Over and Over Again: Rewatching Movies as Familial Culture

The first film in Peter Jackson’s epic Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Fellowship of the Ring, opened in December 2001, and I went and saw it nine times. It was by no means the first film that I’d developed an unabashed love for, but it was the first time a cinematic experience had blown me completely away. I had never seen anything like it before, and I imagined my delight in the spectacle to be something akin to what moviegoers must have felt seeing cinematic game-changers like King Kong or Star Wars for the first time—like being in the middle of a definable historical moment. I wanted to feel that way again and again. And every time I watched the film, I did. And still do.

A few weeks ago, I went to see the new Star Trek, Beyond, and I loved it. I wrote a very brief review of it on my Facebook page, wrapping up with the declaration that I wouldn’t mind seeing it again. And again. This prompted a friend to ask me about my experience of watching media and what I get out of the act of watching and rewatching films, which in turn prompted me to ponder: Why am I so prone to rewatching movies? And what do I get out of it?

There’s an obvious answer, of course. Rewatching films enables me to see things that I have never noticed, even on many, many multiple viewings. I must be up to more than thirty viewings of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, for example, and I only recently noticed, and therefore understood, just what it was that Harry did to Voldemort in their final confrontation. This is not so much a function of observation, or lack thereof, but of evolution. I am often a different person—with different concerns—when I rewatch even the most beloved of films, and I am constantly watching for different things, either consciously or unconsciously. I couldn’t do half the media criticism that I do without meticulous rewatching. At the same time, I cannot maintain the fixed views that I develop as a result and am forever looking back at my analyses and thinking to myself, “You know, I don’t completely accept that interpretation anymore…” which is, I feel, exactly as it should be.

So that’s the obvious answer for you.

Less obvious of an answer is that rewatching films is intrinsically tied to who I am as a person. Simply put, I rewatch the movies I love because to do so is a fundamental component of my familial culture, and I would not be me if I didn’t.

A love of film was ingrained in me from such an early age that I now think of it as part of my personal cultural heritage. My mother took me to movies from a young age; my father took me to movies from a young age. My aunts and uncles took me to movies from a young age. What did me and my cousins do during our summer vacations? Play at the beach and in the woods, yes, but also we watched movies. At least one a day, and sometimes more than one. Sometimes a marathon. Bedtime was always preceded by a movie, and everyone got a chance to pick in turn. No one was allowed to gripe about the movie someone else picked, even if it was a rewatch. And of course we rewatched. We watched at home. On late night television. And later on VHS. And still later on DVD. And now on Blu-Ray.

We watch, and we rewatch. And we introduce each other to the things that we love. Have you seen this film? It’s amazing. I have a copy here. Sit down, let’s watch it.

Granted, many people rewatch films from time to time as a means of reliving a story that they enjoyed, but this is not what I’m talking about. My, and my family’s, love of watching and rewatching movies goes well beyond a mere enjoyment of story and into a realm where a common framework of understanding is woven by the experience of, and love for, the same films. Movie watching, and—more than that—knowing a movie inside and out, is part of how we communicate with one another. Exchanging specific lines, or referring to specific scenes, that mean specific things to specific people, and that can never be fully explained without first giving a crash course in a lifetime’s worth of personal, shared context.

“Looking good, Lewis,” my father would say to my uncle, when he was having a good time and feeling particularly at peace with the world.

“Feeling good, Billy Ray,” my uncle would reply, because he felt the same way.

And now my father says these lines to me, and I respond, and the words are no longer merely expressive of a personal contentment that defies all other forms of articulation, but also of the shared memory of one we love, who left us much too soon. For it is a particular power of objects to trigger memories, and this is true of movies as well.

The movie begins, and I am sitting out on the front porch with my mother, drinking beer and watching in the flickering light of a laptop computer because the power has gone out all over the neighborhood, and it is a warm summer night and much too early for sleep, and we will never forget how much fun it was.

The movie begins, and I am crying with my grandmother over the heartrending pathos of the tale, and then giggling with her because we always cry, and it’s pathetic but also special—a secret that only we share—and every time I watch, she is alive and well once more, and I feel the through-line of a heritage that I will never lose.

The movie begins and begins again.

