The film(s) I always go back to

03 April 2011

The French Connection, 1971
MP here

Kid in the Front Row sparked a blogathon yesterday based around the film we always go back to, for whatever reason. Which film do people, as Kid in the Front Row writes, "always find themselves re-visiting after stressful weeks, or messy break-ups, or maybe just because they love it so much"?

It got me thinking. Several films immediately come to mind; they're the usual suspects that also enter my head whenever someone asks me what my favourite film is, a question I feel variably uncomfortable answering, depending on who's asking - and also who else is present. Kristin Thompson commented recently on how the favourite film question is often a conversation killer; her comforting post recalled the difficulty I've had in recent years even attempting to list favourite films.

In November I came across an old Top 100 list I'd made in March 2004. Looking at it, alongside the curious decision back then to rate films twice - first out of four stars, second out of 10 (I suspect to make it easier when comparing my own scores to those in Halliwell's Film Guide, which I used as reference, and for posting to IMDb) - made for interesting viewing. I posted the list to the idFilm board and, referring to my updated database, highlighted those films to which I would still award full marks (five stars these days) and can therefore call favourites in some way.

Of the Top 100 I had as of March 2004, 21 films receive five stars today. But even now, four months after posting that list, I can see problems. I don't give the first Godfather film full stars these days simply because the last time I watched it - in November 2008 - I didn't enjoy it as much as I had remembered. Conversely, though, I found The Godfather Part II even duller than the first film when I revisited it two days later in '08, but have since allowed myself to reinstate its top marks without the benefit of a re-watch, and a lot of the benefit of doubt.

These things are context dependent. I watched both of those films with my then girlfriend; she was watching for the first time, I had seen them at least five times each. Her lack of enthusiasm affected my own; and I remember being mildly hungover, and probably not in the mood for two epics demanding constant attention (we had an interval during Part II to eat some chocolate, something I normally wouldn't dream of doing). I also watched the films at the beginning of a major critical shift on my part, which would be the cause and result of some confusion in my thoughts on the world in general and on art in particular.

Seven months later, for instance, I revisited an old favourite, Gus Van Sant's Elephant. You can read two of my responses to that film on the old idFilm board, when it was under a different name: the first is from January 2006 after I'd seen the film for the second time in 10 days (the first had been for the first time ever), the second is from August 2009. The shift in my enthusiasm is clear, and indicative of a lot of re-evaluations I was making at the time.

My point is, though, that a favourites list, if it is to be meaningful beyond being just a list, should be fluid and eternally open to re-evaluation, not to mention a mere starting point for further discussion. I don't think I would be as harsh or dismissive to Elephant now, problematic though it may be (and as a formal reworking of Béla Tarr, it's an interesting experiment at the least); and I would probably reinstate The Godfather with full marks if I watched it again soon. And if the majority of the films in my 2004 Top 100 would fail to make a similar list today (if I made one), I can already, even since my forum post in November last year, see films on there I would call favourites more than others, despite star ratings seemingly contradicting that.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, 2004

Overcompensating with nostalgia

I and others at idFilm used to refuse to give a film full marks until we'd seen it three times. I think the argument would resemble something like this: we can't call a new favourite a real favourite until we've measured it over time in some way, until it has endured our ever-changing critical perceptions, alongside all those other films competing against it. Or to put it another way, if we're returning to a film for the second, third or fourth time, we can assume there lies in it an obvious appeal that we can take for granted (more on this later).

But what happens if we start returning to films less often? Last month, for instance, I gave full marks (which sounds better or less silly than "five stars") to two films I hadn't seen before: Georges Franju's Eyes Without a Face and Joanna Hogg's Archipelago. Star ratings are only ever a symbolic indication of enthusiasm for a film, though, and if we're seeing new films every day, it's only natural that past favourites wane against more recent ones, which of course means such enthusiasm can often become nostalgic: aware of old favourites being neglected, we'll overcompensate.

I think this is definitely the case for The Adventures of Robin Hood or All Quiet on the Western Front, two films I might very well still love upon revisits, but in all honesty, they are also two films I haven't watched in over six years. And I've seen over a thousand films in that time, not including re-watches... Heat and Sexy Beast, meanwhile, are two films I didn't highlight in November, and yet I find myself quoting the latter almost on a daily basis and thinking about the former very, very often. I feel more comfortable calling Heat and Beast favourites than I do Robin Hood and Western Front.

