This week’s question, courtesy of A.V. Clubber Genevieve Koski: What movie/TV show/album/whatever would you like to be able to see/hear again for the first time?
You know what? I’m betting I already know what you’re planning to answer for this, Genevieve—and what half the office wants to say, too—so I’m just going to step out there and steal it. I’d like to see The Wire again for the first time. About four months ago, I hadn’t seen any of it, I’d just put up with a couple wearying years of everybody in the office telling me it was OMG the greatest TV show of all time, and that I had OMG no choice about watching it. Finally, I broke down and borrowed season one from Josh, and invited a bunch of Wire-newbie friends to join me in watching a few episodes each week. And without fail, everyone in the office who found out what I was doing said “Oh man, I’m so jealous, I wish I could have that first-timer experience you’re about to have.” Which I shrugged off. Now we’re two sessions away from finishing the final season, and yeah, it’s a fantastic show that’s kept our Wire-watching contingent coming back like clockwork week after week after week, and I’m deeply sad that we’re about to bid farewell to that weekly experience of gleefully a dozen amazing interlocked storylines play out, with no idea where any of it is going. The other day, our new copy editor, Hunter, said he’d just started watching the show, and I blurted out “Wow, I’m jealous, I wish I could see it again for the first time.” Fuck. I’ve been assimilated. Gooble gobble, one of you, one of you, one of you.
Actually, Tasha, I wasn’t thinking of The Wire when I posed this question, believe it or not. As exciting as that first time through was, I feel like I’ve gotten more out of the series every time I’ve rewatched it (which has been, oh, let’s go with “several” times), so I don’t necessarily have the desire to go in fresh. What actually made me think of this was the news that Friday Night Lights had been picked up for two more seasons. (Again, YAY!) I came to Friday Night Lights really late, around December 2008, but as soon as I started watching, I did not stop watching until I was caught up—which left me exactly two episodes to watch in real time before season three ended. (The fact that this little marathon coincided with the holiday break meant that there were days where I literally did nothing but watch FNL all day.) As excited as I was to discover my New Favorite Show, I was left with a huge sense of loss when I reached the end of my binge. First, obviously, because I had to wait two weeks to get another fix when a new episode would air on DirectTV. Secondly, I didn’t know anyone else who watched FNL at that point (outside of my coworkers, but again, this was over the holiday break), so I had no one to discuss the show with, though going back and reading the TV Club posts helped a little. Thirdly, in my quest to never not be watching Friday Night Lights ever, I made some serious sacrifices in terms of viewing quality: I watched the first two seasons via Netflix streaming, and the third via less-official outlets (cough, surfthechannel.com, cough). So I had to experience this wonderful new discovery on my tiny, smudged laptop screen and pathetic built-in speakers. Of course, none of this affected my love of the show, but I wish I could go back and tell 2006 Genevieve “Grab a buddy and watch Friday Night Lights on a proper television screen as it unfolds in real time! Hell, at least get the DVDs.” I think having someone to share it with and time to process each episode would have made the whole experience even more perfect.
I thought long and hard about this question. Honestly, I’ve never heard someone say that they’re watching something for the first time and then wished I was in his or her shoes, because a state of cultural virginity will always entail a sense of uncertainty that could go either way—you’re as likely to be irritated about your wasted time or stymied by what everyone’s so excited about as you are to be delighted with what you’re taking in. It took me a few episodes to get into The Wire, for instance, and while I love it as much as anyone can (I got engaged while it was on pause), part of me is glad it’s behind me—it’s sort of a beautiful ordeal. And while I wish that my previous intense obsessions with The Beatles and Elvis Costello hadn’t exhausted my casual enjoyment of them, I knew both of them fairly well before I really fell in love with them. That said, though, I sometimes think back to the first time I ever saw Rushmore, and what a great experience that was. I was in college and saw it on a romantic date with my first serious boyfriend, and it was one of those blessed screenings where the entire audience just seemed to be on the same wavelength. It was funny, it was sad, it was weird, it was touching, it was thoughtful, and more importantly, it was unlike anything I’d ever seen before. My boyfriend and I and everyone else exited the theater feeling happy and excited. I’m pretty sure that it was the first serious reaction to a film I had as an adult. I promptly went back and saw it in the theater three more times. I can’t enjoy it the same way anymore now (or any Wes Anderson film, excepting Bottle Rocket), maybe because I’ve become cynical, or maybe I’ve become a more critical viewer. But still, even if I don’t want to live in Max Fischer’s world anymore, I feel nostalgic for that onetime enthusiastic delight and innocence.
