I recently saw Source Code, the new film by Moon director Duncan Jones, and it blew me away. For a second film it was confident, at times narratively daring and, despite being billed as ‘this year’s Inception’, had enough originality to counter that claim.
I was at a loose end over the Easter weekend and decided to see it again – this time it didn’t blow me away. I found it contrived and overblown – attempting to cover the fact that it was quickly running out of steam by restarting and retelling – like a forgettable child telling an over complicated joke.
A film that constantly restarts, retells and reimagines was always going to run out of story well before the end of the film and Source Code is no exception - quite easily the last 15 minutes could have been lost without sacrificing the energetic pace which works well on first viewing but failed to excite on second.
This got me thinking, should films be rewatched? What enables a film to be revisited over the years without losing any of its magic and sparkle? Once you know the story – well, you know the story. Camera tricks date – performances become stilted and dated.
With this in mind, here’s my guide to films you can rewatch and rewatch and rewatch…
On the Waterfront – rarely has a film been so closely studied as this one. Marlon Brando’s key role as Terry Malloy the dock worker caught between corruption and love. It sounds like the stuff of B-movie post war cliché but is elevated and made rewatchable by the performances (now highly stylised but at the time represented a move away from overly theatrical onscreen performances). It should also be remembered that many saw this as director’s Elia Kazan’s response to the criticism he faced for naming names to the House Committee on Un-American Activities in the early 1950s. It was felt that much of the story (the cowardly act of staying silent as opposed to the heroism of naming names) was a direct response to the troubled part in Hollywood’s history. It also won eight Oscars and has a brilliant score by Leonard Bernstein – Karl Malden is also very cool in it.
North By Northwest – is simply the best film for studying narrative. Alfred Hitchcock’s tale of mistaken identity sees Cary Grant go on the run, avoiding crop dusters and being knifed at the United Nations before dangling off Teddy Roosevelt’s nose in the final sequence. It is as if Hitchcock made this film to be rewatched (despite this being released in the time before movies were a mainstay of television). Each time you do, you pick up on looks to the camera, edits and camera angles that reveal more and more about the plot and the characters intention. Second viewings are almost always accompanied by, “ah, I see it now…” statements.
The Usual Suspects – I never tire of this film. Yes, there’s a twist but it doesn’t matter if you know it, guess it, could not care less about it. The brilliance comes in the audacity of director Bryan Singer (in only his second feature) to wrong foot the audience and suggest that the previous 100 minutes were little more than made up and the information given out could not be trusted (which surely film is anyway). Whichever way you look at it – you should look at it again.
The Big Lebowski – not for any narrative reason (except to delight in its absolute storytelling madness) but rewatch to enjoy the performances and great lines. In much the same way you can keep watching classic stand up comedy performances because of the timing, Lebowski works in the same way. I could have placed Withnail and I here for exactly the same reasons.
The Prestige – it was difficult to pick just one Christopher Nolan film (I could easily have picked Memento) but felt this was a stronger choice because it delights in tormenting the audience where Memento (albeit brilliant) does hold back in places. The story of two competing magicians and a coverted trick is little more than smoke and mirrors that allows Nolan to show off this storytelling skills gathered from his earlier work. Wouldn’t Batman Begins have been (even more) brilliant if it had jumped around more with its timeline? The Prestige also has David Bowie in it – always worth double points in any poll I run…