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The Conversations: Lawrence of Arabia

“It’s the pictures that got small.” Those words make up the second half of one of the most famous quotes in movie history.

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The Conversations: Lawrence of Arabia

Jason Bellamy: “It’s the pictures that got small.” Those words make up the second half of one of the most famous quotes in movie history. They are spoken, as any good film fan knows, by Norma Desmond in 1950’s Sunset Boulevard, and yet I think of them each time I watch Lawrence of Arabia. Released in 1962, David Lean’s poetic biopic is epic by every definition of the word. It’s long—216 minutes, plus intermission. It’s grand in subject—using its title character to draw us into a historical war movie in disguise. It’s emotionally hefty—focusing on an aimless man who finds himself through great struggle, only to lose his sanity within his new identity. As if that weren’t enough, it’s held together by a sprawling Maurice Jarre score. But what best qualifies Lawrence of Arabia as “epic” in my mind is its visual enormity, pairing some of the most awe-inspiring panoramas cinema has ever provided with some equally striking closeups.

Thus far in The Conversations we’ve covered some truly modern epics (Michael Mann’s Heat comes to mind) and some modern films that evoke the spirit of epics past (The Last of the Mohicans, perhaps), but this is the first time we’ve discussed what could be called a “classic” or “traditional” epic—a film that doesn’t just represent the term but helps to define it (which isn’t to suggest that 1939’s Gone with the Wind or 1915’s Birth of a Nation didn’t get there first). For reasons I’ll describe later, Lawrence of Arabia is a film that took me a few viewings to fully appreciate, and yet I’ve been a passionate fan of it now for at least 10 years. In contrast, you hadn’t seen Lawrence of Arabia until you watched it for The Conversations.

There are numerous topics that we must cover before this discussion is over, a few of which have everything to do with when this film was made (before CGI technology was available and before adorning white actors in brownface was taboo), and picking a starting point is a bit daunting. So let’s begin here: Lawrence of Arabia is considered by many to be one of the greatest films of all time. For what it’s worth: it was nominated for 10 Academy Awards, winning seven, including Best Picture; it was No. 5 on the American Film Institute’s initial top-100 list, released in 1998; and it’s No. 3 on the British Film Institute’s latest top-100 list. With that as a snapshot of the movie’s acclaim, I’m curious: When you watched Lawrence of Arabia for the first time only recently, did it strike you as a great film, a classic and an epic? Did it live up to its reputation? Or did it leave you underwhelmed despite its enormity?

Ed Howard: As you suggest, it’s hard to know where to start with a movie like this, with its reputation as one of the greatest movies ever made. It’s up there on a tier with Citizen Kane and Casablanca as a movie that everyone is supposed to see, and that kind of canonization can be stifling. I’m not sure any movie can live up to a reputation like that, but Lawrence of Arabia certainly didn’t leave me underwhelmed, even though these kinds of sprawling old-school epics are usually not to my taste. What I appreciated about the film was how subtle it was, how introspective it was for an epic. In some ways, a lot of it doesn’t even feel like a conventional epic. Sure, it’s long, and filled with those widescreen crowd scenes that are pretty much the aesthetic bread and butter for the genre. It’s even packed with bibilical allusions and Christ allegories, aligning it with the grand religious tales, from The Ten Commandments to The Passion of the Christ, that always seem to be prime subjects for these spectacles. But what sets Lawrence of Arabia apart from typical epics (which generally underwhelm me) is its texture. David Lean has a real eye—and ear; the film’s soundtrack, beyond its bombastic score, is stunning—for details, for carving out emotions and themes from the smallest touches.

That’s why, for me, the film works best not in the moments when Lean is aiming to overwhelm with bright, busy frames bustling with activity, but when he’s crafting more subtle effects. For a grand epic, much of the film’s running time is actually dedicated to stark, minimalist sequences of wandering through the desert. In that respect, Lawrence of Arabia belongs as much to a very different continuity of films, from John Ford’s 3 Godfathers to Werner Herzog’s Fata Morgana or Gus Van Sant’s Gerry, all films where the mystical and isolating quality of the desert plays a very important role. Lean crafts many minimal, forbidding sequences dominated by Rothkoesque simple landscapes, with two colors separated from one another by a horizontal line—pale blue on top and white on the bottom, often with the black specks of camels trotting across the sand.

Images like that define Lawrence of Arabia for me. Sure, there are plenty of more traditional epic moments: big battle scenes and rousing speeches and military parades and big trains of soldiers winding through the desert. I like the film more, though, when it’s not trying to be big, when it’s working on a smaller scale within its huge canvas.

JB: What you’re getting at here is the way that Lean uses the enormity of the film’s landscape to enhance the intimacy of his storytelling. Those initial shots of Peter O’Toole’s Lawrence riding through the desert are awe-inspiring, to be sure, and any director with half a brain would jump at the chance to shoot in front of such exotic backdrops, but Lean is out to do more than capture stunning scenery. By showing Lawrence effortlessly carving his way through the rugged desert as if it’s his own playground sandbox, Lean conveys Lawrence’s early romanticism of the desert, his yearning for adventure and his sightseer’s naïveté. At the onset, Lawrence treats the desert as if it’s a fantasy camp, getting so lost in the majesty of his surroundings that he becomes blind to their inherent danger. (It’s a symbol of the way he will oversimplify his political maneuvers later on.) By capturing Lawrence at a distance, rather than relying on closeup reaction shots, Lean entices the audience into making the same mistake, so that we too fall under the spell of the desert’s breathtaking magnificence.

That’s just one example, but over and over again the epic grandeur of Lean’s film serves to illustrate its core character analysis. In that respect, Lawrence of Arabia has more in common with There Will Be Blood than with an equally massive epic like Ben-Hur, the latter of which is more about what happens to the title character than about how the character is affected by what happens. Beyond the film’s grand canvases, those sprawling crowd scenes serve a deeper purpose, too. Common at the multiplex are battle epics in which the enormity of the hero’s phalanx is representative of the character’s strength and leadership, thanks in part to the ubiquitous pep talk on horseback that always leads to a warm round of huzzahs. Here, though, Lawrence’s madness grows in proportion to the size of his army, as he routinely misinterprets their group strength for his own. In saying that I don’t mean to imply that all those army-on-the-march shots aren’t also generally indicative of the era in which Lawrence of Arabia was made—a time when Americans still loved the Western and thus directors had a fondness for filming men on horseback (or camelback, in this case). In that sense, many of Lean’s crowd shots are as characteristic of the early 1960s as rapid-fire editing is characteristic of modern filmmaking. Still, those sprawling crowd shots routinely tell us something about the psychology of the main character, which puts Lawrence of Arabia in stark contrast to so many modern epics in which the vastness of the crowds suggests little more than an effort to spend every dime of the CGI budget.

Lawrence of Arabia

EH: I’m glad you made that distinction between the “what happens” kind of epic and Lawrence of Arabia, in which what happens is nowhere near as important as who it happens to and how it affects him, and also how it’s presented onscreen. One of my main problems with the conventional epic is how much of its emphasis is on plot. So many of these films play out like someone breathlessly blurting out an incredible story: “and then this happened, and then this happened, and then… !” (Maybe the fact that so many epics are bibilical, and thus conform to a well-established narrative mold and static character motivations, contributes to this impression.) In contrast, Lawrence of Arabia lets long stretches of time go by where, actually, not much happens at all. Lean has the self-assurance to know that he has a large canvas to work with here, and that if he wants to spend ten or fifteen minutes simply watching Lawrence and his army wander through the desert, suffocating under the hot sun, it’s okay. Lean doesn’t feel the need to cram every second of the film’s nearly four-hour running time with incident, just as he’s comfortable with the judicious use of minimalist, near-empty frames. The protagonist might in one shot be an indistinguishable black dot in a forbidding landscape, while in the next the camera might stare, in closeup, into O’Toole’s haunted blue eyes.

It’s this sensitivity to the effects of scale that makes Lawrence of Arabia great. To borrow a musical metaphor, Lean has a sense of dynamics. He’s not just doing what so many epics do, always blasting at top volume with everything piling up. Instead, he balances quiet, introspective interludes against the sporadic big battle scenes; the film’s rhythms ebb and flow like a piece of classical music, shifting from low-key movements into periodic bursts of bombast. Many epics treat form superficially, but not Lawrence of Arabia, which is very formally sophisticated. For Lean, to be epic doesn’t mean to be big and overbearing all the time, but to span a wide emotional and aesthetic range.

A perfect example is the scene where Lawrence returns to the deadly stretch of desert known as “the Sun’s Anvil” in order to rescue a missing man. This scene is structured not as a frantic action race, but as a long and languid period of waiting. For the most part, we don’t even see Lawrence himself as Lean cuts between the soldiers back in camp, waiting expectantly without really thinking their leader will return, a lookout at the edge of the desert, and the missing man, sweltering beneath the hot red sky. The sequence is dominated by long-range shots of the empty, static desert, and only at the very end does Lean introduce any movement and bombast, as the camera takes on the perspective of the lookout, speeding across the desert toward the distant blur of Lawrence approaching on camel. The white, unchanging sand rushes by beneath the camel’s hooves, as the black wavery splotch in the distance begins to resolve itself into another rider, and finally Lean pulls back for a striking wide shot of the two camels as they pass one another within this great expanse of nothingness. It’s a great sequence, and a recognizably epic, spectacular one as well, but it’s set up by Lean’s patience and ability to build suspense gradually.

JB: Agreed. That scene you cite is a terrific one, and the incredible thing is that it isn’t even the film’s most patient or suspenseful presentation of a man emerging out of the nothingness. That honor goes to the scene at the well, when we are introduced to Sherif Ali (Omar Sharif), which plays out remarkably similarly to the famous crop-duster scene in North by Northwest. In this case it’s O’Toole in Cary Grant’s role, and Lean designs the scene as Hitchcock would have: with devious patience that creates excruciating unease. Hitchcock’s brand of suspense is notable for the way it instills not fear but vulnerability—Grant at that bus stop in the middle of nowhere in North by Northwest, Janet Leigh in the shower in Psycho, Jimmy Stewart in a wheelchair in Rear Window, and so on. As Lawrence stands by the well watching that hazy apparition turn into a distant figure and then into a discernible silhouette, his vulnerability is palpable. In that instant the anonymous figure makes an entire desert seem rampant with danger, just as the entire ocean seems deadly in Jaws once we’ve laid eyes on the shark. It’s a tremendous scene, and even though Lawrence leaves his first encounter with Sherif Ali with his bravado intact we get our first indication that Lawrence’s sense of superiority is foolishly naïve.

It’s worth pointing out that the sequence in which Sherif Ali approaches from the distance is a little less than two minutes long and it has about twelve cuts in it, depending on when you start counting. In other words, it’s a cut every ten seconds or so. Even by today’s rapid-cut standards that might not seem especially patient—and in interviews Lean expressed regret that he used any cuts whatsoever—but it plays patiently because of the silence (no score) and the stillness (the characters hardly move). As a firm believer that painstakingly infrequent cuts can be just as distracting as too many, I think Lean’s scene finds the right balance. The reaction shots of Lawrence and his guide, Tafas (Zia Mohyeddin), make it clear that this approaching stranger is something to fear, not to simply regard with idle curiosity. At the same time, the wide-angle shots of the dark figure on camelback instill us with an understanding of the desert’s massiveness; we can sense how far the mysterious stranger has traveled, which makes it all the more terrifying that Lawrence and Tafas have been discovered amidst this vastness.

Each time I see that scene it strikes me that I’m watching cinematic perfection. That isn’t to suggest that there wasn’t another way of shooting that scene or to imply that it’s the greatest scene in cinema history. What I mean is that the scene is without fault. And yet the scene I just described to you isn’t the scene I saw the first time I came across Lawrence of Arabia on TV so many years ago—mutilated in fullscreen and blurry on top of that. To watch the film now on DVD, or to catch it on the big screen as I’ve had the pleasure to do, is indeed to watch a speck morph into a discernable figure. It’s beautiful. Alas, as I originally saw it on TV, Sherif Ali was too small to be recognized or was cropped so closely that the immensity of the stage was lost. Scenes like this one make me grateful for the technological advancements of the past twenty years, while also causing me to cringe at the thought of some platform-agnostic kid discovering this movie on his iPhone. Lawrence of Arabia is the rare film that demands the largest screen you can find and earns every inch you give it.