It’s easy to think of a lot of movies, television, music, and books that I adore and would relish falling in love with again for the first time. But this question makes me think about the experiences that made me realize where my passions lie—the ones that opened up not just a beloved piece of art, but an entire genre or style. I don’t believe I ever would have realized how moving and piercingly beautiful the slower, more meditative side of cinema can be for me if it hadn’t been for that formative viewing of Terrence Malick’s Days Of Heaven in college. Suddenly it was like my heart was beating in time with the film—and practically bursting out of my chest. It was one of the first times I can remember feeling as if the film and I were together in a kind of Zen-like zone, where nothing could go wrong and every moment built emotion upon emotion, even as I could sense the fragility of that bond out of the corners of my eyes, where the edge of the screen met the darkness. The discovery of what Paul Schrader called “transcendental style” led me to many other nigh-spiritual experiences with film. If I could go back to that moment when Malick opened the door for me, I would walk through with even more delight knowing what riches lay ahead.
I was tempted to cite a record, but the best music generally doesn’t hit the hardest on first listen—it reveals itself more gradually. (I can probably think of a dozen records that didn’t hit me the first time, but that eventually I came to love.) But it’s much more likely that a movie will punch me in the gut and totally floor me—an experience I can never repeat. Luckily, it happens once every couple of years, perhaps most recently with There Will Be Blood, which I will go to my death contending is a far more affecting film than that one about the cattle gun that came out the same year. Last year’s Ballast also was a contender. And here’s a funny double-shot of Robert Altman that sorta answers this question: I have watched Short Cuts exactly once, partly because I was hoping to forget some of it and get the virgin experience again. And though I own it, I have yet to see Nashville. I’m anticipating one of those great film-watching experiences, so I guess I’m saving it for a special occasion.
Assuming I’d be getting the full Lacuna Inc. treatment here—that my mind wouldn’t just be wiped of the memory of having seen a certain movie, but that all plot information I could’ve have gleaned from other sources (sequels, articles, etc.) would be wiped as well—I’d like to see Hitchcock’s Psycho again for the first time. I tend to view pop culture as one long, never-ending, always-exciting homework assignment, the kind you get from a teacher that wears a cowboy hat to school and writes your name on a piece of paper like it’s supposed to mean something; in which case, I wouldn’t want to lose having seen, say, The Wire, or having read Gravity’s Rainbow, because those things are accomplished now, and I can consider them, in some small way, a part of who I am. If I suddenly lost them, there’s no certainty I’d go back and re-fill in the blanks. But with Psycho, I never had a chance to see it clean. It’s one of my favorite movies, but the first time I watched it, I was bored and let-down by the whole thing, largely because I already knew the twists. I’d love to be surprised by it—which would require some kind of blackened-window immediate transportation from the brain-wipe facilities to the theater (and yeah, it would have to be on the big screen), just so I didn’t get spoiled again, of course. And I’d have to get rid of having seen Psycho 2 and 3, which is a sacrifice I’m willing to make. I just want a chance to spend the first half-hour of Psycho getting really invested in Janet Leigh, and wondering just what she’s going to do with all that money. And when she meets Anthony Perkins, I want to sit through that whole awkward, kind of sweet conversation they have over sandwiches without wondering if the wig Norman’s about to put on is made of human hair, and just where he might have plucked that hair from…
There are a few albums and songs that mark real paradigm-shifting moments for me—those moments when everything you’ve heard before before starts immediately reorganizing itself to account for an eventuality you couldn’t possibly have predicted or foreseen. One of those was hearing Herbie Hancock’s “Rockit” as a 5- or 6-year-old in my parents’ car. I remember feeling really confused and soul-level unsettled—certain that there was an alien invasion of some kind going on, surely to nefarious ends. Another was much later, but not unrelated: hearing Oval’s Systemisch for the first time, as a college kid interested but not really schooled in electronic music. For those who have not had the pleasure, Oval is a German guy who makes woozy music that sounds, more or less, like warped CDs skipping. It’s beautiful and amniotic for me now, but the first time I heard it, it made my head snap around and then start anxiously craning for a sound I was sure I must have been mishearing. I got up off the couch and walked into the next room, where it was playing on a little boombox, and was just stunned to hear that everything warped and distorted I thought I was hearing was, in fact, as warped and distorted as I thought. This all happened, incidentally, in a house in Athens, Georgia, called The Landfill, which was the site of some storied early shows by the likes of Olivia Tremor Control and Neutral Milk Hotel. I heard a lot of things that proved formative and paradigm-shifting in that ramshackle place. And though it continues to happen often this many years later, I sometimes miss how wowing it was to first learn how, if you made searching for them a priority, new sounds could stand to redefine everything you thought you had a working definition for.
