There have recently been a spate of articles and blog posts discussing whether certain movies require multiple viewings. It’s all spurred by Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, a film that many critics and cinephiles have claimed requires multiple viewings in order to reveal its many layers and ultimate meanings. Dana Stevens wrote about watching the film three times, and how that made the experience of The Master a more complete one. Stephanie Zacharek wrote a piece at the AV Club questioning the notion that certain films require multiple viewings as well as the notion that certain film are more self-evidently deserving of such treatment. Today, Ryan McNeil wrote a post comparing re-watching movies to listening to a song over and over before finally falling in love with it.
I saw The Master twice. I’m biased immediately. In fact, I watch lots of movies twice, sometimes three times, sometimes even more, often seeing films multiple times in theatres. I also saw Looper twice. I saw The Dark Knight Rises five times, including three times in 15/70mm IMAX. I saw Paranorman twice, Brave twice, Prometheus twice, Moonrise Kingdom three times, The Avengers twice, Monsieur Lazhar twice, 21 Jump Street three times, The Cabin in the Woods twice, and that’s all re-watches in theatres and only this year so far. (To be fair, I work at a theatre, so most of these re-watches were free.) But why would I watch these movies so many times? What do I get out of re-watches?
Of course, there are many reasons I will re-watch films. In almost every case it’s a movie I enjoyed and would’ve wanted to see again at some point any way. For some of the films, like The Avengers, for example, a lot of it has to do with seeing the movie with a new group of friends who haven’t already seen it. Sometimes, as with The Dark Knight Rises, I just want to get the grand theatrical experience of it before it’s relegated to Blu-ray. Prometheus is a funny example of a film that I was mixed on and liked even less the second time, but I went for the re-watch just to soak in the beautiful 3D visuals. 21 Jump Street was so damn funny I wanted to see it again and again. I saw The Master twice because the first time through I felt I’d loved it, but in my mind I was still working through the thematic complexity of it all. A second viewing was necessary less for the seeing it again (though that was nice, too) but almost as an aide to my mental processing of the film, a process which also included reading various essays and have discussions with others who’d seen it.
Of course, none of this includes DVD and Blu-ray (or now Netflix streaming). I watched No Country for Old Men five times in the cinema, and I’ve watched it way more times at home. I can’t get enough of it. Some movies are like that. I only watched JJ Abrams’ Star Trek once in the theatre, but I’ve probably watched it close to fifteen times at home. But No Country and Star Trek are completely different films, and I’ll readily admit that my main reasons for re-watching each are completely different. I’ll watch No Country over and over because I find new depth in it each time out, whereas I re-watch Star Trek because it’s so damn fun and energetic.
One of the most common responses I hear to the amount of re-watching I do is that I’m crazy. That’s pretty much an across-the-board reaction. When it comes to cinephiles, though, I often hear another response: why would you re-watch a movie so many times when you could take that time to watch something you haven’t seen before?
Why don’t I watch something new? Well, I do watch new things. I watch new releases, I go to film festival, I watch classic films. I watch a lot. I could probably watch a lot more, and I know many people who do. There are people who almost never re-watch films, almost on principle, because they’d rather experience a new story or new characters every time they sit down to watch a movie. I understand where they’re coming from, and I respect them for it, but I just can’t do that.
I love re-watching films, and not just for all those specific reasons I stated above. Yes, some films benefit thematically from re-watches. Some films become more comprehensible the second time. Sometimes you pick up little details. Sometimes you just really like the characters and you want to see them again. At the core of it all, though, is one unshakeable impulse: I love to immerse myself in stories.
Watching and experiencing new stories is great. It exposes you to new ideas and new characters and new ways of thinking and it’s often just fun to expand your horizons, especially through film. But if that’s all I cared about, if all I wanted from cinema was to take in as many stories and narratives and character arcs as possible, I could probably get the same personal value by browsing random pages on Wikipedia all day (something I’ve been known to do, by the way). That’s not to diminish what other people gain from only watching films once, but for me, it’s just too much. Too much information, often going into my brain and getting lost in there. I’ve seen all sorts of films once, films I remember loving that one time, but now they exist as a sort of distant memory. I experienced them, took them in, but then I checked them off and filed them away. That’s valuable, but it’s not nearly fulfilling enough for me.
The best stories are the stories I want to live in. I want to be a part of them and make them a part of me. Re-watches do that for me. I’ve seen Back to the Future an ungodly number of times. Let’s pretend that it’s 50 times. At two hours long, that’s easily 49 other films I could’ve watched that I’d never seen. That would be a net loss for me, though. I love Back to the Future, and not just in an “oh yeah, I really loved that movie,” kind of way. No, I LOVE Back to the Future. I practically have the script memorized. The shots and edits and performances are burned in my brain. The musical score and even the soundtrack of songs from the 50s and 80s is often stuck in my head. Even the details surrounding the making of the film are planted in my brain, able to be recalled with hardly any effort. Back to the Future isn’t just some film I saw and really enjoyed, it’s a part of me. It’s a part of my soul. It’s who I am.
Stories are important to me, and my favourite method of taking them in is through cinema. Re-watching movies is re-living stories. I get different things out of re-watching each specific film, but it’s all for the same general goal. I want these stories to be more than just little nuggets in my memory. I want them to be my memory. They inform who I am and what I like and how I think and that’s true whether they’re as intellectually fulfilling as A Serious Man, as emotionally impacting as Magnolia or as viscerally exciting as Raiders of the Lost Ark. There are plenty more films I will see over my lifetime that I’ve never seen before, but when I walk into a film, what I invariably want most is another film like the ones I’ve talked about here, a film I can watch many times over and truly adopt as my own over time.