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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: Rocketman Is Dynamic and Formulaic in Equal Measure

As a musical, Dexter Fletcher’s film is just fun enough to (mostly) distract us from its superficiality.

2.5

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Rocketman
Photo: Paramount Pictures

Dexter Fletcher’s Rocketman is yet another biopic about the psycho-sensual highs and lows of being a rock star. The story of Elton John’s life suggests a narrative arc that is, at this point, awfully familiar: a musically gifted boy from working-class England is inspired by the sonic freedom evoked by American rock music; his dissatisfaction with his own life propels him to great success but also makes him susceptible to the temptations of the decadent pop-star lifestyle; his drug habit ruins his personal relationships and even threatens his career; he eventually confronts his demons and stages a comeback—with his new, healthy attitude mirrored by renewed professional success. Roll titles telling us where Elton is now.

To its credit, Rocketman is at least partially aware that we’re familiar with these types of Behind the Music-style biopics. It doesn’t abandon the template, but it does toss us a colorful, energetic musical sequence whenever the protagonist’s family life or struggles with stardom threaten to get too dark. Fantastical song-and-dance scenes, built around some of Elton’s most well-known songs and enhanced by CG effects, serve to express the characters’ submerged feelings (“I Want Love”), transition between Elton’s childhood and adulthood (“Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting”), link the performative decadence of mid-‘70s glam rock to that of mid-‘70s sex (“Bennie and the Jets,” somewhat oddly), and simply offer some visually pleasing spectacle (“Crocodile Rock”). Their main effect, though, is to give the film the quality of a karaoke stage musical: Even as Elton nearly overdoses on prescription meds, we’re not here to contemplate mortality, but to enjoy some fondly remembered pop songs. As a musical, Rocketman is just fun enough to (mostly) distract us from its superficiality.

In between the musical sequences, Elton (Taron Egerton), born Reginald Dwight, is portrayed as the unhappy genius inside the sequined chicken costume. Loved insufficiently by his selfish mother (Bruce Dallas Howard) and not at all by his stiff-upper-lipped father (Steven Mackintosh), the young Reggie longs to be somewhere and someone else. It turns out that he’s almost preternaturally gifted at the piano, able to reproduce complex pieces upon hearing them once, and this gift turns out to be his ticket out of working-class London. Starting as a back-up musician for Motown artists on tour in Britain, Reggie soon breaks out on his own, inventing his new stage name by stealing the first name of one of his bandmates, and taking the last name from John Lennon—improvising the latter when he sees a photo of the Beatles hanging in the office of Dick James (Stephen Graham), head of his first record label, DJM.

Rocketman makes clear that Reggie’s adoption of a stage name is more than just marketing, as he’ll insist, later in the film, that his family also call him Elton. The invention of a new persona allows him to escape his humble origins and demeanor. As one of the Motown performers advises him in one of those programmatic lines that these sorts of films specialize in, “Kill the person you are in order to become the person you want to be.” The irony of John’s public image—the mild manner and small stature offset by flamboyant, glittering stage performances—is expanded into a Reggie/Elton dialectic in Rocketman, in which the adult Elton must eventually learn to reconcile himself with his inner child. It’s a reconciliation that will be presented in the most literal of images toward the end of the film.

At DJM, Elton is paired with lyricist Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell), and the two form an instant bond. Together, they write many popular songs, some seemingly inspired by their friendship. There’s an ambiguous sexual tension between them, and the film implies that the duo’s “Your Song” may have been an outgrowth of this tension—or, at the very least, that the lonely Elton mistook it as such. Elton’s ultimately platonic friendship with Bernie is the emotional core of Rocketman, depicted as the most stable relationship of Elton’s life. (The film concludes in the ‘80s, just before the singer would meet his eventual husband, David Furnish.)

Fletcher’s film is less squeamish about Elton’s love life—including sex—than a big-budget biopic about a gay star would have been years ago—or, rather, as recent as last year. Elton has an intense and predictably doomed romance with callous music manager John Reid (Richard Madden), but what drives him to booze and drugs is a loneliness and discomfort with himself that goes beyond his marginalized sexual identity. Which is to say, the Elton John of Rocketman doesn’t fit into to the stereotype of the tragic, self-destructive gay man.

There isn’t much to Bernie and Elton’s creative process as depicted in the film. Repeatedly, Bernie shows up with lyrics, and Elton comes up with the music on the spot, as if the tunes came to him from on high. At one point, his mother claims accusatorily that everything has always been too easy for Elton, and as a viewer, one is tempted to agree. Here, Elton’s music is less the outgrowth of hard work and more on the order of religious revelation: Witness, for example, the trippy musical number in which “Crocodile Rock” makes the audience at the famous Troubadour club in Los Angeles levitate. The visually engrossing title-song sequence plays, in overblown glam-rock fashion, with Christ-like images of death and ascension.

Egerton delivers a dynamic performance as the alternatingly sullen and exuberant star, one that fits in perfectly with the film’s embrace of Elton’s loud, diamond-encrusted aesthetic. But if the musical sequences feature spirited performances and colorful mise-en-scène that are pleasurably diverting, much of what surrounds them is bound to elicit groans, from the hackneyed way the film uses minor black characters as props to legitimize its aspiring white rock star, to the one-dimensionality of every character who isn’t Elton or Bernie, to the final delivery of a complacent moral. As a vision Elton has of his beloved grandmother (Gemma Jones) tells him during his stint in rehab, “You write songs millions of people love, and that’s what’s important.” Is it, though? This seems less like a reassurance for a character in the grips of addiction, and more like a reassurance to the audience that they matter.

