Repeat Viewings

You know someone—or at least you know someone who knows someone—who saw a movie in the theater in excess of two times. Maybe in excess of 10 times. I know someone who paid full price for Superman over 20 times during its original theatrical run. (See if you agree with us about its status in the comic movies pantheon) I was too young then to see movies over and over on my own, and my parents would have never indulged me had I wished to take things to those extremes.

I bring up the subject of repeat viewings because the topic came to mind as I prepared to go back to Pandora for Avatar: Special Edition—now with a whopping nine extra minutes. I was about to shell out considerable coin to see it in 3-D IMAX again as a favor to a friend who had missed it the first time around. Avatar sat somewhere in the middle of my “Top 10 of the Year,” but as the hour drew near to make that big investment of time, a nagging thought came: Am I too old and disinterested for these repeat viewings?

As a kid, I found it utterly odd my parents weren’t down with that whole watching the same movie again and again and again thing. We had that futuristic “cable,” so I could enjoy multiple viewings of movies I loved. There was Murder by Death, the goofy spoof of whodunits; and The Spy Who Loved Me, the film that got me instantly hooked on the James Bond franchise (see here and here and here for the in-progress proof). Not that they would never watch a movie more than once—The Wizard of Oz was a yearly ritual in our house as it was in homes across the nation—but as I recall, they saw little reason to revisit most movies. And while I felt that eerie kinship with my parents we all feel at a certain age, I soon realized that you can’t ever totally get rid of that habit when you’re a movie lover. In fact, there are many categories that define the desire, need, or obligation to see a film more than once. Here they are, with examples from my own history:

You’ve Gotta See This One!

Michael Winterbottom’s devastating period drama Jude brought me back a total of six times to the theater (my personal best), taking a different person each time. It was four times for me with David Cronenberg’s grotesque, touching remake of The Fly. In years past, I put Eraserhead to use in this category. I would test potential girlfriends with it. Love it? You’re awesome. Hate it? Well, you’re still awesome, but I need to do some work here.

I’m bound to be headed back to the theater to take someone—anyone—to see Robert Rodriguez’ outrageous Machete, a film my former college roommate properly declared was like “male crack” in which “you can feel the sweat pouring through every frame.” The movie is jaw-droppingly violent, filled with gratuitous nudity, and bursting with politically volatile satire. Sold!

Background Noise

These are the movies you put on to enjoy in the periphery while performing more mundane tasks. Arnold Schwarzenegger lives large in this category. My favorite of his films to put on repeat rotation is Total Recall. I’ll serve up the Bill Duke drug thriller Deep Cover for the music of the dialogue, made into hip and vulgar poetry by Laurence Fishburne and Jeff Goldblum. I use The Complete Thin Man Collection a lot for this purpose, but I never fail to stop what I’m doing when Nicky Jr. forces his dad to gulp down a glass of milk in Shadow of the Thin Man. Releases of TV favorites offer perfect opportunities for low-impact repeat viewing. In my library, The Addams Family, Barney Miller, Remington Steele, Curb Your Enthusiasm, and You Bet Your Life are never far from reach.

Restored/Reduxed/Special Editioned, aka This Movie Is Different Now

Unrated versions, director’s cuts, definitive editions…this category goes by many names. Like everyone else in the galaxy, I was curious to see what the “Special Editions” of the Star Wars trilogy were going to be like. My disappointment ran so deep I decided I wouldn’t bother owning the films again until the original cuts were restored and released. Guess I’ll be waiting a long time. Hope my laserdiscs hold out!

The Lord of the Rings saga was a different story, with the theatrical release of Jackson’s “extended” versions of the already lengthy fantasy films well worth attending to see entire story beats from the books left out of the initial releases. As for Friedkin’s unfortunate recut of the great The Exorcist, called “The Version You’ve Never Seen,” I’ll just say—I wish.

I saw the Metropolis restoration at New York’s Film Forum some years back, and I’ll definitely be looking at the newest version (containing much previously “lost” footage) on disc. The much-ballyhooed restoration of Lawrence of Arabia many years ago remains one of the great moviegoing experiences of my life.

Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner has been restored, recut, and reconfigured multiple times. I’ve lost track since I saw the first do-over that dispensed with Harrison Ford’s voiceover. Spielberg’s radical reworking of the Close Encounters of the Third Kind climax was fascinating, but his digital “corrective” measures on E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial—replacing federal agents’ guns with kid-friendly walkie-talkies—really takes this practice a step too far, and has kept me away from it since. I’ve not seen Coppola’s reworking of the Godfather films, but I did sit through Apocalypse Now Redux. Who wouldn’t love bonus footage of Brando? Coppola’s extended version of the Vietnam epic has its virtues, but when I return to the film, it’ll be to revisit the original—and to me, flawless—first release.

Was It Really That Bad/Good?

I’ve used this category to decide whether or not my initial impressions of a movie were the right ones. Fight Club I realized was far better than I’d initially thought; ditto The People vs. Larry Flynt. Batman and Robin is still a darned shame; I recently revisited the Yul Brynner sci-fi opus The Ultimate Warrior to discover that the last five minutes—the only part I could remember from the time I watched it as a child—really were the best thing about it.

Old Friends

These are the classics you know and love and feel you can’t do without. A while back, I surveyed something along these same lines with Desert Island Movies. Maybe you could call this Security Blanket Cinema. For me, it’s the Universal horror films from the 1930s and the Tarzan pictures from Weissmuller to Mike Henry. The Kirk-Spock Star Trek adventures also serve me well here, though I’ve seen the movies enough times now that these can easily morph into the “background noise” category. These are the movies that, over time, you think are part of who you are. I’ll keep watching Chaplin’s The Great Dictator…well, forever.

Eat Your Vegetables

Here, we have films you must include more than once in your cinematic diet because each time you watch them, you see something else. Something richer. Something surprising. You change, and they change with you. They continue to teach you important lessons, sometimes not just about the art of the movies. Citizen Kane, The King of Comedy, Schindler’s List, Prick Up Your Ears, Amadeus, and Wings of Desire are some of these films I find myself using for this purpose. My Dinner with Andre is a special example of this kind of required repeat viewing (and I talked about my experiences with that film here).

So…Avatar? I found myself immersed in its wonders all over again. Yes, time feels more precious these days, and I’m more eager to see a new film for the first time onscreen or on video than to “look back.” But, great and ambitious movies are as enduring over time as the paintings, sculptures, or musical compositions of past artistic masters, and have a way of compelling our return.