Talking Movies

June 29, 2019

On Rewatching Movies

The Atlantic recently showcased some findings from behavioural economists suggesting that we overvalue novelty and undervalue repetition, and it made me think about how I’ve been watching movies of late.

Listener up there! what have you to confide to me? Do I anticipate Trump? Very well then I anticipate Trump.

I have been finding it hard, looking back to 2010 in the last few weeks, to get a handle on the contours of this decade, cinematically speaking. And I think some of that difficulty is owing to my not having rewatched as many movies as I would have done during the previous decade. This was a deliberate decision to use my time to add as many new titles to my ken as possible rather than simply rewatching what I had already seen. And that decision has been quite rewarding: I have seen more Jean-Luc Godard, Woody Allen, Orson Welles, Andrei Tarkovsky, Louis Malle, and Mia Hansen-Love films than I would’ve had I not sought them out. But it seems there is an opportunity cost: if you focus on expanding your knowledge, it comes at the cost of deepening existing knowledge.

There is a lot to be said for repetition to really soak in a film. After all a vital check on whether a film really stands up is whether it can be rewatched with profit. I saw Birdman and High-Rise twice within days and loved them both times. In the case of High-Rise I had a totally different viewing experience each time: a crowded screening in IFI 2, where Stephen Errity and I managed to miss the opening scene, brought out the comedy of the film, whereas a deserted screening in IFI 1 with Paul Fennessy brought out the visual grandeur of the film. John Healy opines that repetition, like constantly catching snippets or indeed all of Jaws on heavy rotation on a movie channel, allows you enjoy lots of little details you’d otherwise miss without seeing it so often.

Little details can create what I’ve previously dubbed ‘mental architecture’. Watching The Matrix again and again and again you find yourself responding to someone asking your name with ‘Yeah, that’s me’ and only later realise you were quoting Keanu Reeves. Clambering off the floor with a somewhat awkward grace you realise later you were approximating how Keanu Reeves got up off his knees at the end of Constantine. In neither instance were these conscious emulations, simply physical or verbal replications of an oft-seen physical action or verbal response. The joy of repetition is that which comes from knowing a movie inside out: like watching a James Bond movie with my Dad, hooting at in-jokes about Ken Adam’s inability to stop blowing the budget on working monorails, or quoting along to The Matrix Reloaded line after line en masse with friends.

Whooping up Back to the Future Day on ITV 2 with my Dad back in 2015 wouldn’t have been half as awesome if we hadn’t watched each film repeatedly together over three decades. When Dad couldn’t countenance a full film I would summon from the DVR just the helicopter attack in Apocalypse Now, Donald Sutherland’s JFK monologue, the Joker’s attack on the van in The Dark Knight:

At the far left of the shelf of DVDs was a single unlabelled videocassette. Schwartz slid it out with a finger and popped it into the ancient VCR.

“What’s this?” Henry asked.

“You’ll see.”

Schwartz watched this tape alone sometimes, late at night, the way he reread certain passages of Aurelius. It restored some nameless element of his personality that threatened to slip away if he didn’t stay vigilant. (The Art of Fielding)

Repetition can allow us grasp a film from different angles, enjoy the red herrings we missed before, create personal in-jokes, and provide us with an idiosyncratic frame of reference. But it can also utterly surprise. I was experiencing the rare joy of sharing a friend’s first encounter with a classic in 2017 when I nearly gasped at Citizen Kane on the big screen. Donald Trump’s threat to Hillary Clinton during their debates that he would, if elected, appoint a special prosecutor to look into her situation, now found an incredible anticipation in Charles Foster Kane’s threat during his speech that his “first official act as governor of this state will be to appoint a special district attorney to arrange for the indictment, prosecution and conviction of Boss Jim W Gettys”. There was now a new meaning in an old text.

In the case of Citizen Kane and American politics life was imitating art, as Oscar Wilde opined happened more often than vice versa, and a piece of art that had seemed to have a stable meaning had had that meaning upended. Repetition is not old hat in a world of novelty and completist instincts. It is both a time machine, that can enable us remember the way we enjoyed a movie the first time we saw it and remember ourselves and the milieu of that experience, and a transmogrifier that reworks old movies into something we never suspected our contemporary.

