So much—too much—of culture these days is disposable. Short attention spans are a terrible thing, yet they’re catered to by corporations and hacks who, admittedly, know how to make a buck.
The late, great Roger Ebert once marveled at how a truly bad film ever makes it to the silver screen, considering how much work, time, money, and people are necessary to complete each production. A similar bit of headshaking might be directed toward the question of what a high percentage of films costing millions of dollars—or tens of millions, or hundreds of millions—are seemingly designed to be forgotten as soon as you leave the theater.
A side-effect of this phenomenon is that people are almost being taught not to watch films carefully. If most of what you’re exposed to lacks not only depth and substance but even internal coherence, what’s the point of really paying attention? The experience will only suffer for the effort.
Part of the way out of this artistic dead end is to stop feeding on the cinematic equivalent of high-fructose corn syrup. You are what you eat, and if you keep feeding on shit, what can’t expect of your analytical byproducts? The good news is that there’s so much fab fare out there that you don’t have to dine on doodie.
Some of the fabbest fare out there you might have already seen. However, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t see it again. More often than not people revisit films for their pure entertainment value. While there’s nothing wrong with that, many of history’s cinematic high points occur at the antipodes of disposability, a vaunted realm where art cannot be fully appreciated at first glance.
With that in mind, here’s a list of seven masterpieces (in alphabetical order) you need to see more than once to have any hope of fully appreciating.
Any Wes Anderson film between Bottle Rocket and The Grand Budapest Hotel (Okay, so this isn’t one film. Sue me.)
Bottle Rocket is cute and sets us up for the gentle, quirky humor that has characterized all of Anderson’s subsequent work. But let’s be honest: everything else he’s done since then is in a different league. For example, his next film was Rushmore, a perfect piece of cinema that adapts tricks from some the late 20th century’s most exciting directors (Scorsese’s use of soundtrack and slo-mo, Jeunet et Caro’s art direction) to Anderson’s unique sense of humor and style, tied up with a beautiful metafictional bow.
You say you missed that last bit? You didn’t get that Rushmore is a Max Fisher production? That’s just one reason to see it again. And while several of his films present a framing device that informs what it is you’re actually seeing, there’s also the more straightforward fact that Anderson’s work is full of tiny, often foreshadowing details—not to mention being rife with little (and not so little) absurdities and deadpan humor that some of it is bound to get by you the first time—that if you see a Wes Anderson film only once, you’re missing a lot.
The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou didn’t do much for me at first. It’s hard to imagine it now, but walking out of the theater I felt a bit let down, not having found it all that funny and not appreciating it as much more than a study in style. But it stayed with me, and several months later I had the nagging feeling that if I saw it again I would love it. Finally I rented the DVD, and, as much as I remembered the story, the feeling I got watching it was completely new. Since then I tend to lock in with his films upon my initial viewing, but they’re all better the next time I see them.
That said, I didn’t especially care for The Grand Budapest Hotel. Then again, I’ve only seen it once.
Films that quilt their stories together in achronological panels are nothing new (a technique most widely popularized for Americans by Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction), and often a second viewing is helpful to get the sequence of events straight in one’s mind. But if such a film doesn’t offer something special, the extra viewing feels like a waste of time. Babel falls at the opposite end of that spectrum. In fact, director Alejandro González Iñárritu does such a good job dropping linking details into several sections that an attentive viewer should have little difficulty understanding the order of things the first time around. But it’s processing the thematic linkages that make a second viewing so valuable. With Babel Iñárritu has erected a powerful statement about the variety of disconnection, of how we can be crushed by the building blocks of language (verbal, nonverbal, symbolic, sexual) that we don’t know how to build into meaning.
City of God
When I first put on the DVD to City of God, the subtitles were off. Since I don’t speak Portuguese, this was a barrier to my understanding exactly what was happening. But I was so mesmerized by the visual language of the opening sequence and then the magical time swirl that takes us back to protagonist Rocket’s childhood and “the Story of the Tender Trio” that I seriously considered watching the whole thing nescient of the dialogic substance. But the story seemed like it was going to be too good for me to endure in such ignorance, so I restarted it. As soon as it ended, I re-watched the whole thing. After two weeks I forced myself to ship it back to Netflix, a bit alarmed by the obsession I had developed with watching it, often literally breaking scenes down frame by frame to figure out just how director Fernando Meirelles made such miracles. City of God is a fantastic story (stories, actually, as part of the fun is how City of God divagates to tell the tale of one boy’s attempt to come of age in developing dug-war danger of Brazil’s most famous favela), but the filmmaking raises the experience to the divine. The editing alone makes this one worth a second look.
