Sunday, January 22, 2017

Watch and Rewatch

I grew up not reconsuming media.

With the exception of one, particular favorite (Patricia C. Wrede’s Dealing With Dragons), I didn’t re-read books, perhaps because I only liked reading enough to justify one pass through a towering pile of two hundred-plus pages of text.

Moreover, as devout as my family was about watching the same television shows from week to week without skipping an episode (even taking advantage of VCR recording to keep track of shows we had to miss, or that conflicted with other programs that took precedence), when it came time for summer reruns, we tuned out, and favored catching up on video rentals from the preceding month. My father would copy some of these movies from one VHS tape to another, with what was a startlingly modern two-VCR set up for the time, and we would watch some of these films over, but typically at the behest of my parents, particularly if we edged toward the same movie more than once in the same month. Aren’t you sick of that? they would ask, in reference to The Great Muppet Caper, Follow That Bird, and oddly enough Beaches (the Bette Midler vehicle out of which I still feel a sort of absurd emotional attachment to “The Wind Beneath My Wings”).

This was before the days when people like Malcolm Gladwell had exposed to the masses that kids love routine and predictability and that rewatching television shows and films are a normal portion of development that, when used appropriately, can even be a learning tool to internalized the implicit or explicit lessons of a given product. I think my parents were more concerned with reinforcing expansiveness instead--being conscious that there’s a whole world of books, movies, television shows, songs, paintings, and places to consume and thus we should keep moving on.

I share all of this, in part, to contextualize the abrupt shift when I started hanging out with Mike (my best friend of twenty-five years, not a third-person reference to myself). I recall lazy summer days in the living room of his house, and a day when we watched Blank Check. The film is child’s fantasy in which a wealthy businessman accidentally wrecks a kid’s bike. In a hurry, the tycoon leaves the kid the eponymous blank check to pay for whatever the damages may be, and the kid ends up cashing it for a cool million dollars (note: I have not done my homework and am recounting this plot purely based on memories from over twenty years ago). Hijinks ensue, and along the way kid learns that money can’t buy happiness.

This is an un-nuanced, poorly acted movie with little to no redeeming value beyond the initial conceit that a kid gets to live out the fantasy of having boat loads of money to do with as he pleases. I found myself marginally drawn into it, but considered it an indulgence and an exploration--a rare stopover into something puerile that was enjoyable enough at the time but that would have little impact on my life. It was a sugary soda. A comic book. A crude crayon drawing. A fine enough way to pass ninety minutes before being done with it forever.

But then Mike wanted to watch it again.

“We just wateched it,” I said.

“So?” he asked.

And so would begin a summer chock full of watching rewatching bad movies, each a half dozen or more times. Yes, we would also play basketball outside, and we would talk, but with our only adult supervision his grandmother who lived in a downstairs apartment, we were largely left to our own devices, and largely wound up in front of the TV.

I didn’t own this part of my identity. I thought it was an aberration in my own behavior, for which I kind-of-sort-of looked down on Mike for not reading more or making art, oblivious to the fact that in following his lead for all of those afternoons, I was, at best, the same.

And then I discovered my own fascination with reconsuming media.

It started with My So-Called Life--the first television show that I truly fell in love with, feeling the sensation that these writers and actresses and actors got something fundamental about the human condition as I experienced it. The feelings only intensified when the ABC Network unceremoniously cancelled the show, leaving it at one perfect season that I would both treasure and have the fuel to feel righteously indignant about for years to follow. MTV acquired the rights to the show and would air weekend marathons of it, that I dutifully sat through as much of as I could. In the years to follow, selected episodes came out in VHS release. As soon as I had the requisite Christmas, birthday, or allowance money saved up, I bought them and rewatched them with a passion that re-stirred my mother’s questions from my much younger days about how I could tolerate watching the same forty-five minutes of programming over and over again.

I followed up that passion with an obsession over the world of Buffy The Vampire Slayer. I got hooked based on a rerun of “Bothered, Bewitched, and Bewildered,” the summer between seasons two and three. Newly equipped with Internet access, I printed off full transcripts of the scripts of all the episodes I had missed and I started buying blank VHS tapes to record episodes as they aired so I might consume them all time and again.

I grew immersed in the world of BtVS--in its characters and its mythologies. I studied episodes and looked up the pop culture references I didn’t understand. I read spoilers in hopes of picking up on overarching trajectories where they began.

My BtVS obsession became something like scholarly study--unregimented and unpoliced, but just the same rigorous, and driven by predisposition. Thus, it planted the seeds of study to follow. For years of reading and rereading to figure out how things worked. Until they weren’t fun anymore and I fell out of love. Until I loved them all over again.

As a composition instructor, I subjected my students to a microcosm of this experience. Given the opportunity, I eschewed the traditional study of a literary text in favor of focusing on music videos. I challenged each student to select one and write a detailed analysis. Then to incorporate research about the video, the song, the artist, or most ideally some bigger issue that all of this introduced. Then they crafted term papers--six-to-eight pages of sustained argument.

When they picked their video to study, I cautioned them that they may not want to pick songs they loved. Because in order to do the video justice (and to succeed in the progression of the assignment) they would need to watch and listen over and over again. Until they, too, had grown tired of the original media, and with the full knowledge that many of them may not go far enough rediscover or reinforce that original love, but rather just grow bored and forever associate that music video with middling attempts at papers and middling grades from their first-year comp instructor.

Some of them didn’t like me or their video by the halfway point of the term.

Some of them did.

But whether they agreed with me or not, and whether or not they ended up embracing such iterative processes, I came to recognize the value of the process in my own life. For intellectual study, yes, but also for letting myself go. For re-listening to the same holiday jingle that strikes my fancy ad nauseum in December. For still cycling back to watch favorite episodes of My So-Called Life and Buffy the Vampire Slayer fifteen to twenty years after I sat in awe of them the first time.

I can mouth along the words to most of the dialogue. See, in my mind’s eye, still frames of the actions to come.

Sometimes I still discover something new.

And sometimes, I still sit in the comfort of the familiar. In a life full of change, I embrace these kernels of my teenage years and all the while add new media to my canon. The stuff that shapes an identity. Watched and rewatched.

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