Ken Jennings


July 6, 2006

Does anything typify the mainstreaming of American trivia better than the phenomenon of DVD “bonus features”?

I thought about this while watching my DVD of Spider-Man 2 the other night. A sticker on the front of the slipcase trumpeted the “10 Hours of Bonus Features!” within.

Stop for a moment to consider. Ten hours! For every minute of hot man-on-wall action in the actual theatrical movie, there are now five extra minutes of people talking about the movie.

The surprise is not just that things like this exist. There have always been film geeks, and there always will be, and that’s why I don’t go to movies on opening nights anymore: nerds in Jedi and wizard costumes make me feel dirty. What amazes me is the fact that Sony’s marketing gurus decided that this encyclopedic behind-the-scenes minutiae is a sticker-worthy selling point, one that will move another ten million copies, or whatever, of the already-biggest-selling film retail product of the year. America, apparently, demands trivia now.

I’m as big a sucker as anyone for the promise of schmancy bonus features about my favorite movies, but even I have to admit: most of these things suck. The director thinks the star was great. The star is so glad the director gave him room to create. The special effects guys had to work really hard on a lot of computers for a long time and boy did they ever cut it close, but the shots got done. This was the first scene we filmed, remember? This scene took twenty-three takes and look, you can almost see the sun coming up. We laughed so hard this day.

DVD commentary is a surprisingly tricky art form. Let’s say you’re not the director, just some external commentator on the film. One temptation is to do play-by-play on every cut, camera angle, blocking choice, elucidating how each and every device in every scene furthers what you see as the grand auteurist aims of the movie. I mean “film.” See, for example, many Criterion Collection commentaries…I’m thinking of Rebecca, but there are plenty of other examples of master’s-thesis-as-commentary-track. Other tracks go too far toward the other extreme, and just rattle off unconnected factoids (“Gene Tierney was born on November 19, 1920, in Brooklyn, New York, the daughter of…”) without engaging the movie at all. In my experience, the ideal commentary does both. It tells all the juicy anecdotes and imparts all the right trivia, while still helping you see new things in every scene that you never noticed before, things that make the movie great.

In the grand American tradition of people assuming they would be great at things they have never actually tried, I hereby announce that I would be awesome at recording DVD commentary tracks. I’ve never done anything like it, but I’m positive I have the knack. I would deftly interweave history and film criticism. I would make the personalities of yesteryear come alive with my earthy behind-the-scenes tales, but would never sink to the level of mere gossip. I would weave the film into the larger tapestry of world culture so fascinatingly that no one would ever again watch the movie without my sparkling commentary.

In fact, I think it’s not too late for me to begin a second career as self-proclaimed movie know-it-all. I hereby offer my services, free, to any studio home video division in America that thinks That Jeopardy! Guy needs to be talking over more movies. Hey Disney, I’m looking at you. Your current DVD of Quiz Show sucks and you know it. Don’t you think the movie needs a commentary track from someone who just finished a book with a chapter on the quiz show scandals, someone who can give a backstage view on how today’s quiz show experience is still impacted by the scandals of yesteryear, someone conversant with film trivia in general and the Redford oeuvre in particular, someone who likes to pronounce “oeuvre” in the most pretentious way possible? Come on, Disney. Me and Quiz Show. It’s a perfect fit.

That, or Million Dollar Duck.  I think I’d be great on either.

Posted by Ken at 12:02 am