About a month ago, I went to see a screening of The NeverEnding Story. Though the film was a particular favorite of mine in childhood, I hadn’t seen it for at least fifteen years, and I was very curious to see how it held up. So began one of the oddest experiences of my life: one in which I knew every line of dialogue, down to the intonation, and yet saw the film through entirely new eyes. It hadn’t aged well (not everything does), but the memories of watching it with my family, of devising endless games of imagination in which my cousins and I braved the dangers of the Nothing to save a Fantasia that existed only within the confines of our backyard (“Run, Atreyu! Run!”), those are timeless and always will be.

Over and over.


Sara Reads no. 10

A weekly digest of thoughts on fiction, non-fiction, and all the news I see fit to print.

Kindred Defenders of Genre Fiction
In his preface to A Century of Sea Stories, Rafael Sabatini—best known as the author of Scaramouche and Captain Blood—begins with a warning to his readers: “This is not a book,” he writes, “for those exalted intellectuals to whom plot in a story is the sign of auctorial(1) puerility, who deprecate invention in fiction, look askance on the romantic, and for whom no piece of writing can be distinguished if it has the temerity to be dramatic.”

Though he lived well before my time, I suspect that Mr. Sabatini and I would have gotten on like a house on fire. A house on fire that subsequently exploded while the hero of some romantic adventure dove for cover—in the nick of time—in the foreground.

The argument over the merits of genre fiction, particularly in relationship to its more respected counterpart literary fiction, has a lengthy history—one that Sabatini was clearly embroiled in more than eighty years ago. In recent years, genre fiction has gained a certain measure of respectability as practitioners have eloquently defended it and literary critics have investigated the ways in which it addresses social issues and effects change within the field of literary fiction.(2) For my part, however, I prefer Sabatini’s brash and unapologetic response to those who look down on genre fiction. Though it is true that genre fiction can be as powerful as any literary work, can have as much cultural impact and as much (if not more) staying power, and can tackle as serious of subjects, it’s important to note that even if it didn’t, genre fiction would still possess a surfeit of merit simply on the basis of its being enjoyed. It needs no other recommendation, and those of us who like it should stop buying into the notion that it does and instead embrace the Sabatini philosophy: if you don’t like it, GTFO.

Strange Things Are Happening (Ain’t No Doubt About It)
I made time this week to watch the show that everyone and their brother told me I had to watch—Netflix’s runaway summer hit, Stranger Things—and I loved it. You can probably expect an essay about some of the show’s more progressive points in a couple of weeks or so, but in the meantime check out these super-cute show-related video clips:

Perfect Stranger Things – Opening Titles … (via)
Gaten Matarazzo and Caleb McLaughlin Sing Along to the Stranger Things Theme Song … (via)
Stranger Things as an 80s Sitcom … (via)

1) Auctorial is a synonym of authorial. It is rarely used today.
2) For a great overview of the genre fiction vs literary fiction conversation, I recommend reading Arthur Krystal’s New Yorker article, “Easy Writers: Guilty Pleasures Without Guilt” (May 22, 2012), followed by Lev Grossman’s response in Time: “Literary Revolution in the Supermarker Aisle: Genre Fiction is Disruptive Technology” (May 23, 2012).

In Which Donald Trump has a Worse Knowledge of Nuclear Politics than the Writers of a Really Bad Sword & Sorcery Film from the Early ’90s

Speaking from experience, I can say with a fair degree of confidence that Beastmaster 2: Through the Portal of Time is one of the worst films ever made. The story is ridiculous, the dialogue is clunky, and the acting is—for the most part—appalling. In short, it’s an awful awful film and I love it. I haven’t had reason to watch it, much less think of it, in years, but this week it was brought to mind in the most unlikely way, when news broke that presidential candidate Donald J. Trump had allegedly repeatedly asked a foreign policy adviser why the US can’t just use its nuclear weapons.*

The first thing to pop into my mind when I heard this story was the obvious answer to that question: the use of nuclear weapons by any nation would run the risk of sparking a nuclear conflict that could decimate life on this planet as we know it.

The second thing to pop into my mind was: “Wait, are you telling me that Donald Trump has less of a grasp on nuclear politics than the screenwriters of Beastmaster 2?”

I mean, I’m well aware of Trump’s general lack of knowledge about… well… most anything, but this is an impressive display of ignorance about the way the world works (and has worked for decades). It’s so impressive that it makes the writing for Beastmaster 2 look intelligent, which. No.

