Ah, the repeat offenders. No, I don’t mean people like Uwe Boll, the Wayans Brothers, or those twin titans of terror Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer, though they certainly qualify in a different sense. I’m talking about those movies in which we find endless pleasure and will watch repeatedly—the movies we’re most likely to pop into our DVD players or sit down and watch should be bump into them on TV. These repeat offenders are a purely positive thing—except perhaps as concerns the consumption of time.
Most of us have them. There’s even one of those endless polls you find on Facebook centered on the “five movies you’re most likely to watch over and over.” (I don’t know why Facebook is fixated on the number five, but they group everything in fives. It’s probably Satanic in some way.) And it’s considered completely normal to have such a list. It may even be considered abnormal not to have one—the kind of thing that could lead to a violent loss of social status and even ostracism.
That wasn’t always the case.
There was a time when it was thought to be a little odd to watch a movie a second time—let alone numerous times. Those of us of a certain age who remember the world of “continuous showings”—when the show started again as soon as it ended and no one expected the theater to be cleaned between shows—probably also remembers the once common practice of walking in on a movie in progress, watching it to the end, and then watching the part you missed. When you got to the point where you’d originally entered someone in your group would utter that fine old phrase, “This is where we came in,” and you’d leave at once. It seems a bizarre practice now, but 50 years ago it wasn’t rare. “This is where we came in” even entered the lexicon—a suitable phrase for dismissing going over the same ground again.
The idea is solidly grounded in the idea that all that matters in a movie is the story. Once you know that—and know how it turned out—what possible reason could there be for watching it again? I’ve no idea how or when this started. It was in full sway in my early childhood and seems to have been killed off by the baby boomer generation. It is not, I suspect, coincidental that this was the first generation raised on television which served to normalize seeing movies and TVshows more than once. I can remember my parents realizing a show was a “repeat” and switching the channel. I can also remember realizing that a “repeat” might be an episode I had especially liked and was delighted by the chance to see it again.
I know this different attitude didn’t actually start with boomers. Cineastes—who always took movies rather seriously—certainly watched films more than once and had done for as long as there’d been cineastes. But they weren’t quite normal anyway and didn’t care who knew it. They weren’t, however, entirely alone. In his autobiographical TV film, A British Picture (1989), Ken Russell (played in the film by his son, Rupert) talks about watching movies on a home movie projector over and over, “My home movie projector was little more than a hand-crank magic lantern, but to me it was truly magic, for you could conjure up your friends whenever you felt like it.” That was in the 1930s when he was just a boy—cineaste in the making perhaps, but hardly a cineaste in the true sense.
Actually, that phrase—“you could conjure up your friends whenever you felt like it”—is, I think, very telling and is related to the shift in attitude about watching the same movie several times. As family dynamics shifted in the 1960s, television became more and more an electronic babysitter, and it provided surrogate friends you could more or less conjure up whenever you felt like it.
Those of us who took this more seriously often went a step further and took up collecting little 200 foot (about 12 minutes) condensed silent versions of feature films (usually horror or comedy) in 8mm, mostly put out by a company called Castle Films. Intertitles or subtitles filled in the dialogue. They moved at the wrong speed, but what did it matter? (These have become collectible on a nostalgia basis, which proves how strange nostalgia is, since we’d have killed at the time to have complete movies with sound. Now we do, but we go in search of the inferior product as a treat, rather than as the consolation prize it once was.)
Without getting too philosophical or psychological, I do believe that part of this did indeed stem from a desire to stave off loneliness—or at least being alone. But it was also more than that, because it was a means of socializing. TV Guide was our 15 cent social secretary—“Oh, look, Bride of Frankenstein is on next Friday night. Want to get together and stay up late and watch it?” And it didn’t have to be a classic either. It was just as much fun to gang up to sit through unalloyed junk like that old Bela Lugosi B (or maybe C) picture standard Voodoo Man (1944). In some ways this was even better—you could good-naturedly rip on the imbecility of the movie while watching it. (Yeah, we had to be our own smart asses back then. We didn’t have MST3K to save us the intellectual effort to make sport of the amassed silliness.)