Lawrence of Arabia

EH: Yes, in that respect it’s like Jacques Tati’s Playtime, another film that demands a large screen due to its use of scale and fine detail: they’re both films that are big and yet frequently ask us to focus intensely on the smallest minutiae within their massive frames. The particular scene you mention is definitely a great one, and I was thinking of that moment, especially, when I cited Fata Morgana earlier. Lean is evoking the hallucinatory quality of the desert. At first, it’s Hitchcockian and creepy, then lulling and seductive, as when Lawrence is hypnotized by the bobbing shadow of a camel’s head drawn out across the shifting sands. Ultimately, as in Herzog’s later film, all these images of the desert represent an inner landscape as well as an outer one: Lawrence’s loneliness, isolation and hysteria externalized onto the expanses of sand and sky.

I could gush a great deal more about all the stunning scenes in Lawrence of Arabia, because there are so many sequences where I’m simply blown away by the power of Lean’s imagery and his ability to define a character so precisely and memorably through purely formal, visual means. At this point, however, I should probably admit that the film didn’t have me quite so rapt for its entire running time. Certainly, it’s a great film, but the things I loved about it seemed to be most present in its first half, while in the second half Lean starts to fall into some of the same traps that we identified as affecting other classic epics. We’ve praised Lawrence of Arabia for not being a “what happens” movie, but in the second half, Lawrence shuttles back and forth between his nomadic desert lifestyle and the British high command based in Cairo, and, well, a lot of stuff just seems to happen. Lawrence returns to Cairo, vows to abandon his guerilla war, then reunites with his army anyway, then returns to Cairo, and so on. The second half hardly falls apart or anything—it remains a well-crafted, satisfying film—but I felt a little bit like I was just watching Lawrence change outfits over and over again, from his crisp military uniform to his rugged Arab garb. Lean has much more subtle touches than his tendency to express the shifts in Lawrence’s character through wardrobe changes.

I feel similarly about the introductory framing scenes, which take place at Lawrence’s funeral and thus establish the remaining three-plus hours of the film as a really long flashback. It’s a clumsy device, and arguably doesn’t add much to the film besides positioning its primary action, and by extension the specter of colonialism, as a thing of the past. So what do you think? Does Lean’s subtlety and restraint sometimes give way to more conventional bombast and overbearing impulses? Is the film’s uneven dramatic arc, with its “stuff happens” second half, simply a result of the shape of the real Lawrence’s life? Does the flashback framing serve to distance us from the events of the film and thus prevent its implicit anti-colonial critique from hitting too close to home? Or do you see all this differently?

JB: I never considered the possibility that the framing device is there to dull the anti-colonial criticisms, but I’d certainly agree that it has that effect, even if that isn’t Lean’s explicit intent (though maybe it is). More so, I think it’s there to establish Lawrence as a tragic figure—cheaply garnering our sympathies by showing us his death from the get-go in order that we might be less judgmental later on. But there is a deeper effect. As with the scene at the well, Lawrence’s motorcycle crash establishes his vulnerability—a vulnerability that he spends the much of the film trying to deny. To put it another way, the crash instantly brings us to the same conclusion that Anthony Quinn’s Auda Abu Tayi only comes to after no gold is found in Aqaba: “He is not perfect.” Furthermore, the scene outside of Lawrence’s funeral establishes through the diverse reactions of the mourners that what follows will be somewhat mythical, as no one can agree on how to remember him. The man who only shook Lawrence’s hand is honored to have done so (unaware that he also cursed him); the general is annoyed at the attention Lawrence received; and the American journalist is still capitalizing on Lawrence’s celebrity in an effort to create his own. That’s my long way around to agreeing with you that the framing device is clumsy and unnecessary, while acknowledging that it’s cleverer than it might first appear.

I agree wholeheartedly, however, that the second half of the film is more historical (by which I don’t mean factual) than emotional, and thus it’s less compelling. (The latter half of the film also irks me because of the grating performance of Arthur Kennedy as journalist Jackson Bentley by way of The Stereotypical Brash American. But I digress.) Then again, the latter half of the film includes two of the film’s most emotionally piercing moments: Lawrence’s rape at the prison and his subsequent “No prisoners!” battle cry. Oh, that battle cry! Lawrence of Arabia is the film that often pops to mind when I bemoan how CGI has cheapened the epic by inserting flat digital figures where beautifully three-dimensional human extras once stood, and by creating fantastical green-screen worlds that never have the depth of real locations, but even the closeup of Lawrence shouting “No prisoners!” shows the richness of good old-fashioned filmmaking. I mean, really, just look into O’Toole’s eyes in that moment. You can’t computer-generate emotion like that, though David Fincher sure tried in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a fan of CGI, and I’m not blind to its numerous practicalities. But I can’t be alone here, you must agree with me: One of the reasons this film is so affecting is because we can feel, consciously and subconsciously, its relative reality. Right?

Lawrence of Arabia

EH: It depends on what you mean by reality, I guess. If you just mean that the film was shot mostly on location, without recourse to fancy effects or trickery, then yes, it’s rooted in reality. But in its way the world of Lawrence of Arabia is just as artificial, just as stylized, as the lurid CGI backdrops of Benjamin Button and 300 and other modern CGI epics. Think of all those shots of the sun rising into a blood-red sky, or the hallucinatory desert mirages we’ve already mentioned. I get what you mean about the nefarious effects of CGI when it’s used indiscriminately, but I wouldn’t say that Lawrence is more real, exactly—more physical, maybe, since CGI environments often have a certain flatness of texture. In the broadest sense, though, artificiality is central to the epic genre, along with ahistoricity and big gestures: like all epics, Lawrence is, as you say, a myth, a legend, blown up from the raw facts of reality. Its relationship to reality is complicated.

As for this film’s second half, it sounds like we agree that it’s not as strong as the first half, but that it does have its high points. In fact, even Kennedy’s obnoxious reporter has at least one good scene, not coincidentally one without any spoken dialogue, its power attributable only to the film’s editing. It’s the scene where Bentley is observing a battle scene and keeps popping up like a jack-in-the-box to take pictures; Lean intercuts these scenes with the violent action, letting the rhythms add a humorous, satirical bite to the reporter’s gleeful documentation of the carnage.

I also agree with you about Lawrence’s encounter with the Turkish commander, which was based on the real-life Lawrence’s assertion that he was captured and raped while in Arabia. This scene is a perfect demonstration of Lean’s knack for visual storytelling: the scene’s emotional undercurrents and homoerotic subtexts are encoded in the mise en scène. Lawrence is held down on a bench, while the officer voyeuristically watches from the next room, just visible at the rear of the frame, half-hidden behind a door, his presence betrayed by his sickly cough. The sadomasochistic and homoerotic components of the scene are communicated entirely non-verbally, in the subtle, sinister aura that builds up throughout the scene, in the arrangement of bodies within the frame and the aural connections between different areas. This kind of thing is what sets Lawrence of Arabia apart more than its freedom from CGI over-reliance: its firm base in classical, formally engaged storytelling.

JB: Well, you’ll get no argument from me that Lawrence of Arabia engages in some rich, classical storytelling. And I want to come right back to that, and to the rape scene. But, let’s back up a second: the world of Lawrence of Arabia feels “just as artificial, just as stylized” as that of 300? Really? You can’t be serious.

EH: Hah! I did say “in its way.” So if you want me to qualify my initial assertion, I’ll admit it’s an overstatement (and I’ll further stress, just to be clear, that I find 300 a really lousy movie). My point was that effect matters more than the tools used: a given unreal-looking landscape might be CGI-generated or photographed from a real location, but does it matter if the final effect of both is of overt unreality? Certainly Lawrence is a much more realistic-looking movie than Benjamin Button and 300 and many other modern CGI epics, but Lean is frequently aiming for effects just as stylized. All those desert landscapes are filmed subjectively rather than realistically; warped and sun-hazy, conjuring up absurd images like the boat that rises out of the desert at one point, a sudden non-sequitur, during Lawrence’s somber ride back to Cairo from Aqaba. The skies above Lawrence are frequently full of hues so bright and layered that they hardly look naturalistic: more like CGI, or the kinds of equally artificial matte paintings favored by classical filmmakers like Hitchcock or Powell and Pressburger.

Basically, I’m saying that CGI doesn’t have a monopoly on artificiality, and that just because something was shot on “real” locations doesn’t mean it’s necessarily aiming for (or achieving) realism. As different as Lawrence of Arabia is from more modern epics, it does share that common ground in its emphasis on larger-than-life aesthetics.

Lawrence of Arabia

JB: Hmm. I suppose. But as “absurd” as the image of the massive ship cutting through the desert might be, that image, so far as I know, wasn’t achieved with any kind of special effects trickery. Instead Lean just found the right place to situate his camera next to the Suez Canal. Thus, I have a hard time buying the argument that the shot isn’t realistic. Fantastic? Sure. But it’s rooted in realism. Having said that…

To your larger point, I wholeheartedly agree that it’s the ultimate effect, the image, that we should focus on, and not the means by which it is achieved. If I played Moses and handed down ten commandments for moviegoers, that directive would go on the first tablet. Still, I’d like to suggest that most of the time we instinctively know the difference between a shot that is stylized using tangible, three-dimensional “reality” (the ship in the Suez Canal) and a shot that is stylized using computer-generated effects (anything from 300), and that our awareness of that reality influences the effect. Perhaps younger audiences who have grown up with CGI don’t notice a difference; show Lawrence of Arabia to a 13-year-old and he or she might assume most of those shots are digitally enhanced. But I’m not that 13-year-old. While I’m young enough to have been raised in the Star Wars era, I’m also old enough to have been raised on the original Star Wars trilogy. By that I mean that I started watching movies during a time when George Lucas still filmed on tangible sets rather than doing everything in front of a greenscreen. Over the past ten years I’ve argued to Star Wars fans who are underwhelmed by the prequels that the biggest difference between Lucas’ trilogies isn’t the writing, acting or story but the shift away from tangible, instinctively “real” environments to digitally created ones. The difference between the effect of presenting a character who is walking through the desert and presenting a character who just looks like he’s walking through the desert can be quite significant, at least on a subconscious level. The more actual reality that is in any given shot, the less the audience has to work to bring it to life. We may not think about these things when we’re watching a movie, but nine times out of ten I think we feel them. That’s why I think the actual reality of Lawrence of Arabia is part of its magic.

Of course, as you somewhat implied, these ingredients of realism wouldn’t be worth a darn if the recipe sucked or if Lean didn’t know how to cook, and that brings us back to the rich storytelling. As we’ve already mentioned, Lawrence of Arabia is an epic presentation of a very personal character examination, and so I’d like to talk a bit more about O’Toole’s Lawrence, particularly his sexuality. Over the first half of the film, the fair-skinned O’Toole plays Lawrence in an effeminate manner that suggests homosexuality. Sitting around the campfire with Tafas in his first night in the desert, Lawrence admits “I’m different,” and O’Toole delivers the line as if that’s a significant admission. It’s somewhat surprising then that when Lawrence is captured by the Turks and made to stand in front of the commander in a row of handsome men, Lawrence seems clueless as to the purpose of the lineup. Even when the Turkish commander rips his robe and exposes his pale skin, Lawrence doesn’t catch on that he is being evaluated as sexual prey. Thus it’s as if Lawrence isn’t homosexual or heterosexual but asexual, as if traditional sexual urges are foreign to him. And yet Lawrence does seem to be sexually stimulated—not by men or women but by bloodshed. Early in the film there’s the moment in Cairo when he admits that he killed a man—a man he had previously risked his life to save—and enjoyed it. Just as telling is the look on O’Toole’s face before he screams “No prisoners!” It is the look of a man who is sexually aroused, short of breath and nearing orgasm. “No prisoners!” is his climax. Over the course of the film, Lawrence doesn’t just lose himself to his own heroic image. He also loses himself to the eroticism of war. Would you agree?