Cast: Taron Egerton, Jamie Bell, Richard Madden, Gemma Jones, Bryce Dallas Howard, Steven Mackintosh Director: Dexter Fletcher Screenwriter: Lee Hall Distributor: Paramount Pictures Running Time: 121 min Rating: R Year: 2019 Buy: Video

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Cannes Review: In Pain and Glory, Life and Art Are Wistful Bedfellows

Pedro Almodóvar’s latest only occasionally captures the spry, comedic rhythms and impassioned intensity of his finest work.

2.5

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Pain and Glory
Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

A film about an aging artist struggling to recapture his yen for creation, Pain and Glory has the makings of a deeply personal, career-capping work for Pedro Almodóvar. His name may be Salvador Mallo (Antonio Banderas), but the gay filmmaker, with his tussled hair, white beard, and red turtleneck, may as well call himself Pedro. One of the very few differences between them is that Salvador has stopped making films while Almodóvar continues to work at a relatively steady clip. Pain and Glory is a ballsy admission on the Spanish auteur’s part that he hasn’t made a film in more than a decade that can compare with his most outrageous and subversive output, which makes it all the more dispiriting that his latest only occasionally captures the spry, comedic rhythms and impassioned, melodramatic intensity that defined, say, Law of Desire, Matador, and Bad Education.

Pain and Glory is most surprising at the outset, as the stern narration that we’ve come to expect from an Almodóvar film is audaciously paired with CG graphics and abstract animations that illustrate Salvador’s anatomical and psychosomatic conditions. The man suffers from tinnitus, chronic back pain, severe headaches, anxiety, depression, and various other ailments. It’s a literally visceral way to begin a film that soon settles into the more familiar pattern of a two-track narrative: There’s Salvador in the present, who works toward repairing a friendship with the heroin-addicted star, Alberto (Asier Etxeandia), of his recently restored and most celebrated film, Subor, and there’s Salvador as a young boy (Asier Flores), preternaturally intelligent and perpetually optimistic, living in poverty with his ever-harried mother, Jacinta (Penélope Cruz), until he’s finally sent off to a seminary.

Perhaps all of this might have landed with a little more impact if Almodóvar hadn’t already covered so much of the same territory in Bad Education, which also centers itself around a film director’s relationship with an actor and tells the story of a young altar boy’s life, much of it spent at a seminary, through a series of flashbacks. Another rehash of a nearly identical plot point from that 2004 film is Pain and Glory’s intriguing meta conceit: Alberto convinces Salvador to let him perform a one-man stage adaptation of a monologue the former wrote long ago, an obvious nod to Almodóvar’s longtime collaborator, Banderas, playing a version of the filmmaker here. Pain and Glory is, in fact, defined by its abundance of conspicuously placed Easter eggs. Even in the scenes between the present-day Salvador and his dying mother (Julietta Serrano), namely the moment she tells him not to make films about her, Almodóvar points to the personal turmoil that led to the making of All About My Mother.

Putting aside the boldness of the sequences that kick Pain and Glory into motion, Almodóvar’s formal approach is generally subdued and disciplined throughout. His screenplay is also quite neat in its structure, relating its two plotlines in almost stubbornly linear fashion, reliably hitting standard narrative beats of interpersonal conflict and reconciliation. Almodóvar wouldn’t be the first filmmaker in the history of cinema to mellow with age, and there’s a sense that Pain and Glory’s artistry is a reflection of that trajectory, but that only makes the too-fleeting snapshots of Salvador’s hard-scrabble early years—which includes living inside a white cave with Jacinta and other migrants—feel as if they never transcend easy nostalgia.

Still, Almodóvar’s singular use of color as a barometer of characters’ interiorities and the emotional temperature of a scene remains on vibrant display throughout Pain and Glory. There’s also some wonderful comic repartee between the disheveled Banderas, so exquisitely committed to imparting a sense of his character’s almost ghostly status, and the perpetually bug-eyed Etxeandia. Alberto, upon reuniting with Salvador, almost immediately introduces him to heroin, and, improbably, the way in which they bond through their horrible addiction results in some of the funniest scenes in an Almodóvar film in some time.

It’s another reunion, though, between Salvador and Federico (Leonardo Sbaraglia), an ex-lover he hasn’t seen since the ‘80s, that finds Almodóvar delivering on the heightened promise of the film’s title. The men are brought back together through an absurd coincidence, after Federico wanders into the performance of Salvador’s play and recognizes that his life has been incorporated into the monologue, but the scene thrums with that distinctly magnetic force of love that’s fundamental to Almodóvar’s best work. Also, the actual moment of Salvador and Federico’s reunion is a gracefully staged dance of advance and retreat, beginning with a late-night conversation at Salvador’s apartment that never leaves the common area. Finally, after an intense kiss, Federico departs, and though he invites Salvador to come visit him and his family, both men seem to implicitly realize that they’ll never see each other again.

Salvador and Federico’s meeting unfolds almost in real time, and touches on their shared past, the lives they lived in the interim, and how much they’ve always meant to each other. The scene recalls other intense emotional meetings in prior Almodóvar films, but more than that, in its duration and focus, it seems drawn from more contemporary inspirations: Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy, the final stretch of Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight, even “Looking for the Future,” the finest episode of Andrew Haigh’s Looking. It also arguably packs even more of an expressive force than any of those works, and serves as a reminder that, however much Almodóvar’s formalist bona fides may have cooled, his ability to craft emotionally acute, achingly felt scenes between men in the throes of love is as vigorous as ever.

