Traffic: The Criterion Collection
USA Films Home Entertainment
Starring Michael Douglas, Benecio Del Toro, Don Cheadle,
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Review by D.K. Holm
I. Mysteries Solved
Well, now we know what Stephen Soderbergh was doing during the summer of 2001. He was recording an audio commentary track to Traffic.
The original film came out in late 2000; won some Oscars in April of the following year; and enjoyed DVD release in April of 2001 (inspiring my first review of Traffic on the DVDJ). When the first disc from USA Home Entertainment failed to have much in the way of extras beyond a "making-of" featurette, the trailer and TV spots, there was a general feeling within the interested DVD community that perhaps Soderbergh was planning a special edition later on. The lack of at least an audio commentary track was later assumed to be because Soderbergh was off recording a commentary track with Mike Nichols for the excellent DVD of Catch-22. Meanwhile, Acorn released a two-disc set of the original British television miniseries Traffik. Then Criterion announced that it was releasing a two-disc version of Soderbergh's Traffic. Well, the set is finally here, and it is everything that fans of the film and connoisseurs of Criterion discs could want, and more.
This is good news all around. Criterion's release adds to our understanding of the film; it contributes yet another sterling addition (spine number 151) to the Criterion catalog; and gives the reviewer a chance to answer some questions posed by previous viewings.
Having now watched Traffic six times in the last three days, and having read the screenplay and various contemporaneous reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, including Staxx Flixburg's script review published online in March of 2000 (and now removed from the Internet: memo to web-slingers: always print out stuff you really like), and power-chaptered through the British miniseries, I can safely say that I have the most authoritative knowledge of Traffic within my circle of friends.
Thus elements that were once confusing to me now become clear. I now know for certain who killed Frankie Flowers and why in more detail (he is assassinated by a character named Tigrillo [Yul Vaquez] of the Obregón cartel in revenge for snitching on Obregón members to Madrigal cartel stooge General Salazar [the brilliantly wacko Tomas Milian]). That that portion of the film ever confused me now seems odd, given that so many viewings of the picture have placed it almost beyond criticism. At the time, a conversation between director Steven Soderbergh and writer Stephen Gaghan that served as a preface to the published screenplay seemed to indicate that they, too, were confused about that sequence, much as Howard Hawks and Raymond Chandler couldn't understand a crucial moment in The Big Sleep. Re-reading the interview, it seems that in fact they were simply dissatisfied with the Flowers death sequence because it represented for them something of a clumsy, perhaps overly dramatic way of disposing of a character.
Familiarity breeds affection. Yes, Traffic is mostly a collection of almost TV-level clichés derived from crime stories the two cop buddies, one of whom dies; the bigwig whose own daughter, unbeknownst to him, is more or less a criminal; the naive search for the daughter. But Soderbergh's technique (hand-held camera, Godardian jump-cuts; raw acting) gives a level of verisimilitude to the subject that makes it transcend its (literally) TV-show material. Yes, Harrison Ford, originally cast in the Michael Douglas role, might have affected better the Republican stolidity of the character. But watching Douglas more and more, he seems very, very good in the part. Yes, the prominent-father / troubled-daughter story seems to back off of despair; but it nevertheless has its virtues, one of which is showing that, yes, kids are drawn to drugs because they can be fun.
Watching the film again with much more attention helps the viewer to isolate some exquisitely beautiful moments, moments of almost visceral physical pleasure. The way Miguel Ferrer's eyes dart back and forth between Guzman and Cheadle; the way James Brolin tells the Kruschev story; the look on Del Toro's face as he enters the gay bar, and the way he holds his gun behind his right hip when he is chasing crooks through the streets of Tijuana. The rhyming, counterpoint tears of Erika Christensen and Catherine Zeta-Jones, and the shot of Zeta-Jones driving away from the police station after her husband has been arrested. The way Zeta-Jones resembles Bardot; the eeriness of the Juarez cartel using the symbol "911" for its packaging. There are scores of such moments in Traffic, making it one of the few films from its year that one can watch again and again.
