In a San Francisco office building last week, the mood to procrastinate was contagious. Naturally, the discussion turned to movies.
“I won’t go swimming because of Jaws,” someone was saying.
“Same thing with me and Alien,” came the reply.
“What? You won’t go into outer space because of Alien?”
You’ve had these conversations, right? What are the movies you’ve watched the most?
“Matrix. A gazillion times.”
“SHAW-shank! Oh yeah. Definitely.”
“For me, it’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” someone put in. “I’ll watch it just to sit through that party scene.”
I am one of those people who will become flustered and cross when you ask me what my favourite movie is. I mean, come on. There are so many. How can you seriously expect …? And so on. I have a point.
Nobody seriously expects anything, of course; you’re probably just trying to make conversation. It’s no simple task, though, for someone like me, who makes an inadequate living by sitting alone in the dark most afternoons and trying to write down what that’s like, whose only certainty is that he’ll never see enough of what’s out there (at the movies or otherwise). Cross, flustered, yes. Maybe I’m afraid of waking up one day on the proverbial desert island, supplied only with what I once swore were my top ten favourite whatevers, which I now can’t stand.
A favourite can be elusive, easy to lie or be wrong about, easy to forget or grow out of. The most watched, on the other hand, is something else. It can’t really be faked. It is chillingly empirical.
Now, because I write about movies and “studied” them in college, it is reasonable to expect my most watched to be something like Rashomon or 8 1/2 or Modern Times or The Rules of the Game or Persona or North by Northwest or, just to be a pain in the ass, something like MindWalk.
I haven’t even seen MindWalk once. It looks ponderous. Those others I can vouch for as rich, fully lovable, tireless masterworks, but I just haven’t spent all that much time with them. Not nearly as much as with, say, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Back to the Future, Midnight Run, The Princess Bride, Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Shining, and whatever else I’m forgetting.
Look, we can’t do anything about when or where we were born, what our early cultural education was like, how mass media manipulated our adolescent tastes. I could go swimming after Jaws, but I—-and for that matter the rest of the world—-couldn’t go to the movies in quite the same way.
Might as well make the best of it. Suffice to say my most-watched-movies list, like anyone’s, is unimpeachable—-for me, they all stand up. No shame, really; these are extremely well controlled films, great examples of your basic movie magic, with clear voices and plenty to offer for young imaginations. Yes, even The Shining. Don’t ask me how it made the list. But it’s how I first became acquainted with Stanley Kubrick. Amazing, in retrospect, that I didn’t go away thinking, “What an asshole!”
It’s worth noting that the people who made these films all tried to grow up afterward, and so did I, and I’m not sure it really worked for any of us.
“What was the one with the … creatures … in the … chimneys, I think?”
“I spent an entire year watching The Goonies every day,” my friend Becky told me. “That was fourth grade.” I had asked some friends about their formative movie-going habits, and she had obliged with an endearingly reflective analysis. “Maybe two years. I think a lot of the fifth grade was devoted to The Goonies. I know just about every word by heart. In the seventh grade, I watched Dirty Dancing way too much, probably once a week. It never hit the everyday mark. But it did make me feel better about having curly hair and a big nose. Till Jennifer Grey got a nose job. Traitor.”
What an open soul! How I admire her. Becky, I mean. In movie-going, a true companion.
“I spent my summers at my aunt’s farm,” she wrote, “and most of my cousins were older than me and wild, and we dragged the TV out on the patio and watched Scarface (I was way too young) outside over and over on lazy afternoons with the pack of dogs coming and going and the goats eating everything out of the ashtrays.”
Eric, who puts Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan at the top of his most-watched list, just above The Graduate, is embarrassed by his Monty Python fluency, but there are few surer signs of a civilized mind than the combination of Monty Python fluency and embarrassment about it. That’s reason enough to know Eric, and if you did you’d delight in the peculiar aptness of his top two; sometimes our movies really do say a lot about us.
On the other hand, Paul’s list includes Taxi Driver, Night of the Living Dead, Reservoir Dogs, Se7en and The Ring, but he is mild-mannered and amicable; you’d have no trouble likening him to a teddy bear. Paul lately finds himself watching Bring it On a lot, but blames that on his wife and on the movie’s recent ubiquity on television.
A few folks, decades apart in age, report frequent, or at least annual, Wizard of Oz watchings—family traditions.
If not defined by them, we are bound to our most-watched, our quotables, and so it should be. Even if only for water-cooler conversation, they serve us well. My anecdotal sense is that a common list for the next few years will include Lord of the Rings, Y Tu Mamá También, Donnie Darko and The Royal Tenenbaums, suggesting that cynicism about the future of film or the collective pop-culture unconscious is premature, as cynicism often is. Meanwhile, what to do but keep watching?
“You’ve never seen Brazil?”
“Yeah, but not repeatedly. It’s hard to watch.”
“Oh, God, I can’t stand it.”
“What? I love that movie.”
“I found it unwatchable.”
“But it’s one of the best movies I’ve seen!”
“I was bawling. Every time I see it.”
To each his own. What to do, indeed, but defend our reasons, and keep arguing? As Paul, describing his youthful preference for Friday the 13th: A New Beginning, put it, “It’s the worst of the entire series, but there are far too many exposed breasts to not watch it over and over again.”
Maisonneuve contributing editor Jonathan Kiefer writes about the arts for various publications in San Francisco, where he lives. One of his cats is named after Preston Sturges. Film Flâneur appears every second Friday.