This is the first installment in a new series that will take stock of the bonus features on newly issued DVDs. Future columns will assess disks like Lord of the Rings (due Aug. 6) and Singin' in the Rain (due Sept. 24).
Wes Anderson, the director of The Royal Tenenbaums, has a seriously unhealthy obsession with sets and props. The initial reviews of his third film hinted at this, but the two-disk Tenenbaums DVD—assembled by Anderson and issued this month by the Criterion Collection—proves it. Among the many hours of bonus footage, you can watch as the director tromps endlessly around his New York set, mooning over the carpet and the paint and the fixtures and the wallpaper. "When the actors come into this house, what we've created," he gushes, "it couldn't help them more." By contrast, we see him directing real, live actors only twice.
The Tenenbaums DVD has all the basics: director's commentary, a behind-the-scenes documentary, interviews with the actors. But it's worth buying primarily for its enormous dose of Andersonian weirdness: a browsing feature that lets you examine the director's favorite sight gags, an episode-length parody of Charlie Rose, and footage of one of the film's minor characters entertaining the crew by twirling plates. Good DVDs are like appendages of their films. The Tenenbaums DVD is so awash in the director's oddities that it could almost serve as the film's last reel.
Take, for instance, Anderson's poke at the New York Times Magazine. In the film, the character Eli Cash, a gonzo cowboy novelist, appears on the cover of something called the Sunday Magazine Section—but it's the Times all the way, from the title font to the black-and-white cover photo. The magazine appears for only a second or two in the movie—one character is paging through it—and you almost skip over it. But the longer look you get on the DVD reveals that it's a withering parody. Cash is pictured bare-chested and clutching a headless snake in each hand, as the Times ian headline proclaims him the "James Joyce of the West."
Click the still to see Larry Pine's dead-on impression of Charlie Rose On the second disk, Anderson also provides a full episode of The Peter Bradley Show, his in-film parody of Charlie Rose. In the movie it's a throwaway gag, seen playing in a single scene. But the Bradley character—as played by actor Larry Pine —has Rose's mannerisms down so cold that it's worth the DVD-only episode here. Note Bradley's Roseian slouch, the windy intro, and the way he mangles the name of Anderson's first feature, Bottle Rocket.
The disks don't just display Anderson's strange gags, they also explain them. In the commentary track, Anderson ticks off the films and TV shows that inspired scenes in Tenenbaums. The list includes The Magnificent Ambersons, Les Enfants Terrible, Witness, and The Rockford Files. The second disk lets us scroll through some of the original pages of the Tenenbaums script, co-written by Anderson and actor Owen Wilson. Anderson's doodle-pictures—his early attempts at designing his intricate sets—lurk in the margin.
There's also plenty of revealing behind-the-scenes footage. In an Independent Film Channel documentary, included on the second disk, Anderson tells one of his charges that he wants as many of the scenic elements as possible made from scratch, to ensure that audiences will have never seen them before on film. The assistant smiles weakly, perhaps sensing long nights ahead. In another scene, Anderson attempts to choreograph the performance of a hawk. In the film, the hawk is returning to its owner after a long absence. Anderson wants the hawk to hover a foot above the owner's outstretched arm, flap its wings majestically, then land. The falconer looks at him like he's insane.
Click the still to watch Pallana twirling plates Other features are completely random and, hence, completely Andersonian. At various places on the disks, we learn the story of Kumar Pallana, a wizened Indian yoga teacher whom Anderson has cast in all three of his features. (The director confides that Pallana's Tenenbaums performance, in which he plays a manservant, is his "most ambitious to date.") We also find out that Pallana is a lifelong entertainer, an accomplished magician and juggler. To prove it, Anderson includes grainy footage of Pallana twirling plates—though it's almost hidden in one of the menus. I'm not sure why it's there, but it's mesmerizing.
Criterion—which, including Tenenbaums, has produced 165 DVD titles—has developed a cult following, even inspiring online rumor pages where fans try to guess which titles the company will release next. Part of this slavish devotion stems from Criterion's technical proficiency. Tenenbaums, for example, gets a faultless anamorphic wide-screen transfer—which means the picture will stretch to fill a digital TV. The disk offers three different audio tracks for the film, and Anderson obviously prepared well for his commentary track; there are none of the long, awkward pauses you get with, say, a Robert Altman DVD.
But Criterion's real strength is that its disks fit snugly with its films. So many major-studio DVDs—trimmed with trailers for other films and useless video games—seem slapped together by studio marketing wizards. The Tenenbaums DVD is at least authentic. If you don't like the film, you can still appreciate the fact that it's Anderson, and not some anonymous Disney apparatchik, who is trying to explain himself.