II. The DVD
The Criterion Collection has done a gratifyingly detailed job with its two-disc version of Traffic. Essentially, it is a thorough account of the making of the film.
Disc One offers the movie and three audio commentary tracks, with an animated menu that divides the film into 69 chapters (one more than the USA disc, but here the final chapter is color bars). Many of the chapter titles have been changed.
- The Transfer: The packing tells us that this widescreen transfer (anamorphic 1.85:1) is "a new digital transfer ... created from a 35mm interpositive using a Spirit Datacine." Frankly, it looks not unlike the USA transfer. A comparison of the USA disc with the CC disc on chapters 20 and 22 shows scratches, pops, and dust marks in the same spots. A general assessment would begin with the statement that this is not a pristine transfer of the film. It's not bad, but it is somewhat below the high standards frequently associated with Criterion.
- The Audio: The production notes also explain that "at the request of the director, English subtitles for the Spanish sequences are presented as they were on the U. S. film prints, rather than as optional subtitles." The film comes with two audio options, the Dolby Digital 5.1 theatrical mix, and a Dolby 2.0 Surround mix with reduced dynamic range. Both are fine; the audio, as Soderbergh explains on his commentary track, uses non-stereo dialogue, placing it in the center.
- Soderbergh and Gaghan's commentary track: The first of the three commentaries on this disc is a cozy chat between Soderbergh and Gaghan. Their conversation alternates between how they filmed and what the scenes mean. The two men obviously admire each other and get along well. Soderbergh is the more sardonic and self-critical of the two; it's easy to see that people might "take him wrong" at times, but nevertheless he seems to be popular in Hollywood and produces lots of movies as well as directs them. Gaghan is discreetly personal at times about what he had to go through in writing this script. There are a few things left out of this track, however. One is the deletion of the name of the school from a brief moment in chapter 20. Caroline Wakefield is asked if she goes to school, and she says yes. In the theatrical release she says "Cincinnati Country Day." This is a real school, and the trustees asked the studio to delete the phrase, since it might give the school a bad name (not unlike Alan Ladd's name being deleted from the list of suicides in Curtis Hanson's Wonder Boys). It doesn't really harm the film, but it is interesting to know. In any case, neither Soderbergh nor Gaghan mention it. On the other hand, they acknowledge influences, from All the President's Men to Hardcore. At one point Soderbergh says that the scene where Tigrillo threatens Helena's son is the worst-directed scene in the film. This is a pretty important track for budding filmmakers; however, you can know too much, and I sort of resent the fact that I now know that the meeting scene between Wakefield and Salazar was not in Mexico but in a Los Angeles bank.
- The producers' commentary track: Well, if you produce an Oscar-winning film, you get to be on the Criterion disc, even if you really don't have anything to say. Zwick and Herskovitz pat each other on the back. Laura Bickford talks about Amy Irving's hair (chicks, man). The best part of this track is the presence of D.E.A Chief of Intelligence Craig Chretien, who also has a small part in the film, as himself; he is affably critical of the law-enforcement techniques shown in the film (such as shooting Eduardo Ruiz in the foot: "They probably would have got in trouble for that.") He told Soderbergh, for example, that security was too lax for the scene where the car-bomb goes off, and Soderbergh's reply was that if he were to do it correctly, it would add four days to the shooting schedule.
- The composer's commentary track: One of the best features on the set, and one of the best audio tracks in a long while, is Cliff Martinez's commentary, with isolated music-score elements. His account of the music and of his career is thorough, detailed, and fascinating. Afterwards you feel inspired and want to go out and become a composer yourself, it sounds so easy and fun. Hearing the music in isolation also allows the listener to appreciate just how good it is, in a score that sounds not unlike David Julyan's for Memento.
The second disc is packed. It amounts to about three hours worth of material. Those of us who have complained recently about the superficiality and meaninglessness of most supplementary materials on DVD will be gratified to know that the Traffic material maintains the high standards of previous Criterion discs and the best of the major studio releases.
