One of the cable channels was playing Ocean’s Eleven all weekend, and that’s one of those movies I always find myself watching when it comes on (this time, I even went to the shelf and fired up the DVD, so as to avoid commercials). Of course, there are tons of new, never-seen-before things I want to watch. My Netflix queue currently has around 140 movies in it (and this seems to be growing with time, despite the rate at which I go through my rentals). I’ve got a DVD set of Banner of the Stars that I’m only about 1/3 of the way through. My DVR has a couple episodes of the few TV shows I follow queued up for me. Yet I find myself watching Ocean’s Eleven for the umpteenth time. And loving every second of it.
In actuality, I’ve noticed myself doing this sort of thing less and less over the years. When I was younger, I would watch and rewatch certain movies almost daily. There are several movies that have probably moved up into triple digit rewatches (for the curious, the films in this list include The Terminator, Aliens, The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi and Phantasm). Others I’ve only rewatched dozens of times. As time goes on, I find myself less and less likely to rewatch things. I think Netflix has become a big part of that, because I want to get my money’s worth from the service, and the only way to do that is to continually watch new movies. In recent years, I’ve also come to realize that even though I’ve seen way more movies than the average person, there are still a lot of holes in my film knowledge. I do find myself limited by time these days, so when it comes down to rewatching an old favorite or potentially discovering a new one, I tend to favor the new films these days. But I still relapse (focusing on novelty has its own challenges), and I do find myself rewatching movies on a regular basis.
Why is that? There are some people who never rewatch movies, but even with my declining repeat viewings, I don’t count myself among them. Some films almost demand you to watch them again. For instance, I recently watched Andrei Tarkovsky’s thoughtful, if difficult, SF film Solaris. This is a film that seems designed to reveal itself only upon multiple viewings. Tarkovsky is somewhat infamous for this sort of thing, and there are a lot of movies out there that are like that. Upon repeated viewings, these films take on added dimensions. You start to notice things. Correlations, strange relationships, and references become more apparent.
Other films, however, are just a lot of fun to rewatch. This raises a lot of interesting questions. Why is a movie fun even when we know the ending? Indeed, why do some reviewers even include a rating for rewatchability? In some cases we just like spending time with certain characters or settings and don’t mind that we already know the outcome. I’ve made a distinction between these films and the ones that demand multiple viewings, but many of the same benefits of repeat viewings are mutual between the two types of movies. Rewatching a film can be a richer, deeper experience and you start to notice things you didn’t upon first viewing. Indeed, one interesting thing about rewatching movies is that while the movie is the same, you are not. Context matters. Every time we rewatch something, we bring our knowledge and experience (which is always changing) to the table. Sometimes this can be trivial (like noticing a reference or homage you didn’t know about), but I’ve always heard about movies that become more poignant to people after they have children or as they grow older. Similarly, rewatching a movie can transport us back to the context in which we first saw the movie. I still remember the excitement and the spectacle of going to see Batman or Terminator 2 on opening day. Those were fun experiences from my childhood, even if I don’t particularly love either movie. Heck, just the thought of how often I used to rewatch some movies is a fun memory that gets brought up whenever I think about those movies today…
There are also a lot of fascinating psychological implications to rewatching movies. As I mentioned before, we sometimes rewatch movies to revisit characters we consider friends or situations we find satisfying. In the case of comedies, we want to laugh. In the case of horror films, we want to scare ourselves or feel suspense. And strangely, even though we know the outcomes of these movies, they still seem to be able to elicit these various emotions as we rewatch them. For movies that depict true stories, they can feature suspense or fear even when we know how the story will turn out. Two recent, high-profile examples of this are United 93 and Zodiac. Both of those films were immersive enough upon first viewing that I felt suspense at various parts of the story, even though I knew on an intellectual level where both films were heading. David Bordwell has explored this concept thoroughly and references several interesting theories as to why rewatching movies remains powerful:
Normally we say that suspense demands an uncertainty about how things will turn out. Watching Hitchcock’s Notorious for the first time, you feel suspense at certain points-when the champagne is running out during the cocktail party, or when Devlin escorts the drugged Alicia out of Sebastian’s house. That’s because, we usually say, you don’t know if the spying couple will succeed in their mission.
But later you watch Notorious a second time. Strangely, you feel suspense, moment by moment, all over again. You know perfectly well how things will turn out, so how can there be uncertainty? How can you feel suspense on the second, or twenty-second viewing?
Here’s one theory he covers:
…in general, when we reread a novel or rewatch a film, our cognitive system doesn’t apply its prior knowledge of what will happen. Why? Because our minds evolved to deal with the real world, and there you never know exactly what will happen next. Every situation is unique, and no course of events is literally identical to an earlier one. “Our moment-by-moment processes evolved in response to the brute fact of nonrepetition” (Experiencing Narrative Worlds, 171). Somehow, this assumption that every act is unique became our default for understanding events, even fictional ones we’ve encountered before.