Not long after posting my old Top 100, I wrote on the idFilm forum a short list of "films I feel comfortable calling favourites". These were as follows: The French Connection (Friedkin, 1971); Chinatown (Polanski, 1974); The Deer Hunter (Cimino, 1978); I Don't Want to Sleep Alone (Tsai, 2006); Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Gondry, 2004); M (Lang, 1931); Singin' in the Rain (Donen & Kelly, 1952); The New World (Malick, 2005); The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (Hooper, 1974). After the list - to which I also suggested the TV productions Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (Irvin, 1979) and The Singing Detective (Amiel, 1986) - I wrote, "That's not including several Hitchcock films, maybe Citizen Kane, and, um, well, I'm running into problems already."

This last point hints towards the problematic parametres we use to decide upon a favourite film. I returned to Norwich last week, the city where I studied Film (and English) for my undergraduate degree. In a taxi ride, the conversation started from my explaining my reasons for being in the city - something that comes up often, because I have a northern accent quite distinct from anywhere else in England. In learning I had studied film, the taxi driver asked me what my favourite film was.

Immediately recalling Kristin Thompson's thoughts on the subject, and suspecting my driver hadn't heard of Ming-liang Tsai or Terrence Malick, I used the deliberate and careful phrasing, "Well the first film that I saw that really got me into watching films properly was The French Connection, the Gene Hackman film" (I didn't expect him to know William Friedkin).

I was telling the truth. I saw that film after recording it one Oscar night on the BBC. It blew me away, as they say. It still does, too: I last watched it in July 2009, and thought it was simply magnificent all over again. (Incidentally and perhaps tellingly, I watched it with the same girlfriend with whom I'd revisited The Godfather, and also not long before writing that dismissal of Elephant; during, that is, that "critical shift".)

After seeing Friedkin's film for the first time, I remember watching The Godfather, in its chronological Saga form first, trilogy order second, and then to less romanticised, more 'gritty' gangster films such as Scorsese's GoodFellas and Mean Streets, etc., which led to an interest in directors in general - aided no doubt by director-heavy film criticism - and to Scorsese's European influences, as well as Coppola's The Conversation (and anything else I could find with Gene Hackman).

It becomes more hazy after that, but my point is that for a while, those were the films I always went back to. Before The French Connection, I remember watching Martin Campbell's GoldenEye (1995) twice in a row, the second time, oddly, backwards: rewinding the VHS tape so that I was watching it in reverse order, without sound and with those little blemishes you get when manipulating playback speed, something long forgotten with DVDs and beyond. At a certain point after The French Connection, I remember buying Godard's Breathless on DVD and watching it three times in a row one Monday night, then again on the Tuesday night without subtitles (something I'd never done before and haven't done since). That too was a favourite; it still might be, but I haven't watched it in years.

I Don't Want to Sleep Alone, 2006
When all before you is barren, return to what you love...

Part of the reason for beginning this blog was to reinvigorate my and others' gluttony for film watching. Stemming from our years-old discussion board community, this was intended as a platform for engaging with others out there, and, because of the very nature of blog maintenance, it was meant to encourage keeping on top of what's hot and what isn't. (By the by, you'll probably see less news items on here henceforth - due to both the arbitrary way I've been choosing what to post on other than the items' appeal, and the fact I'm going to be a regular contributor to Front Row Reviews - but we're still reviewing every 2011 release we see on here.)

To kickstart the blog last April (we're a year old in 9 days), I reviewed Ming-liang Tsai's I Don't Want to Sleep Alone. Given that we made the blog at a time of frustration with ourselves for not watching enough movies, and in hindsight probably not enjoying watching movies as much as we had in previous years, the review doubled as a sort of mission statement: "when all before you is barren, return to what you love". Tsai's film is a favourite on the idFilm forum; it's our go-to film when discussions get heated.

