Few pleasures in life stack up to watching a movie for the first time. That spine-tingling sensation you get diving into a new cinematic world, formulating your thoughts and feelings to have your own coveted “take” on the newest film is a rush any critic can attest to. The act of rewatching movies, however, is a bit more complicated.
I’ve been thinking about this subject ever since I first saw Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood back in July. Initially, the film underwhelmed me. Quentin Tarantino’s technical prowess and style may have wowed me, yet something about his latest film rung a bit hollow. But then, I saw it again. Something inside me changed, as a simple buddy comedy transformed into a historical epic about the death of Old Hollywood. Once Upon A Time… burrowed itself so deep into my head that I had to translate my thoughts into a full-on essay. Thus, “From Cielo Drive to Spahn Ranch” was born.
As proud as I was of that piece, many questioned it. “Didn’t you dislike the film?”, they said. “Aren’t you just riding the wave of hype?”. Admittedly, I did indulge myself while analyzing the film. However, that was only one of many factors that led me to so radically change my opinion on a film I felt I had misunderstood before. The hesitance of people to look down on that makes sense. After all, we live and die by our strongly held opinions. When you’re a critic, there’s a sense of pressure for your written word to be your final word on a film. But it shouldn’t be.
Rewatching movies is a vital part of the movie-going experience, maybe even more so than that first watch. The most immediate reason is that the first time around it’s impossible to notice everything about a film. For tentpole blockbusters, especially ones adapted from comic books, this could mean additional nods to fans of the source material. In other cases, it could be understanding major pieces of the plot.
Let’s look at The Matrix Reloaded for example. On the surface, it’s a fun popcorn flick that implodes on itself during a climactic scene where the protagonist, Neo, meets with a character named “The Architect”. The (somewhat) manageable plot line devolves into a bunch of esoteric flim-flam about equations, reality, and choice that doesn’t seem to mean much of anything. But in actuality, the scene with the Architect serves as perhaps the most pivotal scene in the film, pulling the curtain back on the nature of Neo, humanity, and the Matrix itself. After letting it fully wash over me, that became one of my favorite scenes in what is now one of my favorite science fiction films.
A huge factor in that is watching the movie with subtitles. The viewing of a movie could be interrupted by background noise and even unintelligible dialogue from the characters. As a result, having subtitles is a good guide to follow in case you miss something. Hell, Robert Eggers’ films, The Witch and The Lighthouse, could be unintelligible gibberish to the layman! Whatever the minor inconvenience is of having text block an inch or two of your screen, the pros outweigh the cons.
Some movies are made to be rewatched as a function of the film itself. Take Cloud Atlas or The Fountain, for example. Both deal with sweeping stories told across multiple timelines. Both are simply a lot to take in, and unless you like to watch your movies with charts and graphs, it’s sometimes better to just have another go at movies like these to get the whole picture.
Shouldn’t all movies be able to be understood the first time around? No. The majority, maybe, but should all works of literature or general art have to be completely and immediately digestible? Some of the greatest art needs to be solved. In fact, it is a challenge that many moviegoers are eager to try.
Moreover, context often matters. For example, to bring up the third Wachowski Sisters movie in this article, I hated Speed Racer upon the first watch. But after gaining an appreciation for anime and seeing what inspired its heavy stylization, I began to see it as a watershed moment in cinema. It now ranks as one of my favorite movies. Another case is Blade Runner, which I found lackluster as a teen. Yet every time I’ve watched it since, I’m swept away by the sheer amount of craft and thematic resonance it holds.
The power of good film writing cannot be discounted either. On a first watch, a movie like Blue is the Warmest Color could seem like a beautiful love story. Upon reading analysis by LGBTQ+ writers, it now comes to the light as a repugnant movie that uses romantic relationships between women for the leering eyes of male audiences. Even seemingly repugnant movies like The House That Jack Built become masterpieces through the benefit of excellent writing that reveals its thematic connection to the struggles of its artist.
This even happened here at Full Circle, when Audrey Griffin & I did our “Showdown” on Only God Forgives. Although I still hold that film near and dear to my heart, their takedown of what they say is a hollow means to express the filmmaker’s own artistic desires has made me view Nicolas Winding Refn’s work through a more critical lens. We all have different perspectives and they can often help inform each other.
I’m not saying that you should strain yourself to rewatching a movie you hate. Rewatching a movie until you give yourself a form of cinematic Stockholm Syndrome won’t do anyone any good. All I ask if that you dig deeper. If there’s a movie out there you really despise, figure out why you hated it. If there’s a movie you really loved, why did it resonate with you? The rewatch is just as magical an experience as the first watch, and it’s time to celebrate that. – James Preston Poole