Second Chances

I ended up seeing Wall-E a second time, and wanted to post on that, but got caught up thinking about multiple viewings.

(This is another from my discarded file. I never posted it because it just rambles. But what the hell)

When I was a child, say 8 years old or so, seeing a movie for a second time was sheer torture. The sense of boredom was overwhelming. (I did it on a few occasions anyway, which should tell you something about how bored I was.) When I hit my teens, I could see a really excellent movie twice and not be completely restless, I noticed. Even then, it was hard. (I saw Witness and Road Warrior twice.) I saw Star Wars twice and disliked it even more the second time. (Really, it probably wasn’t until 10-15 years later that I began to appreciate that series for what it was.)

Seeing them on TV was different. I remember, for example, watching Alien on TV while eating spaghetti and realizing I wasn’t particularly squeamish. I think because I could look at particular scenes without investing all my attention in the movie, I found it less offensive (let’s use that word) to see a movie more than once. The idea of buying a movie to watch over and over again completely confounded me. VCRs were for time-shifting. (And for recording music videos, which were the only exposure to pop music apart from other people’s loud radios and record players that I’ve had.)

I never quoted from movies back then, either, at least partly because it was a momentary experience, disposable. Someone said to me “These aren’t the droids you’re looking for” and I stared at them blankly.

Somewhere in there, that changed, and I’m not entirely sure why. If anything, with the greater volume of available material, there should be no excuse for ever repeating a viewing.

It might have to do with the human brain. At the Institutes, they talk about the need for fresh material all the time. A child’s brain constantly wants new information. That’s why the progression for children’s toys goes something like “play with it correctly, play with it incorrectly, break it to see how it works, move on to the next toy”. You need a high volume of new info to keep a child’s brain engaged.

Paradoxically, however, it’s children who like to watch the same programs over and over again. The Boy was extremely fond of Ralph Bakshi’s Wizards (and, no, I’m not sure that was appropriate) and Dr. Seuss’s The Butter Battle Book (and I’m not sure about that one, either, really). Indeed, it was having children that introduced me to repeat viewings for pleasure.

As a side note, having spent a lot of time in “after day” care, there was a point where you were literally forced to stop playing outside and watch TV. Even if you didn’t watch it directly, there was no escape. (This developed two things: My current encyclopedic knowledge of certain abhorrent ‘60s sitcoms, as well as the bowdlerized versions of every Warner Bros. cartoon from the ’40s and ’50s; my abiding hatred of TV-as-noise through the years.)

One thing I can identify, is that I view things radically differently now. You can call it “growing up” but I’m not sure if that’s a correct differentiation. As a child, I was concerned with plot and story mechanics. I read the thought balloons in comic strips without looking at the pictures at all. I burned through picture books. Actually, with comic books, I note that I filled in the visuals with far greater detail than was actually there. (On going back and looking at old comic books of that era, I’m always surprised how little detail work actually made it to the page.)

The appeal of the visual arts were almost completely unknown to me. (I was hugely moved by Michelangelo’s Pieta, but that was a rare occurrence, and I didn’t–and maybe don’t still–understand why that particular piece had such an affect on me.)

I was, in modern parlance, very left-brained. When I drew a picture, it had a plot, .e.g.

At some point, with considerable effort, I started paying more attention to the visual. I also started paying attention to the hows and whys. A lot of bad movies–especially big budget bad movies of today–are packed with high quality craftsmanship, wrapped around a turd of a story. I can entertain myself if the movie doesn’t pick up the gauntlet.

One factor in there may have been the formal training in music. All musicians listen to music differently from non-musicians (which is why they like different things from normal people), but having historical perspective makes it apparent how taste is shaped and not the fixed “I know what I like” kind of thing that most people experience.

If you immerse yourself in early Gregorian chant, where only one note is ever sung at a time, and the figures are simple–and it only takes a few weeks of listening to a lot of this–when the second note gets added, it’s like the skies opening up and showing heaven. You can really get a sense of how wondrous and controversial that second note was at the time.

You can repeat this process for many points in music history. And if you love music–I mean, if you really love music, not just the current iterations of pop–you owe it to yourself to embark on some part of that journey.

This is actually harder to apply to movies, but not impossible. It’s very hard to watch Frankenstein (1931) and realize that people had nightmares from that. Someone famously called up the exhibitor in the middle of the night and said “Since you made it impossible for me to sleep, I’m going to make it impossible for you!” or something along those lines.

Hell, it’s hard to do that with The Thing (1982), and I remember being both floored by the movie and the huge outrage over it. People called it “pornography”, the advertising was yanked for it, and John Carpenter’s never been the same. 25 years later and it’s almost quaint. (But then, horror particularly ages quickly.)

But early on I realized, with movies, the key wasn’t who was in it: You’re a chump if you go to a movie with a particular actor–no matter how great–expecting it to be good because the actor is in it. A star (like Will Smith) can carry a weak movie and a great actor can provide good moments in an otherwise bad film, but every great actor ultimately appears in a number of dogs.

It’s not impossible to rediscover . I couldn’t relate to Westerns as a kid at all. It was all sci-fi and horror, if you could get it. I did finally get to a Western film series, where they showed 30 years of westerns, about four movies per decade. And I began to pick up the tropes and symbols pretty quickly–though it was funny to me how many of the movies simply required you to assume the guy in the white hat was the good guy, even if his actions were objectively identical to the guy in the black hat. (Postmodern deconstructionism at work?)

I guess, wrapping this up, the key differences between then and now, barring whatever neurological factors may be at play, are that: 1) I don’t expect to be the passive effect of movies that I watch now; 2) I’m not so heavily invested in the narrative structure for my enjoyment of movies, and have a much greater appreciation for and interest in the technical details that make individual moments in movies work.

Similar experiences anyone?

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