How Many Times?

May 29, 2018
A thought by James Berardinelli

Movies can be like comfort food. We come back to certain favorites repeatedly, earmarking them not only for special occasions but for lazy afternoons in or as part of annual traditions. Many people have turned October 31 into an opportunity to re-watch John Carpenter’s great horror film. Thanksgiving is for Planes, Trains, and Automobiles. Christmas films are like Christmas carols – we all have our preference and often overdose on it. A Christmas Story? Christmas Vacation? A Christmas Carol? The list goes on and on… And if you don’t watch Bill Murray each year in Scrooged, maybe you turn to him on February 2.

Sometimes we re-watch a movie because the first viewing had a profound impact on us and, through the repeat, we hope to recapture some aspect of the experience. Another reason is that the first exposure was related to a special life event – a first date with the person who became a spouse, for example – and provides a gateway to memories of a happy time. Then, of course, there are the movies that are just so damn entertaining that they deserve to be seen more than once.

Motion pictures are like music in that they can conjure up emotions with surprising force but with images to go along with sound. Occasionally, a song that I first heard when I was a child will fashion a brief, poignant moment of longing. Movies, on the other hand, tend to have a greater impact because they involve two senses rather than just one. I have sometimes found myself watching an old favorite through the eyes not of a 50-year old movie critic but a 10-year old child.

The re-watching of movies is a relatively recent phenomenon. Prior to the video age, it wasn’t prevalent and, seeing a film a second or third time required either diligent hunting or serendipity. Being reliant on television led down a path to frustration, unless the title happened to be in some kind of rotation. ABC, for example, used to show James Bond movies on Sunday nights. Shows like Creature Double Feature gave monster movie fans their fix on Saturdays. And a lot of old film noir B-movies were staples for The Late Late Show (which used to be a movie before it became a talk show name). Still, if you saw and loved a production during a ‘60s or ‘70s theatrical run, it might be years (if ever) before you had an opportunity to revisit it.

I am a creature of habit and I love replaying things I enjoy even if they possess zero artistic value. Back in the ‘70s, before I had access to any means of video recording, I taped the audio of every Star Trek episode off the TV. I took great care with those recordings to get the best sound possible. (I even bought a TV-radio to eliminate ambient noise like my sister intentionally trying to screw things up by yelling and talking.) By 1980, I had good-quality audio recordings of every episode. I listened to many repeatedly and, when they showed up on TV during their regular 3 ½-month rotation, I could mouth the lines along with the characters. My father, on the other hand, was the polar opposite. Once he had seen something once, he saw no need to revisit it. He never watched reruns on TV, even of his favorite shows (which, as I recall, were MASH and Hawaii 5-0). I remember one Sunday in the late ‘70s when I asked him if we could watch Thunderball on the “big” living room TV. He said no – he saw it when it came out in theaters 15 years earlier. So I ended up in the guest bedroom with the 18” TV that took 2 minutes to warm up.

So what are my favorite films and how many times have I seen them? Some defy a rational explanation. If you’re expecting me to say Citizen Kane, City Lights, and Decalogue, you’ll be disappointed. I have only seen each of those twice. Many great films, like Lawrence of Arabia and The Searchers, I have watched only once. Some of the movies I have seen many times are cheesy. Some would be regarded as guilty pleasures. A few are genre flicks. Only a few are classics.

There’s also another distinction I’ll make – total times watching a film versus times seeing it theatrically. The generally track one another but not always.

My #1 most watched film is Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Easily the best of the Star Trek films, it has been a favorite for years. During its 1982 theatrical run, I saw it eight times. That’s a lot for a kid who couldn’t drive and includes a marathon Saturday when I sat in a theater for eight hours and saw 3 ½ consecutive showings. In those days, that was something you could do, although I doubt many people did so. The clean-up crews gave my friend and me strange looks when we didn’t get up to leave once the end credits were finished. In total, I have seen the film around 40 times. There’s a reason for that. In 1985, my father purchased our first VCR and I immediately went out and bought a copy of Star Trek II. For months, that was the only film I owned so, naturally, I watched it regularly. Since 1986, I have probably seen it only three or four times, but I packed so many viewings into the early years that, to this day, I have memorized large chunks of dialogue.

