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On What Makes a Movie Rewatchable

My perspective on movies changed dramatically once I began working in the world of editing. The editor of a movie watches and rewatches dailies, then a scene, then a sequence, then the entire film. Over and over. And over.

As this happens, there is a tendency for shots to get shorter and shorter. I’m not just talking about cutting scenes or lines that are redundant to the story. Frames at the start and end of shots seem superfluous the more you watch, and are constantly being shaved off.

As you become familiar with material, you need to see less and less of a shot (or the action conveyed in the shot) to track the story. Hence the editor trims. Or the director makes the editor trim. Or the studio executives make the editor trim. (Studio executives are also notorious for changing out jokes that work because they are sick of hearing them — not thinking of the audiences who are coming to it fresh.)

For this reason, and because once editing became digital, the labor cost of trimming a few frames off a shot became almost nothing, today’s average big studio movie is paced to be more re-watchable than watchable.

It has been tuned for consumption by a team of people who are accustomed to re-watching the film over and over, who are already familiar with those frames and moments that are removed. This is a side effect of how modern movies are edited, and perhaps not as much a creative choice as you might think. Audiences have become accustomed to this telegraphic aesthetic as normal film grammar, which only reinforces it further.

Of course, many top editors are aware of this problem. Walter Murch, editor of The Conversation and Talented Mr. Ripley, says of watching dailies:

I sit there with a laptop with the screen turned off, and as each shot goes through, I type whatever random thoughts occur to me about the material. […] You only see something for the first time once, and your reaction is very important.

Preview audiences can help restore focus to the experience of first-time viewers. But ideally, filmmakers would also like feedback on what makes a film better the second (or third or fourth…) time around.

On re-watch, the viewer has time to appreciate the finer points of the craft: set design, costumes, music etc. and how they all contribute to the effect cast by the film. Filmmakers often hide ‘easter eggs’ — little surprises and inside jokes, for those paying close attention. Animated films, particularly PIXAR’s, are notorious for this.

While there is nothing wrong with intentionally making disposable entertainment, I believe most filmmakers would rather make a film that has qualities of rewatchability. But, beyond tight editing, what are those qualities, and how can you achieve them?

1. The movie has to be good enough the first watch

This may seem obvious beyond stating, but if your movie is not enjoyable the first time, audiences are not going to give it a second chance. Life is short and there are too many other films to see. The human brain gets a jolt from the familiar, but it also gets a jolt from novelty. This is why I advocate keeping the naive viewer in mind when editing a film, even while tuning it for multiple viewings.

the-conformist-marbleIf your subtle shades and hidden layers are too well hidden, no one is going to come back to find them again. That means, on a practical level, you have to work in a treasure map to the film-behind-the-film that is visible on the first viewing. There is no telling how patient your audience will be. I personally have found movies like, say, The Conformist (1970), a hard slog. Clearly there is a symbolic layer to the film that is meant to be a commentary on European fascism. But what it is and what it means has been obscured by the distance of history. Likewise, Tom Jones (1963) was considered boundary-pushing in its film grammar and attitudes toward sex. It won four Academy Awards, including Best Picture. Nearly fifty years later, it strikes me as tired and misogynistic.

Critics can be the saviors here. Perhaps one day I’ll read a critic’s review of The Conformist or Tom Jones to understand why they are held in such esteem. And perhaps that will provoke a re-watch, in hopes of discovering what others found so great about them.

The one way to guarantee re-watches is also a dangerous one: the twist ending. Construct your film carefully, like The Sixth Sense, and it works both before and after you know the twist. But construct it poorly and it loses all its power on the second viewing, or worse, the story logic breaks and the house of cards falls apart. Audiences can be extremely unforgiving of twists that don’t hold up.

There are two more common ways to invite rewatches…

2. Ambiguity & complexity

I don’t have time to fully dissect Memento or Primer, but it seems apparent to me that the complexity with which the timelines of these films unfold is part of their re-watch appeal. Each scene is like a puzzle piece which must be re-arranged to form a linear timeline. Many of Quentin Tarantino’s films also employ this approach, although I think his films gain more rewatchability from a different factor. More on that below.

The cousin to complexity is ambiguity. Ambiguity is something literary critics have long understood as a factor that elevates certain stories. Shakespeare scholar Jonathan Bate has made a strong case that the ambiguities in Shakespeare’s plays and poems has allowed successive generations to fill in the blanks. Thus each generation can claim the Bard as their own.

