Men and ob­ses­sive cin­e­matic dis­or­der

Whether it’s for their geek­i­ness or great­ness, com­pul­sively re­watch­ing films is a pe­cu­liarly male con­di­tion, writes TIM LOTT

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - LIFE -

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.

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