Cast: Antonio Banderas, Asier Etxeandia, Penélope Cruz, Leonardo Sbaraglia, Nora Navas, Julieta Serrano, César Vicente, Asier Flores, Julieta Serrano Director: Pedro Almodóvar Screenwriter: Pedro Almodóvar Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics Running Time: 113 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Cannes Review: Joan of Arc Never Coalesces into a Fully Rounded Character Study

Bruno Dumont seems perpetually aware of the trap of familiarity, which may be why he indulges in some of his most inscrutable filmmaking.

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Joan of Arc
Photo: 3P Productions

Bruno Dumont’s Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc may not have earned the French filmmaker many new fans, but it did serve to further his apparent embrace of a more mirthful directorial approach. As radical as any film that the New French Extremity-adjacent auteur has made, Jeanette is also unexpectedly accessible: a full-blown pop-rock musical in which a preteen Joan of Arc frets over her God-given mission to save France during the Hundred Years’ War, all the while head-banging to heavy metal music.

Dumont’s follow-up, Joan of Arc, now takes on the task of covering the “adult” years of the martyred saint, from her waning days as a warlord to her trial and inevitable execution for heresy. And while it’s almost as surprising as its predecessor, it’s considerably less exhilarating. Whereas the latter half of Jeanette, following a time jump, replaced child actor Lise Leplat Prudhomme with the teenaged Jeanne Voisin, the now 10-year-old Prudhomme has been reinstated in the title role here as the 19-year-old Joan. Right away, this recalibration is extremely dissonant, and it’s one that Dumont exploits particularly well in the lengthy scenes depicting Joan’s trial, during which she’s lectured and berated—like the child that she physically is—by misogynistic, condescending “graduates of theology.”

Much less easy to parse, in terms of intentionality and of classification, is the film’s proximity to the musical genre. An early scene features a suite of songs—sung theatrically by French indie-pop group Kid Wise’s Augustin Charnet—that play over a series of stoical tableaux shots of Prudhumme’s armor-clad Joan, looking pensively into the camera. Dumont briefly seems to be up to something rather brilliant here, reconfiguring the musical tropes of his Joan of Arc saga as a means to manifest the “voices” that the Joan of historical record claimed she heard in her head. But that interpretation gets ever more foggy as the filmmaker goes on to present various musical-esque scenes, but in fractured and recontexualized forms. The most jarring example of this is a lengthy, wordless interlude that features a battalion of soldiers on horseback moving in elaborate patterns, dance-like, a sequence which Dumont shoots in a way that recalls Busby Berkley musicals, with shots from above of the choreographed horses.

At least one aesthetic decision carries over from Jeanette: Only a handful of sets are used in Joan of Arc, and each change usually heralds a major shift in Joan’s lived experience, from battle to trial to imprisonment. (The film’s first third is largely adapted from French Catholic poet Charles Péguy’s play Les Batailles, while the remainder, almost entirely concerned with Joan’s trial and punishment, is based on another Péguy work, Rouen.) However, whereas Jeanette mostly limited itself to exterior shots of the idyllic French countryside, the contrasts in Joan of Arc are striking: The film moves from its opening passage, set amid cascading dunes, to the clean, vertiginous, and imposing interior space of the Royal Chapel, a place that serves to decisively dwarf an already diminutive Joan.

It’s in the pristine halls of the Royal Chapel that ornately dressed men of aristocratic pedigree and high authority—each drolly introduced in a kind of roll call—gather and almost instantly turn into savages, indiscriminately lobbing insults and explicating their own intolerance with unfeeling displays of intellectualized theological reasoning. Naturally, Joan retaliates, steadfastly refusing to disavow her devotion to her own spiritual dogma.

The best part of these trial scenes, and of Joan of Arc in general, is Prudhomme, who, despite her age, gives an extraordinarily committed, and convincing, performance as the teenaged Joan. The cinema is filled with iconic portrayals of the Maid of Orléans, but Prudhomme fully deserves a place among those. It’s a pity, then, that Dumont’s film doesn’t really manage to find many new dimensions to the Joan of Arc mythos—apart from its one inspired casting choice. The filmmaker’s effort to tap into the currents of modernity that run through this centuries-old story can be traced back through film history, at least as far as Robert Bresson’s The Trial of Joan of Arc, if not to Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc—which is, of course, predicated on the particular presentation of the cinematic image.

Dumont does, at least, seem perpetually aware of the trap of familiarity, which may be why he indulges in some of his most inscrutable filmmaking—the aforementioned horse dance, and a musical cameo from the film’s composer, French popstar Christophe—and attempts subtle gestures of subversion. Take the final shot of Joan of Arc, which is not unlike the last act of grace and salvation (and blatant homage to Robert Bresson’s Mouchette) that concludes 2010’s Hadewijch. Here, the instantly recognizable composition from the Dreyer film—for which Bresson infamously voiced his distaste—is rejected twofold, as Dumont shoots Joan’s fatal immolation in profile, and from a considerable distance.

