You would think that great theatrical films couldn't be hamstrung by lousy DVDs, just as crummy films couldn't be resuscitated by good ones. But this week's disks, representing the high and low of science fiction, turn that logic on its head.
Paul Schrader's Cat People is perhaps the worst film ever to arrive on DVD with a director's commentary. A remake of a pretty good 1942 film, Cat People has Malcolm McDowell and Nastassja Kinski frolicking in bed with various partners, then going feline and slicing them up. When McDowell and Kinski aren't nude or having sex, they're time-traveling through temporal vortexes to visit an ancient race of leopard people.
In a way, it's mind-blowing that Schrader—who wrote Taxi Driver and directed American Gigolo—wants anything more to do with the risible Cat People. But maybe he's on to something: Awful movies, when you think about it, deserve the deluxe DVD treatment just as much as great ones. By now, we have a pretty good idea why, say, The Godfather was a success, but we have no little or no sense of why Cat People self-immolated.Someone must be held responsible.
And as ashen-faced directors go, Schrader is wonderfully self-flagellating. We learn that a leopard was accidentally killed during one scene. Schrader confesses to on-set tryst with Kinski, which he calls a "mistake." (Take a look at a photo of Reagan-era Kinski. It was no mistake.) The director even admits that the film's interludes with the leopard people don't make any sense, nor do they serve any particular purpose. He says, "If I had just changed the title, I don't think those people would have beaten me up." How wonderful that he volunteered, 20 years later, to be pummeled again.
The makers of Fellowship of the Ring, on the other hand, turned a great film into a bad commercial. The disks' bonus features—endless but uninformative documentaries and ads—are built to sell, sell, sell. Sell the official movie guide; the tie-in video game; the theatrical sequel; even the more souped-up Fellowship DVD, which arrives in November. By the time you've waded through the extras, you're positively grooving on the sweet smell of cross-promotion.
Consider Fellowship's three documentaries and 11 short "featurettes," which look like they've been thrown together by the producers of Entertainment Tonight. There's almost no discussion of the making of the film. Instead, the docs, which played on various TV networks before the film hit theaters, offer what amounts to a preview of the film we already own. If we can't expect them to rise to the level of great movie-making films like Hearts of Darknessor Burden of Dreams, fine, but they should at least give us some non-obvious insights about process. Or better yet, acknowledge that we already own the film.
Making a point again, again, and again The Fellowship documentaries take a few on-set anecdotes and stretch them as thin as taffy. In "Passage to Middle-Earth," we learn that the crew planted vegetables in the little Hobbit gardens to give them authenticity. That's very nice, but then we hear the same anecdote, almost word for word, in "Quest for the Ring," another doc included here. Later, as if being drilled for an exam, we hear it again on the featurette "Finding Hobbiton." The problem isn't just repetition. Instead of dallying in Hobbit gardens, we should be learning about lighting, sound, something interesting.
The theatrical trailers on the DVD have the same problem. Fellowship includes nine of them—three from the theater, six from television. Why? With older films, like The Searchers, the trailers make interesting artifacts. But when the movie is only a few months out of theaters, who cares? Plus, as DVD extras, they seem out of place—imagine if before a theatrical screening of The Fellowship of the Ring you were treated to the trailer of … The Fellowship of the Ring.
Video game or movie? The answer's obvious When New Line isn't selling us the movie we just bought, it's hawking the toy-store tie-ins. One of the documentaries included here ran as an in-store promotion for Houghton-Mifflin, makers of the Official Movie Guide. The second disk includes a preview—i.e., a commercial—for the upcoming Lord of the Rings video game. In it, the programmers boast that you can't tell the difference between the footage from the movie and that from the video game. Actually, you can; click the still at the left to see a clip and judge for yourself.
The disks' best feature is also an ad, though it's a particularly skillful one: a 10-minute preview for Fellowship's sequel, The Two Towers, which arrives in theaters in December. Those 10 minutes, which include interviews with director Peter Jackson and the other filmmakers, contain more technical detail than the hours of "documentary" footage combined. The most tantalizing bit is a look at a computer program that allows the filmmakers to endow digital ogres with their own intelligence, a technique that one day, with any luck, can be reversed and used on the makers of this DVD.
Not until you reach the end of the second disk, do you realize, achingly, that a better Fellowship disk is on the way. The, which arrives in stores Nov. 12, will include four audio commentaries and loads of fresh documentaries. Even more enticing is 30 minutes of new footage that director Peter Jackson has added to the film. Jackson assures us this longer version isn't a "director's cut"—i.e., a shallow excuse to produce another high-dollar disk. No matter. We'll be pining for the new DVD, if only so we can dump this denuded version into the trash.