Tom Jolliffe looks at when you need to watch a film a second time to fully appreciate it…
A couple of days ago one of my Flickering Myth brethren Neil Calloway wrote a piece about watching classic films for the first time and finding them boring. The piece certainly got a reaction, from no less than Ron Perlman. In particular it seemed to be a lack of glowing praise for The Godfather that incurred some internet (and Hellboy) scorn. As with any film fan, Neil’s entitled to his opinion, but it got me thinking. Thinking back to the first time I watched The Godfather. Like my colleague, I did so fully knowing its reputation.
My first viewing left me slightly underwhelmed. I liked it, but it’s long. It’s slow. From about half way in I’d been locked down in the figure four leg lock, it certainly had me. It was the second viewing onward where I truly appreciated the film. Of course, to get to that desire for a second viewing a film needs to at least linger and resonate. Sometimes you watch something and you’re so far from a connection you never try again. That being said the legacy of something like The Godfather may sway your thinking into a second attempt just to be sure it’s not your bag. For what it’s worth, Pacino’s first kill in the film may be one of cinemas most perfectly constructed and executed scenes ever. Pacino barely says a word, but his face says everything and the payoff is savage.
Going back to the issue of finding yourself unable to love a ‘classic’ I’ve recently been on something of a classics binge trying to catch up with films I’ve missed. I’ve burned through some Bergman, Cassavetes and more. About a decade ago I tried The Seventh Seal. It just didn’t connect. Since the turn of the year I’ve watched a few Ingmar Bergman classics. Persona was fantastic. I loved Wild Strawberries and Cries And Whispers. Few so wonderfully capture the complexity of the human condition, and it leaves me intent on giving The Seventh Seal another go.
Then there’s Warner Herzog’s infamous, Aguirre, The Wrath Of God. I just really did not connect with it. It’s slow, ponderous and not much happens but nuggets stuck with me. Kinski’s unhinged energy or the final shot for example. It’s not one I feel an insatiable need to have a rematch with any time soon, but it will happen one day I’m sure.
Here’s the thing. You get told, ‘you must see this film.’ History tells you. Friends tell you. Countless Top 100 lists, curated by learned film enthusiasts tell you. When I studied at Uni, Withnail And I began to take on almost biblical status such was the fawning over it. In some aspects it wasn’t even down to the film itself. People were certainly firing off the memorable lines, but things like the Withnail And I drinking game (matching the characters drink for drink). In fact said game leaves me wondering, having now seen the film dozens of times, just how people aren’t dead by the half way point. So 6 months into my first year at Uni I relent and I watch the film expecting to orgasm myself to oblivion at the sheer majesty of it. I didn’t. In fact I was a little disappointed.
I’m sure many watch this film and love it from first viewing. I certainly laughed out loud at choice lines but it wasn’t until second viewing that I was fully tuned to it. Then every subsequent viewing since, the film gets better and better. It’s got to the point now that Withnail sits firmly in my Top 3 of all time. You might not get the humour first time. You might not fully appreciate the beautifully tragic dramatic back bone to the absurd comedy. You may not be able to take the overt simplicity of the plot (Two out of work actors get fed up and go to a holiday cottage for a couple of days…the end). The three central characters are wonderfully crafted. The other side characters are wonderfully observed. It’s the Withnail lineage in the film in particular that carries the weight of most of the hopeless tragedy, whether it’s Withnail (Richard E Grant) or his lecherous Gay Uncle, Monty (Richard Griffiths). Uncle Monty, this slightly absurd character who becomes increasingly leering toward ‘I’(Paul McGann) takes actions into darker territory, attempting to take ‘I’ by ‘burglary.’ Yet by the end, through a series of rambling anecdotes of lost youth, and companionship, and a tragically shameful exit, you can’t help but feel for old Monty. This is cinema at its complex, beautifully played finest.
I recall going into watching Stalker with an expectation of seeing a Sci-Fi classic. Then you start thinking of Metropolis, Blade Runner and more. Andrei Tarkovsky’s film runs on a metaphorical, philosophical plane of existence. On the surface it’s three blokes walking around in fields and dank tunnels for most of the film. It’s nearly three hours of pondering. I just did not get it on first viewing. I felt I’d been miss-sold. Even 2001: A Space Odyssey, whilst slow has action. It has the threat of malfunctioning A.I, or the visual dazzle of stargates and baffling imagery to be decoded. I couldn’t fully get past my expectation for more impact but the film still stuck with me somewhat. I couldn’t forget it, couldn’t shake it off. The imagery was beautiful but it took me the second viewing to shake off my expectations and to then study the film. Then you begin to pick things up when you can give yourself over to the pace. You spot things like a shot seemingly from a characters point of view, until the camera stops, focused ahead and said character then walks into frame. Suddenly it’s voyeuristic, and then you realise, with all the build up to establishing ‘The Zone’ as a place of threat, that the shot is from the P.O.V of ‘The Zone.’ Suddenly it’s an actual discernible entity within the film, and not merely some fields and abandoned military grounds that Tarkovsky and cast shot in.
