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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May 5, 2018

From the Archives: Son of Rambow

Another dive into the pre-Talking Movies archives turns up a neglected British comedy whose child stars went on to interesting careers while its director waited nearly a decade for Sing.

Garth Jennings, director of the flawed but fun Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy film, fulfils his obvious potential with a very funny and charming slice of 1980s nostalgia. Directed from his own script, which he was working on prior to Hitchhiker’s, this is very obviously a deeply personal project. Fantastic young lead actor Bill Milner (think a less annoying Freddie Highmore…) plays Will, a shy child who lives with his widowed religious mother and has little contact with the rough side of life…until a detention-worthy encounter in the school corridor with Carter, whose introduction is a visual triumph. Will Poulter is fantastic as Lee Carter, the coolest kid in school. Every school had one of these, a bad boy with a heart of gold…maybe. But not every school had one who got up to such demented antics involving flying plastic dogs…

It’s a great pity that this film is being released after the similarly themed Be Kind Rewind as this is far, far funnier. Jennings’ staging of the boys’ production of insane home movie Son of Rambow is just inspired, with endless quirky and inventive stunts. The warmth of the script has attracted a nice supporting cast of British actors including comedy legend Eric Sykes. Spaced star Jessica Stevenson stands out in an unusually dramatic turn as Will’s mother, a leading member of the Plymouth Brethren who disavow music, films and television. Will thus has to sit outside while TV documentaries are shown in class, which leads to a wonderful running gag, and also his fateful encounter with Carter.

Featuring the coolest New Romantic French exchange student of all time among other joys this does occasionally dip into cliché with its ‘touching’ message about childhood friendship and the liberating joy of cinema. But it’s all done with such obvious affection for the perils of watching Rambo at too young an age that it can be forgiven its faults. Son of Rambow is reminiscent of Grosse Pointe Blank in being a film so warm-hearted and fun that it can make you nostalgic for a 1980s adolescence you never even had.

4/5

April 25, 2018

From the Archives: Be Kind Rewind

Another deep dive into the pre-Talking Movies archives finds what is the only Mos Def/Yasiin Bey movie I ever reviewed!

The trailer promises a wacky Jack Black comedy but this is really an exercise in whimsy with occasional moments of laugh out loud comedy. Maverick director Michel Gondry, after two films with the equally eccentric (and severely over-rated) screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, is now penning his own scripts. But his wafer-thin characterisation sees him relying far too heavily on the charisma of his leading men to carry the material. If you don’t like Jack Black or Mos Def then avoid this film, or go, but thank heaven for Danny Glover who lends gravitas as Mr Fletcher. Fletcher is the Fats Waller worshipping owner of the titular video store, named after a Waller song and housed in the building where Fats was born, which is now so decrepit that adopted son Mike (Mos Def) might demolish it by slamming a door. The store survives because of the number of stubborn/deranged people in the neighbourhood who refuse to switch to DVD. Mike is left in charge while Mr Fletcher investigates whether switching to DVD is the only way of raising enough money for repairs before a council demolition deadline

Enter disaster in the shape of Jerry (Jack Black), Mike’s best friend, who talks him into an attempt at sabotaging the local power plant (a sequence featuring a sublime visual gag) which leaves Jerry magnetised and thus all the store’s videotapes erased. Mr Fletcher’s best friend Ms Falewicz (Mia Farrow) demands Ghostbusters and Mike and Jerry, with no time to hunt down a replacement VHS copy, decide to make their own version with a camcorder, hilariously no-budget special effects, and Mike as Bill Murray…with Jerry as everyone else. This leads to crowds of new customers with requests for films that they want Mike, Jerry and leading lady (and drycleaner) Lorna to ‘Swede’ for them. Deeply demented versions of Driving Miss Daisy and Rush Hour 2 emerge and soon half the neighbourhood are joyously taking roles in the ‘Sweded’ films.

Be Kind Rewind is visually disappointing when set aside the quirkiness of Michel Gondry’s music videos and his best film to date Eternal Sunshine. Indeed the highlight of the film comes when he stops being restrained and indulges in some of his trademark in-camera special effects, using his long held patent on ‘how’d they do that?!’ trickery. The dazzling and hilarious long take in which Jack Black and Mos Def re-enact scenes from classic movies (including 2001: A Space Odyssey) using insanely inventive no-budget special effects is itself shot in an insanely inventive low-budget way. (Somewhere a post-modernist just got his wings). Oddly enough, like Cloverfield, the usual sentimental cliches of movie logic do not apply in this universe. The unexpectedly realistic ending means that Be Kind Rewind works best as a love-note to film-making and audience participation rather than as pure comedy.

3/5

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