EH: You say that Lawrence comes across as asexual, and you’re right—in fact, Lawrence as presented here seems disconnected from human relationships altogether. That, if anything, is the point of the otherwise extraneous opening scenes at his funeral: none of the mourners, even those who spent significant time with him in life, really know him well, because he’s an essentially unknowable man, distant from everyone around him. That’s why he doesn’t recognize that the Turkish commander is basically cruising him, and why he never gets close enough to another person to let them understand him.

What’s most puzzling about the film, from my perspective, is that it’s a nearly four-hour character study on a grand scale, and yet I still feel that Lawrence is kept at a distance not only from other people but from the audience as well. I don’t feel like I really understand what drives him to do what he does, and maybe that’s part of the point. Certainly, the film probes his character in a way that few other large-scale epics ever attempt, but even so Lawrence’s decisions are often puzzling, his motivations remote, his emotions hidden behind the glassy façade of O’Toole’s dazed expression. Maybe it’s just that I don’t really buy into “the eroticism of war,” at least as it’s presented here. When Lawrence confesses that he enjoyed killing the man he’d previously saved, I don’t think, as you do, that it’s an expression of Lawrence’s sexual enjoyment of violence. Instead, I mainly think, “huh?” As in, where’s this coming from? When the scene actually plays out, what Lawrence seems to be feeling is guilt and shame, as well as a certain cold, utilitarian streak, the side of Lawrence that aims to accomplish his goals at whatever cost. It’s only afterward that he writes a sense of actual pleasure onto the scene when describing it; I don’t buy that he actually got anything like a sexual charge out of it.

Lawrence of Arabia

Lawrence’s descent into the madness of bloodlust is so sudden, so at odds with everything the character had seemed to be up to that point, that I think it required a more thorough narrative treatment than Lean was able to give it. Maybe that would have required delving deeper into the weird sadomasochistic sexuality latent in that encounter with the commander—an obvious impossibility back when this was made—but in any event the film doesn’t do enough to explore Lawrence’s growing fascination with the gorier aspects of war. If a character makes a transition from pacifist to bloodthirsty warrior, that’s worthy of some substantial screentime; Lean chronicles the shift in just a few images. Powerful images, admittedly, but still not enough to really sell it to me.

JB: Interesting. This is one of those times that we’re in agreement about what the film does but stand opposed on the effect. Maybe it has something to do with the number of times I’ve seen the film, but I like the surprise of Lawrence’s admission that he got a thrill out of executing a man. To that point especially, but even afterward, Lawrence is constantly preaching against killing. He loves the politics and tactics of war but not the catastrophes. So of course he is horrified when he kills Gasim (I.S. Johar). The scene is horrific—Lean focuses on Lawrence’s face, leaving us to imagine the worst as Lawrence fires again and again, adjusting his arm each time to take aim at a moving target. It’s not an easy execution. So, yes, the admission that he enjoyed killing a man comes as a shock, even to Lawrence it seems. (Maybe it takes killing someone to know you have a desire to kill.) It’s as if he doesn’t want to face it. It’s as if the initial horror has subsided and been replaced by a thrill he cannot explain. Lawrence is ashamed of his urges and becomes like a man stranded in the middle of the desert, wishing he could go back, wanting to go forward, aware that he can’t stay where he is. For me the inexplicit and somewhat inconsistent portrayal of Lawrence’s growing bloodlust is what makes it so convincing, because it isn’t like so many other movies in which a docile pacifist turns into a ruthless killing machine. There is genuine conflict here—sudden leaps forward followed by steps backward and then forward leaps again. The “No prisoners!” scene is the moment when Lawrence can no longer restrain himself, when all his bottled desires overcome him. Fittingly, I think, Lawrence doesn’t just lose control in that scene, he loses any sense of reality. It is, for lack of a better expression, a moment of temporary insanity, and—for me—a very convincing one. O’Toole’s performance impresses me a little more each time I see it. Though some moments are now unfashionably theatrical, there’s a lot of clever subtlety here, too. For example, O’Toole often pronounces words and phrases in a way that underlines their meaning: “fat people” comes out heavy and drawn out; “I’m different” indeed sounds different than other lines in that scene; “It’s clean,” in reference to the desert, is said so crisply that it has a tinny sound.

On the list of cinema’s greatest performances by a leading man, O’Toole’s has to be near the top, but let’s talk a bit about the supporting cast: Omar Sharif as Sherif Ali, Anthony Quinn as Auda Abu Tayi and Alec Guinness as Prince Feisal. These are, I think, solid performances all the way around, but that’s presuming you can get past two things: (1) the sometimes crude looking makeup (particularly the prosthetic noses) adorning the faces of Quinn and Guinness and (2) the reason the makeup is there. I don’t want to send us on too distant a tangent in discussing the brownface issue (which I distinguish from blackface by their significantly different intents). Simply put, what is taboo now wasn’t taboo then, and, frankly, maybe things haven’t changed all that much: Just two years ago Angelina Jolie donned a curly wig and a darker complexion to portray the Afro-Cuban/Dutch Mariane Pearl in A Mighty Heart. Historically there have certainly been cases in which white actors donned makeup to play non-white characters out of a belief that only a white person could do the job, but at least as often the motivation has been financial rather than prejudicial. Stars sell movies and, according to this self-fulfilling system, there are more white stars than non-white stars. That’s true today, and it was especially true in 1962. Given that this is the first time we’ve encountered brownface in one of our discussions, I wanted to ask you if there’s any detrimental effect of these once-socially-acceptable brownface performances all these years later. At the least it’s pretty ironic that the British Guinness plays an Arab in a movie about a man who routinely preaches that Arabs are given too little credit and deserve independence from British rule, right?

EH: Yeah, to a certain extent, I’m willing to accept this stuff as a product of the times—one of the reasons that Jolie’s more recent portrayal of a brown-skinned woman is harder to swallow. Watching Lawrence of Arabia, I can accept that as much as I’m bothered by the brownface performances now, this was more or less the norm when the film was made. Which is not to say that it’s not distracting, or that it’s not interesting to think about the implications anyway.

Lawrence of Arabia

For one thing, Lawrence of Arabia has a very complicated and contradictory treatment of race and ethnicity even if the brownface issue is left aside. One of the central thrusts of the film is Lawrence’s apparently genuine desire that the brown-skinned people of Arabia should forgo their various tribal allegiances—and the violent strife between the tribes—and unite under a common banner as Arabs. This would be a more generic ethnic identity that none of the tribes want to recognize, since it would mean acknowledging brotherhood with their enemies. So Lawrence’s narrative is partly about navigating ethnic and racial identities, and about how people define themselves or get defined by others. Lawrence’s aim for a new Arab republic is itself contradictory: he wants these people to be autonomous, to govern themselves, but in order to accomplish this goal he attempts to impose a new identity, a new label, on them from outside. He’s both a well-meaning do-gooder and a nascent imperialist, trying to control the Arab people even as he insists he wants them to seize their own destiny. How genuine could an Arab republic be if the whole concept is dreamed up by an Englishman, the very idea of the “Arab” imposed on people who would rather be identified with their tribes?

These tensions come to the forefront in the scene where Lawrence accepts the word of a British general that the British have no imperialist designs in Arabia. The scene is set up so that it’s apparent, both to us and certainly to Lawrence, that this general actually has no power to make such a promise, that such decisions are in the hands of politicians. Nevertheless, Lawrence asks if he can have the general’s word, and more importantly if he can tell the Arabs about the general’s word: thus Lawrence will be able to promise sovereignty without really lying, offering the Arabs the promise of a man who can’t possible guarantee anything of the sort. The general makes the offer flippantly, knowing it’s not his choice to make, and knowing that Lawrence understands this. It’s a complicated bit of political maneuvering, all embedded in the subtext of this scene; it establishes that Lawrence is not all good intentions and noble ideas, that he’s at least complicit with his imperialist masters and their aims to subjugate Arabia for their own purposes.

What’s really interesting is to consider whether the film, on balance, is imperialist or anti-imperialist. Certainly, to the extent that it captures this dynamic of under-the-table imperialism and double-dealing, Lawrence of Arabia is bitingly critical of the British’s sneaky approach to Middle Eastern pseudo-colonialism. On the other hand, it’s significant that the film hews to the format of the great white hero attempting to save the oppressed darker people—and that the most prominent of the oppressed darker people are also played by white people in oppression drag. As you suggest, it all comes back to the star system, to the fact that charismatic blue-eyed heroes sell well, as do big-name white stars, even if they’re covered in tan paint. The darker heroic figures—including the ones actually played by white actors—are forced to inhabit secondary roles, as sidekicks and foils and martyrs and victims, but never as heroes in their own right.

JB: Never as heroes in their own right, sure. One of the most fascinating elements along these lines is the evaporation of Sherif Ali. He gets the famous grand entrance on his camel in which only his own moral code keeps him from killing Lawrence for drinking out of his well (“You are welcome.”). Then he gets another cool entrance when he shows up in Prince Feisal’s tent. The film is telling us twice that this is Sherif Ali’s desert. He is everywhere. No one moves without his knowledge. And even though it’s Lawrence who suggests that they should cross the Sun’s Anvil against Sherif Ali’s cries of insanity, Sherif Ali is the one who successfully guides the way. All of this happens early, and yet over the second half of the film Sherif Ali is a Jiminy Cricket figure on Lawrence’s shoulder, chirping in the ear of a man who will no longer listen. On the other hand, Guinness’ Prince Feisal has to be the wisest and noblest character in the film. He’s overburdened and a bit bewildered, but he sees the bigger picture even when Lawrence doesn’t. He might not always be able to anticipate how he will be manipulated, but he knows it’s coming. So while Lawrence is the mastermind and the white savior, he is also the savage. Prince Feisal is the one with character. (Plus he frequently travels without an entourage, which is cool.)

As to whether the film is imperialist or anti-imperialist, that’s a good question. If this movie had been made today, people would suggest that it was a metaphor for America’s presence in Iraq—Lawrence offering a noble independence (and not without government motive) that the people don’t necessarily object to but don’t embrace. Chaos ensues. I think I come across feeling that it’s anti-imperialist more than anything. Lawrence puts the movement in motion, but it is portrayed that Prince Feisal was the figure who could have united the Arabs, and that the British deliberately thwarted that. I think the film treats the Arabs as victims. In the process, does it demean them? Yes. In part because victims are often demeaned. But it’s more than that. Lawrence warns Sherif Ali at the beginning of the film that the Arabs will always be a “silly people” if they don’t unite. The film does show that Lawrence is in no position to criticize others for being “barbarous and cruel,” but by the end does it refute the notion that the Arabs are “silly”? Not entirely.

Lawrence of Arabia

EH: You make a good point about Ali. One of the things bothering me about the second half of the film, which I couldn’t quite put my finger on until you pinpointed it, is how the dynamic between Ali and Lawrence changes rather abruptly without much development. Just when do they go from combative rivals to more of a great man/sidekick relationship?

As for the “silly” Arabs, individual Arabs like Prince Feisal and Sherif Ali get more multilayered characterizations, but the overall impression of the Arab people presented by the film is of a bickering, petty, primitive people, mired in pointless conflicts and refusing to engage with the seriousness of their current situation. (One wonders how that would play out today too, mapped onto Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds in the context of the Iraq war.) The stakes are high—independence and the ability to lead themselves free of external interference—but they’d rather fight among themselves over pointless divisions, as they do when Lawrence’s dream of an Arab government falls apart. They’re depicted as incapable of getting anything done; they need the British to run the hospitals and the power stations, even though they know that bringing in the British means the end of true independence.