Now, our parents were at least slightly perplexed by all this. My mother—who would dash out to the theater every time Gone With the Wind (1939) was re-issued—was a prime exponent of the “why would you watch something when you know how it’s going to end?” school. I even remember one occasion when she watched 95 minutes of a movie she swore she’d never seen before, realized at the 96th minute that she had and left the last few minutes to fend for themselves. As a result, she tended to find something else to do when I watched Bing and Bob travel down the Road to Rio (1947) for the umpteenth time.
My father had a different approach. He pretended not to watch these repeat offenders. What this meant is that he would go do something else, but constantly wandered back into the room to ask things like, “Have Bing and the Andrews Sisters sung ‘You Don’t Have to Know the Language’ yet?” He’d then stand there and watch till they did. A little later, he’d come back to see the Wiere Brothers and watch Dotty Lamour sing “Experience,” while complaining that she really wasn’t a very good singer. I’m guessing that by the end he’d have watched about 80 percent of the movie. I’ve no clue if he realized this, but I’m guessing not.
Sometimes these repeat offenders took strange forms. My main movie watching friend in high school and I had a kind of contest going on to see who could sit through Abbott and Costello in Keep ‘em Flying (1941) the most times. I don’t think either of us actually liked the movie very much, but it seemed to be on every other week. He gave up when I reached 27 viewings. Thank God. I suspect a 28th look might have proved fatal. It’s something of a wonder that I can think at all after 27. The mind that can withstand Martha Raye singing “Pig Foot Pete” 27 times has obviously suffered some kind of damage.
There was one memorable occasion in 1972 when there were three showings of the newly restored King Kong (1933) at the University of South Florida in Tampa. It was something of an event to see this movie with footage of Kong undressing Fay Wray, stroking her body and then sniffing his fingers put back in—to say nothing of the old boy chomping down on villagers or grinding them underfoot. I perhaps carried it too far, though, by sitting through all three showings. Whether or not contraband substances were involved in this I’m not saying.
Of course, by this time, I was well on my way to cineaste status—something that was easier to do by the early 70s thanks to TV, university showings and the general nostalgia boom. Years earlier, you’d have needed to be in some place like New York to even consider becoming a real cineaste. This in turn fostered collecting bootleg 16mm prints, and since these were expensive—it ran about $150 for a single movie and sometimes more—my friends and I ran the hell out of them. I wouldn’t even attempt to estimate the number of times we watched the Marx Brothers’ A Night at the Opera (1935) because it was the only movie I had.
These are excesses, yes, but they don’t seem especially strange to me in theory. The idea of watching a movie only once always seemed strange to me. After all, you didn’t buy a record album and listen to it only once, did you? If you went to a museum, you wouldn’t dismiss the idea of looking at a particular painting because you’d seen it before, would you? Some of us have even been known to read books more than once. So why should movies be any different? In my mind, they shouldn’t be and never have been, but it’s taken a while for the world to see it that way—at least, Facebook accepts the idea of five acceptable titles per person.
The truth is that any movie you can get all the good out of in one viewing (and there are a lot of them) isn’t all that hot to begin with. I was on a panel with another film historian a while back, who made a big show of saying that he’d reached a point where he never re-watched movies because there were so many movies he still needed to see. In theory, I see where he’s coming from. In practice, I find the approach utterly impossible. Would I be better advised to finally getting around to watching that copy of Rene Clair’s Under the Roofs of Paris (1930) that’s been sitting on a shelf for three years than to pop in Richard Lester’s Help! for the 50th or so time? Very likely. But it’s only going to happen when I’m ready.
Watching movies more than once used to be something that you had to justify. The reality has now become that you don’t have to, and I think that’s a good thing. It really never did need justification. I prefer to think of it in the terms expressed by Basil Rathbone’s Sherlock Holmes in Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror (1942) when he finishes listening to a live broadcast of the Beethoven Fifth Symphony, calls a request station and asks they play the same thing. Watson (Nigel Bruce) objects, “You just heard it.” Holmes not unreasonably snaps, “I like it.” Is further explanation really necessary?