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That Pivotal Second Viewing…

As a film blogger, I tend to write reviews of films that I have never seen before. I occasionally take the opportunity to share my thoughts on classic films I have seen countless times, but most of my writing covers films I’ve only seen once. In some cases, that will be the first and only time that I see a movie. I have, for example, no desire to ever site through This Means War again. However, I occasionally find the second viewing of a film to be a much more enlightening and inspiring film, whether it crystalises my original opinion or perhaps even prompts a re-evaluation of my earlier thoughts. It’s interesting how different and distinct a film can appear each time you happen to watch it.

Twice the excitement...

Of course, a lot of that is probably down to me as a viewer. After all, I am a different person now than I was ten years ago, or even three years ago when I started this blog. My cinematic tastes are forever subtly evolving and developing, and I’m quite proud of that. I can’t imagine what the point of developing a static cinematic taste and sticking to it for the rest of my life. It’s obviously not an important benchmark of personal growth, but I always subscribed to the idea that we are constantly changing, like the world around us, and our movie tastes inevitably change as part of that.

It seems that my affection for Tim Burton seems to come and go and come right back with age. I think Burton has produced a number of masterpieces that I will probably always love, but – for example – I used to hold a mixed opinion of Mars Attacks! and now I love it, while I used to adore Sleepy Hallow while I’m now somewhat colder towards it. While I’ve always held the controversial opinion that Batman Returns should be considered among Burton’s best work, I tend to fluctuate on how I feel towards his Batman. I loved it as a child, and then couldn’t relate to it as a teenager, and now I find myself warming to it precisely because it’s so brilliantly constructed as a darker adult movie that kids intuitively understand so much better.

And that doesn't count director's cuts...

However, there’s something more fundamental than my changing tastes at play here. I think that there’s something about a second viewing that is so inherently different from that first experience. It doesn’t matter whether the viewing experiences are separated by days or decades. A second viewing can confirm an opinion held, or it can offer surprising counter-arguments. At the very least, it generally allows me to state my opinion with a bit more certainty – less worried that I’ve missed a crucial piece of evidence or a vital piece of the puzzle.

For example, I greatly enjoyed Rise of the Planet of the Apes on first-viewing, but I found myself skeptical and reluctant to label it as a truly “great” movie. I’ve seen it a couple more times since then, and I feel much more confident in praising it as a rather exceptional blockbuster. On the other hand, my second viewing of Bridesmaids took the shine off the film quite a bit, and I think I’d argue that Horrible Bosses might be a stronger (if more wildly uneven) comedic effort from last year.

Once, twice... two times a lady?

I think there are several reasons why a second viewing feels so radically different. The most obvious is that there are no expectations this time around. We’ve already actually seen the movie, so suddenly all the talk outside the film is irrelevant, at least while watching the film. We aren’t validating the movie against what our favourite critic made of it, we’re measuring it against our actual experience the last time around. And that’s a very different experience. That’s why seeing Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace again this year was such a strange experience – last time it was with over a decade of expectations. This year there aren’t any such broad expectations, because we’ve already seen the film.

Similarly, Burton’s Alice in Wonderlandisn’t so much of a disappointment because I know what’s coming, and how Burton will approach the material. It allows me an opportunity to savour the performances a bit more, or to appreciate the production design, or even just to notice how incredibly impressive Danny Elfman’s score to the film was. I no longer think that it might be a classic addition to the Disney canon, or has the potential to be the director’s best work. Instead, I know exactly what it is, and have a chance to measure it against that standard.

Double your pleasure?

After all, we’ve already made our own accounting of its strengths and flaws. It isn’t like we’re “keeping track” of the problems at this stage, and so can pull back and appreciate the picture a lot more. Perhaps it even allows us to put the film in perspective. I liked Tron: Legacy far more than most the first time I saw it. I liked it even more the second time. I think part of the reason was because I already knew all the problems that would be coming my way, and I was able to accept them somewhat easier.

I’m generally not trying to appraise a film on that second viewing. I don’t need to figure out if it’s good or bad. I don’t need to audit it. I can just go along with the flow. Maybe it’s a terrible thing to say, but I feel a lot better about trusting my gut on a second viewing. Even if I can’t quite articulate why I feel that way, or how particular strengths or particular weaknesses override one another, I feel more comfortable accepting it. In particular, I feel much more confident in my own ranking of Tarantino’s catalogue the more times I see the films in question. I prefer Reservoirs Dogs to Pulp Fiction, even accepting that both films are classics, and that view has been reinforced with time. I think I’ve finally put a finger on why, but – even before that point – I felt a lot more confident in that judgment the more I watched them.

How many times have you watched Staying Alive, John?

There’s also the fact that second viewings are always more casual and more relaxed. Generally, my second viewing of a film will be with the family at home, watching the movie on DVD or blu ray. It’s a very different experience to the cinema, as we’ll pause and stop and start from time-to-time to discuss or to replenish supplies. Even if it’s not with the family, I find myself less worried about catching the bigger details and more able to enjoy the smaller plot points or character moments.

