The repertory theater regular not only consumes movies prodigiously, but also revisits particular films at different points in their life. One fundamental ambiguity of cinema is that a movie fixes a moment in time, but then is repeatedly projected in that form while history shifts beneath it, altering the context in which it is later viewed. With every successive viewing, we submit the same movie to new interpretations and perspectives, an inventory-taking both personal and cultural. There are also films that imprint deeply upon us. When we return to them, they reflect back the changes that have occurred in our sense of identity and our knowledge of the world.
I recently saw The Omega Man with my friend Kim at the Trylon Microcinema. In the opening scene of the film, Charleton Heston’s character Robert Neville drives through a deserted Los Angeles, gathering supplies. He stops at a movie theater to project a reel of the documentary Woodstock for himself, which he has seen so many times that he mouths words along with the onscreen sound. I noticed that Kim was, in parallel to Neville’s miming of Woodstock, anticipating the dialogue from The Omega Man. When Neville entered a department store, pausing before a yellow tracksuit, she whispered “too bad it’s not my color” just seconds before Charleton Heston did. Kim claimed later to have seen the film over a hundred times. She explained by email shortly after the screening:
When I was a child in the 1980’s, watching movies repeatedly was completely normal because most families had access to a VCR and I’d recorded the film off of television. Few people would have been able, when that movie was made in the 1970’s, to watch a film as many times as they liked, so Neville’s repeated viewing of Woodstock shows how bizarre his life is. That said, Neville and I had something in common - we watched our chosen movies repeatedly for comfort and escape. I was nestled in my little 1980’s world of 1960’s hand-me-downs, full of nostalgia for a time and place where young people could get together and be free. I felt cut off from it all because I lived isolated in the country as a kid. Neville also lived an isolated life in his post-apocalyptic “honkey paradise” while craving social contact so badly it made him paranoid and delusional. He took comfort in slipping into the idyllic world of Woodstock - a world where people could all live together and be happy.
About twenty years passed between the last time I watched The Omega Man and the most recent show at the Trylon. It felt like no time had passed and the dialogue hit my ears like a favorite song that you haven’t heard in a while - the words just come back to you.
Robert Neville's obsession with Woodstock is a mirror for Kim’s fascination with The Omega Man, the experience of cinema as ritual and consolation. The repeated viewing of a film compensates for something we feel is missing in our lives. We escape into and explore the fixed aesthetic architecture of the movie.
Although I haven’t seen it a hundred times yet, Playtime is the movie closest to Robert Neville's Woodstock in my life. By virtue of my intimate acquaintance with it, I don’t watch the film now as much as dream myself into it. Projecting myself into the formal experience of Playtime, in fact, reminds me of a favorite recurring dream. I’m walking through a familiar building. When I was young it was always whatever school I was attending. I find a door that I haven’t seen before and it leads into a vast storage room filled with unmarked wooden boxes, something like the warehouse at the end of Citizen Kane, the overwhelming accumulation that is a person's character. I pass through this chamber into increasingly larger, more open rooms. There is always an air of ruin and disuse in the rooms, but never any threat. The overall atmosphere is of exploration and release into the marvelously malleable structures of my own consciousness. Without recognizing this dream as such at the time, it was the door to the secret rooms I sought as a child; it took repeated viewings of films like Street of Crocodiles and Playtime for me to realize that I already lived in these rooms.
I also understand Kim’s analogy of a ‘favorite song;’ Blade Runner plays like a prog-rock concept album for me. I can appreciate Ridley Scott’s science fiction classic in almost purely abstract terms, unrelated to the story: the pleasures of the art direction, sound design, costume, light, atmosphere, texture and grain, the full evocation of a sodden diminished world in self-contained formal terms, much like the cloistered city Tativille in Playtime.
I first saw Blade Runner at the Plaza Theater in St. Paul with my father and brothers during its initial release in 1982. I was in college at this time, but home on a break from school. It may have been the last movie going trip that I made with my father before he died in 1983. The atmosphere created by the film lingered over the drive back to Amery, Wisconsin; a huge orange sun sat on the horizon over the blur of the passing fields. At twenty, I was susceptible to movie-induced intoxication, like someone who gets drunk easily because they’re not accustomed to the strong stuff yet.