In the end, the film’s conflicted view of ethnic/racial tension can be summed up, whatever its good intentions, as a wholly white perspective on a non-white culture. Just as Lawrence is an outsider trying to impose his own desires on a foreign people, the filmmakers here are outsiders as well, just as inescapably British and white as Lawrence himself. Lawrence at least seems to realize what a weird place he’s in. At one point he even verbalizes his desire for darker skin, his wish to escape his whiteness and be a Bedouin, and his knowledge that this is impossible. He’s basically trapped by his skin color into being a bit of an imperialist, a bit of an exploiter, rather than the genuine desert hero he so desperately wants to be. But do the filmmakers ever have a similar moment? Is there a moment in the film when Lean acknowledges his place outside this milieu, the limitations of his attempts to represent Arab culture?

JB: I’m not sure there’s a moment in which Lean so explicitly defines his outsider’s approach, but at the same time I don’t think he ever suggests otherwise. This film isn’t just about Lawrence, it’s often experienced through him. That’s one of the reasons it’s so powerful. Again, we could go back to those initial shots of Lawrence entering this desert paradise with schoolboy glee as if he’s practicing ecotourism before it became chic. I think the film acknowledges that it, like Lawrence, is walking into another world, and it uses Lawrence’s experiences to demonstrate how little we understand that world. Though the Arabs never break out of that “silly people” identity, Lawrence is proven foolish, too. He assumes that he understands the Arab world, but he doesn’t. At least, not enough. Additionally, the film underlines its outsider status by never truly penetrating the Arab universe. As if taking the nomadic practices of the Bedouin to the extreme, Arabs are frequently emerging from and disappearing into the desert as if it’s Ray Kinsella’s cornfield in Field of Dreams. It’s as if Lean is admitting: I don’t know where they come from or where they go, I just know that they are out there. One could argue whether that’s the best approach to take, but I don’t think Lean’s filmmaking suggests he understands the Arab world any better than Lawrence does. Unless I’ve missed something.

EH: I guess I was looking for some sign of self-awareness about the film’s racial/ethnic muddle, a moment where Lean admits, yes, he’s got actors in brownface all over the place, and yes, he’s portraying the Middle East from a colonialist perspective even if he’s trying to critique colonialism at the same time. But that’s probably too much to ask, especially from a big, expensive epic made in the ‘60s. Instead, there was only one moment where I felt I was really getting a glimpse of this foreign culture, of its strangeness and remoteness from both the colonial Britain of Lawrence and the post-colonial Britain of Lean. As the departing Bedouin army is led into the desert towards Aqaba by Lawrence and Ali, on the cliffs overlooking the men, black-clad women dot the landscape, wailing and howling. Despite all the local color scattered throughout the film, this was the scene where I think Lean fully communicated this sense of a foreign culture, of something that he finds beautiful and mysterious but can’t explain or understand. Lean cuts from a shot of the women watching, their high calls so haunting and strange, then to the columns of the men, chanting themselves, the low sound of their song blending in with the wails of the women to create a complex soundscape.

Which brings me to one of the perhaps overlooked elements of this film: its exquisite sound design. It’s easy to praise the grandeur of Lean’s images, and the epic sweep of his narrative, but as I’ve said a few times during this conversation, it’s the subtle touches that I admire most in Lawrence of Arabia. The film’s soundtrack is carefully layered and orchestrated, blending together naturalistic sound, diegetic music, and the bombastic Maurice Jarre score into a totality that really rewards careful listening. After the Bedouin take Aqaba, Lawrence sits on his horse, silhouetted against the water, and we hear the grand Jarre strings, the cries of the soldiers as they ransack the nearby town, the camels’ plaintive growls, the crashing of the surf behind Lawrence as the sun sets in the background. The soundtrack is complex, never allowing the score to overwhelm the natural sounds of Lawrence’s milieu.

Lawrence of Arabia

I also love that scene when Lawrence first meets with Prince Feisal in the latter’s tent, their hushed talk wafting above the rhythmic creak of the tent poles as they sway back and forth. The gentle wooden clanks are a subtle counterpoint to the conversation between the two principles, just as the pendulum motion of the poles draws the eye towards the background within the frame, balancing out the foreground action. It’s Lean’s way of grounding this conversation in normality: history is being made, but rather than presenting it as capital-H History, a textbook account, he underlines the prosaic reality around these two historical figures, emphasizing their surroundings. The mundane winds up on equal footing with the profound, and the film’s soundtrack communicates undercurrents of meaning.

JB: Those are terrific observations, and they point again to the intimacy of this epic. Along those lines, another element of the film that we’ve yet to discuss in detail is its presentation of violence, or lack thereof. If this movie were remade today you could be sure of three things: (1) white actors wouldn’t be playing Arabs; (2) the movie would be shorter; (3) the action sequences would be longer. For something that is kinda-sorta a war movie, Lawrence of Arabia has very little warfare—and what is there isn’t frivolous or gratuitous. The brief air raid on Prince Fiesal’s camp isn’t there to provide an adrenaline rush but to show how ill-prepared the Arabs are to fight against armies with planes and heavy artillery. The storming of Aqaba—perhaps the closest the film comes to an action setpiece—is treated as a victory lap more than a battle. In fact, the scene is memorable for the guns that aren’t fired—the ones that face the sea and are useless in the defense of the inland attack. And then there’s the “No prisoners!” scene, which is the bloodiest of the film but is there to illustrate Lawrence’s madness. For all the killing we do see in that scene, as soon as the film has established that Lawrence is an active participant in the massacre, which includes the killing of those raising their arms in surrender, Lean cuts away from the attack, confident that the grisly nature of the battle can be depicted satisfactorily via shots of the resulting carnage.

Having said the above I don’t wish to give the impression that all battle scenes in modern epics are gratuitous. Movies like Zhang Yimou’s House of Flying Daggers use battles the way Fred Astaire movies use dance numbers. But when it’s inconceivable to imagine Lawrence of Arabia being made today without extravagant action scenes, and when Lawrence of Arabia as-is doesn’t suffer from the omission of extravagant action scenes, it underlines just how superfluous and thoughtless the ubiquitous extravagant action sequence has become in many cases. Indeed, many modern filmmakers seem to employ these action scenes not because of artistic vision but, I suspect, because of a studio order to spend every penny of their CGI budget. For better or worse, overwrought CGI spectacles put butts in the seats. Just as it was fiscally advantageous but artistically dishonest to cast Guinness and Quinn as Arabs back in 1962, it is fiscally advantageous but artistically dishonest to fill out a film with thematically unnecessary action scenes in 2009. Sometimes being out of date is a good thing.

EH: Indeed. I’ve already praised the film a great deal for being such a low-key, introspective epic, lingering on long desert journeys rather than delivering over-the-top spectacle non-stop. Lean’s restraint with respect to the action scenes is part of that. It’s a shame that such restraint and artistic integrity are no longer the norm. I look back on my initial comments on this film, in which I compared it to relatively avant films like Gerry and Fata Morgana, and invoked the paintings of Mark Rothko as a reference point for its landscapes: can you imagine any contemporary mainstream war movie or epic that would evoke a similar range of references? The problem, maybe, is that genres have become more codified and calcified over time, to the point that audiences expect certain things from certain types of movies, and filmmakers seem to have forgotten that it’s possible to deliver anything different. So an epic made today has to have certain types of scenes, and a certain dramatic arc, or else it’s not recognizable as an epic at all—and the model that’s been accepted for epics today is more Ben-Hur than Lawrence of Arabia.

Lawrence of Arabia

There is, of course, another model for the epic, one that’s not so much in play today—Mel Gibson excepted—but was very much current in the ‘60s, when Lawrence of Arabia was made. I’m talking of course about the bibilical epic, and it’s a form that Lean frequently seems to be flirting with and acknowledging in making his own non-bibilical epic. The film is dotted with Christian iconography and knowing nods to the epic spectacles that Hollywood often erects around the Bible’s framework. Partly this is just an artifact of the setting: the Middle East, the desert, not so far from the birthplace of the historical Jesus and the other events depicted in the Bible. On another level, however, I think Lean is consciously evoking these antecedents, appropriating the grandeur and spirituality of these stories for his own hero. Certainly Lawrence’s first trek into the wildness of the desert, when he goes out at night and sits in the sand, silently watched over by two servant boys, is reminiscent of Jesus’ interludes of desert isolation. In New Testament stories, the desert is a place of self-examination and self-testing—it’s where Jesus goes to be tested by Satan, spending the famous “forty days and forty nights” in its dusty expanse—and it serves a similar purpose for Lawrence. He emerges from the desert more self-assured, with a purpose and a plan, ready to lead an army to Aqaba. Later, after Lawrence is shot in the shoulder, he touches the wound and then deliberately holds up his hand, his palm facing outward, the red stain in its center looking like the stigmata of Jesus.

These Christ allegories are interesting, and I tend to view them as just another of the many elements Lean is weaving into the complicated tapestry of this film. On the other hand, I wonder about what these subtle bibilical allusions—if indeed they were intentional and not just happenstance synchronicities—add to the film’s themes. What do you think?

JB: I think you’ve skipped over the most blatant Christ allusion of the bunch: the moment when Lawrence tries on his desert robes and holds out his arms, ostensibly to enjoy the spectacle, and strikes a crucifixion pose. But maybe that one is only blatant to me; I went to a Catholic high school and had an English teacher from the Jesuit priesthood who could find Christ symbolism in anything with perpendicular lines. That said, given that this story is based on some actual history—one can find photos of the real T.E. Lawrence that closely resemble the appearance of O’Toole’s version—I think that for the most part these are happenstance synchronicities, because in the end Lawrence isn’t very Christlike. Sure, I’d bet that Lean was aware of the similarities, and maybe made subtle adjustments accordingly. But I don’t get the sense he was driven to make bibilical allusions. If anything, perhaps Lean was trying to capture the flavor of films like Ben-Hur that are deliberately evocative of the Bible. Thus these are bibilical allusions by two degrees of separation.

Tracing allegories is always a tricky thing. Lawrence of Arabia does inspire thoughts of the Bible, and therefore allusions are there to be identified. But that’s different than saying that Lean is specifically alluding to the Bible. Going back to our previous references to the Iraq War and the subsequent occupation, it’s safe to assume that if Lawrence of Arabia were released as-is today, many would suggest with absolute certainty that the film is an intentional metaphor for America’s involvements in Iraq. Yet we know that couldn’t have been Lean’s (or the screenwriter’s) intent. It’s a good reminder that we shouldn’t assume that effect and intent are always united. To look at it from another angle: Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight might be the most ardent defense yet of the war-on-terror practices employed under the reign of George W. Bush. That is, to put it very simply and avoid a long tangent, Bush sees himself as Batman does in that film: skirting the laws for the good of the people; becoming vilified in the short-term in the name of prosperity in the long-term. Now, does that mean that Nolan intended to defend the Bush administration? Absolutely not. Nevertheless The Dark Knight does create a noble hero out of a character whose most controversial methods are right out of the Bush era playbook. So the allegory is there, but we shouldn’t decide it was intentional just because of the timing of its release.

Lawrence of Arabia

But let’s get back to Lawrence of Arabia. At the beginning of your last comment you asked, in essence, if a “contemporary mainstream war movie or epic” could ever have the range of this film. It’s a good question, and my best answer is that the closest thing I’ve seen over the past ten years or so might be Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line (1998). Malick’s film doesn’t leap out as a natural companion to Lawrence of Arabia, but they have some similarities. First and foremost, they are intimate examinations of the effects of war—whereas Lawrence of Arabia focuses on one man, The Thin Red Line focuses on many. (“Every man fights his own war,” the very appropriate tagline reads.) Second, while Malick’s film has some of the ubiquitous Guys Getting Launched Into The Air By Explosions shots, it’s a film that puts more attention on the anticipation and aftermath of battles than on the battles themselves. Third, there’s the visual artistry—Lean and Malick movies are breathtaking to look at, and the filmmakers’ detractors sometimes suggest they are little more than that. I could go on, but in doing so we’d lose sight of this point: Does Malick make “mainstream” pictures? Not quite. Indeed these days it seems as if a film needs to be streamlined to be mainstream. And so if I were trying to recommend a recent “mainstream” (or close to it) picture that best conveys the size, aesthetics and intimacy of Lawrence of Arabia, I might go with Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood. Of course, that isn’t a war movie. Nor is it a traditional epic. But it might be the closest thing we get to an intimate epic these days.

