The Velvet Café

A room for thoughts about movies

Should you have to watch a movie three times to get what it’s about?

with 41 comments

The first time Dana Stevens watched The Master she left the theatre not knowing what it was meant to be about. So she watched it again. After the second attempt the movie started to unfold, so she gave it a third try. This time she still didn’t know the answer to the “what’s it all about” question, but at least she had a strong theory.

In a beautiful post she shares her joy over the process of uncovering layer after layer in a movie through multiple viewings. She assures us that it doesn’t feel like homework at all, but like “luxury”.

But to be honest the very idea of her watching this film three times and still not “getting” what it’s about makes me worried. If it takes her, a professional film critic at Slate, three times to get the hang of it, how many watches will be required for me, an ordinary moviegoer? Will even five times be enough?

Expecting a lot
With the risk of appearing  narrow-minded – isn’t it to expect a lot from an audience to watch a movie over and over again in order to appreciate it because it’s so hard to understand?

I can see  that this isn’t such a big deal for someone who writes film criticism for a living and gets to watch movies for free. If the press screening isn’t enough, I assume you can get another ticket, or otherwise your employer will pay for it.

But for me, who is just one in the crowd, one of the few who still insists on never doing illegal downloads, one who prefers to watch films in theatres and who actually pays for every visit? It gets bloody expensive to be honest. Maybe it makes me a pussy, but if I’m going to watch a film three times before I have a clue about it, it’s going to hurt.

And how could I possibly motivate – not just myself, but my family, which is harder – that I’d like to spend all that money watching a movie I’ve already watched recently – not because I loved it so much the first time, but because it was obscure?

Don’t get me wrong here. I don’t mind to pay attention when I watch a film.  I don’t ask for movies to be “dumbed down” until they reach a point where you can text message, terrorize your neighbors with popcorn or take a nap and still know exactly what’s happening in the movie since it was overly obvious from the beginning. I love and embrace movies that linger, movies that will whirl around in my system for a couple of days before they finally sink in, movies that I can talk about and think about for a long time to come.

But three required viewings? No way. At the most I can consider watching a movie twice, but that is extremely rare. When I gave Wings of Desire a second chance it was because I had slept through the first time and it was twenty years back in time.  I’ve said that I might give Tree of Life another try one day, but I can’t truthfully say that I’m in any hurry.

I’ve got so many unseen classics, so  many films that I’ve been recommended and would like to check out to myself, so many unknown territories that I’d like to explore – directors, countries, genres, eras in film history.

That’s where I want to spend the time and energy I have available for movie watching. Not on hammering on the same coconut movie time after time until it eventually – maybe – opens up to me.

Consumer information
Perhaps we should be grateful after all about critics admitting how many times they have watched a film before being able to write about it. It serves as a piece of consumer information, a preparation for what to expect.

You could also say that they’re doing the work for us. If I read the insights Dana Stevens has reached after all her viewings before I watch the movie myself, it could become a shortcut to my own understanding and save me a few extra tickets.

On the other side I think openness about how many times you had to see a film before being able to write about risks to put a gap between film critics and ordinary people who just love to see movies and think that once should be enough.

Despite the multiple-viewings-is-required reputation that now is surrounding The Master, I still plan to see it, provided I’ll get the chance (it hasn’t yet got any Swedish release date).


Written by Jessica

October 2, 2012 at 10:37 pm

41 Responses

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  1. I think there’s a place for this kind of experience, but that it’s the sort of thing that really only attracts the die-hard film student.

    On the other hand, it’s difficult to disagree with Squish Lessard ( when he says in his review of Meshes of the Afternoon, “Some critics may read the program at the vernissage and say ‘Aaaah! How interesting!’. I put my hand up and say, ‘Why didn’t you explain that in the film? Couldn’t you do it better, so I could understand it in the medium it’s presented in? If I wanted to read, I’d pick up a book.'”

    I don’t mind being confused by a film, but I want to understand it by the end. A large part of me feels that if a film doesn’t fully explain itself, or at least open itself up to several possible interpretations by the time the end credits roll, it’s a failure on the part of the filmmaker.


