Play It Again

June 11, 2008
A thought by James Berardinelli

In my experience, there are two kinds of people - those who have a "once and done" approach to movies and those who find pleasure in re-watching them. My father is a card-carrying member of the former category. Once he has watched something, he sees no point in revisiting it. He feels the same way about TV reruns and would rather watch a first-run presentation of what he considers to be a mediocre show than a second-run presentation of a favorite program. I, on the other hand, am in the second category. From a relatively young age, I loved re-watching movies.

In the video era, the re-watching process has become effortless. 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. One result was reduced exposure to "undesirable" kinds of film, with each person having a different definition of what was "undesirable."

For me, it has always been the case that if I liked a movie, I saw it more than once, especially in the pre-video era. (For the record, my father bought me a VCR for my 18th birthday in 1985, so that's when I started programming my video life.) Star Trek II, which to this day remains the movie I have seen the most often, is a perfect example. I saw it once opening weekend, once the following Tuesday, twice the next weekend, and so on. One afternoon, a friend and I sat through four consecutive showings and would have stayed for a fifth if we didn't have a set time when my parents were due to pick us up. When the dust settled, I had seen Star Trek II twelve times theatrically. A year later, I caught it a couple of times on HBO. I later watched it on ABC. It was the first VHS movie I purchased and I have probably seen in it another dozen times on video. After more than 25 viewings, there aren't many surprises left.

Oddly, among Trekkers/Trekkies, a dozen theatrical Star Trek II experiences was on the low side. It was common to find devotees who would proudly claim to have seen in it 20, 30, 40 times. I once met someone who could literally quote the entire movie (start to finish) from memory. That was a little…scary. (I knew passages, but not the whole thing.) The practice of teenage excess with return movie-going has not diminished with the advent of VHS/DVD. Girls wore out theater carpets returning time-after-time to see Titanic. That movie made at least 50% of its massive domestic gross from repeat business. By April 1998, in its fourth month of release, the only ones taking up space in half-full multiplex auditoriums were those who could recite the dialogue along with the characters. Last week, a neighborhood boy boasted that he had seen Iron Man eight times. I haven't seen anything that many times since 1992.

Most of us have seen our favorite movie(s) more than once. There's a local critic who admits to having enjoyed Forbidden Planet more than 200 times. Judged against that, the 20 (or so) times I have watched Patton is miniscule. In some cases, we re-watch movies in an attempt to see something new. Most of the time, however, we return to an oft-viewed title like we visit an old friend. There's comfort in familiarity - seeing the same actors say and do the same things. We no longer worry about plot, since we know it, and can concentrate on other things. By the ninth or tenth viewing of a movie, it's all about details. By then, you're no longer watching a film; you're studying it.

Movies are often personal time capsules; this is especially true of those we see more than once. If I was to watch Star Trek II tonight, it wouldn't just be me watching it on June 10, 2008 but me watching it on June 4, 1982 and all those times in between. Like music, movies connect who we are today with who we were. They build a bridge across time. Unlike music, there's a visual component to the memories. Every time I watch Patton, a part of me is back in Mr. Swiczicki's 8th grade English class, watching it on an elevated television screen. (Mr. Swi, as we called him, also introduced his students to The Great Escape, Roots, 2001, Silent Running, and a few others.) I can never sit through Star Trek III without recalling the brutal headache I got while watching it the first time. And Star Wars recalls not only the movie but the entire drive-in experience. The more often we see a movie, the more it becomes a part of us. We treasure not only what's on screen but everything around it. We want to share those movies with others, perhaps in the hope that some of the magic that touched us will touch them.

30 years ago, my father could not understand why I wanted to see Star Wars more than once. I think over time he has perhaps come to understand, if not necessarily agree. For myself, I stand in awe of those who can see a movie 20, 30, or 40 times. They will have that movie, and the experiences surrounding it, locked within their hearts and memories for the rest of their lives.