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.