Joan of Arc, though, has bigger problems than an over familiarity with its source, as its themes and dynamics also recall other, stronger Dumont films. The articulation of interiority through stylized visualizations of the adolescent Joan is audacious and intriguing, but its philosophical meaning isn’t nearly as fleshed out, nor as emotionally accessible, as the transformation undergone by a devout young woman into a radicalized religious extremist in Hadewijch. And the psychological understanding of Joan—the process of her victimization—isn’t as acute, nor as visceral, as Dumont’s similar biopic on institutionalized sculptor Camille Claudel. Joan of Arc can’t even claim to have the same conceptual rigor that ignited Jeanette—all of which amounts to a film that feels like a nexus point for Dumont’s influences and his preoccupations, but one that never coalesces its potential into the major work it clearly strives to be.

Cast: Lise Leplat Prudhomme, Jean-François Causeret, Daniel Dienne, Fabien Fenet, Robert Hanicotte, Yves Habert, Fabrice Luchini, Christophe Director: Bruno Dumont Screenwriter: Bruno Dumont Running Time: 138 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Cannes Review: Zombi Child Radically Grapples with Colonialism’s Legacy

Bertrand Bonello’s quixotic, slow-burn genre film is political largely in the abstract.

3.5

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Zombi Child
Photo: Arte France Cinéma

Restlessly shuttling between 1960s Haiti and present-day France, Bertrand Bonello’s Zombi Child roils with colonialist tensions. But as with the director’s prior Nocturama, this quixotic, slow-burn genre film is political largely in the abstract. While there are moments here where a history of exploitation informs the relationship between the French, lily-white Fanny (Louise Labeque) and Haitian refugee Mélissa (Wislanda Louimat)—classmates at an all-girls school established by Napoleon Bonaparte—Bonello’s interests go much deeper then race relations. Indeed, the decision to switch back and forth between Mélissa and Fanny’s perspectives in the film’s present-day scenes opens the story up to a more complex examination of how the girls view and relate to their own heritage and culture.

Not unlike Bonello’s House of Pleasures, which in its final moments made a jarring jump from a brothel in the early 20th century to modern-day Paris and prostitutes working a city street, Zombi Child explores the factors that have allowed a social practice, voodoo, to become a constant of history. Mélissa’s aunt, Katy (Katiana Milfort), is a “mambo,” or voodoo priestess, and she’s the only surviving member of Mélissa’s family in the wake of Haiti’s 2010 earthquake. Mélissa is drawn to Fanny because the two share an affinity for Stephen King and horror fiction, and as they get closer, Fanny facilitates Mélissa’s initiation into her tight-knit “literary sorority.” But after this act of bonding, the young women begin to move in opposite directions: Mélissa makes an effort to fit into the sorority, singing along to angry French rap when she’d rather be listening to music sung in her native Créole language, while Fanny, reeling from her sudden breakup with her long distance lover, Pablo (Sayyid El Alami), discreetly digs into Mélissa’s past and decides to use voodoo as a remedy for her heartbreak.

The other half of the film’s time-jumping narrative concerns Fanny’s grandfather, Clairvius (Mackenson Bijou), who, in 1962, becomes the victim of a voodoo curse that puts him in an early grave and results in the reanimation of his corpse and him having to perform manual plantation labor in a perpetually “zombified” state. Throughout this section of Zombi Child, Bonello fractures the spatial and temporal coherence of scenes, stringing together elemental, horror movie-adjacent visuals, like the recurring image of an iridescent moon shrouded in clouds and first-person perspective shots that careen through dense sugarcane fields. A clear contrast is established early on between the perpetually dark Haitian landscape and the antiseptic, white-walled interiors of the classrooms in which Fanny and Mélissa are lectured by professors spouting one-sided lessons on world history. But just as its racial politics start to seem too explicit, Zombi Child suddenly and radically reframes itself.

Clairvius’s death turns out to have been the consequence of familial jealousy, and his exploitation as a slave comes at the hands of black plantation farmers, not white men—at least not that we’re made aware of. And if the film is rendered with a veracity that a documentarian would envy, that’s a result of Bonello drawing inspiration from accounts of Haitian slaves being put in medically induced states of “zombification” during the early 20th century. This has the effect of recasting a supernatural fiction narrative as reconstructed history.

Bonello also never gives us the racially charged confrontation that Mélissa and Fanny’s relationship seems to be building toward, as he’s interested in their racial backgrounds only insofar as it shapes their modes of self-identification. Fanny’s refusal to accept her life in the present sets her on a collision course with the forces of Mélissa’s ancestry, and leads to a cataclysm of psychological horror that sees one of these forces to take possession over the other—an undead history rising up to claim a living one. Mélissa, though, draws her identity from her past and her present, and in the same moment that Fanny has her communion with the spiritual forces of voodoo, Mélissa delivers an aural history on the subject—a kind of counter-lecture to those of the white, blowhard professors in Zombi Child.

The film’s off-kilter mix of horror, historiography, and youth movie affords Bonello plenty of opportunity to indulge his pet themes and motifs. He spends much time lingering throughout scenes set at the academy on the sociality of the young women and their engagement with pop culture (notably, Mélissa gives a presentation to her class on Rihanna). In fact, Bonello’s fascination with the dynamics of these relationships seems to drive his interest in the horror genre more so even than the film’s most obvious antecedent, Jacques Tourneur’s I Walked with a Zombie—as is indicated by a pretty explicit homage to Brian De Palma’s Carrie.