    October 2, 2012 at 10:48 pm

    • Yes, I think there is a problem with a film if you have to read an essay to get the gist of it. But again: as you say – there is an audience even for very convoluted movies that don’t make any sense at first sight. It’s very small though, so it’s no wonder they need to operate with very small budgets.


      October 3, 2012 at 7:32 am

      • And it’s not even the “I don’t like to rewatch” thing. I love rewatching movies, and I love getting more out of them the second time (or third, or fourth…). But I do feel like I should at least have a way to interpret it on a first viewing, a “something” that I come away with.

        Depth and complexity is great, and seeing something over and over to ferret out deeper and deeper meanings is what being a film lover is all about. But if all I get is bafflement and head-scratching, the chances are good that I won’t want to watch it again, let alone will watch it again.


        October 3, 2012 at 3:42 pm

        • Exactly my point. I think there’s a scale of how what we’re ready to put up with as comes to obscurity and I think you and I are pretty much at the same point on that scale.


          October 3, 2012 at 4:18 pm

  2. Admittedly, I’m biased when it comes to this sort of thing, so take this with an entire shaker of salt (a grain won’t do)

    I think of films like music. There have been artists, albums, and songs that I haven’t been smitten with on first listen. But as I hear them more and more, I start to catch different things…a chord change that lifts me up, a vocal hiccup that lends imperfection, a mood that the whole thing is going for. Suddenly, a song that I used to skip over, or an album that was collecting dust gets played over and over and over.

    Movies are like that too. We see different things every time out.

    The first time we will see the absolute least, because we are consumed with keeping up with the narrative. The second time, we will start to notice the connective tissue – foreshadowing of plot, character details, technical flourishes that lift a film from “OK” to “Damn that’s pretty”. And that’s just with the films we like

    For the films we don’t, a rewatch can be like getting back into the saddle. I feel like a film beat me sometimes, and not wanting to be defeated I come at it thinking “OK – let me at it”. I’m not saying I want this in *all* of my movies…but sure, I’m up for a challenge every once in a while. Think of it like a video game: The ones that feel most rewarding are the ones that are toughest to pass.

    You mention the money factor, which is admittedly fair. When I tell people to “Watch it again” I don’t expect them to buy another full-price ticket. Repeated viewing is a luxury, but even if it has to wait until dvd I believe it’s a luxury that is rewarding.

    GREAT post – sorry if my response felt rambling.

    Ryan McNeil

    October 2, 2012 at 10:57 pm

    • Thanks Ryan for a great comment! I think it’s admiriable how you refuse to declare yourself defeated by obscure movies, how you get back at them over and over again, regardless how thick their shell is, until they finally open a crack so you can have a taste of what’s inside them.

      As of me I just can’t find the time or patience to devote that much time to a film, particularly not of it didn’t touch me the first time. If I’m going to watch something repetedly it’s going to be a film I actually enjoy.


      October 3, 2012 at 7:35 am

  3. “isn’t it to expect a lot from an audience to watch a movie over and over again in order to appreciate it because it’s so hard to understand?”

    To me, where this argument breaks down is the word “appreciate”. You can appreciate many, many things about a movie without understanding it either on a narrative level or a thematic one. If a film is difficult to comprehend but entices me with its atmosphere, its performances, its cinematography, its dialogue, or even the incomprehensibility itself, I’m more eager to revisit it and unlock its mysteries.

    Ryan’s comment above about music strikes a chord (ho ho!) with me. When I listen to music, more often than not, I’m not paying attention to the lyrics. There are many songs that I could hum but I couldn’t begin to tell you what they’re “about”. Can you hum a movie? Yes, in the way certain aspects or images or snatches of dialogue will resonate with you.


    October 2, 2012 at 11:14 pm

    • I can appreciate something I don’t fully understand. I gave The Tree of LIfe a high rating since I enjoyed the Discovery-aspects of it so much. And the score was just gorgeous. This said: I’m in no hurry to revisit it.

      I think there is a bottom line though, a minumum amount of understanding that I need. I watched a film by Antonioni the other week which left me cold since there was nothing to hold on to.

      It’s very rare that I can enjoy just humming a film. If it’s a short film, lasting five minutes? Certainly. But a full length feature film, which I don’t understand at all? I don’t think so.