The plot of the film is far too convoluted to get into, but the salient scene involves a discussion of modern nuclear politics between the film’s chief antagonists. The treacherous witch, Lyranna, having won an audience with the vicious warlord, Arklon—look just go with it—tells him about the technological marvels of a parallel world (spoiler alert: earth) that she can transport him to, thereby enabling him to lay claim to advanced weapons that will ensure his reign once and for all. (Don’t worry, though, Dar, the beastmaster, will obviously foil this nefarious plot.) The two discuss the marvels of modern earth in the following exchange:

Arklon: What sorcery is this?
Lyranna: A dimensional portal; the doorway to your ultimate triumph, my lord. A world that exists on a parallel plain with our own.
Arklon: And what do they call this place?
Lyranna: The natives call it “L.A.”
Arklon: Al. Ey.
Lyranna: I have been studying their ways for some time now.
Arklon: Oh, what marvels they possess!
Lyranna: Indeed, and one in particular should interest you. It is housed at one of their military fortresses; their men of science call it a “neutron detonator.” It’s compact enough to carry, yet powerful enough to destroy life in an area the size of a continent.
Arklon: With the threat of such a weapon, I could rule unopposed.
Lyranna: Exactly!
Arklon: Exactly.

Wait for it, though. Here it comes…

Lyranna: Their political structure is based on such weapons. They refer to it as “the balance of terror.”
Arklon: What a brilliantly barbarous concept!

And a pretty easy concept to grasp, right? And yet.

Look, I’m not saying that Trump is less informed than a bunch of B-movie scriptwriters, but Trump is less informed than a bunch of B-movie scriptwriters. And I realize that this won’t disconcert anyone who isn’t already aghast at the idea of a Trump presidency, but I wanted to point it out anyway, because, holy shit, y’all, Donald Trump has less of a grasp on nuclear politics than the screenwriters of Beastmaster-motherfucking-2.

And that’s hilarious.

In a fiddling while Rome burns kind of way.

* I fully expect Trump to deny it, if he comments on the report at all, but since he’s obviously a pathological liar, I’m not inclined to believe any denial that may be forthcoming.

That Time CBR Trashed Emma Frost Because of Sexism

Outside of my friends and family, there are three things in life that I really love: sleeping in on my days off, the Oxford comma, and Emma Frost of the X-Men. I’m half-joking, of course. I actually love a lot of things—anyone who reads this blog knows, for example, that I also really love Bucky Barnes. But I’m not kidding when I say I love Emma Frost. As a rare example of a powerful female anti-hero, she’s always been something of an inspiration to me—both as a writer and as a woman—and I naturally get more than a little peeved when she inevitably catches shit for things that pretty much no other comic book characters ever catch shit for.

The most recent example of this phenomenon is the latest installment of If I Pass This Way Again, a ongoing column published on Comic Book Resources that focuses on weird storylines that subsequently fail to be mentioned in later issues: “That Time Emma Frost Just Flat Out Murdered People.” The article looks at some particularly damning examples from Emma’s original incarnation as a supervillian: her callous murder of the henchmen who fail her, her torture of Firestar, even the coldblooded revenge killing of her own sister, Adrienne. The argument is that all these things have to be glossed over in order to accept Emma as a hero, and furthermore that in order to make them easy for the reader to gloss over that they are never really referred to afterward in comics canon. Nothing about either of these assertions is true.

Now, this article is basically intended as a lighthearted jaunt down comics memory lane. It’s not deliberately malicious, but it is predicated on ingrained sexism—as are the cavalcade of comments from (mostly male) readers complaining about how awful Emma Frost is and how she just doesn’t work as a hero—and I feel compelled to call it out. The article, and the general response to it, are textbook examples of the higher standard to which women—particularly unconventional women—are held to, both in fiction and in every day life.

Let’s unpack this a bit, shall we?

Emma Frost has done many questionable—and even terrible—things, both before, during, and—presumably—after her time with the X-Men.(1) She kidnapped Kitty Pryde, possessed Storm in order to infiltrate the X-Men, tortured Firestar, cultivated a group of naive young mutants to be her personal supervillian team only to get them all killed, murdered her own sister, struck a dubious deal with Norman Osbourne during the Dark Reign era, abducted, mind-wiped, and deserted Sebastian Shaw, joined Cyclops in rebellion against the Avengers and later the X-Men. She is a woman with an extremely flexible moral fiber, a woman willing to do whatever it takes to achieve her goals. Sometimes those goals have been noble; sometimes they have been diabolical. But the means by which she has achieved them have always skated about the edges of ethicality. It’s a fundamental component of who she is, and it hasn’t ever changed.