The film’s most intriguing facet, though, is the way Bonello plays with temporality. The dialectical relationship between past and present has become a central organizing principle of Bonello’s artistry, evident in his anachronistic soundtrack choices and his unmooring of characters from their period settings through decidedly modern behaviors or situations, but here he approaches that dialectic in a crucially different manner. Instead of overlaying modern-day signifiers on a period piece setting, as he did in House of Pleasures, Zombi Child suggests two temporalities that exist parallel to each other. And the anxiety this creates—through discursive editing and match cuts—leads to a feverish payoff, one that uses genre and supernatural elements to further Bonello’s idea of there being one historical continuity.

Cast: Adilé David, Ginite Popote, Louise Labeque, Mackenson Bijou, Mathilde Riu, Ninon François, Patrick Boucheron, Saadia Bentaïeb, Sayyid El Alami, Wislanda Louimat, Katiana Milfort Director: Bertrand Bonello Screenwriter: Bertrand Bonello Running Time: 103 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: In Diamantino, Strident Political Satire and Whimsy Go Toe to Toe

The film is at its strongest when depicting how Diamantino becomes a tool of politicians hoping to oust Portugal from the EU.

2.5

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Diamantino
Photo: Kino Lorber

Part absurdist character study, part satire of various European political crises, Diamantino envisions a Candide-like soccer megastar, Diamantino Matamouros (Carloto Cotta), possessed of naïve but intense imaginations. He lives in a colossal chateau and sleeps on pillows and sheets with his face printed on them, and spends much of his waking life riding the seas on a yacht that’s big enough to ferry a small army. Despite being arguably the most famous person in Portugal, and among the most famous in the world, he’s oblivious to his star power and the weighty expectations placed on him by soccer fans.

Throughout the film, writer-directors Gabriel Abrantes and Daniel Schmidt delight in playing up the precarious balance between Diamantino’s self-absorption and his sweet absent-mindedness. Unencumbered by an entourage, Diamantino rarely interacts with anyone besides his loving, supportive father, Chico (Chico Chapas), whose humble kindness is rather jarring when set against the palatial trappings of the family’s digs. Even on the soccer pitch, Diamantino doesn’t exude the focus one associates with an elite athlete, as he spends matches fantasizing about running with colossal, fluffy puppies—playful daydreams that somehow guide his movements as he slips past other players and scores goals.

Diamantino’s carefree, seemingly unflappable temperament, however, is disrupted when he spots a raft of refugees while boating, and his glimpse at real human misery shakes him to the core—so much so that during a make-or-break penalty kick that will decide the World Cup final, he’s too distracted to make the shot, costing Portugal the match. The film’s manic tone swings into overdrive at this point, as Diamantino’s daydreams of haunted refugees are contrasted with his tear-streaked face when it’s blown up on jumbotrons, effectively positioning him as a symbol of his country’s spectacular defeat. And all the while his evil twin sisters (Anabela Moreira and Margarida Moreira) scream at the television set playing the game inside the family’s living room, causing Chico to have a fatal stroke.

This delirious sequence, touching on a celebrity’s political preoccupation and viral media culture, exhibits an audaciousness that’s disappeared from much contemporary comedy, and it sets the tone for the film’s freewheeling style. Humiliated into early retirement, Diamantino announces his embrace of the sort of celebrity activism that regularly comes in for ridicule, declaring that he will adopt a refugee child to honor both the humanitarian crisis and his late father. The Portuguese secret service, already investigating him for suspected money laundering, uses Diamantino’s proclamation to set up an undercover agent, Aisha (Cleo Tavares), to pose as a Cape Verdean refugee child, Rahim, in order to get into his house to gather clues for their case. And while Aisha only finds hilarious evidence of the player’s innocence (his computer files consist of nothing but pet photos), she continues her ruse, if only for the filmmakers to add yet another wrinkle—a lesbian relationship with her colleague, Lucia (Maria Leite)—to the film’s already dense array of plots and themes.

Aisha and Lucia’s presence in Diamantino may turn the dial up on the film’s hijinks, but in the process stalls its satirical thrust. To be sure, the film wrings much humor from Aisha’s infiltration of Diamantino’s home, mostly from how quickly she discovers that his innocence is beyond a doubt and that his cruel sisters are comically guilty, as they keep their offshore accounts on a desktop shortcut. Diamantino’s interactions with Aisha are amusing insofar as Cotta commits fully to his character’s over-eager treatment of “Rahim,” serving his adopted child breakfast in bed and getting into tickle fights that underscore the man’s emotional stuntedness. Yet these moments soon come to feel redundant, leaning too much on Lucia’s petulant anger for comic effect as Aisha grows increasingly close to Diamantino.

That Diamantino and Aisha’s relationship comes to define the last act of the film ultimately detracts from the riotous vision that Abrantes and Schmidt sketch of roiling EU tensions and the way celebrity culture can be just another element in the viral branding of extreme politics. Diamantino is on its strongest footing when depicting how its main character becomes a tool of politicians hoping to oust Portugal from the EU. One scene sees him starring in “Pexit” commercial as a folk hero from the Reconquista, during which Muslims were expelled from the Iberian Peninsula. The right-wing politicians who fund the ad clearly pledge allegiance to the historical figure’s Islamophobia, though it’s also obvious that they hope that the pleasure Diamantino takes in dancing around in his costume will undercut that impression.

Elsewhere, Diamantino is used as a lab rat for a company that attempts to clone him in order to produce the world’s best soccer team. This stretch finds the film at its most profound, in part because it’s impossible to believe that scientists and supercomputers fail to fathom how a man who lives on an all-sugar diet and daydreams about puppies on the pitch could be the world’s best athlete. The filmmakers draw a line between the absurdity of these experiments and the insidious quest for racial purity behind most eugenics movements, suggesting that neo-fascists are so prone to celebrity worship that they might mistake their favorite star for the master race. It’s rich, relevant material for satire, so it’s a shame that the film pivots away from it to resolve around Diamantino’s relatively straightforward pursuit of happiness.