      Deep down it’s about a matter of taste of course.


      October 3, 2012 at 7:58 am

  4. I don’t view movies like music. I understand where Ryan is coming from (I remember really disliking Animal Collective at point), but I just don’t have the time or patience to give a film multiple tries if I didn’t care for it the first time. In this particular case, The Master had plenty of time to reveal itself to me, but it never cared to.

    If I rewatch a film and find something new the second time, that’s only because I liked it enough the first time to go back and watch it again. There’s also the problem with movies being so expensive, but that is always an argument. Once is enough in the theaters for me.


    October 2, 2012 at 11:29 pm

    • Even if you DO watch movies like you listen to music, you need to catch on to something about a song the first time you hear it to bother to listen again. Speaking for myself I don’t listen to something I didn’t get over and over again until I get it. In that case I’d rather listen to something else.


      October 3, 2012 at 4:20 pm

  5. True reader do not read, but mostly re-read.
    There are movies where one watch is enough, sometimes more than enough.
    But there are also movies where additional watch give additional fun. They are still interesting on first view, but they are interesting in a different way when you re-watch them.

    One of the reason I’m not lawful about movies is because I like to open random movie and re-watch some random scene from it. then jump to another random place, switch to another movie. Sometimes it’s so catchy I can re-watch half of the movie. It’s like music: it’s not odd to listen it over and over again.
    And it’s interesting experience to notice layers or just tiny details you didn’t noticed before.

    Reminds me about one critic who specialized on one specific author admitted that he re-read one of his books regularly for more than 20 years and every time he notice some new layer he didn’t think about before. Sure some of those layer were not meant by the author.


    October 2, 2012 at 11:40 pm

    • I’ve never heard of anyone watching movies that way before, jumping from one sample to another. I can really see how that becomes like music.

      And admittedly I DO re-read some books regularly. The LOTR trilogy I revisit about every third year, as an average. That’s quite a few times over the years. In this case however I know very well what’s going on. I can’t imagine myself revisiting a film I’m clueless about over and over again. I’ll rather just accept that it’s a mismatch.


      October 3, 2012 at 11:30 pm

  6. I think a movie needs to offer something on the first watching, though I’m certainly open to films that gain new layers upon subsequent viewing. My favorite films have tended to become more complex with each viewing, but they also share the trait that the first viewing was a very positive one. If the first viewing leaves me completely at sea, I’m not going to stick around.


    October 3, 2012 at 12:51 am

    • This


      October 3, 2012 at 5:15 am

    • I’m afraid that I don’t have the patience to keep watching the same movies over and over again searching for new layers. But in theory I could. And if I would – yes, I agree that you need to have a very first positive viewing to bother.


      October 3, 2012 at 4:21 pm

  7. I still have seen The Master only once, and I found it worthwhile, though I do plan on seeing it more to figure out more of it.

    Dave Enkosky

    October 3, 2012 at 2:11 am

    • It’s good to hear that one watching should be enough to find it worthwhile.


      October 3, 2012 at 4:22 pm

  8. So glad you wrote this post, Jessica. I think someone from our side of the fence (whatever that means) needed to respond to this whole notion of HAVING to see The Master a second time or risk “not getting it.” Because I love Dana Stevens. She is one of the 4 mainstream critics I read religiously and I want to have coffee with her and discuss this because whether or not she truly understood it, she felt something about it and took something away from it and formed an opinion about it. And I think by simply preaching this whole you have to see it again before a lot of people have even seen it once is dangerous because the feeling a first viewing gives us is so important.

    I think films CAN open up on repeat viewings. I’ve seen The Descendants four times and I swear it just gets better and better and opens up more and more. But, of course, I loved it the first time. Another example I’ve used before would be Sofia Coppola’s “Somewhere.” The first time I saw it I didn’t like it. And yet, something was there that kept me thinking about it and so I watched it again a year later and everything it did came into focus and it just blew me away.

    But, like I say, SOMETHING was there. It can’t be standoffish and it can’t just get by on account of automatically being decreed by whomever as necessary of a second viewing, you know? It has to linger with you of its own accord.