Dark X-Men: The Confession (2009)
Craig Kyle, Chris Yost, Bing Cansino, Roland Paris, Edgar Delgado, Brian Reber

Moreover, there’s nothing secret about Emma’s past. Nor is it, as the CBR article argues, ever glossed over. Her role in the death of the Hellions, and her feelings of remorse about it, was first addressed in Uncanny X-Men no. 314. It was a reoccurring theme throughout the Generation X run, as Emma struggled to come to terms with her less-than-savory nature, agonized over the loss of her former students, doubted her ability to be an appropriate mentor to her new students, and overreacted to threats against them. Her survivor’s guilt was an ongoing theme when she reappeared in Morrison and Quitely’s New X-Men and it was a major plot point in Whedon and Cassaday’s Astonishing X-Men. Emma’s checkered past was brought to the fore once more in Matt Fraction’s “Quarantine” story (Uncanny X-Men nos. 529-534), when she confronted her former Hellfire Club master Sebastian Shaw, and it was alluded to again in Brian Michael Bendis’ run on the series (Uncanny X-Men vol. 3, no. 18). The point I’m trying to make, is that—contrary to the article’s chief claim—nothing about Emma Frost’s past has ever been glossed over. It is constantly with her and constantly in the minds of those who know her.

axv3 02
Astonishing X-Men vol. 3, no. 2 (2004)
Joss Whedon and John Cassaday

So why do readers treat her past as if it is ignored and vilify her for that reason?

Could it be that Emma Frost, as a true, uncompromising, and unapologetic anti-hero, as a character whose forceful personality defies societal standards for appropriate feminine behavior, is held to a different standard than all the many, many other characters in the Marvel universe who possess dubious pasts? Let’s consider some of those characters.

Rogue began narrative life as a vicious supervillian, who maimed Carol Danvers—stealing both her powers and her memories—and left her for dead. She only joined the X-Men when Carol’s personality threatened to overwhelm her and only over the strenuous objections of the other members of the team. She’s now a member of the Avengers, and a perennial fan favorite. The smooth-talking Gambit was eventually revealed to have had a direct hand in the massacre of the Morlocks by the Marauders and also spent some time, off and on, as the Horsemen of Death, a fate brought about by his own arrogance. Perennial fan favorite. Professor X has forcibly mind-wiped several people, including Magneto—an act that led directly to his becoming Onslaught and destroying the Avengers (for a little while anyway). He also purposely subjugated the Danger Room AI when it became sentient, effectively forcing a living being into slavery, and once changed history in order to ensure that someone he considered a threat was never born. He’s practically treated like a saint. And I could easily go on. Beast, Scarlet Witch, Quicksilver. Wolverine. (And those are just the mutants.)

Uncanny X-Men vol. 1, no. 314 (1994)
Scott Lobdell, Lee Week, Bill Sienkewiecz, Steve Buccellato

No one ever complains that it’s difficult to treat said characters as heroes because of their past. No one ever complains that comics canon has to ignore odd plot points about them in order to sell their current incarnations. Treating any of the above-mentioned characters like heroes requires as much “glossing over” of their past sins as is necessary to believe in Emma Frost’s heroism, and yet no one ever complains about them. Because when you do the math, moving on from a character’s past is not that odd at all. “That Time Emma Frost Just Flat Out Murdered People” is not pointing out a weird plot buried in the depths of long-forgotten comics history; it’s pointing out an extremely typical example of the kind of character-building that goes on in superhero stories all the time. They struggle, they stumble, they rise again. Or not. There’s nothing odd about Emma Frost’s dark past; what’s odd is that she gets to own her past and present with as much brazen confidence as Deadpool or Loki. The only reason for her story to be treated as an anomaly is sexism. It’s not that fans can’t see her as a hero, but that they can’t see her as an anti-hero.

Emma Frost doesn’t fit the mold, and the fanboys just can’t let it go.

1) I say presumably because we haven’t seen Emma since Secret Wars, so we don’t really know what’s she’s been up to. The upcoming Death of X crossover should shed some light on that.