Sunday, March 20, 2011

Multiple Viewing

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in June 2008)

I’ve written before about the mysteries of the daily poll on the Internet Movie Database website. Here’s an interesting one from a while ago: “How many times have you seen your all-time favourite film?” The top answer: “Between 11 and 25 times”, which scored 27.8%. “Between 1 and 10 times” scored 23.8%. 6.8 of the respondents went for “between 51 and 100 times” and 5.3% for “More than 100 times, if you can believe that.” The lowest vote getter of the offered categories was the opt-out: “I don’t have a favourite movie,” with 3.8%.

100 Times!

As always, a sample size of some 23,000 voters drawn from a population heavily weighted toward movie geekiness only tells us that every subculture has its own wacky contours. But I just can’t imagine any instinct, rationale or divine intervention that would make someone watch any movie more than 50 times, much less 100 times. I know the mark of a classic is you always notice something new, but any additional revelations at that viewing level would have to be incremental at best. Presumably the real object is simple reinforcement. Forget the range of choices at one’s digital fingerprints, the famous fragmenting of the audience between thousands of websites and channels and games and portability options, the demands of maintaining one’s Facebook profile and running up the cell phone bills and whatever social and sexual agenda you manage to hold in place around that, and the faint possibility of reading a book once in a while. Sometimes (or indeed pretty often, because I’m sure most of these 100-timers aren’t anywhere near as old as I am), it’s just better to go for the comfort food.

I don’t know my own stats on this front. I do record every film I see and I make notes on them. That’s been electronic for the past ten years or so but the older records are in ancient, handwritten, unorganized (other than by simple chronology), never-accessed files - which means to all intents and purposes I might as well burn them, although of course I never will. I have it in my mind that in the early 90’s I was up to having seen Martin Scorsese The King of Comedy (which came out in 1983) eight or nine times. In those days of course you had to make a real effort to see less mainstream movies even once, let alone multiple times, so that was quite a haul. Midnight Run was up there too, and Blake Edwards’ S.O.B. I’ve seen King of Comedy a couple of times in the last decade so it might be at 11 or 12 times now.

But I hope you’ll concede watching that kind of film multiple times is different from watching (say) Lord of the Rings over and over. As I wrote recently, Scorsese’s film was a psychological and thematic puzzle the likes of which I’d never quite seen at that time. I loved the showbiz contour of it, but was almost transfixed by the underlying dysfunction. The film was distinctly off-putting, and most people at the time were duly put off, but it seemed to me alluring in a distinctly adult way – if I could figure it out, I thought, I’d be in a different place at the end of it. As it is, I’m certainly in a different place than I was when I racked up those viewings, and needless to say other factors did more to bring that about than The King of Comedy, but maybe the film did something.

Film A Day

Nowadays I can’t imagine allocating that much time to a single film. I’m still maintaining a film-a-day pace on average, which sounds like a lot to most people, but is barely enough to keep up to speed. Leaving aside the crap, there are easily two or three new releases of some interest a week, on average. Then there’s the good stuff that goes straight to video or turns up on cable. And most challenging of all to me personally, the expanding body of film history. I’d love to possess encyclopedic knowledge of Hitchcock’s oeuvre, of Ozu’s, of Antonioni’s, and I could keep that list going for the rest of the article. But it can’t be done. So you skim the surface, stick a toe in here and there, try to visit Hitchcock at least once or twice a year (last year I only managed to fit in Torn Curtain, which I know sounds like an odd choice, but that’s another problem too – you want to get some depth, mull over the stuff that’s not much liked, not just stick to canonical masterpieces (which might be like eating too much rich food)).

For me, it’s the best balancing act I’m going to get. It would be easier if I developed a sudden disdain say for all of Japanese cinema, or for anything made before the 1950’s. I could just chop those limbs off the ungainly body and feel a little more graceful. But I’m basically interested in all of it! So I keep going, hoping at best to feel I got maybe 80% of what a film was able to give me, then leaving the 20% perhaps to another viewing in five or ten years’ time, more likely to the wastebasket of what might have been.

I can’t think of any movie from the last decade I’ve watched more than twice, and I doubt any of those will hit a third viewing within the next few years. I realize now that even if I live to a fine old age, there are some great, even cornerstone films I’ll probably never see again. But even more astonishing is that no one will do any better. Almost no one coming up behind me will ever be able to see as much, unless they sacrifice all else to it. They’ll have easier access, but the volume will kill them.

Game Over

Which is why I don’t think much of anyone will even try to play. Only the brave or the reckless set out to swim the English Channel – others lie on the beach and pray for the sun. Maybe people make billions by providing choice and access and possibility, but there’s a whole other market (less financially lucrative I expect) in people who just need help coping with it all. I believe the research indicates people are generally less happy when confronted with more choice, despite what they may claim to want; all those foregone possibilities get you down.

For now, I’m navigating through. But I may still decide, as my energy level wilts and the landscape becomes ever more cluttered, and as the chances of ever seeing The Magnificent Ambersons again become impossibly theoretical, to kick my databases into the archives, stop reading new releases, huddle up with King of Comedy and a few close friends of that ilk, and spend my remaining movie days attaining a new peak of devotion. 150 times, even 200, if you can believe that.

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