- Deleted Scenes: Aside from the commentary tracks the most significant extra in this set are the 25 deleted scenes, amounting to about 27 minutes of additional footage. It is presented as if just snipped out of the film, in widescreen (and even with subtitles). These scenes are a rare example of deletions that, for the most part, could be easily re-inserted back into the film. Soderbergh says at one point on the optional commentary track accompanying these scenes that if he knew the film was going to be so popular he would have kept some of them in. It's like that fabled line from Mario Puzo: If he knew that The Godfather was going to be a bestseller, he would have written it better.
Most of these scenes will be familiar to readers of the published screenplay, where almost all of them can be found. The two main victims of the cuttings are the Helena-Arnie arc of scenes, and the end of the Benicio Del Toro story arc. In the first, we see more slowly how Helena grows mired in the work of her husband. These scenes make it more plausible that she would take the reins of the business, as the woman in the source miniseries also does. However, there is a line in the film as it stands that does suggest that Helena comes from rough roots and that the transition to mob boss is not that much a stretch for her. I'd be happy to have them all back in. On the other hand, the tone of the Benicio story arc would have been drastically changed ("tarnished" in the word of Gaghan) from the way it ended up in the movie. According to these scenes, Javier ends up as the assistant to the new Mexican drug czar, but also compromised and co-opted by the Obregón family; he is reduced back to being a chauffeur for Salma Hayek, now seemingly a moll inherited by the Obregóns. Even worse, the only way that Javier gets his night-lights for the baseball park is by selling his soul to the Obregóns.
The deleted scenes from the film are as follows:
Manolo's Anxiety Escalates a lengthy scene in which Del Toro's partner freaks out in his apartment;
Javier Warns Manolo, a dialogue scene just after the previous one;
Surveillance, the original first intro to Frankie Flowers, in a scene borrowed from Steven Prince scene in Taxi Driver ;
Old Friends, a nice scene in which Ayala's attorney (Peter Riegert) spars with Wakefield at the cocktail party;
Legalization, another good moment in which the idea of national, even global legalization is broached by Wakefield's daughter in a car ride home from the airport;
Auction, a scene that shows how Zeta-Jones's character is treated by high society;
Arnie Comforts Helena;
Madrigal's Mistress and Manolo, a bit of comedy by a very funny Hayek, who plays a very dumb and very selfish girl;
Helena Wants to Help, a prison scene;
Art Appraisal, in which Helena tries to sell some art;
Helena Gets Involved;
Robert's Lunch with Seth, a key scene between father and the youth who has corrupted his daughter;
Helena Asks to Meet Obregón, another scene with Arnie;
Factory, in which Helena visits the place where the toys that hide cocaine are to be made, which fleshes out her husband's scheme a little more and charts her descent;
Robert Finds Caroline's Drugs, which originally ended with Wakefield smoking crack (that part was never filmed);
Obregón Tests Helena, a continuation of their meeting, which leads to the next scene;
Helena Searched at Border, a suspense scene;
Arnie Comes Through, Helena's clever solution to the challenge from Obregón;
Helena's Meeting at Fun Zone, the conclusion of this story arc, and more tying together with the early part of the movie by using the same location where Ruiz is caught;
Robert Drives Caroline Home, again in the script, with Caroline babbling nonsensically and breaking her father's heart;
Javier Makes Obregón an Offer, the downward turn of Del Toro's character;
Robert Meets Javier, a moment of rare truth in Mexico;
Madrigal's Mistress and Javier;
Montel Continues Surveillance, and finally, a blooper moment in which Soderbergh plays a trick on one of his cast members.
- Film editing demonstration: Editor Stephen Mirrione walks us through the editing of four scenes in this segment. The four scenes are: the overdose scene (5 min.), presented with all the complexities of choice an editor faces; "Caroline is Caught" (5 min.), which offers two versions, one solely from Michael Douglas's viewpoint, and the one that ended up in the movie, which cuts to Christensen in the bathroom; "Javier Meets the DEA" (just under 2 min.), which dwells on jump-cuts. Since Godard "introduced" the jump-cut in the late '50s, Traffic is perhaps the ultimate utilizing of the jump-cut to help create a relationship between the film and the audience; and "Montel Visits the Ayalas" (4 min.), which comes in three versions. This feature is in multi-angle and comes with an instruction screen. It helps to be familiar with what a timeline looks like on an Avid computer screen layout. Mirrione's commentary is clear, precise, and in a way inspiring. This sequence helps in making the viewer realize how difficult editing is.
