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« Who needs plot in film, anyway? | Main | Tinkertoys »

February 16, 2005

Repeat Viewings

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

In the comments thread on Fenster's recent posting about movies and plots, Rodney Welch admits to having watched Elaine May's "Mikey and Nicky" "at least 50 times," and Bryan 'fesses up to having seen "A Clockwork Orange" 13 or 14 times.

It's an interesting cluster of questions: which films have we watched the greatest number of times? Why do we re-watch certain films numerous times while watching other films -- even films we love just as much -- only once? What is it about the films we've watched multiple times that drew us back to them? And what was it about us that played a role in this? After all, no one (or almost no one) watches a movie 50 times just because it's the greatest movie ever made. There's something in the viewer as well as something in the film that creates this kind of extreme chemistry.

In my own case, my most-rewatched movies are "Rules of the Game" and "McCabe & Mrs. Miller," both of which I've seen around 17 times. "Rules" struck me at the time I was studying it as combining depth, humanity, and technique in way that pretty much summed up all of what movies at their best can be. Understand "Rules of the Game," and you'll understand much about life and everything about the movies, or so I felt at the time. And I was eager to use movies to get a bit of a grip on life.

My infatuation with "McCabe" was more self-indulgent. "McCabe" was the film that hooked me on movies -- an event that struck me at the time as being of world-shattering importance. And why not go back to worship at the Source of All Good Things yet again? To be a little less harsh on myself, I also loved the film's mood -- its melancholy and its absurdism, its bleak romanticism. Watching "McCabe" over and over was like putting my favorite Van Morrison album on the turntable for another spin. Cosmic-woe-crossed-with-a-dreamily- funky-beat suited my adolescent soul's appetites, to put it mildly.

I'm not sure what to make of the fact that, since college, I almost never re-watch movies. (Though I've treated myself to Catherine Breillat's "Romance" four times -- a rare exception.) Is it a matter-of-fact function of being pressed for time? Or is it that these days I "get" the movies I enjoy quickly and thoroughly, and so have no need to rewatch them?

Curious to hear from Blowhards and visitors about what their own most-viewed movies are. Curious as well to hear musings about what it might have been about these much-loved movies that hooked, held, and re-fascinated.

Hey, ain't it going to be a weird world when the children of the DVD era grow up? They'll be responding to questions like the one I've just asked with answers like, "I saw 'Little Mermaid' 234 times." "Well, I've got you beat. I saw 'Toy Story' 522 times." Good lord: what is this kind of ultra-repeated exposure to a certain shortlist of kiddie-movies doing to the world's young minds?



posted by Michael at February 16, 2005


Well, the movie I have easily re-watched the most, if you include childhood, was "The Wizard of Oz"---due to repeated "special event" TV viewings, back when movies being on network TV were a Big Deal. I have not watched it in the last decade, probably, although I still find myself able to quote from it at will--childhood memory being the blissfully retentive thing it is. Goodness---17 viewings of "McCabe and Mrs. Miller" in college alone!!! Oddly, I almost never saw movies during the school year in college at all! Why no rhapsodic postings about Julie Christie?

I wish I had some great tale--like I'd seen "Jules et Jim" 17,000 times and was a great sophisticate. Unfortunately, the movies I have re-rented the most are kind of banal---like "Working Girl" and "Broadcast News". I knew they were funny, they had interesting characters, and if I hadn't seen them for awhile, they were like reliable old friends. Plus, the very end of "Working Girl", when she calls her pal from her office and says, "Guess where I am?" and then Mike Nichols pulls back to that gorgeous sunny Manhatten skyline shot and the music swells with Carly Simon's "Let the River Run" is one of the great feel-good endings ever---whatever you thought of the rest of the movie. Hard to not grin at that ending. And I'd re-rent "Broadcast News" just for Albert Brooks' great moment when he's sitting at home seething while William Hurt is interviewing the fighter pilot with Holly Hunter in his ear. It's not that they are the greatest movies ever---but they are reliably entertaining. Like a moderate-cost restaurant you really like, and the staff is friendly.

Posted by: annette on February 16, 2005 11:36 AM

Usually, my taste runs to arthouse films, but my multiple-watch habits reveal somewhat different preferences.

Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing”: I’m no longer a Lee fan, but I’ve seen this film about ten times, primarily for Ernest Dickerson’s vibrant cinematography. Ossie Davis’ performance as Da Mayor was so memorable that several of his obituaries contained the following tag line: “Quick – somebody get me a Miller High Life!”

I’ve watched “The Godfather” at least a dozen times, mostly to admire Gordon Willis’ gorgeous cinematography. I’ve watched “Manhattan” many, many times for the same reason: Gordon Willis. The film's opening black and white montage, synchronized with Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, never fails to take my breath away.

I’ve got a cinematographer jones, apparently. Or a Gordon Willis jones.

Posted by: Maureen on February 16, 2005 11:39 AM

Annette -- That's a great bunch of points and images. I'd completely overlooked the "old friend you can count on" side of repeat-viewings.

Maureen -- "A cinematographer Jones," that's wonderful. I wonder how many people are out there who re-watch movies because they loved the cinematography so much. Are there other greats who make your heart flutter? Nestor Almendros? Raoul Coutard? Stradling?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on February 16, 2005 11:43 AM

Interesting question about the kids. We have 5 or 6 DVDs of Soviet-era Russian children's animations, any of which my toddler, now 20 months old, would gladly watch several times a day if we let him. We try not to.

The quality of animation and music in soviet-era childrens' films is stunningly high by the way. "Chiburashka" is one to look out for - claymation that, I'm sorry to say, rivals the genius of Brit Nick Park ("Wallace and Gromit", "Chicken Run"). Create a situation in which it is dangerous to say anything that might be politically controversial, it would seem, and real talent will gravitate to non-politically-controversial areas.

Posted by: Alan Little on February 16, 2005 11:44 AM

Oh, and to accentuate my total cinematographer geekiness, I've seen "Visions of Light" about five times. Such a jones, tsk.

Posted by: Maureen on February 16, 2005 11:48 AM

C.S. Lewis wrote something about rereading books that I can't actually recall right now, but it left me with the impression that to have any relational depth with a writer worth reading, I needed to visit and revisit, the same as I would any mentor. Suffice it to say that I have little relational depth with any writers besides Mark Helprin and Dostoevski. When it comes to film, I'm not a lot better, but there are a few exceptions. I've watched Fisher King, the one with Jeff Bridges and Robin Williams a dozen times. It appealed to both my romanticism and my medieval studies (plus I haven't been able to get the song "Lydia the Tattooed Lady" out of my head for 15 years now). I also think of the movie every time I see a reference to Howard Stern.

I've watched several Wim Wenders films at least twelve times, particularly Wings of Desire and Far Away, So Close!. There is something about Wender's vision of what humans are about that is so loving; he paints a beautiful, subtle and ultimately hopeful world, and I like to live there.

Kieslowski's Colors trilogy is something I've watched six times or so, with Red being the most watched. I think when I first saw Red I couldn't think of having seen anything so beautiful, and the character Irene Jacob played had character (common virtue, not well-developed personality, although she wasn't lacking that) I hadn't seen portrayed in that way before.

As far as your question about the repetition of childhood movies, I'm mainly disappointed at what those movies may be replacing. I contrast it to storytelling that kids may have had in the past, whether it was once a month or three times a week, in which someone they knew who was watching their eyes as he spoke told them (the real them, not them as conceived by salaried storyboarders) stories that sometimes shifted depending on their responses and often took queues from the events of their lives. To move to more generic and monolithic stories, stories with next to no engagement with a child's own story or traditions, is problematic. I know that I'm mildly annoyed when my kids repeat lines from animated films they've watched over and over, but I'm quite warmed when they repeat funny things that they heard a real person say or remember situations from stories that I've made up for them. It may seem unrealistic, but I have to think that if one is serious about imparting something rich to ones kids, it's possible to opt out on the majority of studio-generated entertainment for kids and at least try and keep the ratio of human to manufactured entertainment about equal. Pretty radical idea for the last decade or three.

Posted by: Dave Shackelford on February 16, 2005 11:59 AM

I couldn't answer many questions in this movie quiz, so maybe it's just that I don't like them that much.