You might be persuaded to call this a cheat, since it’s a faithful adaptation of Peter Shaffer’s most renowned play, but hold your tongue. Equus is not cinematically complex, so the reason to re-watch this is for the writing, which is powerful and nuanced both psychologically and philosophically. Most of the meaty stuff comes in the monologs of psychologist Martin Dysart (played by Richard Burton, giving the performance of his career), who meditates directly to the camera on passion, madness, and whether helping patients fit the societal bill of mental wellness doesn’t sometimes come at too great a price. Yes, you could just read the play, but in writing the screenplay Shaffer made many improvements to his original work, enough that I felt compelled to scribble into my copy of the play every change he made. You should see it. It’s pretty inked-up. And you should see Equus. Again. For almost the whole of his career Sidney Lumet’s films weren’t particularly inspired, but that Equus comes in the middle of a three-film span that includes Dog Day Afternoon and Network should give you a sense of how sometimes an artist just gets into the zone.
It never came together for John Sayles quite like it does in this most overlooked of masterpieces. A true ensemble piece, the main plot concerns Rio County Sheriff Sam Deeds’s (Chris Cooper) investigation into the disappearance of Sheriff Charlie Wade (Kris Kristofferson) 40 years ago, a mystery in which Sam’s father (Matthew McConaughey) plays a major part. The plot is fantastic, but the real payoff of seeing Lone Star on more than a lone occasion is to follow Sayles’s philosophical exploration of the intermingling of here and there, now and then, us and them, me and you, an exploration he reifies with extremely clever shot framing and camera movement. Lone Star is one of the subtlest acts of cinematic brilliance you can ever see. See it more than once to see what I mean.
Yes, on the surface it’s one of the most complex plots since Chinatown, and you’ll have a much better grasp of exactly what happens if you see it twice. But you might want to go in for even more viewings, as few films can satisfy on a shot-by-shot level like Miller’s Crossing. Undoubtedly that’s in no small part due to the fact that the Coens are that breed of filmmaker who storyboard every single shot. But that tactic alone doesn’t automatically yield a film worth re-watching. At their very best, the Coens are more than great writers and quirky humorists: they are composers, with every onscreen carefully orchestrated for tone, driving forward a musical movement. A great cinematic scene is so much more than what happens. Check out the PBS documentary series American Cinema: One Hundreds Years of Filmmaking to see a fantastic breakdown of how the Coens choreograph Leo’s Tommy-gun battle to the 78 of “Danny Boy” he’s got going on the phonograph. And really, that’s just one of the most obvious examples of how much care the Coens put into every second of screen time, every inch of screen. The shadow of footsteps under a door, the way a hat is tipped or tossed. You can’t consider this one too closely.
Red (from the “Three Colors” trilogy)
“Red is very complex in its construction,” director Krzysztof Kieslowski said shortly before the completion of his final film. “I don’t know whether we’ll manage to get my idea across on the screen. [...] I’ve got everything I need to put across what I want to say, which is really quite complicated. Therefore, if the idea I’ve got in mind doesn’t come across, it meant that either film is too primitive a medium to support such a construction or that all of us put together haven’t got enough talent for it.”
It turns out that film wasn’t too primitive a medium and that Kieslowski and company had enough talent to get across his idea, but you’re going to have to put in some serious work to understand it. The question here is not so much of following the plot (which involves a fashion model’s curious friendship with a retired judge and a series of fateful coincidences that bring her ever closer to meeting a law student whose life follows along the lines of the judge’s own youth) as grokking its significance, which pivots on issues of processing one’s past and creating one’s future. Although the “Three Colors” trilogy is a trilogy only in the loosest sense, you will need to see the first two parts to fully understand the significance of Red‘s metafictional finale, but it’s worth it.
Spend significant time with these films, and you’ll come away enriched not only because of how much each of these films has to offer, but with a better understanding the craft of filmmaking. And the more feeling you have for craft, the less feeling you’ll have for crap.
Love and formic acid,