Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Hat, Meet Hand: Has Anyone Seen Silver?

I always find promoting my own work a bit of a dicey proposition, at least at this blog. A blog post that is ultimately just a crossplug to some other site, or more importantly, some other site where you're expected to spend money, to me is not a real post; much like my concern about lists, links are not literature. However, I'm a little tired of getting informed by DVD companies that the movies I provided my services to aren't selling, because it stands to reason they're going to determine that maybe it's not the movie that's unpopular, it's me. Now most believe that the broken clock is supposed to be right twice a day, but I maintain if it's digital with a couple diodes out, well, let's just say where in the world is it ever 1-:7P o'clock? So I suppose it is my obligation to the men who gave me a microphone and a credit on the cover to spread the word on what I've done that's on the shelves, in the hope that maybe one or five of you (or, most desirably, 3000 of you) will drop some legal tender and take home a shiny platter that contains my voice on it.

To give you background, after the slow, prolonged demise of that game show, I spent a good couple years as a freelancer for the late great Subversive Cinema DVD label, and while I only did one audio commentary for them, I did plenty of other tasks that tapped into my well of creativity and cinema knowledge. Unfortunately, all those discs are out of print, though in many cases the printing quantities were so high you can find new and used copies at a reasonable price. I have since done the bulk of my work for Code Red, and it's put me in the orbit of many interesting films and people. I should stress, though, that unlike the greats of the DVD special features business, like David Prior and Mark Rance at the majors, or Elijah Drenner and Mike Felsher for the indies, I really don't get to pick and choose my assignments. In fact, it often goes down like this:

Fictional exchange: not an actual transcript

"Hey Marc!"


"I got this movie in that Canadian package, never got released. But I found the guy who did it. Wanna do the commentary?"

"Has he done anything I've ever seen?"

"Naah, it's his only movie."

"Whatever. Send me the screener."

Two days later.

"Hey Marc! You watch the movie?"

[a beat]

"Why do you hate me? What did I ever do to you? I work for free, I give you my learned counsel, and this is how you repay me?"

"You don't like it?"

"I was in pain. I had to mute the audio, I couldn't listen, it was so painful."

"So you don't wanna do the commentary?"

"I'll do the damned commentary."

"Naw, if you don't like it..."

"I googled this guy, he has an interesting backstory. I can talk to him about that."

"You're not gonna make fun of..."

"NO! I'm not gonna kiss his ass and lie, but I can ask him questions about the project and make him look good at least."

"Ask him about the Juggalos."

"What the fuck do Juggalos have to do with this movie?"

"The makeup this one kid is wearing looks like Juggalo makeup."

"You told me this movie is from '89 and never got released. Why would there be any connection between it and the Juggalos?"

Blather, rinse, repeat, usually over the span of 45 minutes, and you'll have an inkling of what I do to keep myself gathering dust in the ersatz "Cult Movies" section of the local Fry's Electronics while everyone buys the latest repackaging of THE PRINCESS BRIDE. Yes, it is true that much like the original pressing of "You And I And George", the DVD release of NIGHT OF THE DRIBBLER featuring my commentary on it sold exactly 2 copies: I bought one, and The Dribbler bought one -- Where were you? Did I mention that I take my pension in loneliness and alcohol free DVDs and no actual money? But nonetheless, I continue with this special kind of movie mishegoss, because, well, what is the alternative? NOT getting to be immortalized for 90 minutes? History may have taught us nothing, and there's plenty of those nothing-taught fellows out there who would gladly do my job for the same not-pay, so I'd rather be the fool who at least knows what he's talking about when someone's magnum opus gets its one go-round in the digital realm.

So in anticipation for the November 15th availability of my latest (and for the moment, last) work, the Shout! Factory Select exclusive release of Katt Shea's STREETS [which, see below, was a massive false positive], I thought it was time to aim the barrel of my sawed-off journalism shotgun at my toughest subject yet...MYSLEF! {echoes ridiculously} Eh...I mean...myself. So here, in another instance of hard-hitting, buffalo-style journalism, is a ranking, of sorts, of every DVD commentary that I've participated in or moderated, in terms of how professional I come off, how illuminating the comments are from the panel, and how entertained you are likely to be by the discussion. This should reflect every piece of work I've done, save for two which, due to ownership dispute, have not been released - if those ever surface, you'll hear it from me - and another two where I'm actually just playing second fiddle to another moderator because all I really do on those is provide comic relief, and they don't reflect what I want this whole piece to demonstrate: I can handle things! I'm smart! Not like everybody says...like dumb...I'm smart and I want respect!.