But, I have books I reread each year, CDs that are often played, but there are no films I ever see more than once. Except some documentaries.

In fact, watching a movie again most often bores me to tears. Which could have to do with the way my memory works; it's largely eiditic; images can make a long lasting impression, especially when they move.

It could also be that television has made me rather allergic for images that don't add anything to the information given; as TV is often not more than too expensive radio with talking heads on it. Movies deal much better with imagery, but then do something else that can bothers me. Like the pacing of the scenes, or the narrative. Or they picture English speaking Nazis, or do something else that undo the magic.

Maybe I have grown to hate the divide between the way a movie attacks and occupies my senses -every movement on the screen aimed to renew my interest - and the lack of satisfaction most feature films give me.

And what is it in movies that make them age so fast? Again, except maybe documentaries.

Posted by: ijsbrand on February 16, 2005 12:09 PM

Sort of leave yourself out in the open with this question, don't you. High-minded or gutter-groveler, hmmm.
Repeated viewings of Jarmusch's "Night on Earth" never leaves me without a laugh or a tear, although Rosie Perez's high-pitched whine is grating (but then this is probably her best film performance). Roberto Benigni is full-throttle hilarious.

Robert Benton's "Nobody's Fool" still stands tall after 7-8 viewings. Jessica Tandy and Paul Newman play off magnificently off each other and this film adaptation of Richard Russo's novel is almost perfect.

Barry Levinson's "Diner" has a slew of young actors, before they became affected and topo polished. As a Christmas movie (which it never seems to be connected with) and a passage into adulthood, it's hard to beat.

And speaking of Christmas, Black Adder's "Christmas Carol" still has our family laughing and quoting, even after 8-10 holiday seasons.

The final movie that I come back to at least once a year is Carol Reed's "The Third Man". It's dark; Robert Krasker's cinematography makes a news kiosk look threatening. Action, mystery, dark humor, Orson Welles, Joseph Cotten, Trevor Howard, and the mandolin music all through the movie make this the perfect movie..for me, at least.

Posted by: Dar on February 16, 2005 1:19 PM

I've seen The Fountainhead about a dozen times.

I love it for the way it oscillates between almost sorta making sense and swerving into monomaniacal silliness. It's my brain, on drugs.

That alone wouldn't sustain my interest through so many viewings. Now when I watch it, what I'm really doing is watching the reactions of the people I'm with: the hilarity, the howls of anger, the utter bafflement. This mode of entertainment has never failed to reward me.

I've got a new list of friends who have never seen the film. I'm planning a viewing for them in a couple months. Ooooh, this is gonna be good.

(BTW, Roger Kimball recently explained why we need to take Ayn Rand seriously, in spite of everything.)

Posted by: Fred (aka Bleauhard de Chardin) on February 16, 2005 1:22 PM

Note the above commenters on cinematography. Many of my repeat viewings are based on that:"Out of the Past", "Manhattan", "Raging Bull", "Blow Up"
"Last Tango in Paris". Watched "Umbrellas of Cherbourg" again, can't count, just last week.

Usually while I am at my computer I have music playing and a 13" TV 2 feet to my right on with the sound off. Just eye-candy, pretty people or landscape or exciting visuals ("Predator" or "Aliens"). Recently went full digital cable which gives a scarey number of options, tho not enough art-house or foreign. With "On Demand" I can watch "Return of the King" I guess indefinitely. With the clicker I go crazy. Caught the last 15 minutes of Mike Leigh's "Naked" last night. I watch a lot of stuff that way.

Posted by: bob mcmanus on February 16, 2005 1:37 PM

I've seen "Rio Bravo" at least two dozen times with about ten of those times on the big screen.

I think most of Hawks' films lend themselves to repeat viewing with their relaxed narratives especially "Only Angels Have Wings," "Hatari!," "El Dorado," "The Big Sky," etc...

Posted by: Pat Hobby on February 16, 2005 3:54 PM

I'll watch "Captain Blood" any time it's on. For me, the movie is perfect. I don't know how many times I've seen it. Perhaps 20. Almost 80 years since it was released (!) it holds up beautifully, like the Chrysler Building. The actor's are so engaging it can make you wonder, "Why Stanislavsky?". No one's crafting. They just believe they're in the story and so do I when I see it. The direction is flawless - the great ships appear and, voila, you're on board. I can't say enough good things about this movie. Awhile back you asked about black and white movies and I believe I submitted this at that time. My friend George commented that he thinks of this movie in "glorious technicolor". That's the magic that makes this movie perfect.

