AVQ&A: Most-rewatched movies
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This week's question: What's your most-rewatched movie?
I practically grew up in a movie theater. In the '70s and '80s, my grandmother managed a little one-screener—followed by a fancy strip-mall two-screener!—in Englewood and Venice, Florida, respectively. This was during my elementary-school years, which meant my little brother and I got dumped off at "grandma's"—that is, her theater—to be babysat all the time. Accordingly, I saw lots of movies multiple times at a very young age. I'm talking some random shit, too: On its initial release, I wound up watching The Man With Two Brains (I was 11!) so many times, I can still sing Steve Martin's weird little "under the mango tree" song from memory, 25 years after the last time I heard it. And don't even ask me about E.T.—I easily logged 30 viewings of it the summer it came out. Cable and VCRs, of course, totally changed things in the '80s, and even though my family was too poor to be in on the ground floor of those particular innovations (we didn't have a microwave, either), I still managed to catch enough movies at friends' houses—including my most-watched movie ever, the screwball Disney comedy Midnight Madness. They must have showed it a dozen times a day on HBO after its initial release in 1980, and my brother and I memorized almost every line of the gloriously stupid thing. Along with choice lines from Weird Science, Midnight Madness remains our favorite fraternal in-joke, especially after I got us both copies on DVD a couple years ago. I have to admit, though, that since I bought Weird Al's opus UHF a while back, it's gobbled up almost as much mental real estate as Midnight Madness.
As the lines of distortion on my surprisingly still-playable VHS copy can attest, I have seen Ghostbusters enough times that it barely registers as a movie, so inextricably is it woven into the very fabric of my life. Turn it on at literally any scene, and I'll start spouting dialogue like Dustin Hoffman's Rain Man character rattling off "Who's On First?"—compulsively, and barely cognizant of why it's funny anymore. I don't mean to imply that it isn't; on the contrary, I still rank Ghostbusters up there my favorite comedies of all time (along with The Jerk and Airplane!, two more films I'm fully capable of ruining with my own karaoke versions) and I seriously doubt any movie will ever replace it. But in an uncomfortably psychologically revealing way, my immersion in the film's many quotable lines crossed the borderline separating casual reference and obsessive incantation long ago: It's probably no coincidence that the peak of my Ghostbusters viewing (at least once a week) came just after my parents' divorce, when I was consoled during rocky nights by my friends Venkman, Ray, and Egon. However, a close, far-less-bittersweet second would have to be Goodfellas, a film I've seen all the way through probably 100 times and counting. (That's nearly 300 hours, or more than 12 days of my life!) I own it on VHS and DVD, and yet literally cannot help but watch it every single time it airs, even in its bastardized, basic-cable, "freak you!" form. When it began running on HBO while I was a senior in high school, I would often stay up until 4 a.m. sticking around to the bitter end, which usually meant showing up wrecked to Economics the next day. Sorry, Mrs. Brown, but the Smoot-Hawley Tariff didn't have shit on the Lufthansa Heist.
I hardly ever watch a movie more than twice anymore, but between age 10 and 30, I was a major re-watcher. After seeing Star Wars four times in its first run (when I was but a lad of 7), I became convinced that true devotion to a movie involved practically memorizing it, so when a movie came around that I loved, I'd immerse myself in it for weeks and months on end. In high school, I watched Harold & Maude, The Graduate, Risky Business, Raising Arizona, and The Breakfast Club probably a dozen times each on video, and after college, I saw Pulp Fiction and Dazed And Confused about half a dozen times each in theaters. Honestly, I can't recommend that method, because I can barely stand to watch any of those movies now. The movies that have held up best have been the ones I've re-watched every couple of years: Singin' In The Rain, Meet Me In St. Louis, Rear Window, The Remains Of The Day,Citizen Kane, Casablanca, Goodfellas, The Endless Summer, Serpico, Blow Out, The Philadelphia Story,The Royal Tenenbaums, and so on. The movie I wish I could say I've watched more than any other is McCabe & Mrs. Miller, and I have probably seen that one—my favorite movie by my favorite director, Robert Altman—about 10 times, and still look forward to soaking in the wintry atmosphere, nascent Americana, and tragicomic characters. But if I'm being honest, there's one movie I've seen probably 20 times, or roughly once a year since I first saw it as a teenager. The movie is Miracle On 34th Street, one of the finest achievements of the Hollywood studio system, and a simultaneous celebration of the Christmas spirit and responsible American consumerism. It's A Wonderful Life is a wonderful movie, but Miracle On 34th Street describes a Christmas I recognize. Watching it is as much a part of the season for me as trimming the tree, making candy, and buying a bunch of crap nobody needs.
I watch Annie Hall every few months, probably up to around 20-plus times by now, without growing the least bit tired of it. I consider that movie pretty much perfect on lots of grounds: The performances are strong, the jokes are sharp, and the notes it strikes about the rise and fall of a relationship strike me as very sound. But I still can't figure why that movie, of all the Woody Allen films I grew up loving, is the one. I think maybe it's the way Allen addresses Diane Keaton for flipping through a "cat book" at the bookstore. Otherwise, in stricter comfort-movie terms, the film I've watched just as much over the past few years—for its heroically understated tone and the way it hardly looks or feels like a movie at all—is Kenneth Lonergan's You Can Count On Me.