Going from the butt-bottom to the best:


As I once bemoaned in a dedicated post, this is likely the worst movie I ever agreed to give a full hearing, and probably the worst commentary I've ever done. I spend the entire time trying to glean something deeper from director Byron Quisenberry, and end up with the aural equivalent of a shaggy-dog joke. Code Red, who recently reissued this as a double feature with TERROR CIRCUS (under its BARN OF THE NAKED DEAD alternate title), ported over the previous TERROR CIRCUS commentary track but not mine, prefering to use the bitrate to offer more footage of the charming and delightful Maria Kanellis making fun of the movie, a wise decision if ya ask me: would you rather watch an overdeveloped girl or listen to an underdeveloped thesis? So unless you are heavily into the backstory of bad cinema, and want to hear me grasp at straws that fly out of my fingers like poor Beth Howland during the opening credits of "ALICE," you can safely skip this one.


So shocking that it had to be hidden in the brown paper credits for "THE UNKNOWN COMEDY SPECIAL," there is a work of homemade horror that, as a student of the art form, provided plenty of LQTM's, but probably would not be as amusing to someone looking for a degree of coherence in a movie. URBAN LEGENDS was an early effort by performance artists/pranksters Dino Lee and Carl Crew, which got usurped by producer Bill Osco and mangled up into what is now, as Mondo Digital observed, "A staggering train wreck that will have you doubting your sanity and rejecting whatever religion you hold closest to your heart, this belongs on your shelf in a deep, dark corner next to atrocities like COOL AS ICE, THE UNDERGROUND COMEDY MOVIE, and TRANSFORMERS 2." The commentary track with Crew, which was supposed to be a co-host gig with our mutual friend Lenora Claire until she was unable to appear and I had to go solo, is a fun listen, but I always got the notion that in klassik karny style, I was being kayfabed by Crew, especially on the topic of his late friend Eric Fournier and their controversial media creation Shaye Saint John. So between the lack of structure in the movie and the lack of transparency from the interview subject, I only recommend this to my most devoted fans.


Another Bill Osco production I got roped into. Since most of the principals of this so-called-spoof-that-doesn't-seem-to-have-any-larfs-or-sex were either dead (Jose Ferrer) or were too media shy (Osco himself), I sat down with the quite informative and still funny Johnny Dark for this commentary, despite the fact his contribution to the film lasts less than 10 minutes. You'll learn very little about the movie, but you'll learn a lot about comedy history from Johnny, who rattles tales about the great stand-up strike of the '70's, performing with both the Osmonds and the Jacksons, and his decades-long friendship with David Letterman.


If you want a clinic on how not to write or perform a horror comedy, you can watch this. If you want to hear one legendary funnyman, one hardworking producer, and this squirrely nut trying to crack each other up to compensate for the lack of laughs, this one is right up your alley. There is a retroactive poignance to this track since neither me nor HOSTEL producer Scott Spiegel were aware that Fred Travalena was valiantly fighting cancer when he sat down with us, and would ultimately lose that fight a few months later; he coulda fooled us, as he was fast with the quips and honest with his assessments on the state of comedy. It's essentially the career retrospective interview that would not have happened were it not for a movie that Fred probably would have been happy to forget, so something good came out of it all.


So, now we start getting into movies that I genuinely enjoy, and feel quite happy to be associated with. This occasion was borne out of an initial problem: Actor/producer Pat Cardi had long been challenging the ownership of this film by Crown International, and as such refused to participate in this release. And aside from Austin Stoker, most of the cast had disappeared to the four winds and could not be found. Code Red approached me about doing a "comedy commentary," and initially I bristled because I didn't want to anger fans of the movie like me who genuinely liked the film, plus recently there have been too many sub-par pretenders to the "MST3K" throne that were making tracks that were either tired drunken rambling or mean-spirited snark. But when they suggested I reunite me mates from "BEAT THE GEEKS," I warmed to it, because J. Keith and Paul know how to be funny and smart and not lean on tired condescenscion for laughs. And it worked out great: we cracked some good jokes, and I even got some legitimate history on the production into the mix. I think even Cardi would approve of what we ended up with.


I had quite the struggle to get this commentary done: it took a lot of honeyed discussions to convince Karen Black to sit down for one of her not-so-beloved movies, then there was the matter of nailing down a date to record it, and finally the finished commentary was literally added to the mastering process at the last minute! Thankfully it all came together. I think I'm alone in the wilderness in my genuine enjoyment of this long misunderstood film, which is really less of a horror film about devil cults and more a MEMENTO-style mediation on religion and righteousness. I only rank it lower than other commentaries I've done because upon listening to it, I have so many "Um" and "Ah" moments that the Toastmasters would grill me alive; I'm sure that's present on other commentaries I've done, but it just felt especially egregious here. Well, that and I occasionally lose my focus when Ms. Black chooses to take the discussion in another more interesting direction. Ultimately though, a long poortly-treated movie finally gets its due, and I got to help.