Posted by: bridget on February 16, 2005 4:48 PM

Does anyone suspect he/she has outdone Rodney's 50 times? Has anyone seen a movie more than 50 times?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on February 16, 2005 4:51 PM

"The Long Goodbye" probably 20 times. Ditto "The Rules of the Game."

I worked as an usher in a movie theater when I was in high school, and for virtually the entire year the only movie shown was "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" which, without trying, I memorized every single line of dialogue from, and had to have seen more than 50 times, maybe 100 times, though perhaps only once from beginning to end. I still can't get that bloody movie out of my head.

Posted by: Francis Morrone on February 16, 2005 5:13 PM

You're right about my "video generation", we've been getting a very select batch of messages thousands of times. Same goes for video games we've beaten dozens of times and know by heart. (What behaviors have been learned through positive reinforcement here?)

I've seen the best Marx Brothers movies dozens of times each. Every Sunday morning for about 5-10 years my family watched Amadeus over breakfast. (Can deliver the entire dialog with perfect timing/vocal intonation complete with hummed/whistled score on request.) Probably seen the (original) Star Wars movies at least 50 times each. My favorite films I space out much more and make watching them an event, same goes for my favorite music/performances thereof.

Posted by: Rob Asumendi on February 16, 2005 5:18 PM

I can watch noir films over and over and over again...

The Third Man, Touch of Evil, and Chinatown...

of course coming out of (i strongly suspect) the only time in my life when i could have enough time to waste watching movies again what else is there to do in college?: movies that no one in my generation has seen less than 10 times: Office Space, and Shawshank Redemption for some reason... i suspect cable.

My faves:
The Big Lebowski, while Carney seems to hate the Cohens, I love the twist on noir films they bring, and watching jeff bridges wander around as the noir hero is pure noir.... it's a self-enclosed world and you get a tiny glimpse at it,

and for the same reason both Rushmore and Royal Tennenbaums, they are about the saddest stories, told with punchlines and comic timing. Lost fathers, lost mothers, lost adolescents... and again the details reward repeat watchings...

Posted by: azad on February 16, 2005 8:16 PM

The only film I've ever kept track of the number of times I saw it is Taxi Driver, which is also the only film I have watched seven times in an attempt to understand why I didn't like it.

I will watch certain movies like Blazing Saddles or Airplane any time they're on TV. I have no idea how many times I've seen them, though.

Posted by: James Russell on February 17, 2005 12:30 AM

I've seen THE BIG LEBOWSKI many more times than I care to state.

I've also seen Peckinpah's STRAW DOGS somewhere in the neighborhood of 30 times...probably watched it 10 times alone preparing to write a long paper on it in college. But I got hooked during that time--repulsive as the movie may be, I find something new and brilliant about the technique each time I go back to it.

Come to think of it, I've also seen THE WILD BUNCH about 10 times. And I've watched the opening sequence on its own over and over and over...maybe it's just impossible to catch each shot on its own seeing it once or twice.

Other movies I've subjected to countless viewings (somewhere north of 12-15)...JAWS, TAXI DRIVER, McCABE AND MRS. MILLER, BLUE VELVET. I think each of these movies has a seductive combination of directorial prowess, performance, score, cinematography, editing, whateveryawannacallit, that produces an atmosphere I'm never unhappy to wade around in. I'll never get bored with Robert Shaw as Quint, with Bernard Herrmann's brass, with Warren Beatty rolling over the hills to Leonard Cohen, with Dennis Hooper growling "Baby wants to fuuuuuuuhck!" while sucking from an oxygen get the idea, I'm sure.

Posted by: Dick on February 17, 2005 11:18 AM

Wow, I'd thought I semi-qualified as a film nut, but here are all these people who've seen movies dozens and dozens of times. Y'all are film-nuttier than I am.