I've actually never been a real fan of re-watching films; I don't have a comfort movie I re-watch when I'm down, or something I put on in the background when I'm doing other things. I had a college friend who claimed she'd seen the original Star Wars upward of 40 times because she was such a huge fan, and another who says he's seen A Few Good Men a similar number of times, largely because his dorm had a closed-circuit TV system where students could request films, and A Few Good Men was requested a couple times a day, every day. I honestly don't have the slightest understanding of why anyone would subject themselves to that; being repeatedly subjected to the same movie even once a week for a semester would drive me completely insane, let alone once a day. Most of the time, I don't even watch films twice, because there are so many films I haven't seen yet, and a new film will always win out over a re-run. That said, I've probably seen Akira half a dozen times, largely for review purposes. I saw it the first time when it played in a Washington DC art theater around 1989, and then again in college when the dub came out on VHS in America, and I wrote it up for the school paper. Since then, I've wound up reviewing multiple new DVD versions spread out over the past couple of decades, at least once watching it twice back-to-back to compare the subtitles with the dub track. I love that film, I see something new every time I watch it, and I believe multiple viewings are necessary to follow the story, and even so, I feel like I've seen it far too many times.
I'm one of those people who always has to have some sort of noise going on in the background when I'm at home, and that something is very often, oh, I dunno, Ferris Bueller's Day Off rerunning on TBS for the berzillionth time. But I rarely actively watch those movies, nor do I usually have them on from start to finish, so I don't think they count. I'm also not going to count Rudy, which I was subjected to no fewer than nine times in the four years I attended high school, for some ungodly reason, courtesy of a few very unimaginative/tired teachers. (Not that it's a bad movie, but no one needs such a concentrated dose of Rudy.) Embarrassingly, there's a four-minute segment of the '80s animated kiddie flick The Chipmunk Adventure that I have literally worn out of my VHS copy, due to an odd college ritual my roommate and I had of watching the musical number "The Boys And Girls Of Rock And Roll" when we were drunk, bored, or procrastinating—though I don't think I've watched the rest of the movie since I hit puberty, so I'm giving myself a pass there. When it comes to films I purposely sit down to enjoy over and over, it's a toss-up between two sentimental clichés. I make a point to pop in It's A Wonderful Life every year right around the time that holiday stress has me wanting to chuck lumps of coal at the heads of passersby on the street. And The Wizard Of Oz is the first movie I remember thinking of as something more than a distraction—something I cared about once the tape had been rewound and put away, something I wanted to honor with a Halloween costume—so it gets a nostalgia screening at least once a year, usually around the holidays as well.
Like every other nerdy white guy born between the years 1967 and 1987, I watched Star Wars at least 30 times before I turned 12. Since then, I've seen it maybe twice. The mainstream '80s comedies I grew up on have held up better into adulthood—I'm sure I've seen Ghostbusters, Airplane, This Is Spinal Tap, Ferris Bueller's Day Off, and The Breakfast Club at least 10 times each. Then there's the movies I see over and over because they're always on TV; thanks to HBO and VH1 Classic, respectively, I know Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story and The Last Waltz by heart. (I'm also a fan of the edited-for-television version of Casino I've caught on USA at least five times.) I saw Kill Bill Vol. 1 four times in the theater, a personal record and a testament to how Quentin Tarantino's original grindhouse epic reignited my love of movies. Lately, my most re-watched movie, strangely, has been Alex Gibney's Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room, a great documentary and an even better sweaty-palmed noir thriller.
Since I started teaching classes on film to bright undergraduates, my rewatching quotient has gone way, way up. Citizen Kane appears on the syllabus every semester, not out of some kind of obligation, but because no matter what the theme of the course might be—memory, time, history, cool charisma, auteurs—Kane fits. It's the Great American Movie, an omnibus that keeps showing a different face. And every year, I'm amazed by how flat-out entertaining it is. I screen a Hitchcock film every time I teach, too, and most often it's Vertigo, a movie I never really understood until I started teaching it. Now I sit as its slow fuse wends through the labyrinthine psychology of the characters, and marvel at how such a methodical film nevertheless seems to catch half-glimpsed lightning in a bottle. Most of us have seen the films of our teenage years more often than any other, but my moviegoing started late, and by the time I had a chance to see Ghostbusters five or six times, I was already devouring the canon at the university library. And thanks to the good folks at Criterion, who made the Powell-Pressburger filmography their first priority when they started producing laserdiscs, I've seen The Red Shoes, Black Narcissus, and The Life And Death Of Colonel Blimp far more often than the defining film of my generation,Star Wars. Actually, truth be told, I've probably only seen Star Wars two times all the way through—maybe it's the lingering guilt over having pretended to see it in order to fit in during recess.
Like a lot of people, I'd have to split this into two categories: childhood and adulthood. As a child/adolescent, I watched Mr. Mom, Back To The Future, Ghostbusters,Better Off Dead, and The Goonies so many times I can quote them almost verbatim. It was as a child that I saw It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World for the first time, and it has remained a favorite of mine into adulthood, so it's probably the film I've seen more than any other. I'm a sucker for screwball shenanigans, and Stanley Kramer's 1963 ensemble comedy has the screwball-iest of them. Kramer has a bad rep among cinephiles (and I'll agree with them about Guess Who's Coming To Dinner), but Mad World still makes me laugh.
My most-rewatched movie would probably have to be something I first saw years ago that hasn't yet lost its charm to me. That rules out Star Wars, sadly, which has had the charm special-editioned and prequeled away in recent years. And it rules out Pink Flamingos, which carried on the task of teaching me about the power of transgressive humor after I graduated from Mad magazine. I still love it, but I think my gross-out threshold has actually gotten lower over the years. But it still leaves Pee-wee's Big Adventure, Dawn Of The Dead (the original, as if I need to clarify), and Goodfellas, longtime favorites I could watch on any given day of the week. Like Noel, I don't revisit my favorites as often as I used to—or probably should—if only because the more I see, the more I realize I still need to see. But it's good to know they'll always be there waiting for me.