Men and obsessive cinematic disorder
Whether it’s for their geekiness or greatness, compulsively rewatching films is a peculiarly male condition, writes TIM LOTT
Afestive season gets into full swing, many – not least those who compile TV schedules – get into the mood for old movies. Home Alone, Ghostbusters, The Wizard of Oz… the list is interminable, the appetite for them insatiable.
Like the release of Christmas singles, they mark the passing of the year and have little to do with enduring quality. I excitedly took my eight-year-old daughter to see It’s a Wonderful Life at the cinema last year, and she pointed out, to my surprise, that it was quite boring. She was right. Watching it through the reflected light of her eyes, I saw the clunkiness, the sentiment and the dull dramatic lacunae.
Other seasonal films stand the test of time better. That Andrew Lloyd Webber has watched The Sound of Music 20 times is a little excessive but not so surprising. Who, over a certain age, has not seen it at least half a dozen times? Likewise Mary Poppins and The Wizard of Oz.
People have a greater appetite for recycled films than for rewatching any other entertainment medium, and not only for seasonal reasons. The new chief executive of Marks and Spencer, Marc Bolland, has seen Bertolucci’s Novecento (1900) 15 times, while actor Alan Cumming claims to have seen Christopher Guest’s Waiting for Guffman a remarkable 30 times.
It looks as though most film obsessives are men. This isn’t to say that there aren’t many women who have passionate relationships with certain films. Actress Cathy Tyson has apparently watched Ryan’s Daughter eight times. But on the whole, the people who tend to talk most passionately about the virtues and emotional power of a particular historic film are men.
My wife, Rachael, has watched A Star is Born six times, but it was as a teenager when her parents were splitting up, and the appeal is very time-specific. The film is about the collapse of a relationship. She doesn’t watch it any more. Actress Brenda Fricker watched Jailhouse Rock six times when she was a teenager and was “discovering sex”.
I’d fit both into the “therapeutic” category, which is one of the reasons we keep returning to films: they help to put in a box with reflecting walls our chaotic or untamed emotions. The screen versions of Pride and Prejudice are a prime example of this. But the reasons for OCD (obsessive cinematic disorder) are wider and more multiplicitous than simple therapy.
Many go back to films simply because of their greatness. British Prime Minister David Cameron has watched Where Eagles Dare 18 times, and views the Godfather films “endlessly”, probably for no other reason than that people go to the theatre to see Hamlet time and again – because it is a work of art of great tragic scope and quality. The power of the film drags you back in again and again, even though you know practically every beat of the script.
Novelist William Boyd has sat through Blade Runner 15 times and Chinatown repeatedly. Films such as these seem to appeal to what you might call the male tragic sense, since they are all elegantly bleak in tone. They perhaps have the same pull as The Smiths, Tom Waits or Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds had for those same men as teenagers.
Other people return to a film for vaguely geeky reasons. This is the crossword puzzle impulse. Films such as Memento, The Matrix, The Draughtsman’s Contract or the multilayered Inception appeal to the borderline autist to fuss over, unpicking the layers that contain the meaning or story, or which transmit the film’s core “message” (which, I suspect, is often quite absent, or at least intrinsically blurred).
I feel somewhat the same about Synecdoche, New York, which I have watched three times. I still don’t know what it’s about, but maybe when I have reached the Alan Cummings level of OCD, I will.
There are still other rationales for film obsessives. For instance, the feeling you’re having an identity or sense of place affirmed. I have a friend who is obsessed with Stand by Me; its main theme is adolescent coming of age and lost innocence. I have watched Terence Davies’s The Long Day Closes repeatedly because, likewise, it takes me back to the world of growing up.
This nostalgic impulse must be a strong one. Perhaps that is why Billy Elliot appeals so strongly to British former deputy prime minister John Prescott, who has seen it six times. It is about a working-class boy overcoming the odds to become successful in the face of mockery and scepticism.
Watching films repeatedly is also for the pleasures of familiarity. Anticipation adds to the enjoyment, rather in the way a child will watch an episode of a cartoon over and over without getting bored. This is to examine OCD from the inside. Looked at from the outside, it provides a reliable perspective on a personality. If I ask someone what film they compulsively watch, inevitably, if unfairly, I form a judgement on them. It is fortunate, probably, that my wife did not tell me her all-time favourite was Awakenings until the romance was too far gone to retreat.
Likewise, if someone tells me their favourite film is Jules et Jim I have them down as an irremediable pseud. ET? Retarded development. Anything with Robin Williams in? Ditto. Gone with the Wind? Woman. Any comedy? Bit shallow.
Each has their own compulsive film for their own reasons. And if you don’t have one yet, and are lost for conversation when the topic comes up, consider Groundhog Day. It is about an event that endlessly repeats until the protagonist finally finds something worthwhile to do with his life. – Independent on Sunday
ELEGANTLY BLEAK: Films like Blade Runner seem to appeal to the male tragic sense.
NEO-PHILE: People turn to fare such as The Matrix for geeky reasons.
ENDLESS: Don’t have a compulsive film? Try Groundhog Day.