James-- That's a new one on me, seeing a film multiple times because you didn't like it. Did you ever figure out what it was you didn't like about "Taxi Driver"?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on February 17, 2005 11:28 AM

As alluded to in Michael's original post, the significance of multiple viewings depends a bit on one's age and the movie viewing technologies that were available to one; actually traveling to a movie house and paying admission to see a movie again and again, is, of course, different from buying a DVD and watching a movie again and again at one's own convenience.

As someone who grew up in NYC in the 1950s, let me put in a plug for Channel 9's (WOR) "Million Dollar Movie" as an additional consideration. (I suppose other localities had their own version.) In the days before cable TV, video cassettes and DVD's, "Million Dollar Movie" beamed the same movie, free of charge, into a viewer's home every day of one week, three times a day. So for a film that really caught one's fancy, especially during the summertime or school breaks, it was possible to see it, I believe, 21 times a week. (Don't really recall if on certain days the movies were pre-empted for something else.). Although there was a limited repertoire of films (mostly "classic" black and white Hollywood films from the thirties and forties), one never really knew when a favorite film would be shown again, so there was some "pressure" to see it as many times as one could during the single week of its broadcast.

Reflecting upon the which films on TV I watched more than once, usually they were "visual" films with high production values (interesting locations, clever scenery, great special effects) or just had special scenes (e.g., comedy scenes, plot twists, Rita Hayworth singing "Put the Blame on Mame," etc.) that I wanted to see again and again.

One terrific movie that I know I watched often was "Hold That Ghost" (Abbott and Costello, Joan Davis et al. stranded in a spectacular "haunted" house -- with the Andrew Sisters performing in two nightclub sequences that bookended the film). For this kid this movie had it all: a "haunted house" with secret rooms and trap doors; classic Abbott and Costello comedy routines along the lines of "Who's On First?"; Joan Davis, a hilarious physical comedienne, at her best; and two musical numbers by the Andrew Sisters.

Another movie targeted for repeat viewings was "Mighty Joe Young." This was a more sentimental, kid-friendly version of the King Kong tale (Mighty Joe Young actually sacrifices his life to save his beautiful human lady love) that had more realistic special effects and also had spectacular art direction – including a scene in an amazing NYC nightclub with lions and tigers in glass cages -- where the patrons toss giant frisbee-like coins to a Mighty Joe Young costumed as an organ grinder monkey!

Also remember targeting movies with Sonia Henie (along with, again, Abbott and Costello) and Busby Berkely movies for repeat viewings -- as well as other Hollywood "classics" too numerous to mention.

For better or worse, my taste in movies for repeat viewings did not change as an adult! The movie that I have probably seen most often -- each time going to a theater and paying a separate admission -- is Ken Russell's visually spectacular (and also rather charming) version of "The Boyfriend" (with Twiggy, Tommy Tune, Max Adrian and an unbilled Glenda Jackson). I've probably gone to four or five different theaters to see it, staying more than once each time. Plus I even saw an unedited director's cut at Film Forum! (Only my very last viewing of it -- the unedited director's cut -- had some moments of boredom.) What a delightful, cheery movie!

Posted by: Benjamin Hemric on February 17, 2005 1:59 PM

One fairly recent movie that I've watched several times since I bought a copy of it a year and a half ago is Wonder Boys, and I can see myself continuing to see it every few months.

Azad mentioned The Shawshank Redemption and Office Space as movies that everyone of a certain generation (the tail end of Gen-X, I guess) has seen many times. He's right about their frequent cable appearances being a factor, but it's a bit of a chicken-and-egg thing - the cable networks wouldn't show them so frequently if viewers didn't so consistently tune in, and these are almost all repeat viewers.

I'm not sure what it is about these movies that gives them such lasting appeal. Obviously there's no "great" aspect to any of these films, but they're all pretty good. It seems, too, that none of these movies has any major flaws. It's as if these films are less art than easy chair, something enjoyable and comfortable as opposed to a memorable aesthetic experience.

So, it appears that there are two basic categories of repeat viewing movies. First, film buffs have their favorites, movies that they connect to as experiences that speak to them personally. Because of the personal nature of this, these would vary from person to person. For example, I watch Aguirre, the Wrath of God, Blue Velvet and The General a few times a year, but for others, it would be Red or Raging Bull or The Foutainhead or what have you. Most film buffs would consider these "great" films, but each individual person would only have one or a few that he/she watches repeatedly.