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October 22, 2015

Getting Back to Back to the Future

Watching the Back to the Future trilogy yesterday for ‘Back to the Future Day’ made me think again about the Films You’d Love Your Kids To See season in the Lighthouse cinema this past summer.

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Back to the Future of course featured in that season. Time travel has never, ever been as much fun as 1980s teenager Marty McFly’s jaunt back to 1950s Hill Valley where he must ensure his teenage parents meet and fall in love to ensure his own future existence. Watching all three films you realised anew what a great double-act Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd were as Marty and Doc Brown, how stirring Alan Silvestri’s score was, the incredible 1980s-ness of everything, and just how sharp a script Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale wrote. Watching the waves of nostalgia washing over ITV 2 yesterday you also wondered if the 1980s really was a golden age for kid’s films or if it’s just the generation that grew up with them wallowing in nostalgia for their own childhood rather than the films.

Back in the summer I wrote about the paradox of the Lighthouse encouraging adults to take their children to see films they had enjoyed as children. Your children cannot have the same childhood you had because films are part of a cultural matrix. You can’t separate them from the culture surrounding them. Observe Huey Lewis, Ronald Reagan, Michael Jackson, Clint Eastwood, Star Wars, Star Trek and Japanese corporations in the Back to the Future trilogy. These are films of the 1980s, with all that means for politics, music, fashion, television, and on and on and on… To remember originally experiencing Back to the Future involves comics and annuals that accompanied it, which tied it together with a whole complex of movies; Ghostbusters, Short Circuit, Indiana Jones, Star Wars, Star Trek, The Goonies, E.T., The Karate Kid, Roger Moore’s Bonds; and television; Doctor Who, The Real Ghostbusters, Thundercats, Transformers, Mask, ALF, Family Ties, MacGyver, The A-Team, Knightrider. That’s some fearsome nostalgia.

But in a smartphone age there is something retro not just about making children experience movies with hundreds of people who have all ditched their phones to unite as an audience and groan as one at Indy being served monkey brains but also in showing them movies shot in such an old-fashioned way as Back to the Future. Robert Zemeckis recently said vis a vis The Walk that spectacle doesn’t just mean CGI. A close-up is cinematic spectacle, because close-ups don’t happen in reality. Look at all the moments in Back to the Future when Silvestri’s score tells you how to read a scene while Zemeckis moves the camera as outrageously as Hitchcock to draw your attention to something, convey importance, or just dazzle you. When Zemeckis unleashes the train pushing a DeLorean finale of Back to the Future: Part III it shames today’s blockbusters. This summer saw many action sequences that were neither choreographed nor legible, but simply CGI edited in a frenzy to create an impression of thrilling action. Zemeckis’ train finale by contrast, is so perfectly constructed, shot by shot, that a 1910s audience would comprehend it and thrill to it as Guido Silvestri hammered his piano.

Twitter went crazy because Back to the Future: Part II’s future day had arrived, but watching that 2015 sequence yesterday it was striking just how much of its vista of hoverboards and flying cars was realised practically. To say nothing of how the earliest cinema pioneers would have smiled approvingly at the lo-fi trick Zemeckis employed in the sequels to have multiple versions of Fox and Lloyd interacting with each other onscreen. And watching Zemeckis’ inspired writing partner Bob Gale effortlessly handle the parallel timelines chaos of Back to the Future: Part II’s time-travel antics you couldn’t help but sigh, remembering just how insultingly nonsensical Terminator: Genisys was. Zemeckis and Gale are no doubt appreciative of how beloved their work is, but Zemeckis probably wishes people would go see the movie he released last month instead of hyping one he made thirty years ago. Perhaps the takeaway from ‘Back to the Future Day’ is we get the movies we deserve.

Zemeckis & Gale had a horrible time getting their script greenlighted in the 1980s. But the idea that anybody would touch it with a bargepole now is fantasy. It’s not a sequel, it’s not based on a comic book, or a toy, or a TV show, or a YA novel, it is simply an original idea that happens to be cinematic lightning in a bottle. If we want films now that will be as beloved in 2045 as Back to the Future is now then we need to put our foot down: we want sharp scripts and properly choreographed action.

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