Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘commentary tracks

A writer’s commentary track

with 2 comments

As I’ve said before, I like commentary tracks. While some audio commentaries can be a waste of time, or worse, I’ve learned so much from the best of them, and derived such pleasure along the way, that a few have even supplanted the underlying movie itself in my affections. I still love The Usual Suspects, for instance, but at this point, I’d rather listen to Bryan Singer and Christopher McQuarrie’s wonderful commentary, probably my personal favorite, than watch the movie again. Commentaries by the likes of Francis Ford Coppola, Nicholas Meyer, David Mamet, and Steven Soderbergh (especially his famously prickly exchange with Lem Dobbs on The Limey) only get better with time. And in particular, the stunning commentary tracks for The Simpsons have been playing continuously in the background of my life for the better part of a decade now.

I’ve often wished that something similar existed for novels. There are, of course, annotated editions of classics ranging from Alice to Sherlock Holmes—the latter of which is my favorite book of all time—and several authors, notably Nabokov, have cooperated to some extent with annotated versions of their works. Other novelists have written in detail about the creation of particular books. The most comprehensive example I’ve seen is The Writing of One Novel by Irving Wallace, which I recommend with the caveat that Wallace was a pretty lousy writer—although quite readable on the subjects of research, revision, and publication. Similar accounts have evidently been written by Thomas Mann and Thomas Wolfe, although I haven’t read them, and I don’t think they’re quite what I have in mind when I envision a true author’s commentary: something that runs in parallel with the text, but chatty, digressive, and not particularly organized, like Paul Thomas Anderson talking about Boogie Nights.

This is all my roundabout way of announcing that starting on Monday, I’ll be writing an occasional author’s commentary, for lack of a better word, on The Icon Thief. I’m not precisely sure how this will work, since I haven’t done it before, but at the moment, I’m hoping to post one installment per week, taking one chapter at a time, and writing about whatever strikes my fancy. There won’t be a fixed format: I’ll just be talking about what I can remember of how each chapter written, explaining some of the references, throwaway details, and inside jokes, and giving whatever insight I can about the choices I made along the way. Behind every page lies a story, some more interesting than others, but since this is essentially a blog about writing, I figure that at this point I can afford to indulge myself. And my goal will be to write the kind of author commentary I’d like to read—light, heavy on the gossip, cheerfully candid about plot holes and mistakes, and generally as honest as possible.

Obviously, these posts will mean a lot more to those who have read the novel, so if you haven’t had a chance to pick it up yet, you might want to swing by your local library, steal a copy from a friend, or even buy one. (You can also read the first three chapters, and bits and pieces of the rest, on Google Books.) While I can’t entirely avoid spoilers, I’ll do my best to tread carefully around certain plot points. And as much as I’m aware that it can be risky to pull back the curtain like this, I can’t resist showing you a few of my tricks. Every work of art has its own secret history, and the same part of me that is intrigued by commentary tracks, artists’ sketches, and storyboards is also fascinated by the process by which every novel is made—a story often as compelling, and surprising, as the plot itself. Ideally, the result will be of interest even to those who haven’t read the book, and won’t affect the enjoyment of those who have. So I hope you enjoy being part of my book club, because if you’re reading this, you’re already in it—and the discussion starts now.

Written by nevalalee

April 27, 2012 at 9:42 am

Posted in Books, Writing

Tagged with ,

The joy of commentary tracks

leave a comment »

While I still haven’t gotten around to tackling the definitive appreciation of The Simpsons that I’ll inevitably need to write one day, in the meantime, I thought I’d highlight an underappreciated element of that show’s legacy: its DVD commentary tracks. Over the past decade or so, even as I’ve stopped watching the show itself, its commentary tracks—featuring Matt Groening, the showrunners for each season, and an assortment of writers, directors, and producers—have become an inseparable part of my life. Since I already know most of the episodes by heart, I’ll often play an audio commentary in the background while I’m exercising or doing chores around the house, to the point where I’ve probably listened to some of these tracks twenty times or more. And every other year or so, I’ll systematically work through the entire series, as I’m doing now, going backward from season thirteen all the way to the premiere.

It’s hard to explain why, but these commentaries have become weirdly important to me, sometimes even exceeding the importance of the episodes themselves—especially at this point in the series, when the underlying material tends to be mediocre or worse. Even for middling episodes, though, the commentaries are still compelling: two of my favorites are for “The Principal and the Pauper” and “Bart to the Future,” episodes that probably rank near the bottom of the pack. A Simpsons commentary track is simply the best radio show in the world, with a roomful of smart, nerdy guys talking with great enthusiasm about a subject of intense interest to them, and to me. In the process, I’ve enjoyed getting to know people like writers David Mirkin, Matt Selman, and Ron Hauge, and directors Mark Kirkland, Susie Dietter, and Jim Reardon, who otherwise would just be names on a screen. And I’ve painlessly absorbed a lot of valuable information about storytelling—such as the observation, by Josh Weinstein, I think, that five minutes of sentiment is too much, but fifteen seconds is just right.

At this point, though, after twenty listens or more, I’ve begun to suck most of the pulp out of these commentaries, so I’ve been casting about for alternatives. Futurama, not surprisingly, has commentaries that are equally engaging, and it’s always fun to listen to David X. Cohen and Ken Keeler, among others, unpack the show’s many references. (Futurama remains the only series that ever inspired me to look up the Wikipedia article on P versus NP.) And I’ve spoken before about how much I love audio commentaries by Francis Ford Coppola: his voice is warm, grandfatherly, almost conspiratorial, drawing you into a frank discussion of his triumphs and disappointments, generous with both his philosophy of life and the technical side of filmmaking. It’s as close as most of us will ever get to hanging out with Coppola himself, and a reminder that the best commentary tracks are a reflection of the artist’s personality.

What else? My single favorite commentary for a movie is probably Bryan Singer and Christopher McQuarrie’s track for The Usual Suspects, where they cheerfully point out plot holes and continuity errors while imparting, almost incidentally, a lot of irreverent observations on the creative process. A close second is Nicholas Meyer’s commentary for Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, which provides a great deal of candid insight into one of my favorite movies, as well as the art of storytelling itself. (“Storyteller,” Meyer tells us, is what he always puts down when asked for his profession on customs forms.) David Mamet is usually captivating, even when he’s being glib or cagey; I recently put on his commentary track for House of Games, featuring Ricky Jay, while preparing my tax returns, which made the process a lot more bearable. And I’m always looking for others. If you’re a commentary track addict like me, and if you have any special favorites, I’d love to hear about them.

%d bloggers like this: