Recently, I’ve been rewatching the Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, The World’s End). That in itself is unsurprising, even inevitable, as I’ve done that on average more than once a year (for the first two, at least). Yet, this particular round of rewatching has me thinking about all the reasons why so many of us rewatch things at all. Why watch something, as some us do, not just twice, but five or eight or twelve times? As often as people offer lazy, oversimplified answers as to why we might watch or read something over and over again, there is simply no catchall reason. The reasons why I revisit 30 Rock are different from the reasons why I revisit Wes Anderson movies, and the reasons my brother and I watched Newsies and Bedknobs and Broomsticks every weekend as kids differ quite a bit from the reasons my friends and I watched Swingers over and over again in college. I don’t just mean that these reasons differ in the obvious and specific ways, the particular characters and strengths that vary with each example. I mean they differ in profound philosophical and psychological ways. They are different in the way my need to sleep differs from my need for water; I require both to stay alive, but each serves a very distinct purpose.
I’m definitely not the only one who returns to old favorites again and again, either. Revisiting stories is as old as stories. Myths, religious liturgies, fairy tales, oral histories, and the timeless tradition of theme and variation are all examples of the way we return to certain stories over and over again, retelling and rereading as we remake our tales and they remake us. As is the case with anything that has been central to the human experience for as long as there has been evidence of language, it would be a mistake to try and oversimplify it or nail it down conclusively. The reasons are countless, they are nuanced and overlapping, and some are hidden in the realm of the individual and collective unconscious where Jung’s archetypes reside.
Even at just a passing glance I can identify some of the more obvious reasons why we keep returning to favored stories.
We rewatch seeking a relic that remains the same for us as everything else becomes unfamiliar and strange. In other instances, the opposite is true, we rewatch a film or show because it is new every time we return to it, since we are never the same when we experience it and thus will see it with new eyes every time.
We rewatch for a version of comfort food or a security blanket. The familiar characters feel like family, the cherished jokes still make us laugh, or a film is linked to a formative time in our lives and we feel a unique nostalgia connected to a particular cultural artifact. These stories then become a connection to a home we can’t otherwise return to. This particular category would be the easiest in which to identify attracts us to keep rewatching. Yet, even though there are some obvious reasons we can see, each is most likely entwined with more subtle and nuanced factors that keep calling us back.
Other things we return to because of how brilliantly constructed they are, because the beauty of some scene or moment or performance or shot or writing, or combination of all those elements, just won’t let go of our imagination, won’t stop triggering a deep feeling of wonder and so we go back to it again and again to suck all the marrow out. Yet, even these examples are more complicated than that, the beautiful construction was probably a vehicle for a thought or sentiment that connected with us very personally. There are so many well-crafted movies, and not all of them connect with each of us to the same degree. While the artistry is a huge part of what draws me toward the work of Kurosawa, there are other factors at play that make his films impact me the way they do.
All of that to loosely illustrate that there isn’t a final answer we can land on to explain the human habit of continually revisiting some collection of cherished stories again and again. We can say things about it that are true, but that truth is never exhaustive.
I don’t know exactly what is happening when I find joy in seeing a movie for the eleventh time. What I do know is that there is goodness to be found when we acknowledge that there is beauty in something and pore over it. It can reveal beauty that is in the artifact itself, and it can reveal beauty from within us by showing what we find to be admirable and worth returning to again and again. We can learn by looking closely at the things we find worth celebrating, or emulating.
Thus, all these thoughts I’ve had about why we rewatch things, combined with a recent desire I’ve had to thoughtfully return to many of my favorite stories, has led me to start a new theme here where I revisit an old favorite and attempt to discern some of what it is that I cannot escape. For example, as I rewatch the Blood and Ice Cream Trilogy again, what are some of the true but not exhaustive reasons I return to these movies again and again? That will be the first post in this theme, so stay tuned.