This is the time of year people start making New Year’s lists, and if you’re in any respect a culture vulture that means making lists of works of art to “take in” that you haven’t managed to get to yet. But a bucket list is an almost comically awful way to approach art. You’re not just reducing art to a signifier (of taste, class, whatever) rather than letting it be the thing itself; you’re not just turning it into a commodity (something to be accumulated rather than experienced) and reducing it to its cash value; you’re actually turning it into something akin to cash itself, into a featureless line in a ledger.
But . . . I like lists. I find that a physical list of, say, places I’ve been actually jogs my memory, breathes life back into the experience of the place. Ditto with cultural experiences – ditto even with people I don’t see regularly enough.
Of course, flipping through names on Facebook isn’t the same as seeing somebody again. So: here’s a list of a different character. Not a list to make you feel bad about all the experiences you haven’t accumulated yet, nor to make you feel virtuous once you’ve checked them off. But a list of old friends to revisit.
It’s a list of movies to see again. Not because there are no new movies coming down the pike worth seeing – there will be piles of them – any more than because there are new places to see you should never sleep in your own bed. Not because 2014 is the right year to see this or that film, but because any year would be a good year. They’re just films you’ll enjoy seeing again. And again.
Some movies repay repeat viewing because the experience changes materially – and for the better – the second time around. “Fight Club” is a good example – seeing it again once you know the big “twist” is a different and more even more enjoyable experience than seeing it for the first time. For others, you really have to marinate yourself in the film before you’ve truly experienced it. “The Big Lebowski” is probably the template for that kind of film: the jokes get funnier once you know them, but also subtle acting and directing choices stand out that you might not have noticed before. Try watching the entire film paying closest attention to Donnie; it’s a whole new movie.
Sometimes you were just the right age. Like, the way I saw “Star Wars” fourteen times the year it came out. Because I was seven and, you know, that’s what seven year olds do. I’m sure “Toy Story” had a similar trajectory – I’ve certainly seen it over a dozen times, and I can tell you, existential crisis really doesn’t get old. Nor does Miyazaki’s perfect tale of maturation, “Spirited Away.”
The old television networks understood the importance of repetition. That’s why they aired “It’s a Wonderful Life” every Christmas. And why they aired “The Wizard of Oz” every . . . actually, I don’t remember when they aired it – but I understand it was very confusing for people back when most everybody had a black-and-white television. Anyway: they knew what they were doing. See them again, even though you don’t have to.
And then of course there’s “Groundhog Day,” which is in a class by itself in terms of demanding re-screening.
“The Shining,” on the other hand, I would not recommend seeing over and over and over and over and over and over and over again. Or you’ll wind up making a silly movie like this one. Or, you know, chopping your family to bits. Ah, heck – it’s worth the risk.
That’s a bunch already. I’m going to list a few more, but I’m not going to get to 100. Not without your help anyway. So please – submit your additions to the list in the comments.
“Withnail and I” – legitimate contender for best buddy movie ever, certainly one of the best conjurations of the spirit of the late ’60s, British variant, and if nothing else, definitely a movie that will do something to your brain. And once it has done so, why would you want to do anything else to it? Why trust one movie more than another?
A tale of city boys in the country needs to be mated with a story of country boys in the big city. “On the Town” – no, it isn’t as iconic as “Singin’ In the Rain,” but it’s equally perfect as a movie, and it wears its perfection more lightly – and for that reason, becomes even more thoroughly enjoyable the more familiar it is. And the ending basically announces that you’re supposed to see it again. Come up to my place, and we’ll put it on.
And then, when it gets late, we’ll put on “After Hours,” a very different tale of the city. Martin Scorsese’s only “indie,” and his only film (I believe) to feature a cameo by Tommy Chong, it’s another film that announces the necessity of repetition with the ending, but it’s also so dense with visual jokes that it’s really impossible to absorb them all in one viewing.
More comedy! Everybody’s seen “The Princess Bride” a hundred times – and with good reason. But how many times have you seen “The Court Jester,” Danny Kaye’s triumph of a mock-swashbucker? However many it is, it isn’t enough. Similarly, everybody’s seen “Some Like It Hot” and “The Apartment” – two Billy Wilder films that certainly merit re-watching. But his less-heralded Cold War comedy, “One, Two, Three,” has an ever greater density of jokes that never stop being funny. And the third act, lifted wholesale from Ferenc Molnar’s play, The President, only gets more outrageously unbelievable with each viewing.
