Re-viewing movies

We were watching Turner Classic Movies, as we so often do during the Covid in-house stay-at-home and the next movie up was Casablanca

“I don’t want to watch it. I’ve seen it,” she said. She has this reaction frequently. Once she has seen a film, she says, she knows how it ends, and so why sit through it again? 

I, of course, was non-plussed. “Do you listen to a song only once and never again, because you know how it goes?,” I asked. No, you listen over and over and get pleasure from it each time. It’s a familiar tune. And so it is, for me, with something like Casablanca. Or The Seventh Seal, or — the tune I’ve heard most often in my life — King Kong. It’s a familiar and favorite song and I can watch over and over. 

Certainly, not every movie is worth multiple viewings. The vast majority of them come and go with the urgency of mud. In fact, for many, the first time is one too many. But there are classics and while I don’t necessarily wish to see them over and over in the space of a single week, when I’m channel surfing and one of my favorites pops up, I will usually stay to the end. 

Each of us has our own list of which movies hit that button, but a favorite film has the same appeal as a favorite song — the pleasure is in hearing yet again. It has nothing to do with plot, or “how it ends.” It’s not like a TV mystery and when we come to the end and find out who dun it, we don’t need to see it over again. The air has been let out of the reason for watching in the first place. 

But a movie such as The Rules of the Game or Seven Samurai bear repeated watchings. There is such pleasure in revisiting these old friends. 

Beyond that, however, there is the issue of getting older and accruing experience — understanding things you didn’t when you were a callow youth. 

This is most near to me in rewatching Marcel Carné’s 1945 classic Les Enfants du Paradis (“Children of Paradise”). It is a long film, at 3 hours and 10 minutes, and I don’t watch it all that often (just as I don’t listen to Beethoven’s Ninth too often, so as not to diminish its special potency), and I have found that the movie itself has changed dramatically over the 50 years since I first watched it. 

Set in Paris in the 1840s, it tells the complicated story of four main characters — 

Baptiste Deburau, a mime at the low-rent pantomime theater; 

Frédérick Le Maître, an aspiring tragedian of indifferent morals; 

a petty criminal, Pierre-François Lacenaire; 

and the ambiguous Garance, with whom they all become involved. As the movie progresses, Garance’s allegiance shifts with the winds. Her motto: “Love is simple.” 

The films is one of the most highly regarded in cinema history, making almost all top 100 lists, and many Top Tens. “I would give up all my films to have directed Les Enfants du Paradis,”said French New Wave film director François Truffaut. Marlon Brando called it “maybe the best movie ever made.” And a 1995 vote by 600 French critics and professionals lent it the plain tag “Best Film Ever.” It can be an overwhelming experience — if you are not simply watching for “what happens next.” 

Each of the characters embodies a distinct idea and world view. Baptiste is an idealist; Le Maître is a practical realist; Lacenaire is a cynic; Garance is a survivor. (There are other characters, too, and they each have distinct world-views that direct their actions. One thinks of Dostoevsky and his ability to embody ideas in distinct personalities.) 

And so, the first time I saw Les Enfants, I was in college and as naively idealistic as Baptiste, and so I saw the film through his eyes and the tragedy of the film as his. 

In my 30s, and disabused of the simple understanding, I was drawn instead to Le Maître as a realist, taking the world as it is and making the most of it. By then Baptiste seemed embarrassingly sentimental. The worldly and world-wise tragedian seemed the anchor for the swirl of relationships that fill the movie. 

It is very hard to avoid becoming cynical, however, by the events of the world, and of the vicissitudes of life, and so, later viewings of the film made me feel quite sympathetic with Lacenaire, who has no illusions about his chosen profession (although he is rife with illusions — and vanity — about himself). It is hard to view Lacenaire’s story as tragedy, but rather as farce. He says so himself. 

But now I am old. And my entree into the movie are the two main women. When Garance abandons Baptiste, he ends up marrying his childhood sweetheart, Nathalie. And the film seems now to me to hover between the twin poles of Garance and Nathalie, both of whom seem so much more real than any of the men, who are all caught up in their own ideas of themselves. The women are the true realists. And both disappointed as the movie closes. They both know love is not simple. 

And so, watching Les Enfants du Paradis over five decades has been the experience of watching several completely different movies. 

The fact that the film is rich enough to  offer such different readings is reason to continue to re-watch some of our favorite movies. 

The Seventh Seal has been different films at different times: Do you identify with the soul-searching knight, the cynical squire — or perhaps with the character of Death himself. Different viewings give you various reactions. On last viewing (only last month and perhaps the 30th time I’ve seen the film) it was the itinerant showpeople Joff and Mia that seemed the point of it all. 

In such a way, re-watching a movie is the same as rereading a book. The best books can take many re-readings. Both so that we may learn different lessons from them, but also so we can re-hear the words that make up the “tune” of the book. I re-read Moby Dick just for the language. 

Perhaps my inclination to rewatch movies came from my childhood, when the New York TV Channel Nine presented the “Million Dollar Movie” several times a day for a week, offering the same film perhaps a dozen times in a week. I saw many movies over and over. 

And the champion — the movie I have seen more than any other, and by a huge margin, is the 1933 King Kong. When I first saw it on TV, I was maybe five years old and am told I watched it from behind a chair, peeking out gingerly during the “scary” stuff. My brother, then age 2 or so, sat in the big chair just happily giggling at the moving images on the screen. 

Since then, I believe I have seen King Kong as many as a hundred times, either in full or in part, picking up another showing on Turner mid-film and holding on to the end. It is neither a well-written or well-acted movie. Indeed some of the acting is among the most leaden in film history. But it has a mythic hold on my imagination, with its Gustave Doré inspired landscapes and mist-shrouded jungle and its tooth-and-claw dinosaurs. 

If anything is a familiar and favorite “tune,” it is King Kong. I have no illusions about its quality, but I cannot gainsay its effect. And yes, I know how it ends, but that makes no difference at all. 

What other tunes rattle round my head? The Big Sleep; Jules and Jim; Nosferatu; Orphée; The Third Man. Many so-called “art films.” There are probably a score, maybe up to 50 movies I re-watch with pleasure and with most of them, I learn something new each time, usually something new about myself.

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