Tim Lott: We're off to see the Wizard – with ET and The Godfather

What is it about the familiarity of old movies that makes them impossible to turn off

Share
Related Topics

As Christmas looms through the snow, the cycle of Christmas movies hits the schedules once more – Home Alone, Ghostbusters, Swiss Family Robinson, The Wizard of Oz – the list is interminable, the appetite for them insatiable.

No one complains about these repeats. We welcome them as part of festival season. Like the release of Christmas singles, they are now deemed to mark the passing of the year and have little to do with enduring quality. I excitedly took my eight-year-old daughter to see It's a Wonderful Life at the cinema last year, and she pointed out, to my surprise, that it was actually quite boring. She was right. Watching it through the reflected light of her eyes, I saw the clunkiness, the sentiment and the dull dramatic lacunae all too clearly.

Other seasonal films stand the test of time better. That Andrew Lloyd Webber has watched The Sound of Music 20 times is a little excessive but not so surprising. Who, over a certain age, has not seen it at least half a dozen times? Likewise Mary Poppins and The Wizard of Oz.

People have a greater appetite for recycled films than for rewatching any other entertainment medium, and not only for seasonal reasons (there are few films to mark other seasons, putting aside Easter Parade in spring and Grease in the summer). The new chief executive of Marks and Spencer, Marc Bolland, says he has seen Bertolucci's Novecento (1900) 15 times, while the actor Alan Cumming claims to have seen Christopher Guest's Waiting for Guffman a remarkable 30 times, and continues to watch it on a monthly basis. The Tory MP Nicholas Soames is said to carry a video of Zulu around in his suitcase. He once explained to a friend: "It's in case I get stuck somewhere for the weekend where they don't have it."

It looks as though most film obsessives are men, and I would venture the gentle suggestion that getting hung up on one film or other is indeed more a male than a female obsession, just as, when I was growing up, pop music was more a male than a female concern. This isn't to say that there aren't many women who have passionate relationships with certain films. The actress Cathy Tyson has apparently watched Ryan's Daughter eight times. But on the whole, from my informal observations participating and listening to conversations at parties and social gatherings over the years, the people who tend to talk most passionately about the virtues and emotional power of a particular historic film – as opposed to a current release, which is a more cross-gender experience – are men. All the people I know who have large DVD film libraries are men, and all those who make lists of their favourite films are men.

My wife, Rachael, has watched A Star is Born six times, but it was as a teenager when her parents were splitting up, and the appeal is very time-specific. The film is about the collapse of a relationship. She doesn't watch it any more. The actress Brenda Fricker, meanwhile, watched Jailhouse Rock six times – again, when she was a teenager and she was "discovering sex".

I would fit both these films into the "therapeutic" category, which is one of the reasons we keep returning to particular films: they help to put in a box with reflecting walls our chaotic or untamed emotions. The screen versions of Pride and Prejudice are a prime example of this. But the reasons for OCD (Obsessive Cinematic Disorder) are wider and more multiplicitous than simple therapy.

Many go back to films compulsively simply because of their greatness. David Cameron says he has watched Where Eagles Dare 18 times, and views the Godfather films "endlessly", probably for no other reason than that people go to the theatre to see Hamlet time and again – because it is a work of art of great tragic scope and quality. The power of the film is such that it drags you back in again and again, even though you know practically every beat of the script.

The novelist William Boyd says he has sat through Blade Runner 15 times and Chinatown repeatedly. Films such as these seem to appeal to what you might call the Male Tragic Sense, since they are all elegantly bleak in tone. They perhaps have the same pull as The Smiths, Tom Waits or Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds had for those same men as teenagers.

Other people (again, perhaps largely male) return to a film for vaguely geeky reasons. This is the crossword puzzle impulse. Films such as Memento, The Matrix, The Draughtsman's Contract or, more recently, the multilayered Inception appeal to the borderline autist to fuss over, unpicking the layers that contain the meaning or story, or which transmit the film's core "message" (which, I suspect, is often quite absent, or at least intrinsically blurred).

I feel somewhat the same about Synecdoche, New York, which I have watched three times since it was released last year. I am still no closer to working out what the damn thing is about, but maybe when I have reached the Alan Cummings level of OCD it will finally click.

