Compared to the newer technological advances that enable us to experience, and participate in, art and culture (television on cell phones, MP3 players, blogging websites), the DVD format appears almost antique. The first DVD players appeared in Japan in 1996, and in the U.S.A. the following year. Since then, DVD has usurped the VHS tape to become the dominant domestic format for watching movies and filmed entertainment.
Yet contained within DVDs is a technical feature that enhances our enjoyment and understanding of film to an unprecedented degree: these are the spare audio tracks that allow optional audio commentaries to be added. For hardcore cineastes and bug-eyed amateur movie buffs like me this is an invention of Guttenburgian proportions. Few technological advances in the realm of art and culture can equal the joy afforded by an articulate and perceptive commentary specially prepared to accompany a movie.
At its best, DVD commentary amounts to a new artform. I was alerted to this during a recent weekend spent enraptured by a DVD-boxed-set of the films of Werner Herzog. The film writer Mark Cousins, in his book The Story of Film, said this about the maverick German director: "After John Ford he is the most important landscape film maker to appear in this history of film." I've loved Herzog's movies since seeing "The Enigma of Kasper Hauser" in the 1970s. Kasper Hauser is an archetypal Herzog tale: it tells the true story of a teenage foundling in 19th-century rural Germany. The real Kasper Hauser was locked in a dungeon at birth and deprived of all human contact until late adolescence, when he was dumped in a small Bavarian town and left to fend for himself. The film is an emotionally supercharged retelling of this famous tale.
As cinematic experiences, Herzog films are ravishing . The mundane plays no part in his fables: Herzog only has eyes for what he calls ecstatic truth moments of visionary reality that defy the rational mind. To make his films, Herzog repeatedly pushed himself to the limits of human endurance. If you're new to Herzog, watch "Aguirre Wrath of God" and you'll be struck by many things, none more so than the realisation that filming this tale of doomed ambition took courage and endurance of barely imaginable proportions.
Yet Herzog's films are not easy. They have plot elisions and moments of logic-defying cinematic sleight-of-hand. Even when making films with historical antecedents, Herzog invents huge chunks of the story. His may be a cinema of landscape, but it is predominantly a cinema of the imagination. He has said: "I've always made it very clear that for the sake of a deeper truth, a stratum of very deep truth in movies, you have to be inventive, you have to be imaginative."
Even with a close reading of Herzog's films you can't hope to understand or grasp every nuance; many of his narrative gestures are so deeply personal and so rooted in childhood experience that only Herzog himself could explain them: this is, as it turns out, precisely what his audio commentaries do. As a lucid and revelatory commentator, he is able to illuminate both the creative process of filmmaking and the labyrinthine business of bringing movies to the screen. The making of films involves a complexity that few art forms can rival, and the conceiving, writing, funding, casting and shooting of even a modest film can often generate its own mythology a mythology that is sometimes as interesting as the film itself. "Apocalypse Now" is perhaps the most celebrated example of this phenomenon: a film whose gestational process was as interesting as the actual movie.
Much of the material we get from DVD audio commentaries is also available in books and articles. Reading the great film writers Pauline Kael, Manny Farber, David Thomson is one of life's great joys. But with this joy comes a small ache: reading about films makes you want to watch them there and then. No matter how good the writing, you want to see the art being described.
But the fusing of words and pictures in DVD audio commentaries creates a potent magic that is rarely achievable in books and articles about cinema. Something special happens when insightful filmmakers talk about their work while we are simultaneously able to view their movies. In a recent Herzog film, the documentary "Grizzly Man," the director provides a commentary not as an optional extra, but, as is customary in documentaries, as an integral part of the film. He does this in typically Herzogian style: no cool detachment for him. In fact, he does it in the style of a DVD audio commentary, clearly influenced by the commentaries he has made for his other films: art imitating art, you might say. And technology allowing us to appreciate the deeper truths of art.