What Does Watching an Awful Movie for 24 Hours Do to Your Brain?
New scientific research suggests that hearing a song multiple times makes you love it more. So even if you rolled your eyes at OMI's "Cheerleader," the music industry knows that you may very well be belting out a shame-free rendition by the 10th listen.
That sales-driven tactic made me wonder whether the same phenomenon might happen with movies. Could I learn to love an objectively bad movie -- Garfield: A Tail of Two Kitties, say -- by watching it over and over again? To find out, I spent a recent fur-filled day subjecting myself to repeated viewings of the 10-year-old sequel comedy on repeat, without distractions, for 24 straight hours. Luckily for science, I took notes.
10:20pm: The cast is so promising here. Bill Murray! Tim Curry! Billy Connolly! Bob Hoskins! Roger Rees! Jennifer Love Hewitt! I'm joyously enthusiastic about tricking my brain into enjoying this dumb thing, which finds Garfield (voiced by Murray) going to England and trading places with his royal doppelgänger, Prince (voiced by Curry), who lives in a vast estate that Connolly's dastardly Lord Dargis inherits and plans to turn into high-priced condos.
11:43pm: First viewing done, and the movie is just stupid enough to serve its purpose in this experiment. Bill Murray sounds like he phoned in his voiceover work from a car headed for Malibu. It's basically a remake of King Ralph where barnyard animals cook lasagna and team up to save a castle by Home Alone-ing the dickish Dargis. Naturally, eight Oscar-nominated actors were involved in its creation.
12:15am: In the middle of the movie, there's a music video of sorts in which Garfield, freshly installed on the cushioned throne after being mistaken for Curry's posh cat, sings new lyrics to "Movin' on Up." No joke. The racial subtext of a lazy cat singing the theme song to the The Jeffersons isn't immediately clear.
1:30am: Second viewing done. A tinge of dread takes over. When all the animals dance in the dining hall to celebrate (and their subsequent pool party), I can feel the active weight of not wanting to start the movie a third time. Can my TV catch on fire now?
2:47am: Garfield is CGI, which means there are a ton of shots of nothing in this movie. I imagine the crew on set, aiming their ridiculously expensive camera at a gutter, the director consulting with the director of photography on how many seconds of static sewer shot is needed to allow the CGI artists to add in the character. That takes planning. I respect that. If you think of Garfield as invisible, this movie gets strange really fast. The crew basically shot an adaptation of Garfield without Garfield. Shots of an empty pie tin in the back seat of a Rolls Royce. Hotel furniture. A dog chasing nothing. All the other animals are live-action.
3:13am: Low-rent Babe?
4:22am: There's a great nihilistic streak in the film (yes, film). Its main conceit is that an old lady bequeaths a Downton Abbey to a house pet instead of her (human) blood relative. Why does a cat need an estate that big? Who cares if he destroys all the fancy vases and statues? Connolly's villain is going to be out on the street while a cat pees on priceless antiques -- a statement about class warfare as strident as Les Miserables ever was.
Even the role reversal of the royal prince and pauperish Garfield doesn't create friction. Are they saying wealthy title-holders and suburban middle class can be the same? An apologia for modern roles of an outmoded monarchy system? Proof that even a middle-wage existence can be regal if appreciated through an optimistic lens? There's a narrator for a few lines who disappears. Comic bits come and go at random. Jennifer Love Hewitt never delivers the speech that brought them to London in the first place. The humans don't notice anything wrong. Nothing matters.
4:47am: The fourth viewing ends as dawn begins to break. I may be reading things into the movie to make it seem more important than it really is. May.
8:55am: Coming up on the end of my sixth viewing. Truly terrified. I still hate this thing. Didn't consider that if the experiment fails, I've doomed myself to watching a crappy movie for, gulp, 16 more hours. Maybe I should focus on Tim Curry's not-annoyingly-out-of-touch Prince. Or Jon and Liz's sweet, perfect relationship? Deep breaths. You can do this.
9:33am: Garfield is an asshole.
10:10am: All of Making a Murderer is waiting for me on Netflix. Every 2015 Best Picture nominee is still in theaters. There's a DVD of Breaking Bad's first two seasons I haven't watched. David Mitchell's Slade House is on my nightstand. There's some nice graffiti near my house of a mustard bottle doing karaoke. I'm acutely aware of everything else I could be watching instead of my seventh go-'round with Garfield: A Tail of Two Kitties. I want to like this thing so much right now. But why does Garfield keep doing bad impressions? Why does he sound like an angry New York hotdog vendor all a sudden?!?
11:43am: I've been watching the extended edition this whole time? There's an extended edition?
12:01pm: I think the Tail of Two Kitties team knew they were making a terrible movie. For one, there's a character named Smithee. For two, "Old Lady Gives Stupid Cat Her Entire Estate" – aka the plot of the movie – appears as a headline on a tabloid in the movie next to something about an alien baby. For three, Dargis' attack dog is named Rommel. What British lord names a dog after a high-ranking Nazi field marshal? They knew.