#2 is Star Wars. No big surprise but, unlike with Star Trek II, I spread this out. During the year of its release, 1977, I saw the movie three times – twice in drive-ins and once in an inside theater. Subsequent re-releases in 1978 and 1979 afforded me two additional opportunities to see it, bringing my total to five. I then saw the Special Edition theatrically in 1997, for a grand total of six theatrical viewings. That number increases significantly when home video viewings are added in. Every time I purchased a new version of Star Wars, I watched it and, over the years, there were a lot of editions: VHS pan-and-scan, VHS widescreen, laserdisc widescreen, laserdisc remastered (final non-SE), special edition laserdisc, DVD, Blu-Ray, streaming. Additionally, for a four-year period between 1993 and 1996, I instituted a “tradition” where I watched the three films of the OT back-to-back on Christmas Eve. (We were given a half-day on December 24, so I had to find some way to spend the afternoon and evening.) Over the years, I have watched Star Wars at least 15 times, and perhaps as many as 20, in its various home video incarnations. So, in total, I have seen it at least 20 times. (I should mention that I know someone who claims to have seen the movie 400 times, which figures out to nearly once per month on average since its release.)

It gets murky for the #3 position. There are several candidates: The Empire Strikes Back, Patton, Star Trek III, and (oddly) The Cutting Edge. All of those movies are double-digit contenders but I can’t say with certainty how many times I have seen any of them. For total views, the winner is likely Star Trek III. Theatrically, I saw it five times (twice on opening day despite a nasty headache that worsened as the evening wore on). It became the second VHS tape I bought, so I probably watched that at least a dozen times. Although I only saw Empire twice in theaters, I have probably viewed it ten or more times on home video. I have never seen Patton theatrically but I have enjoyed it numerous time on broadcast TV and another eight or nine times on VHS, DVD, or Blu-Ray. I even watched it once streaming on my iPad. Then there’s the strange case of The Cutting Edge, which I saw a surprising nine times theatrically: once at a pre-release “sneak preview”, once during its opening weekend, twice on dates, and five other times on weeknights when I was bored and looking for something to kill a couple hours. (Ah, those days fresh out of college when I lived in an apartment!) I had a thing for Moira Kelly and enjoyed the movie so I kept watching it – talk about “comfort food!” I have subsequently seen it a couple of times on home video.

The next tier down is populated by a large number of titles I own and keep watching for a variety of reasons. Included in that list is the 1976 King Kong (which I contend is a lot better than it’s given credit for), Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy (which is too long to watch regularly, especially since I always opt for the Extended Editions), a few of the James Cameron films, Alien, Star Trek: The Motion Picture and Star Trek IV, a couple of the Bonds, the Monty Python movies, Die Hard, A Fish Called Wanda, and so on…

So now that I’ve bared my soul, I turn it over to you to assemble a personal catalog (not necessarily to “publish” it but, hey, that’s why there are Comments sections). The specific titles aren’t as important as the consideration of why we return to the same movies on a regular basis and whether the desire for familiarity blunts our interest in experimenting with new genres and/or original ideas, characters, and situations. One can make a compelling argument (which would be correct) that the main reason why there’s so little creativity and originality in Hollywood is because people want to experience things they’re familiar with. The unknown, offbeat, and exotic makes them uncomfortable.

My preference runs counter to this. If I want to see something recognizable, I’ll re-watch one of my favorites yet again. For new films, I want to see new things. Okay, sometimes it’s fun to experience a new slant on an old story but there’s so much of that that it has become boring. I’d rather watch The Cutting Edge for the 12th time than watch a “new” tired romantic comedy/sports movie mashup. Fresh things are what make movie-going exciting. Old things are what we can treasure in the privacy of our homes, hearts, and minds.