EH: There Will Be Blood is a good comparison point for all sorts of reasons, not least that both films concern themselves with monomaniacal protagonists, and that both films are introspective and “intimate” without ever really breaking through to the core of these unknowable men. The opening scenes of Lawrence of Arabia establish that this is going to be the story of a man who many people have heard of and formed opinions about, but who few if any have ever truly known or understood. Though the film then digs deeper into Lawrence’s character, suggesting a great deal about him—his white guilt, his conflicted bloodlust/pacifism, his idealism butting up against his more practical streak—he always remains a mysterious figure. Lean resists the impulse to explain too much, to make things too explicit, which is both frustrating at times and also the key to the film’s overall success.

Lawrence of Arabia is thus a contradictory and multilayered film, much like its ambiguous hero. It delves into Lawrence’s mind and motivations, but retains the sense of mystery that leads one man at his funeral to respond to the question “did you know him well?” with a qualified “I knew him.” Too many biopics pretend to know their protagonists so well that every act, every moment, can be explained and understood, and the result is that the essence of a real person is reduced to a simple and limiting interpretation. Lean’s film occasionally stumbles into this same trap, but more often allows Lawrence to simply exist onscreen, to move and act with a will of his own, avoiding pigeonhole characterizations. It’s a masterful balancing act, a description that could also apply to the film’s deft handling of both small personal moments and large-scale landscapes and action sequences. It’s a big film, but never so big that the details get lost.

Lawrence of Arabia

Jason Bellamy ruminates on cinema at The Cooler.

Ed Howard chronicles his film viewing at Only the Cinema.

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Review: With Onward, Pixar Forsakes Imagination for Familiarity

While Onward begins as a story of bereavement, it soon turns to celebrating the payoffs of positive thinking.

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Onward
Photo: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Pixar specializes in tales of people, animals, and artificial intelligence coping with loss: of a spouse (Up), of human contact (the Toy Story films), of love (WALL-E). But like a lot of Hollywood dream-workers, Pixar’s storytellers also believe in believing. And faith in something, anything, is essential to the studio’s latest feature, Onward, as the heroes of this comic fantasy are two teenage elves who go searching for the magical gem—and the self-assurance—needed to briefly resurrect their departed and sorely missed father.

Ian and Barley Lightfoot’s (Tom Holland and Chris Pratt) 24-hour quest is lively and sometimes funny but seldom surprising. Writer-director Dan Scanlon and co-scripters Jason Headley and Keith Bunin have assembled a story from spare parts of various adventure and sword-and-sorcery flicks, and topped it with a sentimental coda about the value of a male role model. Mychael Danna and Jeff Danna’s drippy score pleads for tears, but viewers who sniffle are more likely to have been moved by personal associations than the film’s emotional heft.

Blue-haired, pointy-eared Ian and Barley live with their widowed mom, Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), in a neighborhood that’s a cross between Tolkien’s Shire and a near-contemporary California suburb. A prologue explains that “long ago the world was filled with magic,” but enchantment succumbed to a diabolical adversary: science. The invention of the light bulb is presented as this toontown’s fall from grace. What’s left is a Zootopia-like cosmos where such mythic creatures as centaurs, mermaids, cyclopses, and, of course, elves live together in stultifying ordinariness. Most stultified of all is Ian, who meekly accepts the torments of high school. He’s nearly the opposite of brash older brother Barley, a true believer in magic who crusades to preserve the old ways and is devoted to a mystical role-playing game he insists is based on the world as it used to be. (A few of the film’s supporting characters appear by courtesy of Wizards of the Coast, the game company that owns Dungeons & Dragons.)

It’s Ian’s 16th birthday, so Laurel retrieves a gift left by the boys’ father, who died before the younger one was born. The package contains a magical staff and instructions on how to revive a dead soul, if only for 24 hours. It turns out that Ian has an aptitude for incantations but lacks knowledge and, crucially, confidence. He casts a spell that succeeds but only halfway, as it summons just Dad’s lower half. A mysterious crystal could finish the job, so the brothers hit the road in Barley’s beat-up but vaguely magical van with a gear shift that reads “onward.” Barley is certain that his role-playing game can direct them to their shadowy destination.

Like most quest sagas, Onward is an episodic one, but it doesn’t make most of its pitstops especially memorable. The supporting characters are few and most are easily forgotten, save for a once-terrifying but now-domesticated manticore, Corey (Octavia Spencer), and Mom’s cop boyfriend, Colt Bronco (Mel Rodriguez), who may be a centaur but strikes his potential stepsons as embarrassingly bourgeois. Both join a frantic Laurel on her sons’ trail.

Onward doesn’t have a distinctive visual style, but it does showcase Pixar’s trademark mastery of depth, light, and shadow. As in Scanlon’s Monsters University, the fanciful and the everyday are well harmonized. That’s still a neat trick, but it’s no more novel than Ian and Barley’s experiences. Animated features often borrow from other films, in part to keep the grown-ups in the crowd interested, but the way Onward recalls at various points The Lord of the Rings, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Ghostbusters feels perfunctory and uninspired. And it all leads to a moral that’s at least as hoary as that of The Wizard of Oz or Peter Pan. While Onward begins as a story of bereavement, it soon turns to celebrating the payoffs of positive thinking. That you can accomplish whatever you believe you can is a routine movie message, but it can feel magical when presented with more imagination than Onward ever musters.

Cast: Tom Holland, Chris Pratt, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Octavia Spencer, Ali Wong, Lena Waithe, Mel Rodriguez, Tracey Ullman, Wilmer Valderrama, Kyle Bornheimer, John Ratzenberger Director: Dan Scanlon, Jason Headley, Keith Bunin Screenwriter: Dan Scanlon Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures Running Time: 103 min Rating: PG Year: 2020

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Interview: Lesley Manville and Liam Neeson on Working Together on Ordinary Love

It’s to the immense credit of these two great actors that Ordinary Love is so inspiring.

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Lesley Manville and Liam Neeson
Photo: Bleecker Street

It’s to the immense credit of Lesley Manville and Liam Neeson that Ordinary Love is so inspiring. As Joan and Tom, the couple at the center of Lisa Barros D’Sa and Glenn Leyburn’s drama about a couple tested by the wife’s breast cancer diagnosis, their naturalism and comfort never waver while the characters stare down the disease.

Despite having never collaborated prior to their brief rehearsals for the film, these two celebrated actors settle authentically into the quiet dignity of longstanding companionate affection. Both performances hum with grace notes as the actors imbue even the most quotidian moments with compassion and wisdom. Ordinary Love speaks to how Joan and Tom maintain the strength of their relationship in spite of cancer, not because of it.

The bond that appears effortless on screen, however, was quite effortful, as I learned when talking to the two actors following the film’s limited release. The organic chemistry was evident between Manville and Neeson, who both spoke softly yet passionately about their approach to forging the connection at the heart of Ordinary Love. The two performers came to the film with storied careers and full lives, both of which contributed to how they approached bringing Tom and Joan’s tender marriage to life.

Lesley, you’ve said that Liam was the big draw for you to board this project. I’m curious, to start, what’s your favorite of his performances and why?

Lesley Manville: Oh my gosh! I’ve got to say the right thing here. I wish I’d have seen you [to Neeson] on stage. I never have. Schindler’s List, I think, really is up there. Had the [Ordinary Love] script been awful, then I wouldn’t have wanted to do it despite Liam. But the script was great, and they said Liam was going to do it, so I said it sounded like a good one, really.

Liam, do you have a favorite performance of hers?

Liam Neeson: I’ve seen Lesley in a couple of the Mike Leigh films. She struck me, and I mean this as a compliment, as like, “Oh, that’s someone who just walked in off the street and is playing this.” She was so natural and so great as an actress. And I did see her on stage, I thought she was wonderful.

Right away, we can sense such a shared history of the couple. Surely some of it came from the script itself, but how did you collaborate to ensure you were on the same page about where Tom and Joan have been?

Manville: Sometimes it’s hard to manufacture that or try to cook it up. I guess the casting of the two of us was pretty good and a fluke to some degree. We could have not got on. The warmth we have for each other is a bonus. We couldn’t predict that until we’d met. We’re quite similar as actors, really, we see what’s on the page and try to make it as truthful as possible. But day one, we were shooting scenes of them on the sofa, watching telly, not doing much, 30-plus-year relationship…you just have to plow in and do it. We’ve both lived a fair amount—

Neeson: We didn’t really “plan” anything. There’s a saying, “If it ain’t on the page, it ain’t on the stage.” That foundation stone of the script was beautiful.

Was there a rehearsal period, or did you just jump right in?

Manville: We had a couple of afternoons in New York, didn’t we?

Neeson: Yeah, we did.

Manville: Liam lives here, and I was doing a play. Lisa and Glenn, our directors, came over and we spent a few afternoons mostly eating quite nice lunches.

Neeson: Yeah, those were nice lunches. But we certainly didn’t “rehearse” rehearse it, did we?

Were they more like chemistry sessions?

Neeson: Yeah, just smelling each other, really!

Liam, you’ve said that part of what drew you to the film was the ability to play someone like yourself, a nice Northern Irish man. Is it easier or harder to play something that’s less like a character and more like yourself?

Neeson: I think if you’re playing a character that’s not you, i.e. thinking of doing accents, there’s a process of work you have. Be it an American accent or a German accent, there’s a process. Then I try to do that and ignore it. So, whatever comes out of my mouth comes out. If a few Irish words come out, if it’s supposed to be German, I don’t care. You can fix it a little bit in an ADR department, but I hate doing a scene with a dialect coach there.

I have to tell you a funny story. I did this film Widows with Viola Davis a couple years ago. And myself and Colin Farrell have to be from Chicago. I met with this lovely lady, the dialect coach. My first scene was in a shower, right, and into the bathroom comes Viola with a little drink [mimes a shot glass] for her and I, it’s a whole process we do before I do a heist job. It’s a little ritual we do, and she has a dog, a tiny wee thing. When we finish the scene, I’m supposed to go “rawr-rawr” to the dog. I did this a couple of times, and the dialect coach literally ran in and says, “Liam, you’re doing the dog sound wrong, accent wise! It should be ‘woof-woof,’ use the back of your throat.” I thought, “She’s pulling my leg! The dog’s that size [puts hand barely above the ground].” But she meant it.

Manville: Oh dear, she needs to take a check, doesn’t she?

Neeson: But being the professional I was, I went “woof-woof.”

When you’re playing characters who are “ordinary” or “normal,” as the final and working titles for the film have suggested, do you start with yourself and fit into the character? Or is the character the starting point and you invest little pieces of yourself into it?

Manville: Certainly, for me, there’s a lot about Joan that’s not a million miles away from me, although there are obvious differences. I just thought, there’s this woman, they’ve had this tragedy in their lives, they’ve lost their daughter, getting on with things, their lives have reduced down to this co-dependent small existence—it’s all about the ordinary stuff. And then you’ve just got to layer onto that the fact that this horrible diagnosis happens. But, in a way, I felt that took care of itself because I—touch of wood [knocks on the wood frame of her chair]—have not been through breast cancer. I’ve had a sister who did, but the women in the [hospital] scenes, the technicians and the surgeons were all real, and they were very helpful. They were wonderful women, and they helped me hugely just walking me through it. I just thought, “There’s Joan, and you’ve just got to be Joan as these other things are happening to her.” Of course, all bits of your own experiences and life stuff comes out. But it’s almost not conscious. I’ve had a lot of life—a lot of ups, a lot of downs, as has everybody. That’s nothing exceptional. Nothing more different than the average person. Our job is we lock those feelings away somewhere inside of us, and they’re there to call upon if we need to.