There are still other rationales for film obsessives. For instance, the feeling that you having an identity or sense of place affirmed. I have a friend who is obsessed with Stand by Me; its main theme is adolescent coming of age and lost innocence. For my own part, I have watched Terence Davies's The Long Day Closes repeatedly because, likewise, it takes me back to the world of growing up.

This nostalgic impulse must be a strong one. Perhaps that is why Billy Elliot appeals so strongly to John Prescott, who has seen it six times. It is about a northern working-class boy overcoming the odds to become successful in the face of mockery and scepticism (although, disappointingly, Prescott didn't go on to be a ballet dancer in a feather tutu).

Watching films repeatedly is also for the pleasures of familiarity. Anticipation adds to the enjoyment, rather in the way a child will watch an episode of a cartoon over and over without ever getting bored. This is to examine Obsessive Cinematic Disorder from the inside. Looked at from the outside, it provides a reliable perspective on a personality. If I ask someone what film they compulsively watch, inevitably, if unfairly, I form a judgement on them. It is fortunate, probably, that my wife did not tell me her all-time favourite was Awakenings until the romance was too far gone to retreat.

The Prime Minister's affection for Where Eagles Dare would cast him as more, rather than less, of a prat. But it could have been worse, I suppose (Flashdance... Ghost). Likewise, if someone tells me that their favourite film is Jules et Jim I have them down as an irremediable pseud from the off. The Shawshank Redemption? Repressed homosexual. Bette Davis in Dark Victory? Actual homosexual. ET? Retarded development. Anything with Robin Williams in? Ditto. Gone with the Wind? Woman. Any comedy whatsoever? Bit shallow.

Such are my prejudices. But each has their own compulsive film for their own reasons. And if you don't have one yet, and are lost for conversation when the topic comes up, can I make a suggestion? Groundhog Day. It is screened this Christmas and it's about an event that just repeats over and over again, endlessly, monotonously – until the protagonist finally finds something worthwhile to do with his life.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SQL Report Analyst (SSRS, CA, SQL 2012)

£30000 - £38500 Per Annum + 25 days holiday, pension, subsidised restaurant: C...

Application Support Analyst (SQL, Incident Management, SLAs)

£34000 - £37000 Per Annum + excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Lt...

Embedded Software / Firmware Engineer

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Pension, Holiday, Flexi-time: Progressive Recruitm...

Developer - WinForms, C#

£280 - £320 per day: Progressive Recruitment: C#, WinForms, Desktop Developmen...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Dominic Raab: If Western politicians’ vested interests protect Putin, take punishment out of their hands

Dominic Raab
Monday - Israel  

Between the wars in Israel, spending time in a kibbutz was about as cool as you could get

Peter Popham
Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform
Climate change threatens to make the antarctic fur seal extinct

Take a good look while you can

How climate change could wipe out this seal
Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier for the terminally ill?

Farewell, my lovely

Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier?
Man Booker Prize 2014 longlist: Crowdfunded novel nominated for first time

Crowdfunded novel nominated for Booker Prize

Paul Kingsnorth's 'The Wake' is in contention for the prestigious award
Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster to ensure his meals aren't poisoned

Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster

John Walsh salutes those brave souls who have, throughout history, put their knives on the line
Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

A $25m thriller starring Sam Worthington to be made in God's Own Country
Will The Minerva Project - the first 'elite' American university to be launched in a century - change the face of higher learning?

Will The Minerva Project change the face of higher learning?

The university has no lecture halls, no debating societies, no sports teams and no fraternities. Instead, the 33 students who have made the cut at Minerva, will travel the world and change the face of higher learning
The 10 best pedicure products

Feet treat: 10 best pedicure products

Bags packed and all prepped for holidays, but feet in a state? Get them flip-flop-ready with our pick of the items for a DIY treatment
Commonwealth Games 2014: Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games

Commonwealth Games 2014

Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games
Jack Pitt-Brooke: Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism

Jack Pitt-Brooke

Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism
How Terry Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

How Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

Over a hundred rugby league players have contacted clinic to deal with mental challenges of game