“As he let the empty gourd fall from his hand and was about to pluck a second one, it came into his head that he was now neither hungry nor thirsty. And yet to repeat a pleasure so intense and almost so spiritual seemed an obvious thing to do … But for whatever cause, it appeared to him better not to taste again. Perhaps the experience had been so complete that repetition would be be a vulgarity – like asking to hear the same symphony twice in one day.” – CS Lewis, Perelandra
In a few hours, I’m going off to watch a film for the second time. Two films, actually. A double bill of Duncan Jones’s two features, Moon and Source Code, is playing at Auckland’s Capitol Cinema this afternoon, and I can’t resist.
I usually can’t resist. If I love a film, I want to see it again. And again. (I don’t believe I’ve ever missed a chance to see Blade Runner on the big screen.) Sometimes it’s a mistake. I find Aaron Sorkin’s four seasons of The West Wing endlessly rewatchable, but when I tried rewatching The Social Network last year, I couldn’t locate more than a weak echo of the enjoyment I’d felt the first time through. Sorkins’s dialogue for the film is all surface. It’s designed to dazzle, and it does, but the effect relies on complexity of sentence structure, not complexity of thought: once you’ve had a chance to digest it, it can’t distract you from the film’s hollow core.
This is not to undersell the extent to which I loved The Social Network the first time. It quite blew me away. That’s why I went to it again, and also why I’d have been better advised not to. It’s a film to see twice only if you can manage to forget seeing it once.
All films fall into that category, if you believe Pauline Kael. The New Yorker‘s goddess of film criticism was famous for her position that your first response to a film is your only valid one. She refused to watch things twice. It’s one of the all-time great implicit seizures of the intellectual high ground – “My grasp of your complex art object is total and immediate; next!” – especially when you can bring it off as well as she did. The obvious objections to it as a prescriptive theory of film viewing, let alone reviewing, have all been made so often they’re not worth belabouring. Suffice to say that I, mere mortal that I am, would be in trouble if I could only ever see films a single time before writing about them. I remember remarking to a friend, as we walked out of I Am Love at the film festival last July, “God help the poor fool who has to review that.” God, as we all know to our cost, likes His little jokes, and the Listener only has two film reviewers so it was a 50:50 proposition anyway; naturally the poor fool ended up being me. In the event, it was one of the most rewarding writing projects I had to tackle last year, but only because I first had the chance to think about the film a lot, look up some of the references I’d missed, and then see it again. On the initial viewing it simply eluded me.
So you might say that I had to see I Am Love twice in order to see it at all. That’s quite a different thing from going back to the well because it tasted great the last time. Kael would dismiss me as beneath notice for the first. CS Lewis would frown on me for the second. Lewis, funny old duck that he was, is the one I take seriously.
If you haven’t read Perelandra, the passage above comes from the section during which the hero, Ransom, tries to find his feet on a new world. This is a standard trope of science fiction, but here the feet-finding metaphor comes closer to being literalised than usual, because the islands on the vast ocean which covers most of this world are dense mats of weed. Whole forests grow on them, but they are not solid ground: they take on the contours of the waves beneath them. At first, whenever Ransom tries to stand up, his feet go out from under him, as valleys shift into mountains and mountains flatten into plains. The descriptive passages in which Lewis brings these floating islands to life are some of the great treasures of the genre and, Lewis being Lewis, they are bound up inextricably with insistent and sometimes pedantic moralising. You don’t get handed beauty in Lewis’s writing without having to engage in an argument about what it means; then again, the beauty is real.
So Ransom is in a strange world, and he has no food. He finds fruit-bearing trees, he realises it’s experiment or starve, and he has a transformative eating experience. (Lewis is great here. Try to describe a taste no one has ever experienced. Not so easy.) He debates whether to have it again. “He had always disliked the people who encored a favourite air at the opera – ‘That just spoils it’ had been his comment. But this now appeared to him as a principle of far wider application and deeper moment. This itch to have things over again, as if life were a film that could be unrolled twice or even made to work backwards …”
To cut a long story short – though I recommend the long story; it’s a problematic book, but its best moments are as good as anything Lewis ever wrote, which is saying a lot – Ransom ends up concluding that in a perfect world, which as it turns out is exactly what this new world he’s found his way to is, people would surrender themselves to chance, and not try to control the shape of their lives. Perelandra is a response to Milton’s Paradise Lost and the Christian ideas of Eden and the Fall; Lewis is not suggesting that in our own world, we should trust to a wander through the nearest forest to provide us with dinner. But he does suggest, both here and in his other writings, that if you let the pleasure of a great experience lure you into trying to have the experience again, you lose twice: first by retrospectively weakening the initial experience, and second by giving up the chance of a new experience. It’s not a stupid notion.
Now as it happens, my professional viewing habits require me to spend a lot of time living Lewis’s ideal. Films come rolling towards me a few days or weeks out from their New Zealand release dates, I watch them, I write about them, I move on. The diet is entirely a function of the local film calendar, and the peak experiences turn up to no particular schedule. It’s a very satisfying way to watch film. Even so, left to my own devices, I would rewatch things far more often than I currently can. We live in a world where so many films are available on DVD, or on video, or … there’s a whole format wars, future-of-film conversation to be had here, but for now, let’s just stipulate that most things we want to watch, we can watch, whenever we want to watch them. This is a recent phenomenon. Pauline Kael grew up, and quite likely this fact is not unconnected to her view-once fetish, in a world where there were many more theatres, but no other viewing options at all: you took what you could find, or you stayed home.
Lewis was a backwards-looking idealist, firmly wedded to the same Lost Golden Age romanticism you find in the work of his good friend and fellow Great War survivor, Tolkien. Had he lived into this century, I don’t doubt he would have lamented, among a million other things, the loss of the good old days of film, which were indeed good, but not to my mind obviously better than the days we have now. So I do not mean to propose that we’d be better off watching only or chiefly things we’ve never seen before; I don’t even think Lewis would have thought so. There are films you can watch and watch and watch. They don’t tend to be the films I do watch and watch and watch, because, given a rare free evening, I’m more likely to ask for an easy ride into the sunset than a 20km walk or a bucking bronco. Still, they exist. Likewise, there are films you can watch every few years forever, or every few years for some unspecified lesser period. (Sad to watch an old beloved classic after a long time away and realise the magic is gone.) The Duncan Jones films I’m off to see shortly fall into slightly different categories, in that it’s some years since I’ve seen Moon, and I liked it a lot less than many people have; whereas Source Code I unreservedly loved, and I saw it only a month back. I expect to enjoy Moon more this time, having already discounted its flaws; Source Code I will certainly enjoy less than I did originally. I want to see them partly because I think they’ll have a lot to say to each other, viewed back to back – one of the things I admire about Source Code is the way it rewards people for having seen Moon without penalising people who haven’t –and partly because I’m interested in how they’re constructed, and partly just because. There’s a bit of me that doesn’t really believe I won’t love Source Code as much the second time.
So deep down, am I Lewis’s man who has just been transported by a symphony, and now wants to hear it again, despite the received and tested wisdom that tells me you can’t go back to the same river twice? The answer is that deep down I’m lots of things; you don’t lose old bad habits of thought so much as learn to outwit them. But I’m curious to know what other people think about this. What do you rewatch, and how often?