Neeson: Yeah, that’s a great way of putting it. James Cagney used to have an expression when an ingénue would ask him how to do a scene. He famously said, “You walk in the room, plant your feet and speak the truth.” That was always his answer. It’s true.

There’s a moment during chemo where Joan makes a remark that she thought the experience would change her more but feels relatively the same. Lesley, I’m curious, do you believe her at that moment?

Manville: Yeah, because you’re always you, no matter what’s happening. I guess that kind of statement is probably quite particular to people who go through a big health thing like that. You expect it’s going to really alter you, shift you, but actually it’s still you underneath. Because it’s just you with this epic thing happening to you. Nevertheless, it’s you.

Is it tough as an actor to depict that kind of stasis while also bringing some variation?

Manville: I think there’s enough in the scenes. A good point in the film is when they [Tom and Joan] are having a row about nothing—which color pill. But it’s bound to happen. They’re a great couple, yet something gives way because that’s human. I felt that was quite well charted throughout the script.

We don’t really get a similar moment of verbal reflection from Tom. Do you think the same sentiment of feeling unchanged might apply to him?

Neeson: There’s one scene where he visits their daughter’s grave and talks about how scared he is. And I think he is. But he’s “man” enough to put up a kind of front that everything’s going to be okay, and I think he really believes that too. But he’s terrified that he might lose his life partner. It might happen. Without getting too heavy about it, I know Lesley has experienced loss in her family. I’ve had four members of my family die. It was wrenching for the family—very, very wrenching. It’s a horrible disease. Lesley was saying to me last night, in America alone, one in eight women are going to suffer some form of breast cancer, which is an astronomical number. We are all one degree of separation from someone who has it.

Manville: But the survival rate is very impressive now.

It’s nice that the film is about more than just the struggle of the disease but how life continues in spite of it. We even start the film more or less where we ended it in the calendar year.

Neeson: Just that minutiae of life. Going to a grocery store. You still have to eat! Save up your coupons, that minutiae, I love that it comes across the script.

You’ve both worked with some incredible directors in your time. Is there anything in particular that you took from them for Ordinary Love, or do you just clear out your memory in order to execute what Lisa and Glenn want?

Neeson: I think Lesley said in an earlier interview—forgive me for jumping in, darling—that you absorb it through osmosis if you work with really good people. And bad people too. You just allow it to come out. You’re not, “What was it Martin Scorsese said? I must remember that. Or Steven Spielberg”—I don’t do that.

Manville: Also, they get a lot from you too. A lot of people think directors are like dictators. If they employ two actors like us, they’re expecting a collaboration of some sort. Hopefully they get something from us too.

In this more recent stage of your career, you’ve each had roles that have exploded and become beloved by the Internet—Liam with Taken, Lesley with Phantom Thread. How do you all react to something like that making such a big splash where people turn your work into a meme?

Manville: I didn’t know what a meme was until quite recently. Somebody told me I was a meme.

Neeson: What is it? I honestly don’t know. I’ve heard the word, but I don’t know what it means.

Manville: They just take a bit of a performance…

Yes, snippets of a performance and use it as a response to something else. Recontextualized.

Neeson: Oh, I see. Like “release the kraken.”

Or “I have a very particular set of skills” from Taken. I see that, and I see bits of Cyril a lot online.

Manville: Apparently, I’m a bit of a gay icon. So that’s new. Never thought I’d reach my age and be that. But I’ll take it!

Is that just a nice thing to keep in the back of your head? Does it enter into the process at all?

Manville: No! Listen, I think there’s a myth that actors, however successful they are, wander around in some sort of successful bubble. You’re just not! You’re having your life like everyone else. I understand that our jobs are quite exceptional, and other people view our jobs with some kind of halo over them. But personally speaking, when I’m working, I’m working. The rest of my life is incredibly regular.

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Review: The Call of the Wild Provides a Resonant Take on a Classic

The film’s avoidance of cruel Gold Rush realities is more than made up for by its spirited kineticism.

3

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The Call of the Wild
Photo: 20th Century Studios

The latest cinematic adaptation of Jack London’s The Call of the Wild is a surprisingly thrilling and emotionally moving adventure film. Its surprises come not only from director Chris Sanders and screenwriter Michael Green’s dramatic overhaul of the classic 1903 novel for family audiences, but also from the way their revisions make London’s story richer and more resonant, rather than diluted and saccharine.

It’s worth recalling that London’s vision of man and nature in The Call of the Wild is anything but romantic; indeed, at times it’s literally dog eat dog. In his story, the imposing yet spoiled Buck, a St. Bernard and Scotch Collie mix, is kidnapped from his wealthy master’s California manor and sold to dealers in Yukon Territory, where the Gold Rush has created high demand for sledding dogs. Buck’s initiation into the culture of the Northlands involves severe beatings at the hands of his masters, brutal rivalries with fellow sledding dogs, harsh exposure to unforgiving elements, and an unrelenting work regimen that allows for little rest, renewal, or indolence. What London depicts is nothing less than a Darwinian world where survival forbids weakness of body and spirit, and where survivors can ill-afford pity or remorse.

Not much of that vision remains in Sanders and Green’s adaptation. Buck is still kidnapped from his home and sold to dog traders, but his subjugation is reduced from repeated, will-breaking abuse to a single hit. In this Call of the Wild, dogs never maul one another to death, a regular occurrence in London’s novel. And minus one or two exceptions, the human world of the story has now become uplifting and communal rather than bitter and cutthroat. In the first half of the film, Buck’s sledding masters are an adorable husband-and-wife team (Omar Sy and Cara Gee) in place of a rough pair of mail deliverers, and in the second half, John Thornton (Harrison Ford), Buck’s last and most beloved master, isn’t revealed to be hardened treasure-seeker, but a grieving man who finds redemption in the great outdoors.

The film’s avoidance of cruel Gold Rush realities is more than made up for by its spirited kineticism and by its deepening of the man-dog bond that forms the heart of London’s story. This Call of the Wild relies heavily on a CGI Buck (and other virtual beasts) to create complex choreographed movement in labyrinthine tracking shots that would be impossible to execute with real animals. One might expect the artifice of even the most convincing CGI to undermine Buck’s palpable presence, as well as the script’s frequent praises to the glory of nature, yet the film’s special-effects team has imbued the animal with a multi-layered personality, as displayed in joyously detailed, if more than slightly anthropomorphic, expressions and gestures. And the integration of Buck and other CGI creations into believable, immersive environments is buttressed by the cinematography of Janusz Kamiński, who lenses everything from a quiet meadow to an epic avalanche with lush vibrancy.

In the film’s first half, human concerns take a backseat to Buck’s education as he adapts to the dangerous world of the Northlands, but in the second half the emergence of Ford as Buck’s best friend adds to the film a poignant human dimension. Thornton rescues Buck from a trio of inept, brutish, and greedy city slickers (Dan Stevens, Karen Gillan, and Colin Woodell), and Buck in turn saves Thornton from misery and drunkenness as he pines away for his late son and ruined marriage while living alone on the outskirts of civilization.

This is a welcome change from London’s depiction of Thornton, who possesses on the page a kind heart but not much else in the way of compelling characteristics; the summit of his relationship with Buck occurs when he stakes and wins a fortune betting on Buck’s ability to drag a half ton of cargo. In this film version, Thornton and Buck’s relationship grows as they travel the remotest reaches of wilderness where Thornton regains his sense of wonder and Buck draws closer to the feral origins of his wolf-like brethren and ancestors. Ford lends gruff vulnerability and gravity to Thornton in scenes that might have tipped over into idyllic cheese given just a few false moves, and his narration throughout the film forms a sort of avuncular bass line to the proceedings lest they become too cloying or cute.

A paradox exists in The Call of the Wild, which is indebted to advanced technological fakery but touts the supremacy of nature and natural instincts. Yet there’s a sincerity and lack of pretense to the film that transcends this paradox and evokes the sublime.

Cast: Harrison Ford, Dan Stevens, Omar Sy, Karen Gillan, Bradley Whitford, Colin Woodell, Cara Gee, Scott MacDonald, Terry Notary Director: Chris Sanders Screenwriter: Michael Green Distributor: 20th Century Studios Running Time: 100 min Rating: PG Year: 2020 Buy: Book

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Review: Daniel Roher’s Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and the Band

Robertson’s sadness was more fulsomely evoked by Martin Scorsese in The Last Waltz.

2.5

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Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and the Band
Photo: Magnolia Pictures

Toward the end of the 1960s, with the Vietnam War raging and the civil rights movement and the counterculture in bloom, art was about taking political and aesthetic sides. As such, one can understand how Bob Dylan’s electric guitar could be met with violent boos, as it signified a crossing of the bridge over into the complacent mainstream, to which folk music was supposed to represent a marked resistance. In this context, one can also appreciate the daring of the Band, whose music offered beautiful and melancholic examinations of heritage that refuted easy generational demonizing, while blending blues, rock, and folk together to create a slipstream of American memory—Americana in other words. Like Dylan, the Band, who backed him on his electric tour, believed that art shouldn’t be reduced to editorial battle hymns. Complicating matters of identity even further, the prime architects of Americana are mostly Canadian. Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, and Garth Hudson were all from Ontario, while Levon Helm hailed from Arkansas.

Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and the Band is concerned mostly with celebrating the Band’s early rise and influence on American culture, as well as their sense of connecting the past and present together through empathetic lyrics. Holding court over the film is Robertson, the dapper and charismatic songwriter and guitarist who looks and sounds every inch like the classic-rock elder statesman. Airing sentiments from his memoir, Testimony, Robertson mentions his mixed heritage as a citizen of the Six Nations of Grand River reservation who also had Jewish gangster relatives, and who moved to Canada at a formative age. Richardson learned his first chords on the reservation, and began writing songs professionally at 15, after he met Ronnie Hawkins and Helm. Hawkins’s group would over several permutations become the Band, whose musical identity crystallizes during their collaboration with Dylan.

Director Daniel Roher’s glancing treatment of Hawkins, a vivid presence who also performed on Martin Scorsese’s Band concert film The Last Waltz, signifies that Once Were Brothers is going to steer clear of controversy. Was Hawkins bitter to have his band usurped by the teenage prodigy Robertson? Even if he wasn’t, such feelings merit exploration, though here they’re left hanging. The documentary’s title is all too apropos, as this is Robertson’s experience of the Band, rather than a collective exploration of their rise and fall. To be fair, Danko, Manuel, and Helm are all deceased, the former two dying far too young, though Hudson perhaps pointedly refused to participate in this project—another event that Roher fails to examine. And the big conflict at the center of this story—Robertson’s intense, eventually contentious relationship with Helm—is broached only in an obligatory fashion.

Although the fact that Robertson and Hudson are the only Band members left standing adds credence to the former’s view of things, as he maintains that much of the group succumbed to drugs and booze, leaving him to write most of the music and to shepherd their joint career as long as he could. (Robertson’s wife, Dominique, offers disturbing accounts of the car crashes that routinely occurred out of drunk and drugged driving.) Helm, however, insisted that the Band’s collective influence on musical arrangements merited a bigger slice of royalties all around. Robertson and various other talking heads remind us of these grievances, though Roher quickly pushes on to the next plot point. Robertson is a magnificent musician and subject, but his devotion to his side of the story renders him suspicious—a cultivator of brand.

For these omissions and elisions, Once Were Brothers is a slim, if ultimately enjoyable, rock testimony. The highlight is the archival footage of the Band practicing and recording, including a privileged moment with Dylan after one of the controversial electric concerts, as well as interludes at the pink house in Woodstock where they recorded their defining Music from Big Pink, an album that included their classic “The Weight,” which Dennis Hopper would turn into a master boomer anthem in Easy Rider. Moments of the Band at play affirm Robertson’s idea of their early days as a kind of lost utopia, and his present-day nostalgia is cagey yet undeniably moving. Yet Robertson’s sadness, his sense of having witnessed friends and collaborators get washed away by bitterness and addiction, was more fulsomely evoked by Scorsese in The Last Waltz, as he looked at the Band and saw an entire group, a dying unit, rather than Robbie Robertson and the other guys.

