One of the numerous problems I always had with the late critic Pauline Kael was the pride she took in seeing a film only once before reviewing it, and in maintaining that she would never go back and revise an opinion later. While I could understand this stance from a professional point of view — Kael was nothing if not opinionated, and it was no doubt necessary that her opinions be seen as absolute, unwavering and not subject to change — from a human standpoint it always seemed silly. While the great majority of movies don’t need or deserve repeat viewings, why deny yourself the pleasure of seeing films you love a second or third time, or of watching a film more closely to understand how the filmmakers made it work?
What’s more, films change over time, just as people and times change in relation to them. Most people surely have had the experience of watching a film they loved as a kid or teenager and being embarrassed at how bad it looks from an adult perspective; once you’ve been burned a few times, you learn to leave well enough alone and not revisit certain films, the better to retain your cherished memories.
But time does things even to films you once may have judged highly from a discerning adult perspective. At the recent Telluride Film Festival, Peter Bogdanovich, who did as much as anyone to champion Hollywood’s great early masters in the ’60s, when many of them were professionally being put out to pasture, had to admit some films by his old favorites, particularly John Ford, were looking a little creaky. Ford, because of his sentimentality and indulgence of matters that meant a lot to him, simply doesn’t play so well today, Bogdanovich admitted, even when it comes to some of his most widely admired films, such as “The Grapes of Wrath”; the same can be said of Griffith and Chaplin.
By contrast, other directors from the classical era, especially Buster Keaton, Ernst Lubitsch, Howard Hawks and Preston Sturges, look as good as ever or even better, Bogdanovich argued, because of their comic bent and aversion to sentimentality; Otto Preminger also continues to soar in his estimation. “The cold directors are the ones who look better today,” Bogdanovich judged, “while the warm ones look old-fashioned. It’s the times we live in.”
Just as it seems foolish not to admit that such diverse factors as age, developing personal standards, fashion, the zeitgeist and the wisdom and perspective accumulated from having more films by which to judge others all can play a role in changing tastes and opinions, so it would appear wrong to deny that certain films benefit from a second look. The very first film review I wrote in my life, of Luis Bunuel’s “Belle de Jour” for my college newspaper, was a rave, and I would not change my opinion one iota all these years later. But at that time, I had seen no other Bunuel films, and I shudder to think of how uninformed my review might have seemed to anyone who had. True, my opinion was correct, but as my French friend and cinema ultraconnoisseur Pierre Rissient always says, “It is not enough that you like the right films — you must like them for the right reasons.”
While running the risk of displaying weaknesses that Kael would sneer at, I can think of just one instance of having completely reversed my opinion of a film that I had previously weighed in on in print — Stanley Kubrick’s “Barry Lyndon.” On first viewing, its overall point and meaning eluded me, and I was not able to appreciate anything beyond its pictorial and musical qualities; it was only on second viewing that its staggering, Stroheimesque stature as a corrosive contemplation of the foolishness of most human endeavor became abundantly clear.
Kubrick is one filmmaker whose films invariably reward second viewings; admittedly, there are few others. If I were to take issue with other reviews I have written over the years, my sense is that it would mostly be to downgrade some pictures that were perhaps exciting or appealing to the senses in various ways during the experience of them but carry no resonance in the long run. Like most critics — including Kael, who, after all, wrote for a weekly publication for most of her career — I review films after seeing them just once; unlike her, my Daily Variety colleagues and I often must produce our reviews instantly, particularly when meeting daily deadlines during film festivals.
Which leads to the subject at hand, David Lynch’s latest film, “Mulholland Drive,” which opens commercially today after having premiered in May at the Cannes Intl. Film Festival. This is one picture about which I will eagerly read every review I can find, simply for the pleasure of how individual critics cope with a work that so adamantly refuses to be pinned down and analyzed definitively or “correctly.” In my case, this represented one of the very few times when I was upset over having to instantly produce an opinion that would be engraved in stone, or at least in newsprint, forever; I had to proceed directly from the first Cannes screening to my keyboard to turn the review around for the next day’s paper. This is just business as usual for me, but with this film, which throws a big monkey wrench into the proceedings two-thirds of the way through, it seemed unfair not to have a bit of time to try to digest what the hell Lynch was getting at.
“Mulholland Drive” is a film that, at its brilliant best, works at an extremely instinctual and subconscious level; for reasons that have little to do with narrative “suspense” and a great deal to do with the creation of emotional and psychological unease and uncertainty, it’s a picture that induces a considerable amount of dread and paranoia. There are many sources for these feelings. Specifically, they may reside in Lynch’s intensely knowledgeable portrait of Hollywood as an innately sinister and poisonous place beneath the surface allure; conspicuously, this is the most credible and informed cautionary tale about beautiful young things coming to Hollywood I’ve ever seen. Less concretely, they may stem from the fear of loss of identity, of bearings, of self-knowledge — subjects the film plays with in deeply interesting and disturbing ways.
Unsettled over having had only a couple of hours to dash out a review of a film that I felt deserved more deliberation, I awoke two mornings later to have the film fall almost entirely into place for me; coming out of a dream state, it seemed perfectly sensible and uncomplicated. That is not to say that one can — or is supposed to — connect all the dots and neatly tie together the events in this deeply mysterious film. It isn’t supposed to make perfect sense. After seeing the film a second time this week and then rereading my review for the first time, I am still in complete agreement with it, although the film’s meanings and methods are clearer to me now. Happily, then, my immediate reaction was “right” after all, although a second look has made it more apparent what the “right” reasons are.