Similarly, when rounding off my yearly tally at the end of 2010, quite aware that I had gone through long viewing droughts, I made a note to self: "if you're struggling to bring yourself to watch a film, put an old favourite in." In 2010, I only did that five times: I watched 121 films and 116 of those were for the first time. There are two main reasons for this. Firstly, I've made a conscious effort in the last few years to make more room for first-time viewings by not re-watching my favourite films on a regular basis; this is simply due to the fact I still have over a hundred films that I've acquired from television recordings and DVD purchases - I even have some still unwatched from the days of spending my pocket money in HMV when that store was slowly getting rid of its VHS collection - and feel it's about time I got through them all, so I can then feel more justified in subscribing to an online rental company that will help broaden my viewing habits. (Here are some of the films I own but haven't seen.)

Secondly, because of the first reason, when I seemingly lack the patience for a film I haven't seen, I'll restrain from watching an old favourite simply because I know it would be better for me to get through the unwatched pile. This happened often last year, hence the relatively low viewing count of 121 (one every three days). The five films I revisited last year were Nicholas Corea's TV film The Incredible Hulk Returns (1988), which I'd picked up from PoundLand the day before watching it; Patrick Keiller's London (1994), which I revisited before seeing his Robinson in Ruins at the London Film Festival; Darren Aronofsky's The Wrestler (2008), which I bought for my mother for Christmas and then watched with her soon after; and I Don't Want to Sleep Alone, which I watched twice, first in April in preparation for the blog's first post, and then again in May, when I nominated it for a public screening at the Tyneside Cinema as part of its second anniversary celebrations.

The Prestige, 2006

Some numbers, and finally, some films

I've seen 107 films already in 2011, including eleven revisits. That's fourteen off 2010's total and we're only three months into this year; similarly, I've already revisited six more films than I did last year. Clearly, allowing time for one is helping me reinvigorate the other.

The four films I re-watched last year all in some way had formal reasons behind them, with the Hulk film a probable exception (I watched it one afternoon when there was nothing else to do and a more demanding film was beyond me). In 2011, my re-watched films have had varying reasons behind them. Several have been Laurel & Hardy shorts, which I saw long ago and have been watching again, alongside first viewings, as a natural product of going through this collection of their films.

My most significant re-watches this year, though, have been instances where I consciously sat down to revisit films I knew I already liked: I've watched Christopher Nolan's Inception (2010) and The Prestige (2006; the latter confirmed itself as a masterpiece in my eyes), and the Bourne trilogy, which was not only excellent and better than I had remembered, but crucially, got me psyched for watching other stuff: for starters, the only thing that got me through Ernst Lubitsch's messy Sumurun (1920), which I was watching for the first time, was knowing I had The Bourne Ultimatum (2007) to follow it.

Finally, then, 2011 has seen the return of the re-watch for the sake of enjoying old favourites, something that wasn't quite the case in 2010. Before revisiting the Bourne trilogy in January, for instance, the last film I had re-watched because I knew exactly what I wanted - and watched it, therefore, as a kind of therapy - was Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), which I watched in December 2009 after one of those "messy break-ups" the Kid in the Front Row describes on their blogathon.

Which brings me to the reason for revisiting films in the first place. For me, revisiting a film seems less about giving it "another chance" - which also happens of course, though I've not done that since re-watching Alan Clarke's Scum (1979) in June 2009 - than wanting, for whatever reason, to re-confirm or reassure an (old) outlook. In the case of Eternal Sunshine, it's about restoring your faith in relationships even when your own has gone down the shitter; with something like Béla Tarr's Damnation (1988), which I last watched in January 2009 (as part of a double bill I'd suggested to housemates, alongside Hitchcock's Vertigo), it's about cushioning a growing internal cynicism by watching something that resembles it.

There might be something conservative at work here, of course; but it might also be progressive, cathartic. Whatever, here are the last films I re-watched not to "get something new out of them" - though that's often a happy and welcome side-effect - but because I knew they'd offer me something I'd experienced and enjoyed before: Christopher Nolan's The Prestige (2006), last watched March 2011; the Bourne trilogy (Doug Liman, 2002; Paul Greengrass, 2004 and 2007), last watched January 2011; Michel Gondry's Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), last watched December 2009; William Friedkin's The French Connection (1971), Roman Polanski's Chinatown (1974) and Dave Robinson's Take It or Leave It (1981), all last watched July 2009; Jonathan Glazer's Sexy Beast (2000), last watched April 2009; and Michael Mann's Heat (1995) and Gaspar Noé's Irreversible (2002), both last watched March 2009.

Whether this would constitute a favourites list, of course, is another matter...