He goes into a lot more detail about this theory and others in his post. Several of the theories he covers touch on what I find most interesting about the subject, which is that our brain seems to have compartamentalized the processing of various data. I’m going to simplify drastically for effect here, but I think the general idea is right (I’m not a nuerologist though, so take it with a grain of salt). When processing visual and audio data, there is a part of the brain that is, for lack of a better term, stateless. It picks up a stimulus, immediately renders it (into a visual or audio representation) then shuttles it off to another part of the brain which interprets the output. This interpretation seems to be where our brain slows down. The initial processing is involuntary and unconscious and it doesn’t take other data (like memories) into account. We don’t have to consciously think about it, it just happens. Something similar happens when we first begin to interpret data. Our brain seems to be unconsciously and continually forming different interpretations and then rejecting most of them. The rejected thoughts are displaced by new alternatives which incorporate more of our knowledge and experience (and perhaps this part happens in a more conscious fashion). We’ve all had the experience of thinking something that almost immediately disturbed us because we wonder where that thought came from. Bordwell gives a common example (I’ve read about this exact example at least three times from different people):
Standing at a viewing station on a mountaintop, safe behind the railing, I can look down and feel fear. I don’t really believe I’ll fall. If I did, I would back away fast. I imagine I’m going to fall; perhaps I even picture myself plunging into the void and, a la Björk, slamming against the rocks at the bottom. Just the thought of it makes my palms clammy on the rail.
So perhaps one reason it doesn’t matter that we know how a movie will turn out is that there is a part of us that is blindly processing data without incorporating what we already know. Another reason we still feel emotions like suspense during a movie we’ve seen before is because we can imagine what would happen if it didn’t turn out the way we know it will. In both cases, there is a conscious intellectual response which can negate our instinctual thoughts, but such responses seem to happen after the fact (at which point, you’ve already experienced the emotion in question and can’t just take it back). One of the most beautiful things about laughter is that it happens involuntarily. We don’t (always) have to think about it, we just do it. Dennis Miller once wrote about this:
The truth is the human sense of humor tends to be barbaric and it has been that way all along. I’m sure on the eve of the nativity when the tall Magi smacked his forehead on the crossbeam while entering the stable, Joseph took a second away from pondering who impregnated his wife and laughed his little carpenter ass off. A sense of humor is exactly that: a sense. Not a fact, not etched in stone, not an empirical math equation but just what the word intones: a sense of what you find funny. And obviously, everybody has a different sense of what’s funny. If you need confirmation on that I would remind you that Saved by the Bell recently celebrated the taping of their 100th episode. Oh well, one man’s Molier is another man’s Screech and you know something thats the way it should be.
Indeed, humor generally disappates when you try to explain it. You either get it or you don’t.
I could probably go on and on about this, but Bordwell has done an excellent job in his post (there’s an interesting bit about mirror neurons, for instance), and unlike me, he’s got lots of references. I do find the subject fascinating though, and I began wondering about the impact of people rewatching movies so often. After all, this is a somewhat recent trend we’re talking about (not that people didn’t rewatch movies before the advent of the VCR and DVD, but that technology has obviously increased the amount of rewatching).
We’re living in an on-demand era right now, meaning that we can choose what we want to watch whenever we want (well, we’re not quite there yet, but we’re moving quickly in that direction). If I want to rewatch Solaris a hundred times and analyze it like the Zapruder film, I’m free to do so (and it might even be a rewarding effort). In the past, things weren’t necessarily like that though. James Berardinelli recently wrote about rewatching movies, and he provides some interesting historical context:
30 years ago, if you loved a movie, re-watching it involved patience and hard work. A big Hollywood picture might show up in prime time (ABC regularly aired the James Bond movies on Sunday nights) but smaller/older films were relegated to late night or weekend afternoon showings. Lovers of High Noon (for example) might have to wait a couple of years and religiously check TV listings before being rewarded by its appearance on “The Million Dollar Movie” at 12:30 am some night.
One reason why pre-1980 movie lovers are generally better educated in cinema than their post-1980 counterparts is that TV-based movie watching in the ’60s and ’70s meant seeing what was provided, and that typically covered many genres and eras of film. I can recall watching a silent film (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) on a local station one afternoon in 1977. When was the last time a silent movie aired on any over-the-air television station? The advent of video in the early 1980s and its rapid adoption during the middle of the decade allowed viewers to “program” their home movie watching. They could now see what they wanted to see rather than what was on TV.
