The Art of Rewatching

Technically speaking, I’m more of a rewatcher than a watcher. I’ve seen a lot of movies and television shows in my life, but what ultimately gives them meaning is the second/third/tenth/nth viewing. I used to do this with books. There are books from my childhood I can still quote wholesale from, an ability I have utterly lost with my grown-up, theoretically more sophisticated reading.

I believe this is because rereading is just so much harder than rewatching these days – I can rewatch something while doing the dishes or cleaning my room. But this is also because watching (and hence, rewatching) has a social quality. I can rewatch Adaptation with a group of friends without much difficulty. Rereading Pride and Prejudice with a group of friends, with even one, has proven much more challenging.

At its best, rewatching can be deeply social. I have a whole language of quotes with my sister, for example: we can have a conversation that consists almost entirely of quotes (or oblique references) from movies we watched hundreds of times on our couch growing up. I’m okay with reading and rereading being a solitary act, I think. Rewatching solo, meanwhile, feels like “wasting time.” And yet, it’s something I do quite a bit.

Over the last month, I rewatched three different movies that have meant a great deal to me at some time or another, with very different social contexts, with very different reactions. It solidified for me the importance of revisiting works of art that matter in your life as you grow up, to see what flavors they lose or take on. I remember from Joan Didion’s Year of Magical Thinking that her husband John stood in their pool one summer and read and reread The French Lieutenant’s Woman, to see how it was put together. I sometimes bring that technical gaze to the rewatch, but other times, it’s much less than that. Sometimes I just want to try on something familiar and see how it feels.

The first movie I rewatched, sitting in my room, was Before Sunset. This movie came out when I was in high school, and I was fresh (and starry-eyed) from watching Before Sunrise. As I was rewatching it, I was cleaning my room, and mostly what I remembered were three things: I remembered that a film reviewer I admired had said the ending of the film was sublime, but when I first saw it, I was confused by it. I remembered that unlike its prequel, it was real-time – we’re only with the characters for the exact length of the film. And I remembered almost every clip from the trailer, which I watched obsessively before the film came out, only to abandon it, puzzled, when the movie failed to measure up.

I was, of course, totally overwhelmed by how beautiful it was. I have heard a lot of criticism of the Linklater movies, which I just cannot understand, but I accept that the movies are made for verbal romantics like me. But I was so young when I saw the first one. I had no idea what being 23 and sitting on a train felt like, for example. And the last scene is sublime. I used to think it was ambiguous, and this time I felt it was not ambiguous at all. Make what you will of me. I’ve no doubt I’ll watch it again someday. Meanwhile, I hear that Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke, and Richard Linklater are working on the third. I wonder if it will take me nine more years to appreciate that one.

The third was quite the opposite. (I’ll get to the second in a minute.) Over Christmas with my family I rewatched The Namesake. I read The Namesake (the book), finally, on my birthday in 2011. I cried through most/all of it. It’s the most personally accurate book I’ve ever read; a book that really is about my life. I knew everything that was going to happen. I’d seen the movie, years before, at the Avon in Providence. There’s a character with my name it in, and I cried. Later, I wrote for my college arts and culture publication that I had intended to review the movie but couldn’t; it was too personal.

My sister read the book first, and when I got that free DVD from Netflix for Christmas, I decided I’d get the movie for all of us to watch together. It was going to be kind of weird for my parents to experience my reaction to a story about people like them – convoluted and weird. But worth it, I thought.

I was so terribly wrong. I think the movie version of The Namesake is a travesty among adaptations. Mira Nair holds a lot of responsibility for this, for somehow managing to simultaneously exoticize and normalize Indian-ness. Jhumpa Lahiri’s book is so lyrically inclusive that it makes Indian-ness normal even to non-Indians. Nair somehow manages to sever Indians even from themselves – if the characters are Indian, the camera is certainly white, lingering over Orientalized details in a way an Indian never would. And beyond that, the book just doesn’t translate well to film. The narrative is so interior that verbalizing the sentiments the characters keep within them diminishes their import.

My reaction while watching was not nearly so measured, though. It’s difficult when a beloved story falls short, especially when the reason that story resonates is your experience with your family and you’re sitting there with your family and no one really gets why it’s so important and the characters are so alone, and there’s crying, and you can’t really communicate what you’re feeling to anyone. You end up going to the bathroom hiding your tears and wondering how a movie about a book that made you think about your family watched with your family could make you seem so completely isolated.

THAT’S how bad that movie was.

The last film I want to talk about I saw sandwiched between these two, in the days right before Christmas. I was with my best friend at her new apartment. She and I have one extremely quirky thing in common: we have both seen The Matrix so many times each scene is practically burned into our brains. (I thought this was pretty normal until I started asking around. Turns out we’re pretty alone, especially among women.)

I never saw The Matrix in theatres. I had dismissed it as some geeky guy film, but then I watched scenes of it here and there on TV and eventually was completely consumed by it. I started watching the movie in ninth grade and didn’t stop, apparently, until maybe when I graduated high school. I remember that in a philosophy class I sat in on when I was 17 the topic kept drifting back to a question along the lines of “well, what if we’re all plugged into the matrix?” That was four years after the movie was released.

Somehow after that it dropped off. I probably started watching Lord of the Rings, or something. And then Melanie pulled it out of her five-DVD collection and we both immediately had to watch it again. We spent the whole time saying completely inane, fawning things like “Oh my god I love this scene!” We discussed why Trinity was such an important character for both of us. (Strong, but compassionate; kickass, but always undeniably female. Her strength comes from her femininity. How many sci-fi movies can say that?)

The brilliant thing about The Matrix is that it’s still a phenomenal movie. The distance of 12 (!) years has barely dated it – in fact, it underscored how groundbreaking this movie was at the time. Action sequences and dystopian film and the idea the machines take over are all forever informed by this film. In other words, we’re all still watching The Matrix.

But that hints at the larger lesson. I’m always still watching everything I’ve seen: measuring it against what I know already, assessing it based on what I’ll learn tomorrow. I think there’s a lot of hand-wringing in the Internet Era about consuming as much media as possible, to see as much as possible before we inevitably die. But in reality, I only get significance from watching something and then carrying it with me for the rest of my life, and pulling it out now and then to look at it again.

This article was crossposted from Sonia’s personal blog.

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