The phenomenology of revisiting movies
|FEATURES - MOVIES|
Play it again, Dude...
Any true film-lover on the dating scene is likely to have experienced, at least one time, this response from a prospective romantic partner when suggesting the viewing of a genuine classic movie:
I've already seen it...
It's a corresponding moment to that one when your date saw the rust on the hubcaps of your car, or the state of your wardrobe, prompting a mental deduction on a theoretical scoreboard. The game's not necessarily lost, but the bookies are definitely rewriting the odds.
Film never changes, but we do. And we who genuinely love movies are the ones who are most annoyed by ads inserted into the prelim stages of DVDs - ads that were meant for 'I've already seen it', who is only ever going to have to watch them once, who has been targeted by the DVD manufacturers as someone who has decided to pay for their one-time-only watch of the movie in the form of a disc instead of a cable subscription or a cinema ticket - and who is only likely to ever see a movie a second time if they happen to be watching TV when both their legs spontaneously break at the very moment that the batteries die in their remote.
But that's not us, is it? We who instead are the targets of new versions of favourite movies that we already own, versions with better transfers, the restoration of 'deleted' scenes or even new commentaries or other additional material. We are the revisitors, the dwellers in celluloid. We have annual dates with The Dude, Darth Vader, the Shawshank exercise yard, Travis Bickle, Kane, Dorothy, and many others.
What's more interesting though is not what happens when we get habituated into the watching of particular movies, but what happens when we leave them alone for a while and then revisit and review as different people. When, as children or young people, we rewatch movies that have multiple levels of meaning or a clandestine 'adult layer' that we missed the first time around - a phenomenon which is likely to keep the experience of their favourite CGI classics fresh for each generation of Pixar fans (for example), as they 'get' the references and in-jokes which went straight over their heads when they were kids (and this alone is enough to make us wonder if 'I've already seen it' really has real partner-potential). Or that occasion where we insist a friend or partner watch a movie that we loved when we saw it, only to find that the film seems dated to us now, or for some other reason has not survived the years well in our estimation.
Even without directors' revisions and new editions, film isn't as 'fixed' or set in stone as logic dictates it should be, and it's not just the classics or the greats which prove to be eye-openers on a rewatch.
Check out Anthony Mann's 1964 epic The Fall of the Roman Empire, and experience the irony that a film which was argued to have killed Hollywood's long love affair with 'sword and sandals' is so unbelievably close in plot, theme, structure and even specific characters to the film that revived it in 2000 (Ridley Scott's Gladiator); having stomped out of John Carpenter's much-derided sequel to Escape From New York (Escape From LA, 1997), go back and observe all the keynote themes it contains for the political scene of the following decade, with its God-obsessed president, religious fundamentalism, plane-sequestering and zero-tolerance - and try and figure what made the great man come up with these things in the light of perhaps the world's most pacific decade in a century, under the care of its most liberal and laid-back president; go back and discover just how much DNA Sylvester Stallone's most popular sci-fi outing (1992's Demolition Man) has in common with his most-criticised (1995's Judge Dredd)...
But these are 'passive' phenomena, dependent on what happens in the period after a film's release. There are deeper surprises in the revisiting of movies that have more to do with our individual expectations - the 'boomerang' syndrome of movie appreciation. Perhaps those who waited 16 years for a new Star Wars movie may understand this best of all; queuing for The Phantom Menace in 1999 was like going up to a canteen with a bowl the size of a bathtub; even if that first prequel had had the much-improved quality of the last (2005's Revenge Of The Sith), it could only have been 'adequate' to the hype. It fell far short, in most fans' estimation, with the follow-up, 2002's Attack Of The Clones, generally deemed only a minor improvement for the sidelining of Jar Jar Binks by (un)popular request.
Even when Revenge Of The Sith proved itself so popular, part of its appeal was in comparison to general critical disappointment in the previous two outings, and no kind of 'absolute' in itself. Film needs a second chance in order to present any more than a surface impression, or to mete out more than its most marketable or obvious aspects.
One of the great cases-in-point is the Coen Bros' The Big Lebowski. Now arguably their most popular work, the adventures of the Dude and company did only tolerably at the box-office on first release. Since the movie's enjoyment value is in constructing an elaborate plot which turns out to be entirely secondary (at best) to what the core value of the film is, there are very few people who are really going to get the most out of the film on first viewing. I'm a huge fan of it myself, and like most Dude-lovers, the enduring feeling at the end of the first watch of TBL was that the plot was a complete shaggy-dog story. It takes one viewing to dispense with Lebowski's narrative entirely and really enjoy the work, but one viewing is all that can be expected in a theatrical run.
Expectation is a terrible obstacle to movie appreciation. Last week I got a check-disc for the new movie from the revived Hammer Film company, Wake Wood. Having been told by our own reviewer that the movie wasn't so hot, and having suffered endless check-discs of imagination-starved horror films featuring 'kids being killed in the woods' over the last three or four years, it was under sufferage and in the lack of anything else to do that I put the film into my player; only to discover that, despite a great many flaws and a fair bit of copying-and-pasting from Pet Sematary, the movie actually has an engaging central idea, as well as considerable atmosphere.
But having been pleasantly surprised, I still have the 'boomerang viewing' to come - the one where having been pleasantly surprised is now the context and benchmark for my second critical appreciation of Wake Wood. And on that occasion, I may well find it wanting. And that's without the passage of time and the context of history.
There are also those films that I so wanted to be good, that I need to check back every few years just to make sure they're as disappointing as I originally found them. For instance, I keep going back to Peter Hyams' 2010 (1985), just to make absolutely certain that it's not a sci-fi masterpiece that was undermined by an absurdly high benchmark (it isn't); every couple of years I rubberneck again the crash-damage of Bryan Singer's Superman Returns (2006), the mediocrity of which baffles me, considering that it had all the advantages of modern CGI, a high budget and a respectful (but ultimately over-reverential) attitude to the 1978 Richard Donner material.
Some movies create such a sensation of hype, negative or positive, that it can take years or even perhaps decades to divorce them from it and appraise them in their own right, and I think Zack Snyder's Watchmen (2009) might be such an example. It may take the subsiding of the continuing craze for superhero movies to really put that movie under any kind of fair critical appraisal.
Returning to John Carpenter, we find another example of prescient themes in his 1982 adaptation The Thing - practically a sci-fi field-study of the sexual paranoia of the late 1980s, the work entered a market that had yet to make any such connection and seemed in the mood for more escapist fare. And while the same year's Blade Runner was living down its own box-office disappointment, gathering fans and critical momentum at late night showings worldwide, The Thing was taking longer to gather steam, since its own unintentional prophecy of selfishness and social disease was still too on-the-nose for those who were living the culture of it.
Nostalgia or curiosity is what usually leads us back to movies that we have already seen, after a certain interval, but the passage of our own lives and of history itself often means we end up watching a film that we weren't expecting to see, and making connections that we weren't counting on when we broke out the popcorn and 'indulged ourselves'.
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