I spent nearly all of its initial run scoffing at the very idea of (Stock A.V. Club Reference #115) Buffy The Vampire Slayer—based primarily on its godawful UPN promos and my experience with the epically stupid Kristy Swanson film—that I never got the chance to enjoy it as it unfolded. It wasn’t until the show was nearly over that I started to pick up on its reputation from critics whom I admired (including people I’m humbled to call my colleagues now) and reconsidered my presumptions. Unfortunately, by then I’d pretty much ruined the entire fucking show for myself, because I’d read about nearly every plot twist and radical character transformation in the flurry of retrospectives that came out around its finale. By the time I finally consented and gave in to the DVDs, I already knew what would happen even three or four seasons ahead, and while it didn’t make me love the overall journey any less, I would give anything to go in clean and start all over again. (Instead I had to live vicariously through my wife, whom I somehow managed to keep spoiler-free after I finally got her hooked.) But then, I have to wonder whether I would even bother: Much of those first two seasons are a bit of a slog and too cutesy by half, and I really only stayed with them while impatiently waiting for it to “get to the good stuff” I already knew about. Plus, during the show’s actual televised run, I lived in a) a dorm suite with three dickhead frat boys who would have teased me mercilessly; b) an apartment with two of my stoner high-school friends who would have talked through the whole thing; and c) a house filled with various bands practicing in the living room, homeless crusty punks crashing on the couch, and an endless parade of people coming to see my drug-dealer roommate, so I doubt I would have gotten as much out of it. Nah, I was probably better off watching it the way I did. Nevertheless, I’m jealous of people like Noel who, while not exactly entering fresh, still has so many more miles to go. Wish I could go with you.
If there’s one cultural experience I’d like to get back, to relive again, it would be listening to Run DMC’s Raising Hell for the first time. In the summer of 1986, I had absolutely no experience with rap music; I was living very much against my will in Dallas, Texas, and hating every minute of it the way only a sullen, nerdy teenager can. The only kind of pop music I really liked at the time was heavy metal, an affection I shared with my cousin Jay—whose house I was at when we saw the video for Run DMC’s cover of Aerosmith’s “Walk This Way.” Jay hated it; I felt like I’d just poked my head out of a hole in the earth and seen sunlight for the first time. I rushed out and bought Raising Hell (on cassette, of course) as soon as I could, and quickly learned that “Walk This Way” was the weakest track on the album; the rest of it, the real hip-hop, absolutely blew my mind. It was the closest thing I’ve ever had to a religious experience, and it triggered an instant love for the genre that continues to this day. It was indescribable, like waking up one morning and discovering that there was a whole different world just inches away, with its own language and rhythm and form, and no one had ever bothered to tell me about it. Rap music wasn’t as easy for a white suburban kid to get then as it is now, and I suffered for it—a lot of the metal kids, who at the time were my only friends, chewed me out for my sudden embrace of “nigger music.” But that record still stands out as a life-changing experience. I’ve had a few moments since then, culturally speaking, that have rewired my head, but never as profoundly as the 40 minutes after I heard the first call-and-response lines of “Peter Piper.”
I saw Memento in college, and previously was unaware that such a movie could exist. It was a complete mind-fuck—I was floored by the twist ending, attention to the backward narrative, and dark noir direction. Come to think of it, this was my first movie by Christopher Nolan, a director I keep coming back to as one of my favorites, and by far one of the most consistent directors in Hollywood. And even though I’ve watched the movie a bunch—literally backward and forward—since my first viewing, it just doesn’t get under my skin like the first time.
