Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Remember your history

I mentioned yesterday that my wife was out of town this past weekend, paving the way for one of my patented movie binges.

What I didn't mention was that I did something slightly different this time around. Instead of just voraciously consuming as many previously unseen movies as I could, I consciously sought out movies that I'd loved, but seen too few times. The perpetual compulsion to add to my collection could wait for one weekend, as I deepened my knowledge of some old favorites.

So I took a trip to the library Friday after work, considering only titles that I'd previously seen. At least that's how I started out. But as I swept through the vast collection at the Venice branch of the Los Angeles Public Library -- a collection that I've only recently discovered, which dwarfs the offerings at other branches -- at least five of the 15 or so DVDs I was having an ever-more difficult time holding were previously unseen. Hey, old habits die hard.

But you can only borrow three at a time, so I had some work to do.

I took the unwieldy stack of DVDs and laid them out on a book shelf that came up to around my midsection. When I emerged after a number of very difficult decisions, I'd settled on three titles that I had seen exactly one other time, just as I'd planned.

Here's what I came up with:

1) The Player (1991, Robert Altman). I couldn't believe I'd seen this great film only once, but my list at home said that this was indeed the case. (And even if the list is not 100% historically accurate, over time it takes on the certainty of historical fact.) I know I saw Altman's next film, Short Cuts, at least two times, but apparently my first viewing of The Player was also the lone viewing. This was the perfect example of a title I hoped to find -- something I'd immediately recognize I needed to see again as soon as possible. So this was also the easiest decision, and I started watching soon after I got home. So many brilliant details, so much good stuff in this film.

2) I Am Legend (2007, Francis Lawrence). I wanted one of the movies to be something big and epic, and actually had Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King in my mind for this slot. It's the only Lord of the Rings film I've seen only once. But the vast Venice collection came up short in this respect, so I Am Legend jumped to the top. My wife and I loved this film when we saw it in IMAX two years ago -- plus, I'm always drawn to visions of post-apocalypse where they really care about the details of what a world like this would be like. Times Square overrun by tall grass and deer? Yup, I'm in. I watched it late-night Saturday night.

3) The Big Lebowksi (1998, Joel Coen). This cult favorite is also some people's favorite Coen brothers movie, and was probably singularly responsible for significantly raising the profile of the White Russian. However, I was only vaguely positive on it when I saw it a decade ago, so I thought I should definitely revisit it. Only problem is, I didn't. I had it lined up to watch on Sunday night, and was even prepared to have a White Russian or six while watching. (Though I had no plans to watch it wearing a bathrobe.) But I waited too long to start, and then discovered that the thing is 127 minutes long -- not something I wanted to get myself into after 10:30 on a school night. Since it was due back on Monday, I'd have to let this one go by the boards.

Maybe it was the hole left by The Big Lebowski, but I found myself drawn to the local Blockbuster on Monday to pick up something else for my third film revisited. That third something was:

3) The 13th Warrior (1999, John McTiernan). I ranked it during the day on Flickchart, and thought to myself, "Damn -- for the number of times I've pimped this film to somebody, I can't believe I've only watched it once." Blockbuster didn't let me down -- they could have very easily not stocked it -- and I came home with it, watching it in the late afternoon (I get out at 4 on Mondays). In my review of it I referred to it as a "subtle historical epic," and that's pretty much true. While it doesn't have the epic sweep of a Braveheart or a Lord of the Rings, it's got a really interesting cast of characters, comprised mostly of 10th century Vikings, and the Arab diplomat (Antonio Banderas) who travels with them to their homeland to fight cannibalistic mist creatures. A really interesting film.

And you know what?

I didn't like any of the films as much as I'd remembered. Time has a way of coloring your perception of things. Sure, it had only been two years since I'd seen I Am Legend. But the big screen -- especially an IMAX screen -- can really inflate the value of a good film, making it seem like a great one. I think I Am Legend settles in somewhere around "very good." The biggest dropoff of the three was probably The 13th Warrior, which struck me with its originality when I first saw it ten years ago, but yesterday left me with considerably less of a sense of wonder. The least dropoff was The Player, which is still a great film, just not the world-rocking film I remembered it to be.

But you know what else?

Whether I liked the films as much is hardly the point. The point is that all film fans need to remember to take time out of their busy viewing schedules to go back to the same wells again. Those were good wells -- the water was cold and pure and tasted good. And watching these films again really nourished me.

The reality with most films is that they aren't quite as good as you remembered them when you watch them again. This is of course not always true -- there are some films where the more details you spot, the more you fall in love. But my guess is that a lot more films don't have the impact they first had, simply because you already know what will happen, because you no longer have the thrill of first discovery. And that's okay.

I guess it's worth asking whether it wouldn't be better to stop at one viewing, if this is going to be the case. That may be the only way to preserve the unfettered love you have for the film in question.

But I don't have that kind of foreknowledge, and I'll take the risk. Any film I love needs to stand that test of a second viewing. If it's not as good as I thought it was, that's probably worth knowing.

Especially when I'm, you know, ranking all the films I've ever seen ...

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