In praise of "watchability" and the movies we watch again and again

A few years ago, a beer company started a campaign advertising the “drinkability” of its product. At first it struck me as silly — and surprising that a competitor didn’t respond that theirs was the more “potent potable” — but then I began to understand. Technically all beers are drinkable. They were simply suggesting theirs went down smoother and easier than the rest. We might apply similar criteria to movies. Technically all movies are watchable (assuming they’re in focus). But those that are more easily and more frequently watched, that go down smooth and easy, have what we could call “watchability.”

The dimensions and pleasures of watchability were on my mind following this blog post on The Awl entitled “What Movies Make You Ignore Everything Else?” Author Nadia Chaudhury polled roughly thirty writers to find out what movies suck them in every time they’re on television. Their responses ran the gamut from the relatively old (HIS GIRL FRIDAY) to the relatively new (YOU’VE GOT MAIL), from funny (DAZED AND CONFUSED), to scary (FROM HELL) to sad (“Anything With Matthew McConaughey in it”). The only thing they all had in common: watchability.

The one comment that really caught my eye was from Michael Idov, who picked one of my two go-to choices for irresistible TV movies: THE FUGITIVE with Harrison Ford and Tommy Lee Jones. “Almost 20 years later,” Idov wrote, “I am still enough of a sucker for THE FUGITIVE to watch it every time it’s on. In fact, I love coming across it about half an hour in, because the prologue is the weakest part.” (If you’re curious, my other go-to irresistible movie: THE NAKED GUN, which gets bonus style points for featuring additional scenes not included in the theatrical cut.)

Idov’s right: THE FUGITIVE might be one of the most watchable movies of all time, despite the fact that it’s already long (130 minutes) before you add on the basic cable commercials. But even as a three hour long television broadcast, it’s nearly impossible to flip away, particularly any time Tommy Lee starts caustically berating Joey Pants. It’s almost too watchable. One night while I was staying with my in-laws last Christmas, my father-in-law and I flipped to THE FUGITIVE during the famous train-and-bus crash and wound up sitting through the whole movie. Two days later, my wife and I came home from a dinner date to find her dad sitting in front of the television watching — you guessed it — THE FUGITIVE. Again.

Now you could argue watchability is another word for unchallenging, and that the films we return to over and over again amount to little more than cinematic comfort food. Typically, we praise movies for their complexity and originality — two qualities that rarely overlap with watchability. For example, my two favorite movies from last year, TAKE SHELTER and I SAW THE DEVIL, will probably never win awards for watchability. Terrifying, brutally violent, sad, poignant, and traumatic — you would probably flip away, not towards, these movies if you saw them in the channel guide. There is something to be said for a movie that is so powerful you don’t need to — and are almost afraid to — watch it more than once.

But isn’t there also something to be said for a movie that is so elegantly and cleanly plotted that it can be understood and enjoyed from any point in its runtime, over and over again? THE FUGITIVE is an incredibly complicated murder plot, involving one-armed men, drug research trials, and frames within frames. Yet even on television, even if you join it already in progress, even if you leave the room during the commercials and come back 20 minutes later, it is always entirely clear who’s doing what and why. Doing that, and making it look so effortlessly easy, takes an uncommon amount of skill. If you don’t believe me, just check out THE FUGITIVE’s sequel, U.S. MARSHALS. Same basic plot, starring much of the same cast, but made by a different creative team. The result? No watchability.

I’m not suggesting we rewrite the history of cinema so that THE PRINCESS BRIDE ranks at the top of Sight and Sound‘s once-a-decade top ten film poll, or that SPACEBALLS makes its way into the National Film Registry. All I’m saying is we should look a little more appreciatively on watchability. And maybe raise a highly drinkable glass of beer in its honor once in a while.