Watch it Again, Sam

In the past month, I spent a good deal of time revisiting films I claim are my favorite. For many, the idea of a favorite film correlates to how often they revisit a film or how much they desire to revisit a film. However, as an individual seeking to educate myself in all things film, I’m often met with the urge to watch as many unseen classics and hidden gems as possible, leaving favorites to gather dust on the shelves.

When I watched The Godfather a couple of weeks ago, it was my second viewing after seeing it almost five years ago. While that might not seem like a long time to people who’ve spent most of their lives watching films, The Godfather was part of what I’d consider my first serious exposure to film. Since then, I’ve graduated from high-school and college, watching a lot of movies inbetween classes and study sessions. I claimed The Godfather as my favorites, and, upon revisit, that claim was reaffirmed.

This got me thinking about how many films I didn’t truly love until I revisited them. Days of Heaven, Three Colors: Blue, Citizen Kane and Notorious are four films in my top five, all of which I didn’t love until I saw them again. For some, this may sound as if I’m a bit wishy-washy or that my opinions are suspect to change. To a degree, there’s some truth in this. As I watch more films and grow older, my life experience changes. As a result my opinions of a particular film might change.

In the case of some of these films, I watched them when I was still uneducated in film, trying to get a feeler for what film could be. I remember Three Colors: Blue being a challenging viewing experience.  I wasn’t sure what to make of the ending or the fact that it didn’t tie everything off in a nice tidy bow like most films I’d seen before watching it.

Others, I watched under poor states of mental judgment. I got sick in high school one day and decided to watch three films: Citizen Kane, 2001: A Space Odyssey and Dr. Strangelove. Being low on life in general, I disliked all three films. Since then, I’ve made it a policy to never watch films for the first time while sick.

Sometimes, the film quality is to blame. I watched Days of Heaven for the first time on a terrible Paramount DVD transfer. The image was dim and murky. I assumed that it was some artsy effect and a poor one at that. On a whim, I bought the Criterion release of the film when it came out and the difference was literally night and day as I was treated to a bright, beautiful and warm transfer. After seeing the Criterion release, it became my personal favorite film.

So do some films deserve a second chance? My experience has taught me that it often does. But beyond that, I think some films demand even more than two viewings. The film is Wings of Desire. I’ve seen it five times. I bought it after my third viewing. I refused to declare my love of the film until the fifth viewing. It’s still the same film I first saw five years ago, it just took me a while to warm up to the film.

I’m not saying you should watch every film that is widely considered as great five times. I’ve been fascinated with Wings of Desire since I first watched it. I’ve thought about it time and time again, and something there has intrigued me enough to keep me coming back, and I’m glad that something (which I still haven’t discovered) is in the film. I am saying that sometimes the great films are the ones that slowly reveal themselves over time.

The Double Life of Veronique is one of my most watched films. Every time I watch the film, I come to a different understand of who the characters are and what is going on in their lives. It’s ambiguous, mysterious and almost infuriatingly elusive. But it keeps me coming back because, like Veronique, I’m looking for that missing truth, the hidden meaning that explains it all.

Whether or not Veronique has found it by the film’s end is debatable. Whether or not the audience will find it seems unlikely the more I watch it. But it’s one that draws me in, leads me on a path of trying to seek the truth, trying to find understanding and attempting unravel the mysteries of the universe. The more I watch, the more I get out of it.

And yet as much praise as I’ve heaped upon my many rewatches, I’ve also found them bitterly disappointing. Films that I once held in high regard have fallen through the cracks, crumbled upon rewatches, disappointed after years of affection. There are few things more disheartening as a film buff than to discover you can no longer enjoy an old favorite.

The most bitter of my recent disappointments was Pulp Fiction. A film I once found vibrant, lively and challenging suddenly left me empty. In many ways, I felt the familiarity made the play of events less cool than the ones I built in my mind after many rewatches. It felt like a crude visualization of the film in my head, the fading remnants of a good dream.

Another film I revisited left me scratching my head. Rivers and Tides is a little documentary I once doted over, and while I find moments of it intriguing, it seems too obvious now. Goldsworthy has to tell me what it means, explain his work and it ruins the magic for me. I’d rather just be shown his wondrous work instead of guided on a tour.

A strong part of me resents those revisits. I’d rather have the fond memories of enjoying them than the bitter disappointment of watching my favor for them wane away. I know it’s a shallow cry of ignorance, a foolish way of thinking. I also know it opens up the prospects for new and fresh favorites, challenges me to seek out the more excellent films I haven’t seen, the ones that will hopefully stand the test of time.

But to take things back down for a moment, this also makes me frightened of revisiting other films I once claimed as favorites. I know when I rewatched Schindler’s List it will not hold up for me. I’ve seen too many Holocaust films with more touching stories. I’ve also though and read a lot about media depictions of The Holocaust since then, making me a bit frustrated with the framing of the film.

But this makes me interested in revisiting films I didn’t care for the first time around. I’ve gotten a lot of flak for my Tokyo Story review, a lot of it from people I respect. While I understand where they are coming from, I had to be honest about my first viewing and that’s what I wrote. But, I’m almost certain it’s a film I’ll revisit in the future in the hopes I’ll see what others have describe: a wonderful film that sounds like my kind of cinema.

Rewatching a favorite film often gives me ideas about how to write about it in the future. A lot of people find it daunting to write about the most well regarded films. Personally, I find it a great challenge and when I rewatch one, I think about how to engage or think about the film in an interesting way. I’m not one to toot my own horn, but I like my There Will Be Blood review, which I certainly wouldn’t have written after seeing the film once or twice.

Certain of my favorites I haven’t written about yet and it’s because I’m waiting for that moment to come. There’s not a rush to write anything for most of them as much has already been written on such classic and contemporary favorites. Yet I’m always hopeful that inspiration will strike. I’ve written reviews of favorites only to scrap them at the last minute, waiting for the right words to express what makes a film work for me.

I also wonder about some films I’ve seen more than films that I profess to be my favorites. I’ve watched Hellboy II: The Golden Army and Harry Potter and the Order Phoenix just as many times, if not more than, Casablanca and Citizen Kane. For some reasons, I’ve reservations about adding them even though I return to them like clockwork and find myself liking them more and more with each viewing.

In the rat race of catching up with everything, the value of rewatching a film can easily get lost amid a load of unseen films on the shelf, a Netflix envelope on the table and a few new films at the multiplex each weekend. And yet, it’s often vital to understanding and enjoying the richest of films. It’s also vital to our sanity, a quick way to revitalize our love of film and remind ourselves why we spend so much time watching, writing and thinking about these moving pictures.

© 2011 James Blake Ewing