It can often take the second viewing of a film to tune out that predisposition going in. You watch a classic to be taken away and consumed by it. Your expectations are high going in. If The Godfather regularly pops up in Top 10 lists (never mind top 100) then you’ll expect to be gripped from minute one. You expect to be blown away as majestically as James Caan is despatched in the film. Anything less than Utopia is going to disappoint. Second viewing, your expectations have been removed. You didn’t love it, but then you can watch unhindered by legacy. Then you may appreciate more. Maybe you see more of the craft. Maybe you get to the dramatic moments invested in the film, rather than averted from it.
The Godfather isn’t even my favourite Coppola film. That honour goes to one of cinemas most criminally overlooked gems, The Conversation. It was made in a gap of time between the first two Godfather films. It seems almost like an impromptu gathering of free schedules to make something but it’s wonderfully immersive and for Coppola himself, a completely stripped back and understated approach. The almost voyeuristic camera coupled with the playfully distinct score and the greatest cinematic example of sound design ever (if a screening of The Conversation isn’t lesson 1 of every sound designers course, they’re doing it wrong) provide the perfect platform for Gene Hackman to deliver a career best performance. An actor known for intense, vocally dynamic and aggressive performance, tones everything right back to introversion and progressive paranoia. A performance so internalised and beautifully delivered. For the same reasons De Niro’s role as Travis Bickle is my favourite of his, Hackman’s performance here is my personal favourite of his.
Occasionally you need a second viewing to make up your mind in the other direction. Or perhaps the passage of time and your growing as a viewer will ebb away the impact a film initially had on you. I recently rewatched Donnie Darko. I still think it’s a good film, but it’s lost a lot of the impact it initially had on me. It’s beginning to date I feel. I remember at 14 thinking Bad Boys was immense. That it was right up with the action greats. It’s not. It’s just I happened to be at that juncture, the target audience for Michael Bay (and his targets still haven’t changed). I enjoy it but it’s passable guff.
The Matrix may have initially blown me away and taken cinema by storm but sweep away the visuals and you get left with something that is emotionally distant (which works in the first half of the film, but less so in the second) and owes far too much to better, more timeless films. The sequels in some ways took the story down avenues that chipped away somewhat at the original films legacy but what remains is a brilliantly made action film but somewhat cold. In fact the more I consider, I feel that the Wachowski’s best work is actually Bound, a searing, sexy, inventive and engaging neo-noir. But where Blade Runner, or 2001: A Space Odyssey, or The Terminator, remain timeless, The Matrix which owes a lot to all of those in particular, is too much of a magpie nest of pilfered influences and slightly hampered by a sense of pretentiousness (that went overkill in the sequels).
Or perhaps you found yourself watching a film that you are thoroughly undecided on and a second viewing is required to potentially lay your cards on the table over it. I found this odd sense in Only God Forgives (and similarly in The Neon Demon). It was Nicolas Winding Refn’s much anticipated follow up to Drive. Where Drive had more crowd pleasing aspects and show-stopping support from Ron Perlman, Albert Brooks and Bryan Cranston, Only God Forgives was a complete antithesis. Was it arthouse? Was it exploitation? Was it trash? Was there meaning behind everything? A subtext to be studied, theorised and picked over? Or was it as hollow as a Pound World Easter Egg? I hated the film but I was also enthralled by it. It sickened me as much as it enticed me with its sound track, its visuals and the potential to study it and discover something from it. As yet I’ve still not been able to fully build myself up toward my second viewing. As much as I want confirmation on my feeling toward any film I watch, I would rather like a film that not. Certainly, Only God Forgives definitely stuck it’s claws in. It lingered with me, even despite kind of hating it. The second viewing may increase its impact on me, or it may just allow me to wash my hands of it.
Which films have you needed to watch twice to love? Conversely, have you felt the impact of a film dwindle the more you watch it? Have you fallen in or out of love with a film upon rewatching? Let us know in the comments below.