Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Play It Again, Sam

Why do we watch movies over and over?


I have no idea what prompted Ross Douthat to tweet about a two-year-old piece on fivethirtyeight.com, but I’m glad he did, because it lets me pontificate on two of my favorite subjects: movies, and my superior taste. And it gives me an opportunity to avoid the work I really should be doing.

So: what are the most re-watchable movies?

Well, if I look at what movies I have watched most often, there’s a pronounced skew in the direction of films that my son, when he was younger, wanted to watch over and over again. So: a lot of Pixar films, a lot of Studio Ghibli films. But there are also the classics we introduced him to that he couldn’t get enough of. “The Court Jester.” “Duck Soup.” “Singin’ In the Rain.” “Return of the Jedi” was the Star Wars flick he returned to most-often. “The Return of the King” was his favorite from the LOTR cycle. He’s a teenager now, but there are still movies that he is happy to return to over and over again. Movies like “Caddyshack.” Or “Avatar.”

What are films that I myself return to? They aren’t necessarily the best movies of all time,  but they are all very good ones, and the ones that deliver a particular experience: one in which familiarity is an enhancement to the experience. “Casablanca” has that quality for me. Also “The Philadelphia Story.” “The Princess Bride.” “Tampopo.” “The Big Lebowski.” “It’s a Wonderful Life.” “Some Like It Hot.” “Flirting With Disaster.” “Taxi Driver” is on my list. So is “Network.” “Barton Fink.” “Withnail and I.”

What do these movies have in common? Well, in part there’s a question of period. There are more movies from the 1980s than a proper cross-section of film history — much less great film history — would deliver. That’s because I’m a child of the 1980s, which means not only that some of these movies I saw at an impressionable age, but also that the sensibility of the period speaks to me even when I encountered the film for the first time later (as is the case with, for example, “After Hours,” another one for my list).

Then there’s the question of genre. The bulk of the films above are properly classified as comedies of one sort or another, and the ones that can’t be are frequently comedies reflected in a broken mirror. There’s a reason why the recut trailer of “Taxi Driver” as a romantic comedy works: because Paul Schrader’s cracked hero thinks in his twisted way that he’s in a rom-com. I don’t know if that’s a personal thing, or if it says something more universal, but I’m inclined to a position somewhere in between those two poles.

It seems to me that the experience of rewatching is first and foremost the experience of returning to the familiar, and that, if this isn’t a neurotically addictive behavior, that should be in some way connected to an experience of comfort from the familiar, both in terms of companions — these are people I know — and in terms of a journey you want to go on over and over even though — in fact, in part because — you know where it ends. Comedy and epic seem particularly suited to deliver this experience — epic because of its origins in pre-literate cultures of storytelling, the sense that you belong to the story as much as the story belongs to you, and comedy because the comic is all about the shock of recognition, the estrangement and reencounter with the familiar. Sitcoms are all about the comfort of the familiar — the place where everybody knows your name — and our favorite jokes are the ones that only get funnier the more times you tell them. And if I incline more to comedy, including dark and cracked comedy, than to epic in my own personal rewatching, well, that probably says more about me than about any universal.

Regardless, if any of the above is true, then Groundhog Day has got to be the paradigmatic rewatchable movie, given that the movie is both a comedy and an epic quest, and the movie itself is about learning to experience eternal recurrence as a source of comedy rather than of horror.

But if the movie you keep watching over and over is “Last Year At Marienbad,” well . . .




Become a Member today for a growing stake in the conservative movement.
Join here!
Join here