A bit of clickbait avoidance. The answer to the question posed in the title is: it clearly depends on the film. But I think there’s a bit more to it than that. Hence this article.
Let’s start, then, with Stephen Fry. In his relatively recent memoir More Fool Me, he spends a welcome chunk of the opening section discussing books, and how memories of books can leak over time. He ties it into Guy Pearce’s character in Memento, thus earning a few extra geek points from the jar.
But there’s a sentence he writes, on page 15, that struck me at the time, and has struck me regularly since. For he simply recalls that “A friend of mine pointed out recently how absurd it was that people reread so little: do you only listen to a piece of music that you love once?”
I confess I’m guilty. I’ve a backlog of books to read that’s well into three figures, and when I finish one, I then feel compelled to dig into one of those, rather than revisit a book I’ve loved in the past. The rate I seem to be buying new books to read suggests that’s not going to change anytime soon.
Conversely, when it comes to films, if I’m having a tough week, there are my staple go-tos. The world going to pot? Where’s that Con Air Blu-ray. Politics all looking a bit dodgy? Plug in some Back To The Future. There’s a small circle of films I’ve watched dozens of times in the last 20 years. There are precious few books I’ve read twice.
Yet that’s still just a small circle. The majority of movies I watch just once. If I walk out of a film and haven’t enjoyed it, the temptation to go back and try a second viewing is rarely strong. Life is busy, right? Why spend time trying again on something that didn’t work for you first time around, when there’s so much else out there to discover?
Yet I’d argue that many of us have left a film that enjoyed massive critical acclaim, and just not got on with it, suspecting there’s more going on than we saw. That we perhaps know that the film in question is strong, just that it did nothing for us. I remember watching Barry Norman review Jane Campion’s The Piano on his film programme back in the 1990s, and couldn’t quite wrap my head around his view that he admired it more than he liked it. Now, though, I get where he’s coming from.
It’s a little bit of stating the obvious to suggest that what we each get out of a film tends to be reflective in large part of what we bring to it. As such, if you’re in a lousy mood, or if a film’s subject matter is alien to something you can lock into in any way (even just a piece of entertainment), then there’s a chance that something simply won’t work for you. Movies are no one-size-fits-all commodity, after all. The top rated film of all time at the IMDB, The Shawshank Redemption, boasts nearly a million people who rank it as a ten out of ten movie. But also, there are 30,000 who rate it 1/10, and 4,528 who’d score it a 4/10. What IMDB doesn’t measure, interestingly, is how many times people have watched a certain movie. That’s the sub-division of scoring I’d be fascinated to see. What’s the highest rated movie of all time, when the criteria is you must have seen it five times or more? I’d still not bet against The Shawshank Redemption, personally.
To veer back onto the point: the bottom line is that some stories simply take more than one run at to get.
Mark Kermode, reviewing the recent biopic Jackie on the Kermode & Mayo Film Review programme (on Radio Five/Five Live/Radio Five Live), certainly came up against this. He struggled with the movie at the first time of asking, not quite able to wrap his head around what Natalie Portman was doing with her performance, and why she was pitching it the way she was. Furthermore, just last week, Ryan Lambie of this parish was mulling over his views of Personal Shopper. I discussed the review with him, and he eventually declared that he needed to give the film a second go. So he did.
In the case of Kermode with Jackie and Lambie with Personal Shopper, both were won over, and both gave the respective films very positive reviews. Yet as Simon Mayo pointed out to Kermode when he was mulling his Jackie conundrum, how many people are going to take a second run at a movie they really don’t get on with? How many will walk out of a screening of Jackie, be left feeling cold by it, and get their credit card out to book a ticket to see it again?
I don’t think many of us. I think the vast majority of us – even assuming we had the cash and time to do so – would opt to try something new than revisit something we’ve struggled to get on with. There are exceptions, of course, but the world is hardly bereft of other films to watch. And I know from my own experience I’m more likely to plough on with those, than go back to a film I’ve not liked. Again, there are exceptions, but I contend that’s just what they are.
Kermode, incidentally, has also written extensively of his about turn on Steven Spielberg’s A.I., a movie that left him cold at the first time of asking, but on reassessment, he now regards as something extremely special (to the point of apologising to Spielberg in an interview a year or two back). But in that instance, his reason for his re-examination was the urging of Linda Williams. Without her, would he have tried?
Stories like these stand out because the culture in which we find ourselves now generally gives a piece of work – be it a book, a film, a play or a television show – one chance. After one viewing, or reading, something is fit to be declared a masterpiece, a disaster, or, more likely, something in-between. It matters not if you’re watching a film on the TV at home with an iPad in your hand at the same time, or if it has your undivided attention at your local multiplex. For the vast majority of us, you get two hours or so of our time, and if you don’t impress us, don’t expect us to be picking up the DVD at HMV anytime soon.
It’s not always just the more divisive films this applies to, either. Back in 2013, we chatted to Edgar Wright for this very website, and he got talking about his love of The Godfather Part II. I love the film, but – confession corner – have only seen it once. Wright, though, argued that “there are plenty of movies that you need to chew on a bit. Movies that you return to and see something different in the second time around. Usually if I find a film that’s challenging, that I’m intrigued by, I want to watch it again knowing what the ending is.” I like that a lot, but also acknowledge that the rules are slightly different when it’s a film you like.
And yet, there’s often a lot to reward going back to a favourite film. Specifically talking about The Godfather Part II, Edgar Wright added that “I think it took me three watches to fully experience it in the way it was intended.” And which of those first three watches was his favourite? “The third.” Furthermore, let’s not forget that Airplane! has so many jokes in it, that on one of its many disc releases, a special extra feature was added to point out all the ones you missed first time around.
Sometimes, stories need to be cut a little slack, and I contend that there are often many unexpected delights in rewatching a film over and over. Be it finding those many background jokes you missed on the 17th viewing of Airplane!, or suddenly discovering that yep, you’d called it wrong all those years on a film that had been routinely dismissed elsewhere. Where would John Carpenter’s The Thing be, a movie bashed on its original release, without its army of advocates, and the people who went back to try again?
Perhaps the most legendary critical reversal of opinion lies at the door of Newsweek’s Joe Morgenstern. His original review of Bonnie & Clyde was, he would later admit, “pissy”. In the time between him writing his original savaging of the film and that review being published – under a week – Morgenstern saw the film again. “I suddenly realised what I had missed,” he admitted, and wrote a whole new review, that would appear in the subsequent issue of Newsweek, the following week.
It’s telling, though, that the reversal of opinion in itself was big news, and helped stoke the publicity fires for Bonnie & Clyde. But then people changing their mind appears not to be the done thing.
However, as much as filmmakers often put their heart and soul into bringing a story to the film, the medium itself – just as with books, and plays, and TV shows – does require its audience not necessarily to meet it half way, but at least to give it a chance, and some attention. And yes, sometimes, if the first date hasn’t gone too well, a second chance as well. You might not discover The Godfather Part II. But you might just find something more interesting than you’d previously thought. And you might make Stephen Fry happy, too.
Finally, a bit of homework: how about we each pick a film we’ve not got on with, and give it another go, then report back in the comments? I’m willing to play if you are…