|_July 2006 _|
In terms of film music content, the DVD world hasn't really delivered the level of informative, educational, and noteworthy extras that we expected to find every few weeks (or every month, for that matter). The reason for the lengthy gap between our April and July DVD columns is pretty simple: things have dried up, and what mostly comes out now is fairly predictable - and that's not good for the art form, the music's longevity, or the composer.
For the major labels, it's now about delivering a value-added package that's appealing to a broad audience - whether they want the extras or not - or dividing extras between multiple releases.
It's a sometimes schizophrenic and inconsistent release strategy, because as we've seen, some A-level pictures get full-blown extras, while others don't (or they contain minor materials because they tanked, like Michael Bay's The Island); some pictures are targeted at a two-tiered audience which only exists when the film's a blockbuster (Apollo 13, Cinderella Man), has a Message for the global populace (Schindler's List), or it's Christmastime.
Now, more appreciably, we have Warner Bros. realizing that not everyone wants to own the 4-disc Wizard of Oz; so a movie-only edition for families at a far lower price makes sense. A similar strategy was used for George Lucas' feature film debut, THX 1138, but given the film's experimental nature and cerebral tone, it's hard to believe the target audience wouldn't want to own the double disc set. Sci-fi fans and Lucasites are generally regarded as loyal, collector-oriented and detail-hungry, so the single disc release made no sense - particularly when a lesser-known film like The Cardinal came out only as 2-disc set, and not a dual release targeted at a two-tiered audience, comprised of closet Preminger fans, and frugal Catholics.
Like the multiple releases for Steven Spielberg's War of the Worlds remake, Munich was issued as a single disc and limited 2-disc edition, with all of the extras packed onto the bonus disc. Unlike the 2-disc War set, the North American release of double-disc Munich was bungled when Universal chose to limit the print run, and restrict distribution to the Continental U.S. Amazon.com had the set listed as unavailable, and it's now considered a bit of a collectable - even though it's undeserving of that stature.
The DVD producers may have felt that sufficient Munich documentaries slated for their own DVD releases would answer viewer questions and interest in exploring the tragic events of the Olympic Games and subsequent reprisal killings, so the bonus disc is similar in tone and structure to the War set: about 70 mins. of easy-to-digest featurettes. The last featurette deals with editing, sound effects, and music, and Williams gets less than 5 mins. before we flip back to unrelated closing comments from the film's producer, and director.
In fairness to the disc's producers, everything that can possibly be said by Spielberg and Williams regarding their 30+ year friendship and collaborative relationship has been said; so what's left are short interviews, film clips, sound clips, and a feel-good vibe.
But if MGM can engage Jon Burlingame to reflect on Elmer Bernstein's Magnificent Seven, why not grab another notable mind and do a refreshing featurette on Williams' thriller scores, past and present, and their stylistic attributes?
Of course, that would mean including films made by other studios in the purview, and while one could get away with descriptive comparisons between Munich and a gem like Black Sunday (a Paramount title), most studios don't like to acknowledge the existence of a rival's back catalogue.
Whether it's editing, writing, or producing, most featurettes are designed to give extra spin without being controversial. The stark exception is Fox' superbly produced Alien Quadrilogy (see MFTM issue #41), where everyone is quite critical of themselves, others, and people are sometimes a bit grumpy; but those qualities aren't likely to crop up in today's DVD extras, because self-criticism isn't present when the featurettes are shot - during the actual film shoot, while the whole cast & crew are present. Commentaries are often taped close to the film's theatrical debut, so the tone is predictable: people are excited, they' had fun, they're working with idols and icons; and not enough time has elapsed for the group to assess the effects of specific creative decisions.
That, unfortunately, is the nature of the distribution scheme that's yielded shorter times between a film's theatrical and DVD release. Intelligent, meaty extras are sometimes pre-planned, but the studio's addiction to double-dipping the consumer also means a Definitive release is a pipe dream for fans.
The strategy has become not only predictable, but enraging to enlightened consumers, and merchants devoting shelf space to titles already out on DVD within a two year period.
First comes the bare bones release or release with limited extras; then comes the director's cut (often adding a few minutes of useless trims, as Lions Gate's 2-disc Crash release, timed for the Oscar Awards); then comes a super-magic happy deluxe edition with more extras and a substantively different version expanded by the director (basically the version he wanted to release theatrically, but was assuaged by a promised later DVD version).
Unnecessary examples of the Ego Edition or Appeasement Edition include beefed versions of director Tony Scott's Crimson Tide and Man on Fire; Antoine Fuqua (say it firmly!) getting a second shot with Tears of the Sun and King Arthur; Dominic Sena's wretched Gone in Sixty Seconds remake; and Ron Howard's The Missing.
Good examples include sets for the films of directors James Cameron and Ridley Scott - directors who've consistently proven and pushed the boundaries of how much qualitative extras one can include in laserdiscs (Cameron) and DVDs (Scott).