The classic “comedy of remarriage” films from the 1940s are all ideal for perpetual revisiting – as someone smarter than me pointed out, they’re like Shakespeare. For my money, the two best are “The Lady Eve” and “The Philadelphia Story.” And they make an excellent double-feature to boot; watching Barbara Stanwyck run rings around Henry Fonda is the perfect antidote to watching Kate Hepburn get pummeled emotionally by pretty much every male in the film.
Meanwhile, a more modern film very much in the spirit of the ’40s classics is “Flirting With Disaster,” David O. Russell’s sophomore effort and a personal touchstone. See, this is the kind of movie you make when you watch great movies over and over again until they sink into you. (Tarantino films, by contrast, are what you make when you watch junk movies over and over again until they sink into you.)
But you know, they don’t all have to be great movies. And a personal fave in the “not great but wonderful to see over and over” category is the ’80s Richard Pryor comedy, “Brewster’s Millions,” about a down-on-his-luck minor-league ballplayer who unexpectedly inherits $30 million dollars – with a catch: he has to spend it all in 30 days. It’s as funny now as it was when I was a kid – I’d say I don’t know why they haven’t remade it (again – the ’80s version is based on a Depression-era film, which is based on an even older novel) except I know they’d only ruin it.
Speaking of the Depression – one of the strangest musicals ever made is a disastrous love story set in the Depression. I’m talking about “Pennies From Heaven,” which, as a story of mental colonization by over-familiar popular art, is also a great one for revisiting over and over. And then you can visit the television miniseries on which the movie is based – both are excellent, and quite different from one another.
Speaking of series: when a new movie in a series comes out, sometimes it’s a good idea to see the previous installments, just to refresh your memory. But sometimes, it’s just a good excuse to revisit beautiful films, and experience how your relationship with them changes with age. Or maybe I’m just talking about one series in particular: Richard Linklater’s continuing “Before” saga, currently a trilogy: “Before Sunrise,” “Before Sunset,” and “Before Midnight.” May they keep coming, and keep providing me with excuses to watch them all. (And because we have to watch them all, we’ll count them as one entry in the list.)
With Linklater’s trilogy, a reason to revisit is to learn how our perspective on the films changes as we age. With Akira Kurosawa’s “Rashomon,” shifting perspective is substantially what the film is about. Which is an excellent reason to see it again and again – to experience how our understanding of each version of the story shifts the more familiar we are with the other versions.
If you’re Akira Kurosawa, you make great samurai films partly inspired by American westerns, and then what do the Americans do? They turn around and make American westerns inspired by your samurai films. So what’s a Japanese filmmaker to do but, as the late lamented Juzo Itami did, make a modern Japanese picaresque with all of these mutual borrowings hovering in the background. The result: “Tampopo,” one of the sweetest films I know, and one you’ll want to see again and again just to recall the taste of it.
Some meals are harder to swallow – acquired tastes, let’s say – but once acquired they can become addictive. “The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover” gets its primal energy from a political fury that is no longer relevant, but it endures as a stunning visual realization of its central metaphors of carnality. “La Grande Bouffe” is, in its way, equally political, though much less overt about it, and is a much more terrible journey. But somehow it compels return visits.
There are terrible journeys, and then there are terrible journeys. One of the most harrowing I know is Charlie Kaufman’s magnum opus, “Synechdoche, New York,” a film which explicitly tries to contain all of life, and just about does so. It’s so painful, it’s almost unbearable to watch, but you have to watch it again, both to absorb all the details and because the memory of it will otherwise fade, and this film has something to teach us that we need not to forget.
- “Fight Club”
- “The Big Lebowski”
- “Star Wars”
- “Toy Story”
- “Spirited Away”
- “It’s a Wonderful Life”
- “The Wizard of Oz”
- “Groundhog Day”
- “The Shining”
- “Withnail and I”
- “On the Town”
- “After Hours”
- “The Court Jester”
- “One, Two, Three”
- “The Lady Eve”
- “The Philadelphia Story”
- “Flirting With Disaster”
- “Brewster’s Millions”
- “Pennies From Heaven”
- “Before Sunrise”/”Before Sunset”/”Before Midnight”
- “The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover”
- “La Grande Bouffe”
- “Synecdoche, New York”
Seems like a good start. Your turn.