnold on a jackhammer - "Here I am in my job, I'm a construction worker". And let's not forget the triple-titted hooker opening her blouse as the Austrian Oak babbles excitedly "She has three breasts hah? That's the one with three breasts."

I know that not everyone can understand the appeal of commentaries. Even Steven Spielberg refuses to record them because he hates the idea of anyone, even him, talking through one of his films. But next time you're at a loose end and can't face re-watching something you've already seen a million times, try changing the audio track - you might just get a completely new perspective on an old favourite. Unless Arnie's doing the voiceover, of course.

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