Katt Shea had always been an inspirational figure to me - moving quite quickly from "Pretty Girl" dayplayer to stylistic auteur in a few short moves, with the nurturing of sex-positive and sexually-progressive producer Roger Corman - and it had always bothered me that her career advancement hit a wall. In this commentary track, not only did I get to meet an idol, I got to ask point blank what happened. And she answered it, in a frank and refreshing manner: Shea addresses low-budget shoots, working with real homeless kids, and why it's still so damn hard for women directors in this business. And since Christina Applegate's excellent and touching performance reminded me an awful lot of a girl I used to know, the whole thing got emotional for me; you might just hear me tearing up as we wrap. It also took a little behind-the-scenes wrangling for this to get out, so I'm very grateful you'll be able to hear it.

Update:Contrary to what I had been told by a trusted source, my commentary with Katt Shea for STREETS is NOT offered on the just released DVD of the movie. So if you ordered it hoping to hear her tell the story of the making of the film, I'm sorry I misled you.


Joanne Nail didn't make many movies, but at least two of them have found long-loyal fans over the decades. And when technical snafus forced a previously-recorded commentary with her to be scrapped, and I was asked to sit with her and re-do it, it was a privilege for me to sit with the eternal Switchblade Sister. THE VISITOR is quite a goofy movie, with its parade of slumming legends (John Huston, Shelley Winters) and bizarre patchwork of elements from every major '70's trend (demonic possession, space travel, conspiracy theory), but you get caught up in it all the same. Part of the reason is the legitimately thought-out and committed performance by Nail, which she details in our chat, demonstrating that sometimes the best acting is devoted to the most ludicrous stories.


This one is still the big glittering prize for me, even though technically I play second fiddle to Subversive founder Norm Hill, because it was my determined efforts that helped put the otherwise reclusive Tiffany Bolling and Susan Sennett in the studio in the first place. And when you hear them talk, you feel you're sitting in on some heavy emotions and confessions that have been waiting years for revelation - relief that work is appreciated, scars from harsh shooting conditions, lives that took deep turns. It becomes less of a chat and more of an encounter group, and you almost feel guilty for eavesdropping.


After all these years, after movies with higher profiles and bigger stars and bigger stakes, somehow, I still think this is one of my best moments, because it was my very first commentary track ever, done in the service of a close friend who was also recording her first commentary track ever. As such, while both of us would go on to more polished work, here we were like two kids playing dress-up and going for broke, me as the overly prepared interviewer, her as the iconoclastic director. Sure, I think you'll learn a lot about this specific movie and indie filmmaking in general from our talk, but I think you'll also learn about us and who we were all those years ago. And I think the thrill of the best commentaries is not so much dry information but really gaining intuition into the personalities of those artists that move us, what makes them tick...and in certain moments, finding out why we were drawn to each other.

And of course, there's my commentary track for LADIES AND GENTLEMEN THE FABULOUS STAINS too - but I don't really feel like I should include that on this countdown since it didn't get on the actual disc, and you can download that for free by just moving your cursor a little to the right and clicking. Nobody's going to judge my ability to move product for that one.

So there's my list of what I naively hope may just fill up your shopping cart and perhaps even pop up near the end of the year in wrapping paper under trees and 8-holster candelabras. Movie Godz willing, maybe next year I'll have some more commentary trax to level the business end of my 12-gauge journalism bazooka squarely at for you to listen to...even if it's just white noise to help you fall asleep. It's okay, I've done it myself; That SCREAM DVD is better than those Sharper Image environments synthesizers!


  1. I doubt anyone would blame your presence for low DVD sales (though you could be joking about your paranoia there, I'm not actually sure, heh). It's unfortunate that technology has already moved forward to a point where DVD is now going the way of VHS...I remember when only five years ago, I was surprised to see DVDs starting to go on sale for as low as $10 (and bought way too many at that price), and now Blurays are already going on sale for $10 or less.

    But the most unfortunate part is that the majority of consumers who are still most interested in Special Features (which you can't get simply streaming from Netflix) are also the people now most interested in Bluray instead of DVD. I'd say maybe the films your commentary is featured on would be selling better if they were on Bluray instead (and honestly, right now they might)...but with Bluray already showing up on sale for $10 or less, I have a feeling its quickly going the way of Laserdisc.

    The next generation of home video is going to be completely digital...streaming rentals (which we've already got with Netflix), and eventually movies that you can download and keep on a harddrive of some sort that will plug right into your HDTV. Where will people get their Special Features from? I'm hoping they'll still come with the direct-download versions, but its hard to say. Perhaps commentary tracks will eventually go the way of Rifftrax, tracks that you buy separately and synch up to your movie? (Hey, maybe there's potential there right now...you wouldn't even have to get the rights to the movie you wanted to commentarize, just get the people together on the track!)

  2. Also: I'm serious, you should totally look into doing downloadable commentary tracks, if you have the resources (maybe do it like a podcast?) and can get the people together. Go on a commentary rampage...commentarize anything that moves.

  3. You know -- I could remember that awesome poster, with the eye and the claws coming out of the ether, but couldn't remember the film. If the film is anywhere near as cool as the poster, I'll be a happy camper.