Director: Daniel Roher Distributor: Magnolia Pictures Running Time: 100 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Come and See Is an Unforgettable Fever Dream of War’s Surreality

It suggests that a war’s horrors were the ultimate unassimilable experience of the shadowy depths of the human mind.

4

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Come and See
Photo: Janus Films

War movies largely condition us to look at warfare from a top-down perspective. Rarely do they keep us totally locked out of the commander’s map room, the bunker where the top brass exposit backstory, outline goals, or lay out geography for the viewer. Both characters and audience tend to know what’s at stake at all times. Not so in Elem Klimov’s 1985 film Come and See, in which relentless bombings and frenetic camerawork shatter the Belarusian countryside into an incoherent, fabulistic geography, and the invading Germans appear to coalesce out of the fog on the horizon like menacing apparitions.

We experience the German invasion of Belarus through Flyora (Aleksey Kravchenko), a teenager who joins the local partisan militia after discovering a rifle buried in the sand. The early scene in which he departs from his mother and sisters presents a disconcerting, even alienating complex of emotions: the histrionic panic of his mother (Tatyana Shestakova), who alternately embraces and rails against him; the hardened indifference of the soldiers who’ve come to retrieve him; and the jejune oblviousness of Floyria himself, who mugs at his younger siblings to mock his mother’s concerns. Eager to participate alongside the unit of considerably more weathered men, Flyora feels emasculated when he’s forced to remain behind in the partisans’ forest encampment with Glasha (Olga Mironova), a local girl implicitly attached to the militia unit because she’s sleeping with its commander, Kosach (Liubomiras Laucevicius).

Glasha first takes on nymph-like qualities in Flyora’s adolescent imagination, appearing in hazy close-ups that emphasize her blue eyes and the verdant wooded backdrop. This deceptive idyllic disintegrates, however, when the Germans bomb and storm the empty camp, kicking up clouds of dirt and smoke that never seem to fully leave the screen for the rest of Come and See’s duration. The two teenagers flee, pushing through the muck of the now-fatal landscape, only to discover more horrors waiting for them back in Flyora’s village.

The horrors lurking in the mists of a muggy Eastern European spring may not be what Carl von Clausewitz had in mind when he coined the phrase “the fog of war,” but Klimov’s masterpiece suggests a redefinition of the term, the evocative phrase signifying the incomprehensible terror of war rather than its tactical incalculables. Come and See’s frames are often choked with this fog—watching the film, one almost expects to see condensation on the screen’s surface—and Klimov fills the soundtrack with a kind of audio fog: the droning of bombers and surveillance planes, the whine of prolonged eardrum-ringing, an ambient and sparse score by Oleg Yanchenko. It’s a cinematic simulacrum of the overwhelming, discombobulating sensory experience of war that would have an influence on virtually every war movie made after it.

And yet, in a crucial sense, there’s hardly a more clear-sighted or realistic fiction film about World War II. Klimov refuses to sanitize or sentimentalize the conflict that in his native language is known as the Great Patriotic War. While fleeing back into the woods with Flyora, Glasha momentarily glimpses a heap of bodies, Flyora’s family and neighbors, piled on the edge of the village where tendrils of smoke still waft from their chimneys. Despite the fleeting nature of her glance, the image sticks with the viewer, its horror reverberating throughout the film because Klimov doesn’t give it redemptive or revelatory power. There’s no transcendent truth, no noble human dignity to be dug up from the mass graves of the Holocaust.

Florya and Glasha eventually separate, Flyora joining the surviving men to scour the countryside for food, only to find himself the survivor of a series of atrocities perpetrated by the Germans. A full third of the Nazis’ innocent victims were killed in mass executions on the Eastern Front—both by specially assigned SS troops and the regular Wehrmacht (though the myth of a “clean Wehrmacht” lives on to this day). As the end titles of Come and See inform the audience, 628 Belarusian villages were extinguished in the Nazis’ genocidal quest for Lebensraum, so-called “living space” for the German Volk. As wide-eyed witness to a portion of this monstrous deed, Flyora’s face often fills the film’s narrow 4:3 frame—scorched, bloodied, and sooty, trembling with horror at the inhumanity he’s seen.

Like his forbears of Soviet montage, Klimov uses a cast stocked with nonprofessionals like Kravchenko, and he doesn’t shirk from having them address the camera directly with their gaze. In Klimov’s hands, as in Eisenstein’s, such shots feel like a call to action, a demand to recognize the humanity at stake in the struggle against fascism. Klimov counterbalances his film’s apocalyptic hopelessness with a righteous rage on behalf of the Holocaust’s real victims. The film, whose original title was Kill Hitler, takes as its heart-shattering climax a hallucinatory montage of documentary footage that imagines a world without the Nazi leader.

Come and See bears comparison to Andrei Tarkovsky’s Ivan’s Childhood, which likewise narrates a young boy’s conscription into the irregular Russian resistance to German invasion. But whereas Tarkovsky embellishes his vision of a war-torn fairy-tale forest in the direction of moody expressionism, Klimov goes surreal. Attempting to make off with a stolen cow across an open field—in order to feed starving survivors hidden in the woods—Flyoria is blindsided by a German machine-gun attack. Pink tracers dart across the fog-saturated frame, a dreamlike image at once unreal and deadly. Taking cover behind his felled cow, Flyoria awakes in the empty field, now absolutely still, with the mangled animal corpse as his pillow.

As an art form, surrealism was fascinated by the capacity for violence and disorder lurking in the psyche. Without betraying the real—by, in fact, remaining more faithful to it than most fictional remembrances of WWI have been—Come and See suggests that the war’s horrors were the ultimate unassimilable experience of the shadowy depths of the human mind. For Klimov, the dreamscapes of war realized surrealism’s oneiric brutality.

Cast: Aleksey Kravchenko, Olga Mironova, Liubomiras Laucevicius, Vladas Bagdonas, Jüri Lumiste, Viktors Lorencs, Evgeniy Tilicheev Director: Elem Klimov Screenwriter: Ales Adamovich, Elem Klimov Distributor: Janus Films Running Time: 142 min Rating: NR Year: 1985

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Review: Corpus Christi Spins an Ambiguous Morality Tale About True Faith

It’s within the murky realm of self-doubt and spiritual anxiety that it’s at its most audacious and compelling.

3

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Corpus Christi
Photo: Film Movement

Using as its jumping-off point the surprisingly common phenomenon of Polish men impersonating priests, Jan Komasa’s Corpus Christi weaves an elaborate, thoughtful, and occasionally meandering morality tale about the nature of faith, grief, and community in the 21st century. Daniel (Bartosz Bielenia), a 20-year-old juvenile delinquent, is a recently converted believer, but he’s also an opportunist. After finding himself mistaken for a man of the cloth upon arriving in a small, remote town, Daniel decides to strap on the clergy collar from a costume and play the part for real. Better that than head to the sawmill for the backbreaking work his former priest, Father Tomasz (Lukasz Simlat), has lined up for him.

This setup has all the makings of a blackly comic farce, but Komasa and screenwriter Mateusz Pacewicz play the scenario straight, using Daniel’s fish-out-of-water status as a catalyst for interrogating the shifting spiritual landscape of a Poland that’s grown increasingly disillusioned of both its religious and political institutions. For one, a general wariness (and weariness) of the cold, impersonal ritualism of the Catholic Church helps to explain why many of the townspeople take so quickly to Daniel’s irreverent approach to priesthood, particularly his emotional candidness and the genuine compassion he shows for his parish.

That is, of course, once the young man gets past his awkward stabs at learning how to offer confession—by Googling, no less—and reciting Father Tomasz’s prayers, discovering that it’s easier for him to preach when shooting from the hip. The convenient timing of the town’s official priest (Zdzislaw Wardejn) falling ill, thus allowing Daniel to slide comfortably into the man’s place, is a narrative gambit that certainly requires a small leap of faith. But it’s one that engenders a fascinatingly thorny conflict between a damaged imposter walking the very thin line between the sacred and the profane, a town still reeling from the trauma of a recent car wreck that left seven people dead, and a shady mayor (Leszek Lichota) yearning for a return to normalcy so that his corrupt dealings can run more smoothly.

The grieving process of the family and friends of the six teenagers lost in this tragedy is further complicated by rumors that the other driver had been drinking, leading to his widow (Barbara Kurzaj) being harassed and completely ostracized by the community. The falsity of this widely accepted bit of hearsay shrewdly mirrors Daniel’s own embracing of falsehood and inability to transcend the traumatic events and mistakes of his own recent past. Yet, interestingly enough, it’s the vehement young man’s dogged pursuit of the truth in this manner, all while play-acting the role of ordained leader, that causes a necessary disruption in the quietly tortured little town. His unwavering support of the widow, despite the blowback he gets from the mayor and several of the deceased teenagers’ parents, however, appears to have less to do with a pure thirst for justice or truth than with how her mistreatment at the hands of those around her mirrors his own feelings of being rejected by society.

It’s a topsy-turvy situation that brings into question the mindlessly placating role that the church and political figures play in returning to the status quo, even if that leaves peoples’ sins and darkest secrets forever buried. And while Daniel’s adversarial presence both shines a light on the town’s hypocrisy and their leaders’ corruption, his own duplicity isn’t overlooked, preventing Corpus Christi from settling for any sweeping moral generalizations, and lending an ambiguity to the ethics of everyone’s behavior in the film.

Whether or not the ends justify the means or fraudulence and faith can coexist in ways that are beneficial to all, possibly even on a spiritual level, are questions that Komasa leaves unanswered. Corpus Christi instead accepts the innate, inescapable ambiguities of faith and the troubling role deception can often play in both keeping the communal peace, and in achieving a true sense of closure and redemption in situations where perhaps neither are truly attainable. Although the film ends on a frightening note of retribution, it’s within the murky realm of self-doubt and spiritual anxiety that it’s at its most audacious and compelling.

Cast: Bartosz Bielenia, Aleksandra Konieczna, Eliza Rycembel, Tomasz Zietek, Barbara Karzaj, Leszek Lichota, Zdzislaw Wardejn, Lukasz Simlat Director: Jan Komasa Screenwriter: Mateusz Pacewicz Distributor: Film Movement Running Time: 115 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Stella Meghie’s The Photograph Isn’t Worth a Thousand Words

The film is at its best when it’s focused on the euphoria and tribulations of its central couple’s love affair.

2.5

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The Photograph
Photo: Universal Pictures

Near the middle of Stella Meghie’s The Photograph, Michael (Lakeith Stanfield) seduces Mae (Issa Rae) after dropping the needle on a vinyl copy of Al Green’s I’m Still In Love with You. The 1972 soul classic is a mainstay in many a foreplay-centric album rotations thanks to the smooth atmospherics set by the Reverend Al’s dulcet tones, but it’s not the aptness of the music choice that makes this encounter so strikingly sensual. Rather, it’s the leisurely, deliberate pacing with which Meghie allows the scene to unfold. As the mellow “For the Good Times” smoothly transitions into the more chipper and frisky “I’m Glad You’re Mine,” Michael and Mae engage in playful banter and subtle physical flirtations. The sly move of having one song directly spill into the next offers a strong sense of this couple falling in love, and in real time. The subtle surging of their passion occurs along with the tonal change of the songs, lending Michael’s seduction of Mae an authentic and deeply felt intimacy.