    (I really hope that all made sense. I wrote it in one big burst.)


    October 3, 2012 at 4:53 am

    • Thanks Nick ! I’ve watched the movies you meniton – but only once. However I had no problem embracing them from that one only screening. I can imagine Somewhere gets even better if you see it again, but it worked very well if you only watched it once.


      October 3, 2012 at 11:33 pm

  9. Well, I hope you’re not painting yourself into a corner there with that last statement.

    I wrote my review on my blog after having seen ‘The Master’ only once (granted, I did see it on marvelous 70mm 🙂

    There are definitely movies intended to be appreciated (or not) in one sitting and those that are not. I am okay with both. But I DO think that when it comes to the more rich films with many layers, it is the responsibility of the director/writer/actors to draw you in that FIRST time to make you WANT to see it again. (This part of the reason I will always be a Kubrick fan but not so much on the Bergman.)

    I think ‘The Master’ was successful in that sense, but that doesn’t mean I want to rush out and see it again right away so I can come up with some novel (or semi-novel) theory about the subconscious tendencies of PT Anderson. (I swear some of these reviews, podcasts, and blog posts about ‘The Master’ sound like contests in amateur psychoanalysis.) I find it more interesting to revisit films like this after they’ve stewed in the back of my mind for a while.


    October 3, 2012 at 5:13 am

    • Hehe, well it’s not just a statement. I really have no intention of watching it more than once.But hopefully that will be sufficient. I think you’re right about how it’s up to the filmmaker to make you want to see it again. I


      October 3, 2012 at 11:35 pm

  10. I think maybe a distinction should be made between “getting it entirely” and “getting it enough”. It’s OK for a film to have multiple layers, that you have to see multiple times in order to catch everything. I doubt there are very many truly great films that don’t have something of this quality. There’s something new to understand in everything from Boyz N the Hood to Cool Hand Luke to Groundhog Day. There’s always something you won’t pick up on the first time through.

    But it can’t be completely opaque either. That first viewing has to be enough to say that you’ve got the general gist of things, of at least the surface layer. And it has to be enough that you enjoy the film, even if you don’t get any of the deeper meanings. Otherwise… it’s a flawed film at best.

    Morgan R. Lewis

    October 3, 2012 at 7:19 am

    • Oh Groundhog day! It’s the movie I’ve probalby watched most time and one of the films I keep closest to my heart. I just love it. But honestly, I think I got it pretty well first time. I didn’t have to rewatch it over and over again to the “get it”.


      October 3, 2012 at 11:50 pm

  11. I don’t believe that any movie could only be understood by watching it twice. I’m sure Dana Stevens got something out of The Master on the first viewing. Enough that she was intrigued to know more so she watched it again.

    There have been a few films that I had got something from a film, but not enough. My thirst for knowledge of the film was not quenched. I might seek an essay to gain more knowledge, or I have been known to occasionally watch the film again immediately after my first viewing. But this isn’t because I didn’t get anything from the film the first time. Of course I got something. I just didn’t get enough. I needed more. And, if I had the time, my desire for the film was so great that I would pursue such knowledge to the ends of the earth. Even Sweden.

    I guess for me, watching a film again is less because I didn’t “get it” but because I didn’t get enough of it.

    Steve Kimes

    October 3, 2012 at 7:56 am

    • Curious question: have you ever encoutred a movie that you actually didn’t “get” at all, which you didn’t revisit either?

      Or do you connect one way or another with every movie?


      October 4, 2012 at 12:06 am

      • Yep: Eraserhead. I didn’t get it and I didn’t want to. There is occasionally a film I didn’t get, but also bored me silly. Why should I bother? This in stark contrast to Mulholland Dr., which I got enough just to pursue it. I haven’t rewatched it yet, but I certainly will.

        Steve Kimes

        October 4, 2012 at 5:25 am

  12. I think that if that’s the case (that you have to see a movie several times) I would say that I’d wait till it’s out on DVD. For some movies I don’t mind watching it a few times IF it is interesting to watch. A good example of it is something like Donnie Darko. In general it doesn’t happen much that I rewatch movies…


    October 3, 2012 at 9:17 am

    • It’s very rare to me too. One of the few movies I’ve watched multible times is Groundhog Day. Oh, the irony! But it’s actually enjoyable. It was the first time I watched it and it still is.


