PT Anderson, Ridley Scott, and Why We Rewatch Movies

12/12/2014 11:30 AM |

inherent vice-phoenix

When I saw Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice at the New York Film Festival a couple of months ago, I stumbled out in an appropriate but not entirely enjoyable haze. I liked so much of what I just watched, but I couldn’t quite wrap my head around it as a whole—and this coming from someone who loves movies about unlicensed private detectives and had no real trouble with PTA’s more superficially mysterious The Master the first time around. I almost always see Anderson’s movies a second time theatrically, and then a third or fourth or fifth time on DVD, but while I wanted another hit of Vice for the sheer enjoyment of its celluloid cinematography, Joaquin Phoenix slapstick, and Anderson eccentricity, I also felt like I needed another go-round, just to try to wave through the fog it left in my brain (and I saw it stone-cold sober)—that the movie demanded another viewing.

It’s a demand I tend to resist, at least on principle.

I knew after watching Primer that my indifference and confusion would probably prompt the suggestion that I should watch it again. A decade later and I still haven’t, at least partly out of stubborn insistence that a movie shouldn’t require a second helping of its self to be understood on a basic level. Pauline Kael famously professed to never rewatch movies, and while I see no need for that kind of dogma nor do I practice that kind of denial myself (I have seen Pitch Perfect at least three times, nevermind movies I love with all of my heart), I do admire the simplicity of allowing a movie a single shot.

Of course, people change, and simulate changes in movies along with them. I liked Kicking and Screaming when I saw it as a teenager and it became one of my favorite movies ever when I rewatched it during college. Much has been made about the Sunday afternoon cable rewatch value of movies that don’t necessarily make Ten Best lists or huge money on initial release—movies like Pitch Perfect or Bring It On that seem charming enough at first but engender further endearment through their ability to be picked up midway through and watched to the end for the sheer comfort-food enjoyment of it.

More complicated and fraught than movies rewatched out of love or accidental comfort are movies rewatched out of what might be called desperation to understand: why others loved it, why you didn’t, or what disappointed you or left you cold. I imagine a lot of movie nerds have a list of movies they’ve seen multiple times despite not enjoying them very much. For me, that elite list includes Tim Burton’s first Batman, which has always left me far colder than Batman Returns but has a lot of great stuff in it, and Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, a certifiable classic that has put me to sleep more than once. I have actually seen the whole thing—the original theatrical cut, the 1992 director’s cut, and the 2007 final cut—and understand a lot of what’s great about it. But I’ve seen it at least four times in total in part out of a desire to fully absorb its influence on movies that followed and in part because I really, really want to love Blade Runner. It’s so cool-looking! It’s so ahead of its time! It’s intelligent sci-fi about human-like robots! What’s not to love?

The answer may well be Ridley Scott, even though I’ve made my peace with the fact that Blade Runner and Alien are both great movies, and it’s pretty amazing that the same guy directed them within a three-year span. But apart from those, I think the time may have come to admit that Ridley Scott isn’t an exciting auteur so much as the best-regarded journeyman in the business. He’s so rarely better than his material; Prometheus is the controversial example I’ll cite in that department, because the script has some dumb moments but Scott powers through them with ravishing sci-fi-horror visuals. Mostly, though, if he has a script as good as the one for Matchstick Men, he’ll make a really good movie, and otherwise we’re stuck with the likes of Exodus: Gods and Kings, his new Biblical epic, in which he revives his Gladiator color palette and comes up with something even less fun.

Word dude.

It’s not fair to blame Scott for the screenplay’s lazy colloquialisms (“I know what I’m talking about”; “Was I talking to you?”; the movie even hilariously co-opts thinkpiece language when a Moses-era character describes something as “problematic to say the least”), and he does put together some nice-looking 3D landscape compositions. And the plagues! The plagues look great in 3D! Exodus is high on basic technical craft and low on any sort of inspiration or surprise; scenes trudge along endlessly to inevitable destinations. My knowledge of the story of Moses (played here by Christian Bale) is based on distant memories of Sunday school and slightly less distant memories of the DreamWorks cartoon Prince of Egypt, yet almost everything in Exodus manages to feel deadeningly familiar. It’s not absolutely terrible, but it is pretty flat and lifeless—in other words, it’s like a lot of Ridley Scott movies.

Scott is a repeated beneficiary of rewatch culture; Blade Runner was not as well-regarded when it came out in 1982, and even the deadly dull Kingdom of Heaven now has fans insisting that the even-longer director’s cut turns a mishmash into a masterpiece. Exodus, at 150 minutes or so, doesn’t seem like it has much left on the cutting room floor for a reputational fix-it, but who knows? Maybe I’m giving Paul Thomas Anderson a benefit of the doubt not afforded to Sir Ridley. But Inherent Vice gave me that itch, half-enticing and half-annoying, that I might catch more of it in another viewing; rewatching Blade Runner feels more like an extra-credit homework assignment I’ve volunteered to complete for the rest of my life. I’m surprised how often my initial impression of a movie is more or less confirmed when I go in for a rewatch, even sometimes years later. But I’m always on the lookout for an opportunity to improve upon my past self.