Scott's 4-disc Kingdom of Heaven set from Fox and Columbia's 3-disc beast of Black Hawk Down are exemplary releases for film fans, covering every facet of production... except the scoring. Cameron's multi-disc Titanic set does acknowledge Horner, but it's a feel-good courtesy nod.
Then there's the double-dipping syndrome. Witness Black Hawk Down, which has thus far appeared as a regular single-disc and Superbit edition; a 3-disc expanded Director's Cut; and now as a movie-only Director's Cut, plus an announced Blu-ray disc. That means 5 release of the same movie in 4 years.
James Cameron's T2: Judgment Day originally came out as a stellar laserdisc set in 1993. Most of the contents from that set (including Brad Fiedel's interview) have since appeared on Artisan's 1997 DVD, the 2000 Ultimate Edition, and the 2003 Extreme Edition (housed in a quickly discontinued metal sheath with sharp inner flanges). The same label also went loony between 2001-2003 with Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin's Stargate, releasing separate theatrical, expanded, theatrical + expanded, and expanded version + a new featurette. In neither edition did David Arnold get a nod in one of the 4 editions.
(Then there's indie Anchor Bay, who've released a seemingly endless stream of limited and regular editions of films from the Evil Dead and Halloween franchise, but we've insufficient room to catalogue the whole stream. The only fair comment one can make is that the copyright holders have to say Yes each time a reissue is proposed, so you can't completely fault a label.)
Sequels are often preceded by new special editions that include everything in the original release plus a trailer and sneak peak at the new sequel (as with Universal's Bourne Identity Explosive Edition, or Columbia's Fast & the Furious Tricked Out Edition), and the diptych or triptych are later gathered in a boxed, timed for the Xmas holiday buying madness.
In none of these examples did the composer get anything new, but neither did most of the other key participants. In some cases, like Columbia's anniversary edition of Leon / The Professional, the isolated score was dumped; in cases such as Fox' new 2-disc release of the original Omen, the same Goldsmith interview was ported over, but the isolated score from the laserdisc was ignored again.
Now, these are minor quibbles, and admittedly retentive and restricted to the collector mentality, but over a four year period, MFTM covered 32 composer commentaries in three lengthy print columns (MFTM issues #31/32, #35/36 and #37); since 2004, we've acknowledged 4 of worth: Bodysong, Hellboy, I, Robot, and The Cooler.
So what's happened to the composer? Why has he or she been reduced to a colourful additive in chewable, easy-to-swallow featurettes? How come no one will let a film's musical mind talk a little shop on his/her own track? Is it solely due to a fear that someone will steal the isolated score tracks and fashion a bootleg CD?
Payment issues for the use of music in an isolated track might be a key culprit, whereas bootlegging is less of a new thorn, as 'complete scores' have been floating around the Internet for a few years now; most of these 'complete' MP3 albums are largely score cuts ripped from Dolby mix streams from DVDs, and they contain the reverberating sound effects, dialogue and edits that render them useless for a CD release.
The existence of print and web publications, and the publicists who specialize in arranging actual discussions with composers means there's enough people out there who find the work these men and women do of interest, and of note. Film music publications are managed and staffed by folks who love the art form, but I don't think it's wholly case of a limited market and/or fan base that's considered negligible among DVD producers. If that were the case, we wouldn't get unique release like Hart Sharp's Man With the Golden Arm (bad film transfer, great Elmer Bernstein interview, though), or Criterion's superb Elevator to the Gallows.
Criterion set the standard for assembling extras with the assumption that film fans aren't idiots: they may not care for every aspect of a film's construction, but if you treat as many of those vital components with a scholarly and sometimes lighthearted approach, the end result is a release that entertains, informs, and educates.
The major studios tend to apply the Criterion way to only select blockbusters, modern and old classics - likely because it's a costly venture; indie labels like Anchor Bay, NoShame, Blue Underground, Barrel Entertainment, and many others do it because a) they love the films, and b) each release must be the best they can produce to ensure the label's survival and success for future releases, because they don't have a key asset most of the studios possess: a massive back catalogue of titles, sometimes going back to the Silent era.
Criterion's 2-disc Elevator to the Gallows set includes a 5 min. archival interview with then 26 year old director Louis Malle in the recording booth, while Miles Davis records his improv score, AND a 24 min. appreciation by historian Gary Giddins and legendary musician Jon Faddis (who performs theme extracts to illustrate his sharp points), AND a 15 min. interview with pianist Rene Urtreger - the only surviving musician from the score's improvised recording session. For jazz buffs, this is good stuff, but for film score fans, this is educational and totally accessible.
The major studios know people want to own their favourite films, but there's a tendency to shape a so-called special edition into something light and disposable; it's a brand of built-in obsolescence that leaves ardent fans hungry for the Definitive release, and general fans assuming the new version must be an improvement over the last one, because the packaging is now red, gold, and spine-numbered, and features the star's big head instead of the original art campaign.