Stanley Kubrick, whose movies have often been treated as cinematic Rorschach tests (especially The Shining), said:

I think in a film like 2001, where each viewer brings his own emotions and perceptions to bear on the subject matter, a certain degree of ambiguity is valuable, because it allows the audience to “fill in” the visual experience themselves. In any case, once you’re dealing on a nonverbal level, ambiguity is unavoidable.

Too much ambiguity seems to the signal that the filmmaker has no control over the storytelling. But ambiguity around the edges excites the imaginations of audiences, inviting them to view aspects of the film as mysteries to be solved. I think of L’Avventura, where one of the main characters disappears in the middle of the film. Footage was shot which reveals what happened to the character, but writer/director Michelangelo Antonioni and editor Eraldo di Roma ended up leaving this footage out of the movie. The mystery is never solved, and the audience, like the surviving characters, are left suspended in a state of not knowing.

3. Quotability

What originally provoked this essay was thinking about how The Princess Bride, at least for certain generations, is endlessly quotable. In the age before cheap VHS tapes brought home video, a movie evaporated from the culture after its theatrical run. Disney would re-release animated classics every seven years, and certain films like The Wizard of Oz and It’s a Wonderful Life became TV perennials. But the family films of the 1980’s were the first to really have the possibility of wide re-watchability.

A movie like The Princess Bride is explicitly to be viewed on two levels, having a ‘real world’ frame story around a fantasy tale. Perhaps that already gave it a complexity that made it re-watchable. But the sheer quotability of the William Goldman dialogue also seems to lend it a certain virality. It’s fun to quote with friends or in your Sunday sermon.

It wasn’t just one or two headline quotes, like Gone with the Wind’s “Frankly, my dear…” or “With God as my witness, I shall never go hungry again.” The Princess Bride is quotable throughout. Large swaths of popular culture have been able to use “My name is Inigo Montoya…” or “As you wish” or “Never go against a Sicilian…” and many more lines as touchstones.

Comedies, for some reason, seem easier to re-watch. I would include this as part of The Princess Bride‘s appeal, although it might not normally be classed as a comedy. How many friends do you have who can quote Anchorman or Austin Powers or Airplane!? If the comedy is dense enough, we re-watch to see the jokes we missed the first time, because we were too busy laughing. We want to memorize the jokes to repeat to others. And I think there is also the superior feeling of knowing the punchline in advance.

Of current filmmakers, perhaps no one embodies both visual and verbal quotability more than Quentin Tarantino. His visual style is, as he seems to comment upon himself in Kill Bill, that of a magpie. Like the walking film encyclopedia Martin Scorsese, he enjoys weaving references to other films into his own films.

This penchant for memorable moments also extends to the way his characters talk. They don’t (so far as I know) paraphrase other movie speeches, but they do capture the effects of them. When Christopher Walken’s character in Pulp Fiction tells the story of his father’s watch, I feel echoes of Quint’s Indianapolis monologue from Jaws.

Tarantino has said he consciously was influenced by David Mamet, Elmore Leonard and Richard Price. And those guys of course all descend from hardboiled crime writers like Mickey Spillane, Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. They knew how to walk where the language of the streets intersected with poetry. We might note here that poetry, of all literature, is the most re-read.

And I think this circles us back to the idea of visual poetry. Certain directors — your Tarkovskys, your Bergmans — have a knack for creating complex, ambiguous and poetic visual images. We re-watch their films to enjoy these images on pictorial level, but also to puzzle them out.

The history of art is a study of what makes images fascinating. But movies also benefit from the juxtaposition of images — with each other, and with sound, especially music. Where movies border with poetry and music, they become re-watchable.

What are your most re-watched movies? What qualities do they have that other films don’t have?

1 Comment

  1. Well said.

    One key factor you’re leaving out is the specific emotional response a movie generates. We re-watch comedies to laugh, but people also re-watch a tearjerkers because they want to feel sad, horror films because they want to be scared, heroic stories because they want to be uplifted. A movie that successfully and repeatedly triggers one key emotion will be returned to literally like a drug when we want to orchestrate our moods.

    Similarly emotional responses can prevent revisiting otherwise excellent movies. I recently re-watched Saving Private Ryan for the first time since its original release. I’d avoided it because it profoundly distressed me when I first saw it. This time I was able to detach myself enough to appreciate it on its merits, but it still disturbed me enough that I might wait another 18 years before I watch it again.

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