- Dialogue editing demonstration: Supervising sound editor and re-recording mixer Larry Blake also discusses four scenes in this 13 minute segment. It begins with two screens of text that offer a primer on dialogue editing, and then two screens that explain how the dialogue for Traffic was recorded and edited. The four scenes are "The Radio in the Desert," explaining how the noise from a radio was excised from a crucial scene; "Two Guys Running" tells how they cleaned up Luis Guzman and Don Cheadle running; "ADR as a Clean Up Tool," shows how clothing noise was removed from a scene between Dennis Quaid and Catherine Zeta-Jones; and "ADR as a Plot Point Tool," in which a line looped in after the fact clarifies the connection between Salazar and the Juarez cartel. Again, with this supplement it helps to be familiar with what an Avid computer screen layout looks like, and again, this one feature really emphasizes how much hard work sound editing is; Blake says that by the end of the process, he and his team have analyzed virtually every frame of the film.
- Additional Footage: This segment offers extended, unedited footage from four scenes: a press conference/ slide show in EPIC (3 min. in three angles), with an explanatory screen; unused tracking shot footage that takes a tour of the holdings in a D.E.A drug warehouse (7 min.), with commentary by D.E.A Chief of Intelligence Craig Chretien, who also alludes to security and disposal precautions; additional footage (24 min. worth) of the cocktail party scene, with three camera multi-angles of Governor William Weld, Senator Barbara Boxer, Chris Connelly, Sen. Don Nickles, general party mingling footage, Jeff Podolsky and Sen. Harry Reid, Helen Tomas, Ethan Nadelmann (a legalization advocate), a discussion of prisons and casinos, Sens. Orin Hatch and Charles Grassley, and finally "Prozac vs. Ecstasy," all preceded by an explanatory screen of text; and "Kids on the Street" (about 2 min.), which shows the two kids going to score drugs while a band plays; this is presented in three takes; takes one and two have two angles.
- Trailers: The U.S. teaser trailer, the theatrical trailer, and five TV spots. The spots are about 30 seconds long.
- K-9 Trading Cards This is a cute feature that offers 99 "trading cards" featuring the drug sniffing dogs of the U. S. Customs Service. One is named Schrader (after the director?) and the last one is named Zappa. Each card is shown, and the back gives the history of the dog and its greatest bust. An introductory screen explains the Canine Enforcement Training Center, initiated in 1970.
Traffic remains a four-star film, made even more valuable by the excellent job that Criterion as done with this special edition.
- Single-sided, dual-layered disc
- Anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1)
- Dolby Digital 5.1 theatrical mix
Dolby 2.0 Surround, reduced dynamic range home-video mix
- English subtitles
- Commentary track with director Steven Soderbergh and writer Stephen Gaghan
- Commentary track with producers Edward Zwick, Marshall Herskovitz, and Laura Bickford, plus consultants New York Times reporter Tim Golden and D.E.A Chief of Intelligence Craig Chretien
- Commentary track with composer Cliff Martinez
- Animated, musical menu with 69-chapter scene-selection
- Single-sided, dual-layered disc
- Widescreen (1.85:1) and full-frame (1.33:1)
- DD 2.0
- English subtitles
- Twenty-five deleted scenes with optional director and writer commentary
- Film processing demonstration
- Editing demonstration with commentary by editor Stephen Mirrione
- Dialogue editing demonstration with sound editor Larry Blake
- Extended footage of the El Paso Intelligence Center with multi-angle
- Extended footage of the D.C. cocktail party with multi-angle
- Theatrical trailer and television spots
- U.S. Customs K-P corps trading cards
- Eight page folding production notes
- Dual-DVD keep-case
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