Because of the impact of that first viewing, I’ve seen Blade Runner at least five times in theaters since and one scene has subsequently fascinated me most: Deckard’s investigation of a photograph with his computer. He has found a printed photo that one of the replicants dropped and feeds it into his computer to search for clues. Giving verbal commands to scan to such and such quadrant, he tracks laterally through the picture before a remarkable transition occurs. The point of view trucks into the reflection within a mirror, through the crack of a door and into a bathroom as the spatial parallax in the flat photographic plane shifts impossibly. Deckard discovers the clue he needs to advance the story, but for me this scene has progressed visually from the depiction of a physical space to the idea of a psychological space; I have again stepped across the boundary between waking life and dreaming. The scanning computer in Blade Runner provides another metaphor for the subconsciously dynamic relationship that we enjoy with movies, especially with the movies that we revisit regularly: the active investigation of a cinematic/psychological space that grows richer, deeper and more mysterious with each viewing.
I suspect that the photographic enlargement scene in Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow Up and the penultimate window shot of The Passenger partially inspired the computer scanning scene in Blade Runner; perhaps the designer of that sequence had just seen an Antonioni retrospective. In the famous seven-minute shot at the end of The Passenger, the camera tracks slowly through the hotel room in which Jack Nicholson’s character rests, through the window frame, into a courtyard, before turning back one hundred and eighty degrees and peering through the window from which it originally escaped as the journalist is discovered dead. Just prior to this shot, Maria Schneider has stood in the same window frame describing to Jack Nicholson the details of the plain courtyard that he can’t see from the bed. The Italian title of the film translates directly as Profession: Reporter, which is the role that Maria Schneider has adopted in a broader epistemological sense. She describes much of what the viewer also sees through the frame, but neglects significant details. The slowly tracking camera then allows the audience to explore the space independently and seems to represent a more thorough investigation than Schneider’s account. But each time I watch this shot, as with the scan through the photograph in Blade Runner, I focus upon different details or bring a new perspective to the scene. The camera’s view, the screen that we watch, is a bound rectangle like the window. Knowledge is a frame that we impose upon raw experience; it is incomplete, fragmentary and relative to one’s perspective.
I first saw The Passenger at Lawrence University as a young man and specific shots remained enigmatically in my memory: Antoni Gaudi’s Barcelona buildings, Jack Nicholson attaching his fake moustache to a globe light, Maria Schneider standing in the backseat of a car with her arms held out wide, trees passing behind her. I saw the film again in my late thirties and, on this occasion, I read the journalist’s desire to adopt a new identity as a parallel to my projecting myself into these fictional characters, the movie critiquing its own status as a vehicle of voyeurism. By the time I watched the film again with Hilde in my late forties, I had travelled to actual Barcelona and I identified less intellectually and more personally with its themes. When I was younger, I had responded to the film as travel and to the vicarious fantasy of wandering through these European landscapes with Maria Schneider. In middle age, I related more immediately to the story of a man’s desire to escape from himself, from his profession, his relationships, his social definition. Personal identity is portrayed in The Passenger as disconcertingly mutable and burdensome, a narrative that one can abandon at will in the pursuit of possible freedom. I wondered if perhaps the movie was a window into Antonioni’s own discontent during that period of his life.
I was introduced to Fellini’s La Dolce Vita at Lawrence University too and I’ve seen it at least once a decade since that time, always projected in a theater with an audience. If I am Maria Schneider in The Passenger and La Dolce Vita is the courtyard seen through the window frame, I’ve observed a slightly different landscape during each viewing. The film is three hours long and I’m often surprised by its fluidity in my memory. The order of events is never clear; scenes that I’ve forgotten suddenly appear. I said to myself once in the middle of a screening, “Oh, I thought that was in 8 ½." The film is winding and dream-like, a wandering through a labyrinth, episodic rather than continuous.
My reaction to the protagonist Marcello also shifts each time that I see La Dolce Vita. When I first saw him onscreen at age twenty he was the epitome of cool, a roguish Italian James Dean, sporting Ray-Ban Wayfarer sunglasses at night on the Via Veneto and his decadence was consonant with the ‘live fast die young’ ethos of the punk rock era. Somehow I missed the essential connection that the girl at the film’s end and the young waitress in the seaside restaurant earlier, Paola, are the same person. The second time I watched the film, around age thirty, I connected these two appearances of the girl and thus understood her symbolic role in resolving the story’s rambling structure. She served as Marcello’s potential muse while he worked on his novel in the restaurant, a guide to fulfilling his idealism and creative potential. By film’s end he has succumbed to a nihilistic, self-punishing dissipation that has left him blind to the influence of these higher aspirations. When I saw the film at forty, I felt equal measures of sympathy and contempt for a recognizably human Marcello, his weakness, genuine sensitivity, lack of discipline, longing for connection with his father and with women, and his capacity for cruelty. Now, his incomprehension on the beach in the final scene carried enormous emotional impact, the pathos of a tiny aging figure standing in relief against the ocean, stripped of hope and consumed by his appetites. Even if we don’t consciously cultivate the films in which we ‘wake up,’ certain films will still ultimately choose us like a recurring dream.