The second category is what I was referring to in the rest of the post. Typically, these movies don't do as well in theaters as raunchy comedies or action-adventure blockbusters - actually, they usually perform quite poorly - but they take on a certain life of their own afterwards (Shawshank, Lebowski, Office Space and Wonder Boys all fit this description). They're not brilliant, but they are well-crafted. They focus more on solid acting performances and chuckles than plot twists and big laffs. They're good, solid movies, if not particularly noteworthy ones, that approach a certain level of quality without overreaching, movies that appeal to a broad section of the filmwatching populace without pandering to base tastes.

Aside #1: I think I'd put Star Wars in both categories.

Aside #2: Curtis Hanson seems to be the master director of the latter category. In addition to Wonder Boys, I've seen L.A. Confidential about five times, and could easily sit through 8 Mile a few more times... but I don't think he'll ever make anything that will end up in film history textbooks.

Posted by: Nick on February 17, 2005 3:24 PM

oh man i love wonderboys too, i've seen that movie a whole bunch also, but it bothers me how much better the movie could have been if Maguire and Douglas had a better sense of timing, they flub lines over and over!

I always wanted to watch taxi driver again to figure out why it bothered me also, i even bought the dvd, but i'm still too repelled to sit down and watch it again.

Very astute on well crafted movies being ignored in the theatres to the big laff "juwana man" comedies... I wonder if these sorts of movies will stop being made, or if they'll become purely "indie" type deals.

Posted by: azad on February 18, 2005 1:33 AM

Michael -- There were various reasons, I think. Cybill Shepherd was not the least of them.

Posted by: James Russell on February 18, 2005 3:16 AM

I guess I'll jump in and say I've watched Citizen Kane ("Thought we might have a picnic tomorrow Susan") and Plan 9 From Outer Space ("Never heard metal sound like that before") about 50 times each. The greatest good movie and the greatest bad movie! Quite the double bill.

As for those obsessions of my youth which I still watch occasionally - High Noon, Time Bandits, Star Wars, Jaws, The Gold Rush, Hondo ("A man oughta do what he thinks is best"), Frankenstein, Amadeus, Airplane - I shudder to think of a number.

Posted by: Brian on February 18, 2005 5:14 PM

Thanks to cable schedules and the holiday season, what with all the menu planning and baking and gift buying and inviting unwanted neighbors to parties so they can't object when people part on our street and RSVPing and ironing clothes and doing nails and thank-you note writing I must have watched "The Devil's Advocate" close to 50 times. It's not very good, but Paris Hilton and Iraq are not mentioned once and the entire film is without holiday music.

Like you, I am very very worried - or perhaps just curious - about what will happen when Jack and Jill who watched the same Bob the Builder every single day for two years will be like as a ten-year old.

And yet in the same vein I'm a bit concerned about the strong memories of not-so-good movies that are filling my brain because public radio makes me wish for the sweet hand of death and the only background sound nature provides for my current home is car traffic, dog walkers talking on their cell phones, and the random child yelling. Do you think songbirds have the voice to drown out the sounds of suburban life? Perhaps I should buy a pair.

Posted by: j.c. on February 19, 2005 3:57 PM

Initially because of my daughter, i've seen Dumbo well over a hundred times. For Disney, it's pretty decent. The incidental music is excellent, and "Pink Elephants on Parade" (especially on the DVD remaster) is pretty damn astonishingly cool.

There has not been enough attention paid to McCabe & Mrs Miller in the comments on the posting. It's sad and lyrical, like Leonard Cohen's songs, and it might be the best revisionist western ever. Warren Beatty and Julie Christie show so much complexity and depth of character, and i think it's Altman's long takes, lingering shots, and general no-need-to-rush-this direction that lets them show all the facets. Lots of american movies from the 70's in general have this wide open take-your-time feel to them, and i love them for it. When i walked out of the theater after Jackie Brown, some folks with me said, "Ugh - it was so LONG!" and i said "It was just like a movie from the early 70's!"

Posted by: MDS Chill on February 22, 2005 9:52 PM

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