The strength of this scene, and several others involving the new couple, is in large part due to the effortless chemistry between Rae and Stanfield. When the duo share the screen, there’s a palpable and alluring romantic charge to their interactions, and one that’s judiciously tempered by their characters’ Achilles heels, be it Mae’s reluctance to allow herself to become vulnerable or Michael’s commitment issues. As Mae and Michael struggle to balance their intensifying feelings toward one another with their professional ambitions and the lingering disappointments of former relationships, they each develop a rich, complex interiority that strengthens the film’s portrait of them as individuals and as a couple.

The problems that arise from the clash between Mae and Michael’s burgeoning love and their collective baggage are more than enough to carry this romantic drama. But Meghie encumbers the film with a lengthy, flashback-heavy subplot involving the brief but intense love affair that Mae’s estranged, recently deceased mother, Christina (Chanté Adams), had in Louisiana before moving away to New York. These flashbacks aren’t only intrusive, disrupting the forward momentum and emotional resonance of the film’s depiction of Mae and Michael’s relationship, but they provide only a thinly sketched-out, banal conflict between a woman who wants a career in the big city and a man content to stay put in the Deep South.

The overly deterministic manner with which Meghie weaves the two stories together adds an unnecessary gravity and turgidity to a film that’s at its best when it’s focused on Michael and Mae’s love story. The intercutting between the two time periods is clunky, and while both narratives eventually dovetail in a manner that makes thematic sense, Meghie extends far too much effort laying out Christina’s many mistakes and regrets for an end result that feels both overripe and overwritten. When The Photograph lingers on the euphoria and tribulations of Mae and Michael’s love affair, it’s rich in carefully observed details, but the gratuitous flourishes in its narrative structure gives it the unsavory pomposity of a Nicholas Sparks novel.

Cast: Lakeith Stanfield, Issa Rae, Chelsea Peretti, Teyonah Parris, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Chanté Adams, Rob Morgan, Courtney B. Vance, Lil Rel Howery, Y’lan Noel, Jasmine Cephas Jones Director: Stella Meghie Screenwriter: Stella Meghie Distributor: Universal Pictures Running Time: 106 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2020

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David Lowery’s The Green Knight, Starring Dev Patel, Gets Teaser Trailer

Today, A24 dropped the trailer for haunting mustache enthusiast David Lowery’s latest.

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The Green Knight
Photo: A24

Jack of all trades and haunting mustache enthusiast David Lowery is currently in pre-production on the latest live-action adaptation of Peter Pan for Disney, which is bound to be full steam ahead now that The Green Knight is almost in the can. Today, A24 debuted the moody teaser trailer for the film, which stars Dev Patel as Sir Gawain on a quest to defeat the eponymous “tester of men.” Scored by Lowery’s longtime collaborator Daniel Hart, The Green Knight appears to have been shot and edited in the same minimalist mode of the filmmaker’s prior features, which include Ain’t Them Bodies Saints and A Ghost Story. Though it’s not being billed as a horror film, it’s very easy to see from the one-and-a-half-minute clip how Lowery’s latest is of a piece with so many A24 horror films before it.

According to A24’s official description of the film:

An epic fantasy adventure based on the timeless Arthurian legend, The Green Knight tells the story of Sir Gawain (Dev Patel), King Arthur’s reckless and headstrong nephew, who embarks on a daring quest to confront the eponymous Green Knight, a gigantic emerald-skinned stranger and tester of men. Gawain contends with ghosts, giants, thieves, and schemers in what becomes a deeper journey to define his character and prove his worth in the eyes of his family and kingdom by facing the ultimate challenger. From visionary filmmaker David Lowery comes a fresh and bold spin on a classic tale from the knights of the round table.

The Green Knight is written, directed, and edited by Lowery and also stars Alicia Vikander, Joel Edgerton, Sarita Choudhury, Sean Harris, Kate Dickie, and Barry Keoghan.

See the trailer below:

A24 will release The Green Knight this summer.

The Green Knight

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Review: Onur Tukel’s The Misogynists Stagily Addresses the State of a Nation

Tukel’s film doesn’t live up to the promise of its fleet-footed opening.

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The Misogynists
Photo: Factory 25

Taking place on the night of the 2016 presidential election, Onur Tukel’s The Misogynists begins, fittingly, with the sound of a woman crying. Alice (Christine Campbell) explains to her concerned daughter that she’s sad because half of the country has made the wrong decision, prompting the child to respond that her mother has herself been wrong before: “You were wrong when you thought that black man stole your cellphone.” Defensively writing off this past instance of casual racism as nothing more than an honest mistake, Alice sends the girl back to bed, after offering a weary “probably not” in response to her asking if she could be elected president someday.

In just a few lines of dialogue, Tukel exposes the moral blind spots and hypocrisy of otherwise well-meaning liberals, not to mention the irresponsible vanity of outrage and despair in the face of a stinging electoral defeat. This short scene highlights the emotional vulnerabilities that often underpin, and undermine, political convictions, and it serves as a perfect encapsulation of almost all of the film’s thematic concerns.

Unfortunately, the rest of The Misogynists doesn’t live up to the promise of this fleet-footed opening. Set mostly within the confines of one hotel room and featuring sex workers, a Mexican delivery boy, wealthy businessmen, and other roughly sketched characters from the contemporary political imagination, Tukel seems to be aiming for a broad comedy of manners in the key of Whit Stillman and early Richard Linklater, but there isn’t enough attention to detail, sense of place, or joie de vivre to make his scenarios come to life.

The narrative revolves around Cameron (Dylan Baker), a friendly but obnoxious Trump supporter. Holed up in the hotel room where he’s been living since breaking up with his wife, he invites various visitors to share tequila shots and lines of coke in celebration of Trump’s victory, while he holds forth on such hot-button topics as racial hierarchies, gun control, and gender roles. Baker delivers a spirited performance as Cameron, but the character is little more than a one-dimensional stand-in for a particular reactionary attitude, especially compared to the more nuanced and conflicted figures he interacts with. As the script isn’t bold enough to dig into the deeper emotional appeal of Trump’s nationalistic fervor and old-school machismo, Cameron’s smug, pseudo-intellectual cynicism is mostly unconvincing.

Tukel realizes one of his few visual flourishes through the TV in Cameron’s hotel room, which switches itself on at random and plays footage in reverse, transfixing whoever happens to be watching. This works well as a metaphor for the re-emergence of political beliefs most people thought to be gone for good, as well as the regression that many of the characters are undergoing in the face of an uncertain future. It provides a hint of the more affecting film that The Misogynists could have been had it transcended the staginess of its setup.

Though the film’s dialogue rarely offers enough intellectual insights to justify a general feeling of artificiality, it does effectively evoke the media-poisoned discourse-fatigue that’s afflicted us all since before Trump even decided to run for public office. The film shows people across the political spectrum who appear to have argued themselves into a corner in an effort to make sense of their changing society, and their failure to live up to their own beliefs seems to be contributing further to their unhappiness.

Going even further than this, one of the escorts, Sasha (Ivana Miličević), hired by Cameron offers up what’s perhaps the film’s thesis statement during an argument with her Muslim cab driver, Cairo (Hemang Sharma). She insists on her right to criticize whoever she wants, claiming that “Americans wouldn’t have anything to talk about” without this right. This idea of conflict being preferable to silence ties into the ambiguous denouement of The Misogynists. Tukel ultimately seems to suggest that the freedom so many Americans insist upon as the most important value is, in fact, so lonely and terrifying that even the spectacle of the world falling apart is a reassuring distraction.

Cast: Dylan Baker, Trieste Kelly Dunn, Ivana Milicevic, Lou Jay Taylor, Matt Walton, Christine Campbell, Nana Mensah, Rudy De La Cruz, Hemang Sharma, Cynthia Thomas, Darrill Rosen, Karl Jacob, Matt Hopkins Director: Onur Tukel Screenwriter: Onur Tukel Distributor: Factory 25, Oscilloscope Laboratories Running Time: 85 min Rating: NR Year: 2017

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Review: Downhill Is a Watered-Down Imitation of a True Provocation

Downhill never makes much of an impact as it moves from one mildly amusing cringe-comedy set piece to the next.

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Downhill
Photo: Searchlight Pictures

Ruben Östlund’s 2014 film Force Majeure brims with precisely calibrated depictions of human misery—shots that capture, with a mordant, uncompromising eye, the fragility of contemporary masculinity and the bitter resentments underlying the veneer of domestic contentment. The observations it makes about male cowardice and the stultifying effects of marriage aren’t exactly new, but Östlund lends them an indelibly discomfiting vigor through his rigorous yet playful compositions. Given the clarity of that vision, it probably goes without saying that Nat Faxon and Jim Rash’s Downhill, an Americanized remake of Östlund’s film, faced an uphill battle to not seem like an act of redundancy.

Downhill not only borrows the basic outlines of Force Majeure’s plot, but also attempts to mimic its icily cynical sense of humor. The result is a pale imitation of the real thing that never builds an identity of its own. Like its predecessor, Downhill tracks the fallout from a single catastrophically gutless moment, in which Pete (Will Ferrell), the patriarch of an upper-class American family on a ski holiday in the Alps, runs away from an oncoming avalanche, leaving his wife, Billie (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), and two sons, Finn and Emerson (Julian Grey and Ammon Jacob Ford), behind—though not before grabbing his phone.

This scene, which Östlund covers in a single indelible long take in Force Majeure, is broken up here into a conventional series of shots. It’s reasonably well-constructed, and it effectively sets up the chain of events that follow, but perhaps inevitably, it doesn’t carry the same weight. And the same is true of so much of Downhill as it moves from one mildly amusing cringe-comedy set piece to the next, never making much of an impact.

Comedy of discomfort usually depends on the willingness to linger on an awkward moment, to make it impossible for us to shake off that discomfort. But Faxon, Rash, and co-screenwriter Jesse Armstrong lack the courage of their convictions. They craft some truly cringe-inducing scenarios, such as an explosive debate between Pete and Billie as they attempt to convince a couple of friends, Rosie and Zach (Zoe Chao and Zach Woods), whose version of events about the avalanche is correct. But they don’t give us enough time or space to soak in the uneasy atmosphere. During the debate, for example, Billie rouses Finn and Emerson and has them testify before Rosie and Zach that her memory is correct. But almost as soon as the sheer inappropriateness of the decision to bring her kids into the center of a brutal marital dispute hits us, the moment has passed, and the film has moved on to the next gag.

It’s hard not to feel like Faxon and Rash are pulling their punches, perhaps anxious that going a little too dark or getting a bit too uncomfortable might upset the delicate sensitivities of an American audience. Rather than really dig into the marital strife at the heart of the film’s premise, they’re mostly content to step back and let Ferrell and Louis-Dreyfus do their thing. And the two actors bounce off each other with a pleasantly nervous energy, Ferrell’s clammy desperation so well contraposed to Louis-Dreyfus’s rubber-faced emoting.

Ferrell plays Pete as a man terrified of his own feelings, unable to reveal his deep insecurities to anyone, including himself. Louis-Dreyfus, on the other hand, wears every emotion, however fleeting, right on her face, which is in a state of constant flux. Throughout Downhill, Billie’s emotions range from unease to anger to self-doubt to pity, often in the span of seconds. More than anything else, it’s Louis-Dreyfus’s performance that sticks with you after the film is over.

If Force Majeure was essentially a film about male cowardice, Downhill is in many ways about the lies women must tell themselves to remain sane in a man’s world. It’s apt, then, that one of the pivotal images in Östlund’s film is that of the husband’s pathetically weeping face as he breaks down in a fit of self-loathing in front of his wife, and that the most lasting image in this remake is the look of shock, confusion, and rage on Billie’s face as Pete tells her the same. Unfortunately, it’s one of the few truly striking and meaningful images in the entire film.

Cast: Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Will Ferrell, Miranda Otto, Zoe Chao, Zach Woods, Julian Grey, Kristofer Hivju, Ammon Jacob Ford, Giulio Berruti Director: Nat Faxon, Jim Rash Screenwriter: Jesse Armstrong, Nat Faxon, Jim Rash Distributor: Searchlight Pictures Running Time: 86 min Rating: R Year: 2020

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