Editorials, Everything Else — April 28, 2015 at 3:00 pm



tumblr_mdks2udcyn1r6ubs5o1_500When I was about five years old, I used to rewatch Lady and the Tramp over and over again. I watched it so much that I wore down the tape. I knew every frame of that film, every line, every voice, every camera angle. I could quote it from beginning to end. Although I have moved on from Lady and the Tramp, that video – with its crackles, its slightly faded image, and now slightly warped soundtrack – is still a nostalgic touchstone for me. I’ve since bought the DVD and it’s beautiful, but it’s not the same.

I am of the first generation of children who actually got to rewatch films on a regular basis. My parents owned a VCR: one that was huge, heavy as several bricks, and survived for about twenty years before it began eating tapes. My grandmother regularly sent me videos with recorded TV shows, films, and kids’ programs. My parents still have that copy of How the Grinch Stole Christmas, complete with late 80s commercials for Isotoner Gloves and Hess Truck Christmas gifts, along with Rainbow Brite, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and The New Adventures of Winnie the Pooh. Those tapes formed the foundation of my media education more so than regular TV did (because the cable “fell down” one winter and my parents lied horribly and told me it was impossible to repair it). As I grew older, I also regularly rewatched the Marx Brothers’ Night at the Opera and Buster Keaton’s The General, rented Alfred Hitchcock films every time we went to the video store, and scoured film catalogues for videotapes of the Granada Sherlock Holmes series. Videos enabled me to learn whole swathes of Groucho Marx’s one-liners, and every Abbott and Costello routine. In other words, video and the ability to rewatch media over and over again directly informed my love of film and the visual medium.

To many members of my generation and later, the ability to rewatch films over and over again is simply a fact of life: we can’t imagine it any other way. But most film critics until the 1980s and 90s had to make do with only seeing a film once, perhaps twice, before being asked to pass judgment on it. Sitting down to analyze a single scene in Citizen Kane was almost impossible, unless you happened to have access to a projector, a film screen, and someone willing to stop and start the film for you. Even then, rewinding, fast-forwarding, closed-captioning for dialogue…all of these were difficult, if not entirely inaccessible. And that’s just considering the film critics, the people whose job it is to watch movies. The average film-goer probably did not see a first-run film more than a few times, and was certainly never able to watch a favorite scene over and over again.

Many films were originally made to make their first impression their best, or at least their most important. While a viewer might be reasonably expected to see a single film more than once, no thought would really be paid to multiple viewings, or viewings that allowed one to focus deeply on particular sections of a film (this can be seen in a number of early film theories and guides, where the writer very often makes errors about plot or even actors’ roles). I have often commented that some films improve on several viewings, yet those films weren’t meant to be viewed more than once.

opera620We have now entered an era where the opposite is true: films are meant to viewed over and over again. DVDs, Blu-rays, and streaming have allowed us to scrutinize films closely, to experience them in sections rather than as a whole work, to spend hours and days looking at them, considering them, analyzing them. I was interested to find the Guardians of the Galaxy actually improved on a second viewing, as I managed to ignore the confused world-building and plotting and focus instead on the one-liners and character relationships that the film does an excellent job in constructing. While far from a great film, Guardians proved that it was a decent one only on a second watch.

TV shows likewise are taking on different forms, as some shows are practically made to be binge-watched rather than viewed in single half hour or hour increments with regular commercial breaks. In fact, some shows constructed as 21 minute episodes actually suffer with the new ability to rewatch them or watch many in succession – formula is laid bare, the similarity of plot and structure exposed as far from innovative. What was once good on a single viewing is now a bit trite, a bit too formulaic. There are any number of shows that did not age well, entirely because the way we watch them has changed.

It’s a truism to say that media has changed over the years. But beyond the big leaps backwards and forwards, it has also changed in small, almost unnoticeable ways. Can you picture a time when you couldn’t pop in a videocassette, a DVD, a Blu-ray, or streaming everything you want? A time when you couldn’t rewind? Each piece of media was made to be experienced in its own way – it’s amazing how many older films continue to hold up under close scrutiny, how many new ones require multiple viewings to be given their due. My love for films was informed by the existence of the rewind button, but I’m not even sure that we can say rewind any more. There’s nothing to wind at all.

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