12:22pm: "What Garfield 2 Gets Wrong About Feline Gastric Systems."
1:00pm: Good news! I'm starting to appreciate a lot of things. Billy Connolly spends a lot of this movie acting all by himself and crushing it. Tim Curry is game to mock clueless aristocracy and pretend he's Oliver Twist with a bowl of lasagna. The dichotomy of Murray's laziness and the British cast's willingness to make it happen says a lot about both acting cultures. The CGI integration is stellar, especially for an era where rubbery Harry Potter was still being chased by crappy dragons. Familiarity smooths over a lot of awkward lines, like when a pool-lounging Garfield says, "When the going gets tough, the great ones party."
Garfield 2 is all over the map, but it's also a mash-up of classic slapstick. There's a Marx Brothers mirror routine, Odie making like Chaplin/Asta from the Thin Man series, a dash of Tom and Jerry, the old "two dates/same night" gimmick, a smattering of A Hard Day's Night, an Agatha Christie inheritance-mystery vibe, a Noises Off!-style farce, and Blank Check.
1:03pm: Andy Serkis' mocap performance as Garfield is really something.
1:04pm: Nevermind. Not Andy Serkis.
2:11pm: Every movie has a best scene, even this one. The best scene in this is when the animals all make lasagna together. It's inventive, poppy (despite a terrible Black Eyed Peas song) and it's the most realistic portrayal of barnyard animals baking pasta possible. I'm losing myself to Garfield 2.
2:42pm: Ninth viewing done and I maybe, kind of like A Tail of Two Kitties. It's a classically dumb kids' movie in a post-Pixar era. That's all. I can quote a lot of the lines now, which makes it "quotable" by default. Everything is ingrained. I know all the beats and can accept all the nonsense at face value. There are no premature deep thoughts protecting my brain. Just enjoying wacky bullshit for what it is. I've lived with these harmless (sometimes lovable) characters so long now that I look forward to seeing their finest moments.
5:49pm: OK, part of me knows that I don't really like it. Or that I don't naturally like it, at least. It's an ego thing -- adding Garfield 2 to the official list of movies I like is too difficult because I would sound like an idiot. I picture myself at Sundance, talking about the latest, future Best Picture nominee. "It reminds me of when the cows and ducks and horses throw that pool party in Garfield 2," I'll say before being beaten to death with rotten vegetables. I like a movie in which a ferret attacks Billy Connolly by crawling up his pants. There. I might need a special support group.
7:01pm: Feels weird eating dinner while watching Garfield a 12th time. Feels weird doing anything but watching Garfield.
7:38pm: Lord Dargis is a mustache-twirler, but it's also easy to side with his frustration. He's overshadowed by a cat, his potential livelihood and legacy and property are given to an entity that can't appreciate them. He's made to feel sub-human. Sub-animal, even. This movie is layered. But the "Movin' on Up" music video is still hot garbage.
8:20pm: The raw video of Bill Murray recording his lines should play at MoMA.
8:35pm: I thought that my enjoyment of the movie would wear off, but it hasn't. I've grown accustomed to the opening sequence, a sweeping helicopter shot over the lush green fields and dark blue lake of the estate. I'm treating this final viewing (lucky number 13!) as chapter-by-chapter instead of trying to see a cohesive story that isn't there:
Chapter 1: Prince's Lap of Luxury
Chapter 2: Jon Can't Pop the Question
Chapter 3: Domergue's Got a Secret
10:11pm: It's over. Finally. Happy to be alive. The funny conclusion to all of this is that, if a group of friends said they wanted to watch Garfield: A Tail of Two Kitties right now, I would probably join them. I've watched it 13 times in a row (averaging 25-minute breaks), and... I could definitely watch it again. I'd call that a success as far as the experiment is concerned. Plus, I actively enjoy it -- I'm not simply numb from feline water torture.
The sinister coda to all of this is that, by accounts from friends in the movie business, the trap of familiarity happens on the front-end of film creation, too. "It's an odd phenomenon, isn't it?" one screenwriter buddy tells me. "Familiarity doesn't breed contempt – it breeds relationships, it breeds nostalgia, it breeds association, us and the thing."
I tricked myself into liking Garfield: A Tail of Two Kitties, but filmmakers unknowingly trick themselves into liking and using bad movie ideas all the time. Screenwriters toil over drafts of the same story for months. Producers push through obvious mistakes to get the job done. Executives who greenlight movies cling to familiar ideas because they seem safe.
I spent a full day with Garfield: A Tail of Two Kitties, but it's a fraction of a fraction compared to the people who made it. I learned to like it. How must they feel?
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Scott Beggs is a 10-year veteran of film writing whose work has appeared at Vanity Fair and IndieWire, but not Cat Fancy. Make lasagna with him: @scottmbeggs.