Cast: Carloto Cotta, Cleo Tavares, Anabela Moreira, Margarida Moreira, Carla Maciel, Chico Chapas, Maria Leite, Filipe Vargas, Joana Barrios Director: Gabriel Abrantes, Daniel Schmidt Screenwriter: Gabriel Abrantes, Daniel Schmidt Distributor: Kino Lorber Running Time: 96 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Review: The Tomorrow Man Gets Too Caught Up in Its Pursuit of Preciousness

The film is content to peddle the naïve notion that love is the panacea for all that ails you.

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The Tomorrow Man
Photo: Bleecker Street

The retired recluse at the center of writer-director Noble Jones’s The Tomorrow Man spends his days intensely preparing for the apocalypse. When Ed Hemsler (John Lithgow) isn’t meticulously organizing his home and secret fallout shelter, he’s posting conspiracy theories on an internet forum or glued to the local news. At least, that is, until a female news anchor (Wendy Makkena) starts to directly address him, at which point he turns off his television and tries to get his head straight. But Ed can’t really seem to find a way of easing his troubled mind. Indeed, even after engaging in extended human contact via phone conversations with his son, Brian (Derek Cecil), the old man inevitably launches into diatribes packed with half-baked ideas and comprehensive survival advice.

You’d be correct in thinking that Ed sounds a lot like Michael Shannon’s Curtis from Take Shelter, and for a short time, he follows a similar trajectory. But where Jeff Nichols’s film thrives in the ambiguous space between objective reality and the mind of its strange yet plausibly prescient protagonist, The Tomorrow Man never gives credence to any of Ed’s protestations of doom and gloom, seeing them as symptoms of his loneliness and isolation. And while his extreme paranoia is unmistakably a form of mental illness, Jones increasingly treats it with less and less concern as the film moves forward, instead using it as fodder for both quirky comedy and the catalyst for a light-hearted septuagenarian romance.

Enter Ronnie (Blythe Danner), the beautiful but equally socially awkward woman whom Ed meets while stocking up on supplies at the local grocery store. Her subtly twitchy awkwardness serves as the perfect balance to Ed’s boisterous neuroticism; her steadfast use of cash and strategic purchasing leads Ed to believe that he’s found a kindred spirit, one who’s equally prepped for the end of the world. Naturally, there’s a catch, and the ever-fastidious Ed eventually discovers Ronnie’s deep, dark secret: that she’s a hoarder.

It’s a fairly ridiculous odd-couple scenario, but when Jones keeps things small and focuses on Ed and Ronnie’s burgeoning love affair and Ronnie’s clumsy efforts at tempering Ed’s cantankerousness, Lithgow and Danner imbue the film with a warmth and generosity that lends their characters a bit of humanity. The two actors’ effortlessly charming rapport enlivens, at least in brief spurts, a film that otherwise reduces its characters to their eccentricities, from her love of war documentaries to his appreciation of ball bearings.

But The Tomorrow Man displays an utter lack of interest in exploring how Ed and Ronnie came to be so reclusive. Following their initial meet cute, the film gets caught up in its pursuit of preciousness. And Jones’s indifference to the more disturbing elements of his characters’ interior worlds effectively reduces serious mental health issues to harmless neuroses. Late into The Tomorrow Man, Ed takes to the message boards to post that “sometimes people need to be who they are even if they don’t want to be who they are.” It’s a sentiment of acceptance that’s hard to argue against, but one that ignores the fact that Ed and Ronnie are in dire need of psychiatric help. And that’s because Jones is content to peddle the naïve notion that, regardless of your situation, love is the panacea for all that ails you.

Cast: John Lithgow, Blythe Danner, Derek Cecil, Katie Aselton, Sophie Thatcher, Eve Harlow, Wendy Makkena Director: Noble Jones Screenwriter: Noble Jones Distributor: Bleecker Street Running Time: 94 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019

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Cannes Review: The Dead Don’t Die Is Undone by its Meta-Film Aspirations

In Jim Jarmusch’s film, what starts as a subtle undercurrent of knowing humor curdles into overt self-referentiality.

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Dead Don't Die
Photo: Focus Features

Jim Jarmusch’s strength has always been his ability to craft films that seem lackadaisical and navel-gazing on the surface, but which are actually very methodical, revealing essential truths about the socioeconomic conditions of modern American life. The filmmaker’s latest, The Dead Don’t Die, zips through vignettes set in the small town of Centerville in the days leading up to the zombie apocalypse, and for an hour-plus, the film is sharp, acerbic, and surprisingly melancholic, probing at the generational divides between its characters, who behave in vastly different ways throughout the end of days.

Eventually, however, and perhaps because Jarmusch senses that his trademark deadpan doesn’t have the same novel appeal that it once did, what starts as a subtle undercurrent of knowing humor curdles into overt self-referentiality. It’s not so much a snapping-into-focus as a whiplash-inducing lurch into meta-film territory that Jarmusch doesn’t seem to realize is already a very stale play for this genre of film.