      October 4, 2012 at 12:08 am

  13. Great question, Jessica! I certainly don’t have the patience to do so. I guess it depends on the movie, if I like it enough to see it again just to ‘understand’ it more, fine. But generally if I don’t get it, it’s quite a frustrating experience that I most likely don’t feel like revisiting. I think generally the movie has to have enough going on for it to warrant repeated viewings.

    Btw, I’ve decided I’ll just watch The Master on dvd, might be an ‘easier’ experience that way than seeing it on the big screen.


    October 3, 2012 at 10:44 pm

    • Thanks Ruth! I agree that the film has to provide “something” for me to bother with repeted viewings. If I don’t have any idea at all about what it’s about, it needs to work very hard to catch my interest.


      October 4, 2012 at 12:10 am

  14. Great post, Jess. Myself, I like to at least be able to enjoy/appreciate the film the first time I see it, even if I don’t always “get” it. There’s nothing wrong with a film being incredibly dense with detail and nuance that it takes several viewings to really capture all it has to say to you, and requiring multiple viewings to discover more things to appreciate, but it shouldn’t be a requirement to see a film more than once to get the point of it all.

    If I don’t “get” a film first time, I’m usually pretty loathe to see it again soon. I think this kind of thing is definitely a personal preference, though. Each to their own.


    October 4, 2012 at 12:49 am

    • Thanks Rodney! Yes, to each one his own. I don’t belittle those who are ready to give movies they don’t understand several chances. But it’s not my cup of tea.


      October 4, 2012 at 6:29 pm

  15. I think most of the films worth rewatching are films that don’t fully reveal themselves on the first viewing. It took me five viewings of Wings of Desire to come around and finally begin to get it. that being said, from the first viewing it intrigued me and I knew I wanted to watch it again. If a film doesn’t grab me that first time, being told to watch it again isn’t going to convince me. There’s gotta be something there that appeals to me the first time.

    Also, I don’t think it’s realistic to watch a film three times in theaters, or at least most films like this. I saw Tree of Life twice in theaters, but for my third viewing I waited for home video. This is a process that can take years, not just a week or two. Expecting that is a bit silly. Also expecting to fully understand a film like The Master on the first viewing is a bit silly. I think it’s a balancing act.

    • Five times! It’s fantastic that you stuck with it under those circumstances.
      But like you say: if you find “something” that appeals to you it’s easier to overlook the lack of story.

      I think there is a problem when critics talk about watching The Master three times to understand it, while this sort of watching is out of the reach to normal people.


      October 7, 2012 at 9:49 pm

  16. […] over at The Velvet Café recently published an editorial about movies that require multiple viewings to comprehend.  She’s pretty much against them, […]

  17. […] As you may or may not know by now, yesterday’s post about rewatching challenging films was inspired by this intriguing post by Jessica over at The Velvet Cafe. […]

  18. It’s a thin line. I watched The Master, and though I didn’t see it twice, I had to think about it. And think about it again. And again. It takes me at least 2-3 days for me to see a movie and let my true feelings about the film rise to the surface.


    October 6, 2012 at 11:03 pm

    • Yeah, it can take me a while too to reflect over a film. It’s very rare that I write about it the same day I watch it.


      October 7, 2012 at 9:32 pm

  19. Cant wait to see The Master myself but If it required a few viewings I’d probably do it. I don’t mind revisiting films a few times if I feel they are worthy of it. Like yourself, I fell asleep during Wings Of Desire and must catch it again. One film I’ve seen many times and can’t quite fathom is David Lynch’s Lost Highway. I’ll watch it again (for the 4th time or so) as I find it really intriguing but I simply don’t get it. Maybe it’s complete nonsense but I want to be sure.

    Mark Walker

    October 7, 2012 at 1:18 pm

    • That IS admirable! Four times and you still don’t get it, but want to make sure? I would have given up on it long time ago.


      October 7, 2012 at 9:43 pm

  20. […] Should you have to watch a movie three times to get what it’s about? […]

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