Michael Sheen’s performance from Tron: Legacy as a deranged David Bowie impersonator is now one of my favourite aspects of the film, if only because Sheen is a superb actor underneath a gloriously scenery-chewing performance. It’s the little quirks, the small moments of hesitation that you miss the first time around. Was a particular character lying at a certain point? Having already seen the film play out, is their motivation any more complex? Some moments of dramatic irony or other elements of foreshadowing become a lot more apparent once you know the ending.

On second viewing, the Sheen stays on...

Or, at least, that’s what I tell myself when I feel the need to catch a movie I’ve already reviewed instead of branching out and embracing a new one.

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14 Responses

  1. Nice post, and wholly agree about the home/cinema differences.

    My favourite films tend to be ones that warrant a second viewing for the purpose of picking up other details: OldBoy, The Fall, Primer, Memento, Inception, Moon (and most tarantino). There’s just something about a really good film that requires more than one showing to appreciate/understand.

    On the other hand, some films I loved as a teenager, or even just a couple of years ago seem to be easier to stick the boot in to on a 2nd viewing, once you’ve seen hundreds more – better – films to compare it against. There are some that seem to grow with viewings too – didn’t ‘get’ Napoleon Dynamite first time ’round, can’t switch it off these days.

    • I’ve had that experience as well with films I loved as a child, only to discove rthey weren’t really that good. Mostly cheesy horror films, which is probably a genre that doesn’t age well. On the other hand, each viewing of a Bond film has made me love it a little more. Yes, even the crap ones.

  2. Interesting read Darren. For me, the second viewing allows me to enjoy films more. Films I liked, I like more; films I don’t like I usually find something of merit that was missed first time. I’m not sure why that is but I think it is largely down to expectation as you discuss. We are not watching the film to find out what happens at the end, we are watching it to relive the character’s journey.

    • That’s a very good point. We know the ending so it is literally about the journey. Which is probably why it’s so tough to rewatch suspense films. And which is why I think Christopher Nolan is so awesome. His screenplays twist and turn, but actually reward re-watching. On the other hand, re-watching a Shymalan film you run the risk of discovering that the emperor has no clothes.

  3. Second viewings do change your mind, sometimes. I very rarely like Coen brothers’ movies on first viewings, yet I like them on second viewings. I agree with you that “Tron-Legacy” benefits but “Bridesmaids” seems less sharp and funny. I have seen “The Artist” four times and like it more each time. Great post!

    • Four times? I generally wait until the DVD release to play it again, if only because I’m relatively frugal. That said, last film I saw twice at the cinema was… (don’t judge me…) J. Edgar. And I still think it was considerably better than the consensus would argue, even if it was a little too sensationalist and daytime soap opera. “Don’t leave me, Clyde!”

  4. I only started re-watching films when I started going out with my partner, who watches and re-watches his DVD collection, now I’m a re-watching convert. I agree with all your points above and also Dan who says ‘we are watching it to relive the character’s journey’.

    I enjoy watching horrors a second time, as I’m not so distracted by being terrified and can enjoy the film at bit more since I know who the boogey man is.

    Mirrormask is probably the most extreme example of a film I really disliked on my first viewing, but it unveiled itself slowly over subsequent viewings.

    • Sure, what would be the point in owning a DVD collection if we didn’t ruthlessly watch and re-watch? That just doesn’t make economic sense. 🙂

  5. As always a great post to read. In general I don’t rewatch a lot of movies except the classics with some exception if it’s a movie some of my friends have not seen yet, but don’t mind seeing again.

    Recently rewatching a movie made me enjoy it even more bumping the score I gave from a 9 to a 10 (wasn’t sure the first time around, but the second viewing sealed the deal).

    Rewatching it does make for more relaxed watching as you can focus on details you missed out on the first time around. Don’t do it too much because there is so much I still want to see! 😉

    • Thanks Nostra.

      And taht’s a problem for me as well. How do I justify going back to stuff I’ve already seen when there’s so much left to see?

  6. I’ve always maintained that to really tell how good a movie is, it has to stand up to repeat viewings. Some films, like “2001: A Space Odyssey”, which is a difficult, slow-moving film, get better the more times you watch it simply because you’re able to absorb all the complexities and nuances that the first screening may not grant you. Then there are seemingly fun, popcorn films like “Star Trek V: The Final Frontier” and “Batman Forever” that are entertaining upon the initial viewing, but whose flaws scream out at you when you see these movies again and ruin the enjoyment of them.

    • I may have to respectfully disagree ith you on Star Trek V. I loathe that film, even though it is almost redeemed by the greatest line of dialogue ever to come from Bill Shatner’s mouth. Although I think a Star Trek marathon may be on the cards for the 50th anniversary coming up soon.

      • Notice I said “seemingly fun.” When I first saw “The Final Frontier,” I enjoyed it, mostly because I was hyped to see a new “Star Trek” film. I actually saw it a second time in the theater, and that’s when its cloaking device shimmered out of existence. Did Kirk, Spock and McCoy just sing “Row Row Row Your Boat”? Did Spock really say “marshmellons”? Did Scotty actually hit his head on a beam? Did Uhura really do her fan………AHHHHHHHH my eyes!!!!!!!

      • “I know this ship like the back of my hand.”

        I do like the rumour Sha Ka Ree was named for the actor they originally wanted to play the villain, even if it’s hilariously insane to imagine Sean Connery as Spock’s evil brother.

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