Can I give you three songs I’d love to experience again for the first time? I’ll even do them up mini-Inventory style:
1) Matthew Sweet, “Girlfriend”
I think I was driving the first time I heard this song. I won’t lie and say it was a pull-over-and-cry experience, but it definitely left me pounding on the steering wheel. I loved Nevermind as much as anyone else when it came out, but this is the sound from the fall of ’91 I’ve been chasing ever since.
2) Stevie Wonder, “Superstition”
I surely must have heard this song before I bought the record for $1 the summer before my senior year in college, but I don’t remember hearing it before that. It certainly didn’t hit me as hard as it did when I hit side two for the first time. Here was another feeling to chase.
3) The Pretenders, “Back On The Chain Gang”
I lived in a rock-free household until I got a pair of headphones and a radio. I tuned into a lot of Top 40 dreck in the mid-’80s, but then there was this song, filled with jangle and regret and pointing to a world beyond Nu Shooz. It was a hit before my headphones arrived, but for some reason my Top 40 station still played it regularly, bless them. You know, scratch that. I wouldn’t want to hear it for the first time now. I needed it then.
Mine come down to jokes, because they’re inherently less funny the second time you hear them. First, I wish I could go back to the Metro in Chicago in early 2002 to see David Cross (on a tour later immortalized on his kick-ass live album Shut Up, You Fucking Baby!). We were still reeling from, as Cross put it, “the flag-waving, cheerleading, rah-rah bullshit” following 9/11, and he just killed. My face was literally sore afterward because I laughed so hard for so long. (“I don’t know, faggot” was an inside joke for months.) And even though it still kills me, I wish I could go back to 2004 and hear Patton Oswalt’s Feelin’ Kinda Patton (or the unedited version, 222) for the first time again. Ditto Paul F. Tompkins’ Impersonal. They’re all so good, and they still make me laugh, but nothing’s like that first high.
This is a tough one for me. There are so many things I’ve experienced that blew me away immediately, like Jean Luc-Godard’s Breathless and Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, movies that made me feel like I was being ushered into a whole new dangerous adult world. But I think I’ll go with J.D. Salinger’s Catcher In The Rye, the favorite book of weirdoes, oddballs, and assassins everywhere. In high school, you’re inundated with books so far removed from your life and experiences that to actually be assigned a book that speaks straight to the heart of every angry, sad, frustrated, confused, yearning emotion inside you feels like a godsend and a revelation. Catcher In The Rye made me feel like I wasn’t alone at a point in my life when I felt like the universe was conspiring against me. Teenagers of the world, J.D. Salinger gets you even if nobody else does. I will always be grateful to Catcher In The Rye for making my adolescence bearable, and I envy teenagers who have yet to experience it.
Funny enough, I was just thinking about this very thing last week, after reading Roger Ebert’s appreciation of Withnail And I. I saw Withnail And I when I was a freshman in college, in 1989, when movies like that existed mainly as rumor. You’d see Siskel & Ebert raving about some obscure art film, then maybe you’d read a review of it in one of the national magazines or newspapers, and if you were lucky, it might show up at the local multiplex for a week, but for the most part, you’d have to wait a couple of years until it came out on video, and by then it was very easy to forget why you wanted to see it in the first place. When I saw Withnail And I at the University Of Georgia student union, all I knew about it was that it was an acclaimed British comedy, but I knew nothing about the style, plot, performances, or characters, so I was knocked sideways by the movie’s hilariously scathing look at two slumming actors boozing their way through the late ’60s. Withnail And I didn’t feel quite like any movie I’d seen up to that point; it was like a succession of theater pieces, half-absurdist and half-realist, and I wasn’t fully prepared for how sour it was going to be. The ’80s weren’t exactly a friendly time for sourness or corrosiveness in popular culture. (Even the teen angst tended to arrive with a certain level of sheen.) I still love Withnail And I, but I don’t think I could ever be taken by surprise by it (or any movie, really), the way I was when I first saw it. I’ve seen a lot more movies now, so there’s not much I’m unprepared for when I sink into my theater seat, and these days, there’s as much darkness and bitterness on TV as there was in even the bleakest arthouse movie 20 years ago. In short: I’m not 18 anymore, and this ain’t 1989.