Or maybe he just doesn’t care. There’s much evidence here to suggest that Jarmusch’s prime interest in making a zombie movie is to emphasize the soul-deadening state of America, maybe even the world. So when the film’s zombies roam around murmuring the names of the products they consumed when they were alive (Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, coffee, and so on), writing this all off as a lame literalization of the most prevalent theme from George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead isn’t so much a scathing critique of his approach as a confirmation of the message he’s imparting: that our culture is nothing but a zombified version of itself.

The Dead Don’t Die is at its best when mulling the contours of the relationships between the cross-generational cast of characters. Neither Cliff (Bill Murray), the resigned, veteran cop, nor Ronnie (Adam Driver), his self-aware but generally unfeeling rookie partner, are particularly well drawn in and of themselves, but their repartee makes them interesting, as Cliff’s air of wisdom and experience dissipates when he finally realizes that Ronnie understands the rules of their genre-inflected universe better than he ever will, and Ronnie, all stoical resolve, is unable to process Cliff’s sobering, earnest emotional outbursts.

The Venn diagram of all things Jarmuschian and all things Lynchian has always shown a significant bit of overlap, but in working with an ensemble cast that throws together longtime collaborators with a gallery of fresh faces—all populating a mosaic of small-town life that’s pervaded by ethereal dread—Jarmusch mounts something akin to his own Twin Peaks: The Return. The greatest affinity between The Dead Don’t Die and David Lynch’s series, though, is the shared interest in investigating how a younger generation can assimilate into the filmmakers’ highly idiosyncratic styles and affect the tenor of their worldviews.

To that end, The Dead Don’t Die feels most poignant when it threads the experience of its various characters and exerts a kind of equalizing force over them. The best example of this, and also something like the film’s philosophical lodestone, is the eponymous country theme song, recorded by Sturgill Simpson and played in various contexts throughout. The song’s ingratiating, hummable melody eventually illuminates how art can have disparate effects on audiences. For the carefree hipster played by Selena Gomez, the tune is an outlet for escape as she drives through the countryside. But it becomes downright oppressive when Cliff gets sick of Ronnie playing it in their police car and chucks the CD out the window.

That range of response is also reflected in the overall trajectory of the film, which begins in a register of playful irreverence—even as characters spout pronouncements of environmental disaster wrought by fracking, or ponder what kind of creature may have mauled two women found dead at a diner—before gradually succumbing to its anger. That isn’t inherently bad, of course, but the film’s dreary, didactic denouement proves that Jarmusch is unable to translate his righteous fury at the state of the world into a cinematic statement as compelling, creative, or weird as The Dead Don’t Die manages to be when it’s simply content to be a hangout movie that just so happens to be set during the zombie apocalypse.

Cast: Bill Murray, Adam Driver, Tilda Swinton, Chloë Sevigny, Danny Glover, Caleb Landry Jones, Selena Gomez, Austin Butler, Luka Sabbat, Rosie Perez, Eszter Balint, Iggy Pop, Sara Driver, RZA, Carol Kane, Larry Fessenden, Tom Waits Director: Jim Jarmusch Screenwriter: Jim Jarmusch Distributor: Focus Features Running Time: 103 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum Sees a Series Resting on Its Laurels

The choreography is as brutal as you expect, but the repetition in style from the first two films makes the effect less surprising.

2.5

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John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum
Photo: Lionsgate

At the end of another knock-down, drag-out pummeling in Chad Stahelski’s John Wick 3: Parabellum, the man with the samurai sword sticking out of his chest says to Keanu Reeves’s John Wick, “That was a pretty good fight, huh?” It’s a throwaway gag, the kind that action directors like to use for a breather after a particularly bruising melee. But it also comes off as something of a gloat—one of a few signs in the film that stuntman turned director Stahelski, for better and worse, is content to coast on a winning formula.

The third installment in this series about a hitman who would really like to stay retired and mourn his dead wife and dog picks up about five seconds after John Wick: Chapter 2 ended. Winston (Ian McShane) gives Wick a one-hour grace period before he’s “excommunicado” from the Continental, neutral ground for members of the criminal underworld, after killing a crime lord. A $14 million bounty has been put on his head, and as roughly one in seven people in the world of the film appears to be an assassin, that means that at least two or three killers with dollar signs in their eyes chase after Wick down every Manhattan city block.

The immediate result of this in the film’s pell-mell opening stretch is that the ever-resourceful Wick kills many, many, many people. He kills them with knives, hatchets, and in a particularly imaginative sequence set in a stable, by getting a horse to kick an assailant in the face. Much of this stretch is mindful of what made the prior films in the John Wick series tick. In other words, Stahelski puts Wick through an increasingly absurd and bloody series of confrontations whose intensity plays off Reeves’s hangdog demeanor with deadpan comic timing.

That fidelity to what’s expected of a John Wick film is initially a relief, at least before the filmmakers start looking for new dramatic terrain to explore. Normally this would be a positive development. After all, just how far can you stretch a concept that’s essentially Run John Run? But all the little story beats that break up the central chase narrative, mostly in the form of hints about Wick’s origin story, ultimately do little to develop the story or character and just serve to pad out the running time with more human obstacles for Wick to stoically annihilate.

Having more or less set the entire criminal universe against him, Wick has to call in just about every favor he has. Given his long and only hinted-at backstory, that leaves the film’s writers a lot of room to play with. Jumping from one roost to the next, Wick asks for help from the Director (Angelica Huston), a member of the high-level crime lords known as the High Table, and Sofia (Halle Berry), an ex-assassin who owes Wick a debt and who’s just as good as he is with a blade and a gun, only she has a pair of kill-on-command canines at her side.

