On Cinematic Comfort Food and Intellectual Pursuits
I’ve found myself with some extra time on my hands lately. With my commute reduced to the distance between my bed and my laptop and the absence of any outside events filling up my calendar (other than the marked uptick in Zoom calls), I figured I’d make the best of the current state of affairs by increasing my productivity. Now, I’m no Shakespeare — for me, increased productivity is a lot less “writing King Lear” and a lot more “make a sizable dent in my Letterboxd watchlist.” Nevertheless, I took it upon myself to be prepared and put myself in a position to succeed. While my neighbors were out treating Costco like it was the Thunderdome of toilet paper supplies, I was making a run on the public library’s DVD and Blu-Ray collection. I signed up for free trials of niche streaming services. I set my DVR to record AMC at 5am so I could watch two and a half hour versions of movies with 100-minute runtimes. I was ready. This was my Lear. Cut to a month later: I’ve rewatched four Mission: Impossibles, two Spider-Mans, the MMA weepy Warrior, and biopic satire Walk Hard — a collection of titles that (give or take a Spidey) I already knew by heart — and my library copy of Kieślowski’s Dekalog sits untouched.
I confess that, perhaps too often, I treat watching movies as an academic pursuit first. To be a good critic, I think, I have to be well-versed in as many films as possible — which, to a certain extent, is true! Like critics in any art form, those who endeavor to write about film in any sort of semi-professional capacity should consider themselves students of the medium, and a critical aspect of that study is exposure to the breadth of material available. There are languages unique to film, languages that are built on historical context and the foundations of what has come before. Even the most innovative works are in conversation with their forebears, and the more awareness one has of that, the better one can analyze, critique, and understand the films in question. But a personal focus on quantitative scope can become antithetical to the pure joy of movie-watching — once you reach the point where you’re losing sleep over, say, never having seen a Sergio Leone movie or, for instance, choosing to watch Step Brothers for the eighth or ninth time instead of something by the Dardenne brothers (these are, of course, purely hypothetical examples), it might be time to take a step back and reflect on what it was that made you start loving movies in the first place.
Of course, film expertise is not solely a matter of having seen a wide variety of films. I couldn’t be an art critic just because I’ve walked around the Louvre and the MOMA and seen a lot of paintings. I don’t have more than a rudimentary understanding of that form because I haven’t spent a sufficient amount of time digging deep on individual works — I can tell you that I find Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” aesthetically pleasing but I don’t think I could tell you why. The same is true with film: the first time I watch something, I inevitably find myself focused on the story and my gut reaction more than anything — which makes sense, as film is, at its core, a narrative and expressively evocative medium. It often isn’t until I rewatch the film that I feel truly able to pick up on the technical nuances and artistic decision-making at play — maybe I’ll discover new elements that completely escaped me on previous viewing(s), or I’ll have an entirely different emotional response than before. That’s not to say that you need to rewatch every movie to critically evaluate its merits — the practice of reexamining a selection of films will help you become a better judge on first watch as you learn more about process, elements, and style — but the density of a single film is a large part of the allure: the knowledge that revisiting a piece can lead to a novel experience on both an objective and subjective level is what makes it so exciting.
But not all rewatches are created equal. Yes, sometimes a revisitation is an academic pursuit, either as preparation for an analytical work or for my own personal intellectual edification. But more often than not, I’m sitting down to rewatch a movie because it’s a film I love and one that I’m simply in the mood to watch. It doesn’t necessarily prevent me from engaging with it on a technical level, but that’s not my primary purpose — or, in all honesty, even a secondary one. At this point, I’m not watching A Few Good Men (perhaps the single movie I’ve seen more than any other) because there’s more I’m hoping to glean from it this time around, but because I know all the beats and I can predict almost exactly how it’s going to make me feel. I know I’m going to laugh when Kaffee makes the argument about the mess hall and the marine outline, I know I’m going to cheer when Jessup admits to the Code Red, and I know I’m going to bawl my eyes out when Dawson finally salutes Kaffee. I didn’t coin the term cinematic comfort food, but it’s an apt description for the joy I derive from this sort of experience — and now, more than ever, is the time to utilize movies for their comforting properties. In times like these, where most of us are — at best — operating under an umbrella of anxious uncertainty, the unfamiliar may not be what we’re looking for. When you know a film backwards and forwards, it can provide a unique service: a controlled emotional experience, the cathartic benefits of which are truly wonderful.
So, don’t fret about all those unwatched movies on your Criterion Channel playlist. Throw on Mean Girls or Singin’ in the Rain or Robocop or whatever your particular brand of comfort food may be and let yourself enjoy the therapeutic potential of a treasured favorite. The unseen classics aren’t going anywhere, and a reunion with an old cinematic friend might be just the thing you need right now.