Sometimes the trick is a new cardboard sleeve, tin case, or new cover; sometimes it's physically fattening up a release with a standard Alpha case in a slip case that slides into a cardboard sleeve decorated in the original poster art. Perhaps the Ultimate Edition will one day include reproduced quarter-scale vintage campaign art, housed in a mounted plastic sheet that you can hang in your shower stall, kitchen or porch - free from the dangers of bubble suds, splattered gumbo, or spilt Mint Julip from that afternoon porch partee. Huggable, mountable, and embossed with a limited ink-stamped number and signature facsimile with a holographic nose print for authenticity against fakes and bootlegs, it'll be a treasure you can pass on to the grandkids, and flip for tuition money on eBay when collectors will once against bombard the label with petitions for the re-issue of a title that's been rudely neglected and unavailable for six months, two days, eight minutes, and a hiccup.
What it's all about is keeping one's product on the shelves, and timing it to themed releases with one's own sequel, remake, star anniversary, or themed wave.
On a positive note, Warner Bros. recently dipped into the still un-mined RKO catalogue for their new John Ford set, stocked with goodies like The Lost Patrol, and they created a new John Wayne-John Ford set - both of which ride on the coattails of Paramount's recent second wave of Wayne-produced films in the new Batjac Suspense Collection, and the prior Batjac offering of gems like The High and the Mighty, and Island in the Sky.
Universal also cashed-in with their own John Wayne set, dusting off 5 films on two double-sided discs. Included are the same old Goodtimes transfers of The Conqueror (still a wretched bore, but in CinemaScope and stereo) and Jet Pilot. It's a good value for under $25, but there's no new transfers or any extras - missing the chance to document the work of Victor Young and Bronislau Kaper in Conqueror and Jet Pilot, respectively.
To tie in with Columbia's series of vintage Godzilla films, the Emmerich- Devlin remake was repackaged with minor featurettes in a Godzilla Monster Edition that failed to explain to us why a dud needed to return to the New Release wall in video stores. To complete the 'ultimate collection'?
Also tied to the John Ford wave is Warner Bros.' new transfer for the 2-disc set of John Ford's The Searchers (now Ultimate Collector's from the prior 2-disc Anniversary Edition), adding new interviews and some neat-o reproductions of original promo materials... but Max Steiner still didn't get his own featurette. One would think some of the sublime material assembled by the folks at Screen Archives Entertainment and Brigham Young University for the fat booklet that accompanied their definitive CD couldn't have been used for a modest featurette - unless the DVD producers felt the CD fulfilled that requirement on its own for what's still regarded by some as a niche market.
In fairness to a studio's classic DVD releases, sometimes there may be so much archival materials - images, clips, and archival bits from iconic historians - that unkind cuts have to be made in order to present an archival retrospective that still delivers a punch.
The design of a genuine special edition - like Kingdom of Heaven - takes time to produce, and is generally worth the wait; the shorter theatrical cut of Kingdom on DVD really exists because people have been spoiled by tighter release schedules, and that first DVD sale allows people to see a film within 2-4 months after its theatrical run, and rental stores to cash-in on that temporal recognition factor.
The home video date has also been hastened by the availability of a major film via file sharing networks, Torrent sites, and bootlegs sold on major urban streets that are authored from tapings made from projection booths during print test runs prior to the first screenings, audience-level camcorder tapings, or discs taken from images ripped from screeners or edit dubs circulating on the Internet.
Piracy can certainly be signaled as one of the causal effects of fast DVD release dates, but the studios must also believe that an awareness of an imminent or inevitable DVD release means a legit version isn't far off, and that keeps the title in the fan's mind for a while. Witness The Hills Have Eyes remake, in which the DVD and theatrical release dates were announced simultaneously.
That short production schedule for a DVD's extras - arguably assembled during the film's final editing while the director's still engaged - may be one of the key reasons why there's no time to create substantive score-related featurettes; the sexier (and mainstream appeal) of bland actor and special effects featurettes have pushed the composer out of the margin, and into obscurity after what can now be regarded as the golden years of composer commentaries.
To put it bluntly: there just isn't much out there anymore, particularly from the major studio labels. Indies, as we've seen in prior columns, have really made strong efforts to give a composer or score some attention, but it's still a rare occurrence when compared to the endless featurettes and documentaries devoted to sexy visuals, costumes, stunts, and so on.
So, instead of focusing on mere composer mentions in banal featurettes, this column will adapt, and we'll focus on some specific and genuinely notable releases. We'll talk a bit more about how the music functions in the film, and we'll meander a little if it's a movie-only release with a score that deserves attention.
We'll still offer a tally of notable releases with unique content, however, since MFTM's DVD column strives to be the key place where you can find out what rare, cult, classic, and ridiculous extra manages to flatter or offend the integrity of a composer, or score.
Coming in mid-July, web-wise, is a tally of eclectic film music extras by several independent labels, plus an examination of Stelvio Cipriani's recent resurgence, courtesy of several new CD and DVD releases.
Mark R. Hasan (2006)
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