As part of its year-long commemoration of 100 years making movies, Universal is releasing Jaws in a terrific new Blu-ray edition today, to which we say: about time. For us, Jaws is one of those special movies that, no matter how many times you see it, never gets old; it’s not just that it’s a great movie (though it is), since there are plenty of great movies that don’t scream out for repeat viewings. (Dancer in the Dark was one of our favorite films of 2000, for example, but we can’t imagine subjecting ourselves to it again.) It’s that there are certain movies that only grow richer with return visits, or whose pleasures seem inexplicable inured to the diminishing glow of repetition. After the jump, some thoughts on Jaws and a few other movies that we just can’t stop watching.
The original summer blockbuster stands up to repeat viewings for one simple reason that the talking robot/cars and flaccid superheroes that now define the term don’t: director Steven Spielberg had limited resources at his disposal (namely, an unconvincing fake shark that hardly ever worked), and had to tell his story the old-fashioned way, i.e. by creating vivid characters and bouncing them off each other. The super-macho Quint, the brainy rich kid Hooper, and the relocated New York cop were each a fertile and timely ’70s male archetype; Spielberg put them on a tiny boat (they needed a bigger one, really) and let them go at each other in a manner so fascinating that we all but forgot about that damn shark. On top of that, he executed his suspense sequences so skillfully that they still hold up, all these years later; your film editor has seen Jaws dozens of times, but Spielberg’s pacing and camerawork are so savvy, that I still lose my shit when the shark rears up near Brody’s chum bucket (above), or when Ben Gardner’s head floats into that porthole.
One day, some bespectacled university scientist will get a large grant to conduct their study attempting to determine why it seems to be literally impossible to come upon Goodfellas on television and not stop to watch it. Give it a try some time — it can’t be done. We’re sure the research will come up with some interesting conclusions, but we have a theory of our own. Because Martin Scorsese structures the picture as a series of electrifying set pieces, and conducts it with a relentless energy that’s like some kind of a cinema high, anyone who’s seen it more than once knows that the next big bump is coming: the Copa one-shot; Pesci’s “you think I’m funny” rant; the murder of Billy Batts; “Layla” and the Luftansa aftermath; Sunday, May 11, 1980. “I should get back to work/cleaning/balancing the checkbook/caring for my sick child,” you think, putting down the remote. “I’ll just stick with it until they kill Billy Bats.” And then the next thing you know, there’s Henry at the door of his suburban home, complaining about the ketchup sauce. Happens every time.
If you’ll forgive sticking with the gangster cinema just a moment longer, the joy of returning to The Godfather is that, once you’ve processed the sheer majesty of its epic storytelling and the beauty of its sepia-tinged aesthetic on the first viewing (or two, or three), you can focus on the mechanics of Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola’s screenplay — and that’s when you realize that in spite of the film’s bulky length, it is a tight, clockwork script without so much as a wasted character, moment, or gesture. Little things that feel like window dressing the first time around (Bonasara the undertaker’s opening speech, or the favor granted to the baker shortly thereafter) reveal themselves on closer examination to be essential storytelling elements (the “service” Bonasra must provide is a poignant one, and the immigrant the baker asks a favor for becomes a very important player when Don Corleone is in the hospital). Plus, it’s fun to look for the little visual and subtextual elements; you can watch the film again to focus just on Coppola’s famous use of oranges.
And no, not just for the sex scene. David Lynch’s gloriously batty 2001 mindfuck warrants repeat viewings for perhaps the most direct of reasons: to try to figure out what the hell is going on in it, and what it all means. The first two acts are fairly direct — a noir-tinged amnesia story — but even those are filled with questions: Who was the monster behind the diner? How was the hitman connected? Who is the cowboy? Who is the dead girl? What is Club Silencio? But those questions seem utterly quaint when Lynch hits the 100-minute mark, and basically hits the reset button, remixing everything we’ve seen before and casting doubt on all of our assumptions about his narrative. Deciphering Mulholland was a fairly popular parlor game upon the picture’s original release (Salon posted a well-circulated analysis that makes about as much sense as any); twelve years and multiple viewings later, we still haven’t quite figured the film out, but that hasn’t stopped us from continuing to try.
When Clueless was released in 1995, there was a note of surprise, if not shock, in its reviews: here was a movie approximately twenty times better than it probably had to be. It wasn’t just, as it appeared to be, a dopey comedy about teenage girls and makeovers; acerbic writer/director Amy Heckerling (Fast Times at Ridgemont High) had constructed a modern-day riff on Emma that pulled off the somehow miraculous feat of satirizing its characters without ridiculing them. Her witty screenplay works on two levels, as both a high school comedy and a sly commentary on high school comedies, and perhaps the reason it holds up so well to return visits is that you can switch over from viewing it as one and start viewing it as another as you move further from Cher’s age and closer to Heckerling’s. Plus, as ’90s time capsules go, it can’t be beat.
Some Like It Hot
Billy Wilder’s 1959 comedy — the best comedy ever made, per the American Film Institute — is another one that may actually improve on repeat viewings. The first time around, it’s simply a well-constructed and beautifully executed farce, plus, y’know, guys dressed as ladies, ha ha ha. But the subtleties of the script (by Wilder and his longtime collaborator I.A.L. Diamond) and the picture reveal themselves the more you watch it: the sly self-parody of the Monroe performance, Curtis’ Cary Grant vamping as “Junior,” and the frankly subversive (for the time anyway) handling of Lemmon’s affair and happily-ever-after ending with Osgood Fielding III. And take it from us: those guys dressed as ladies are never not funny.
The Big Lebowski
Sure, the frequency with which it is quoted (and overquoted) could eventually get us to a point where we’re sick of the Coen Brothers riotously funny 1998 pot, ‘Nam, and kidnapping caper. But it’s not just that it’s a funny movie — there’s a density to the gags, and to the straight-faced manner with which they’re delivered by the Coens’ pitch-perfect cast (a cast filled, it should be noted, almost entirely with dramatic actors and not comedians). They’re not just saying funny things, or stumbling into wacky situations — they’re merely functioning and existing within the Coens’ distinctive and peculiar version of reality, and their cockeyed world view ultimately creates a universe unto itself, in which even the straight lines (“What’s a pederast, Walter?”) get a laugh. In fact, in its construction of that unique comic sensibility, Lebowski strangely reminds us of the last movie on our list…
Not all of the films from the golden age of comedy hold up these days, but there’s a reason the Marx Brothers experienced a popularity renaissance in the 1970s that hold today: utter chaos and total disregard of authority never go out of style. Perhaps their most universally beloved picture is Duck Soup, which was all but ignored critically and commercially upon its original 1933 release but has left viewers young and old in stitches ever since. The key to their success as a team is simple: the three “funny ones” (handsome Zeppo served only as a serviceable straight man and romantic lead) each trafficked in a different type of comedy. Groucho was the fast-talking wit, Chico the traditional dialect comic, Harpo the Chaplin-esque pantomime; as a result, they’ve got you covered no matter what your comedy preference, and if that preference changes in the years between viewings, hey, you can have a new favorite. On top of all of that, Duck Soup supplements their usual silliness with a level of sly political comedy — though it takes place in the imaginary country of “Fredonia,” it seems particularly prescient these days, even if the Marxes couldn’t have imagined that a country might, in fact, one day select political leaders based on the demands of its rich citizenry.
Those are the movies we can’t get enough of — but this is, of course, a purely subjective sampling. What are yours? Let us know in the comments!