Again, this trend has continued, and the degree to which you can program your viewing schedule is ever increasing. Even during the 1980s when I was growing up, I found myself beholden to the broadcast schedules more often than not. Sure I could tape things with a VCR, but I usually found myself browsing the channels looking for something to watch. There was a certain serendipity to discovering movies in those days. I distinctly remember the first time I saw a Spaghetti Western (For a Few Dollars More), getting hooked, and watching a bunch of others (Cinemax was running a series of them that month). The last time I remember something like that happening was about 5-6 years ago when I caught an Italian horror marathon on some cable movie channel. And the only reason I watched that was because I had seen Suspiria before and wanted to watch it again. It was followed by several Mario Bava films that were very interesting. Today, I look back on some of the films I watched in my childhood, even ones I cherished, and I wonder why I ever bothered to watch it in the first place. It was probably becaues nothing else was on. The advent of digital cable has changed things as well because digital cable doesn’t encourage blind television surfing. There’s a program guide built right in, so you can browse that to find what you want. Unfortunately, that means you could skip right over something you would otherwise like (and that may have caught your eye if you saw a glimpse of it). There’s also a lot more to choose from (perhaps leading to a paradox of choice situation).
Of course, there are other ways for film lovers to discover new films they wouldn’t otherwise have watched. On a personal level, listening to various film podcasts, especially Filmspotting and All Movie Talk (which is sadly now defunct, though still worth listening to if you love movies), has been incredibly helpful in finding and exploring various genres or eras of film that I had not been acquainted with. One effective technique that Filmspotting has employed is the use of marathons, in which they watch 5-6 movies from a genre or filmmaker they are not particularly familiar with. Of course, this, too, is subject to the whims of listeners – many (including myself) will avoid films that don’t have an immediate appeal. Still, I’ve found myself playing along with several of their marathons and watching movies I don’t think I would ever watch on my own.
One interesting film experiment is currently being conducted by a blogger named Matthew Dessem. He wanted to learn more about foreign films and found that the Criterion Collection was an interesting place to start. It contains a good mix of the old, new, foreign, and independent, and it goes in a somewhat random order. He started writing a review for each movie at his blog, The Criterion Contraption. He’s about 80 or so movies into the collection, and his reviews are exceptionally good (apparently the product of about 15 hours of work each). In an interview, Dessem explains his reasoning for watching the collection in order and why he writes reviews for each one:
I began writing about the films simply as a way of keeping myself intellectually honest: thinking about how each movie was supposed to work, paying attention to what was effective and what was not. Given the chance to not engage with a difficult film, I’ll usually take it, unless I have to come up with something coherent to say about it.
Later in the interview, he expands on why he watches the films in the order Criterion put them out:
Mostly, it keeps me honest. If I had the choice to watch the films in any order, I would quickly jump to all the films I most want to see, and never get around to the ones that seem less interesting. That means I’d miss out on a lot of discoveries, which was one of my main goals to begin with. But jumping around from country to country and decade to decade has its own rewards: like any good 21st century citizen, I have a pretty good case of apophenia, so I’ll often see connections that don’t exist between films.
I can definitely see where he’s coming from. Looking through the catalog of Criterion, I see a lot of movies that I’d probably skip if I didn’t require myself to watch them in order (as it is now, I’ve seen somewhere around 10% of the movies, and there’s no particular order I’ve gone in – I sorta fell into the trap where I “quickly jump to all the films I most want to see, and never get around to the ones that seem less interesting”. Except, of course, I haven’t decided to watch all the Criterion Collection movies.) Indeed some of the movies I have seen, I probably wouldn’t recommend except in certain circumstances (for example, I wouldn’t recommend Equinox to anyone but die-hard horror fans).
However, while there are ways for us film lovers to seek out and expand our knowledge of film, I do wonder about the casual moviegoers. Is the recent trend of remakes (or reimaginings or whatever they call them these days) partially the result of this phenomenon? I wonder how many of the younger generation saw Rob Zombie’s limp remake of Halloween and then sought out the brilliant original? That is perhaps too high-profile of an example. How about the original Ocean’s Eleven? As it turns out, I have not seen that movie, despite loving the remake. I’ve added it to my Netflix queue. It rests at position 116 right now, which means I’ll probably get to it sometime within the next five years. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to rewatch The Empire Strikes Back. It is my destiny.
Update: Added some screenshots from movies I’ve watched a bazillion times. Also just want to note that while I spent most of my time talking about movies here, the same goes for books and music. I don’t tend to reread books much (perhaps due to the time commitment reading a book takes), but on the other hand, music gets better with multiple listenings (so much so that no one even questions the practice of listening to music multiple times).