I enjoyed Tim Lucas's commentary for Black Sunday, mainly because the movie itself provides him several opportunities to unpack Bava's ingenious set designs and shot compositions, usually put together with dioramic sleight of hand as the result of a low budget. Lucas can occasionally indulge in too many mini-biographies along the way: "The carriage driver we see here for several seconds is Italian character actor _____, born in ___, who was also in the films _______, ________, and ________." But he was so immersed in Bava's life on his way to producing the massive tome All the Colors of the Dark, he can't help but provide a rich background for this film.
Never having had the chance to look at Lucas' book, I loved hearing his commentaries, especially on Black Sunday and Lisa and the Devil--and just for the reasons you describe. Lucas' unpacking of how the carriage ride was captured in kind of mind-boggling, but his observing little details of story and character are interesting, too. I regret not being able to hear his commentary on Kill, Baby, Kill--a movie just as worthy of elucidation as the other two. I do wish that Lucas was willing to go further with his analysis of Bava--but Lucas does not come across as having very deep intellectual concerns on any of the commentaries. It is fascinating to hear about the ways in which many of the scenes and images from Lisa and the Devil seem to come from Bava's own background and life, but what does that mean for the film itself? Lucas actually refuses to draw any possible conclusions, and so in ways I find his commentaries a little frustrating. But I do think the wealth of biographical information Lucas brings to the table makes up for those limitations.
The Once Upon A Time In China commentary is absolutely awful for such a great film. Logan piles on the usual fascinating information but Mark King really destroys it with his utter lack of interest and unconcealed disdain for the film. Logan valiantly tries to keep asking King about his experiences and including him in the conversation throughout but he is on a hiding to nothing there! Luckily the commentaries for the next two films, where Logan goes solo, are far better.
This. This is just so right. Every time I re-watch the film now, and I see King come on the screen, I find myself gritting my teeth until he is off-screen again. I can no longer separate the character from the guy who plays him, who, thanks to that audio commentary, I now know to be a grade-A *sshole.
I am not a fan of Fincher commentaries so much, which is not to say that they aren't quite illuminating. But I think what they reveal is the shallowness of Fincher's thinking. He's earnest, and he comes across as very superficially quick-witted...but the films and the commentaries both show the level at which Fincher draws the line, and stops analyzing his own creative material. My feeling is that Fincher aspires to make movies the way Alan Pakula did in the 70s, but that he finds the oppressive paranoia and neuroses in those movies glamorous and desirable, and he looks to portray scenes of menace and encroaching darkness because it looks fabulous, rather than because those qualities reflect his own mindset. On his commentaries Fincher comes across as grand in his ambitions, but also as a relatively uncomplicated person: one who wants to appear smart because it's attractive, and wants to be dark because it's cool. Whereas I don't think Pakula enjoyed being a paranoid neurotic. Nor could Pakula fail to have a genuine take on the travails of his place and his era. Fincher is substantially different than this in that, though he also wants to deal with modern issues of substance, his films never reveal a take, a driving direction and motivation, any ideas about people or interest in what happens to them. Both Pakula's films and Fincher's are precisely controlled, but only Pakula manages to modulate his various elements without disrupting that sense of control and direction. Fincher on the other hand often derails his films because a) he's not as interested in story and structure as he is in the look and the various sensational scenes and elements of his films, b) he applies his signature style unremittingly to material that doesn't necessarily merit that approach. The Social Network, for instance, is nearly as dark and sinuous-looking a movie as The Game--should it be? What is the darkness encroaching on all sides of the frame meant to represent in the story of an autistic savant who develops a very popular social-media website?
Fincher never mentions things like this in his commentaries, and I think it reveals that he doesn't notice the need to treat different events with a different level of depth or sensitivity. In fact, his commentaries to me reveal a guy anxious for public praise and success, but also a person who is satisfied, or satiated, once that public acknowledgement is his. The world loves the films of David Fincher, and that is fine with him. It is enough. But it leaves him nowhere near as good a filmmaker as his idol, Pakula--and I don't think Fincher sees this. That's the kind of thing that rubs me wrong about listening to Fincher for 2 1/2 hours at a stretch.