It’s satisfying to watch as John Wick 3 expands the glimmers of fantastical world-building that had previously gilded the series’s retired-killer-on-the-run narrative. The outré garnishes like the gold-coin currency, the killer spies disguised as homeless people, and the Continental—lavish, crooks-only hotels that suggest what might happen if Ian Schrager got the chance to whip up something for the mob—work as a baroque counterpoint to the stripped-down economy of Wick’s dialogue. His response to what he needs for help as the High Table’s stormtroopers close in for the kill? “Guns. Lots of guns.”

The returning cast continues to provide greater and more nuanced depth of character than is called on from Reeves, especially Lance Reddick as a serenely authoritative Continental concierge, a scrappy Laurence Fishburne as the lord of the homeless, and the ever-lugubrious McShane as the New York Continental’s sherry-sipping manager. Asia Kate Dillon also makes a fierce new entry to the series as the Adjudicator, a steely emissary from the High Table.

The production design doesn’t disappoint, either, with its chiaroscuro portrait of an always rainy and crowded New York. Splashes of neon and lens flare play off the antiquated production design. Anachronisms like old-fashioned yellow cabs and 1970s-era computers are paired with a cutting-edge armory of high-tech weapons and oddball details like the criminal underworld secretaries costumed like Suicide Girls who decided to enter the work force.

As for the action choreography, it’s as brutal as you expect, though the repetition in style from the first two films makes the effect less surprising. Wick piles up bodies by the dozen and never puts one bullet in a goon’s head when three or four will more effectively splatter his brains over the wall. Besides the previously mentioned throwdown in a stable, though, the only other fight scene in the film that stands out is the one set inside an antique store: The unarmed Wick and his blade-preferring attackers have murderous fun smashing open and utilizing the contents of one display case, throwing knife after knife at each other.

But the further the film illuminates the spiderweb of criminal enterprise undergirding its world, the more burdensome the overlong story becomes. The somewhat blasé tone that played as just slightly tongue-in-cheek in the first John Wick is starting by this point to feel like complacency. But given the repetitive nature of much of this entry’s narrative, the eventually numbing action choreography—punch, flip, stab, shoot, punch, flip, stab, shoot—and the setup for more of the same in a now seemingly inevitable John Wick 4, it’s possible that even fans could wind up as exhausted as Wick himself.

Cast: Keanu Reeves, Halle Berry, Ian McShane, Laurence Fishburne, Asia Kate Dillon, Mark Dacascos, Lance Reddick, Anjelica Huston, Tobias Segal, Said Taghmaoui, Jerome Flynn Director: Chad Stahelski Screenwriter: Derek Kolstad, Shay Hatten, Chris Collins, Marc Abrams Distributor: Lionsgate Running Time: 130 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Perfect Is a Series of Lurid Pillow Shots in Search of a Soul

Eddie Alcazar’s film is a purposefully inscrutable, wandering, disconnected, symbolic, and highly precious mood bath.

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Perfect
Photo: Brainfeeder Films

Eddie Alcazar’s Perfect is the sort of purposefully inscrutable, wandering, disconnected, symbolic, and highly precious mood bath that you’ll either adore or loathe. There are stilted allusions to everyone from Nicolas Winding Refn to Panos Cosmatos to Mel Gibson to the granddaddies of modern cinematic surrealism, Luis Buñuel and David Lynch. But these references add up to nothing more than a catalogue of fetishes.

There’s a narrative in Perfect—sort of. A beautiful young man billed in the credits as Vessel 13 (Garrett Wareing) calls his equally beautiful mother (Abbie Cornish), who appears to be roughly the same age. Sonny boy has done something bad, having either beaten his girlfriend to death or nurtured an elaborate fantasy over the act, which, in this world, is more or less the same thing. The mother, all icy, well-tailored matter-of-factness, sends Vessel 13 to a remote spa somewhere in a mountainous jungle where she once spent time herself. There, he’s advised to choose his path, which entails cutting chunks of flesh out of his face that resemble cubed tuna tartar, and inserting crystal silicon into the exposed wounds.

Vessel 13’s acts of self-surgery are the film’s most original flourishes, involving some fun horror-movie gimmickry. The instruments for cutting the flesh come in a see-through plastic container, with cardboard backing, recalling an action figure’s packaging, complete with a mascot that suggests an anime Stay Puft Marshmallow Man. Vessel 13’s scalpel is basically a drafting knife—a nice touch, given that this man is tasked with making himself over.

But much of Alcazar’s film is fatal hokum passed off as a mystical quest for transcendence. In place of most of the dialogue is an ongoing voiceover, which is composed of non-profundities such as “The way out is really the way in,” “In this great illusion of love, an object cannot exist without something else to reflect itself back onto itself,” and, most hilarious of all, “The problem with the truth is that once you know the truth, you can’t un-know it.” Few films could recover from such an unceasing tide of nonsense.

Meanwhile, Vessel 13 wanders the spa’s grounds while gorgeous young women hang about an atmospheric pool seemingly posing for a special collaboration between Rue Morgue and GQ, which Alcazar complements with a neon-bathed lightshow designed to flout his bona fides as a serious arthouse figure. The self-surgeries gradually turn Vessel 13 pale and bald, fostering a weird likeness to Jason Voorhees from 1980’s Friday the 13th. Why would the spa’s treatment, which turned Mom into, well, Abbie Cornish, transform this young man into a ghoul? It has something to do with facing your inner ugliness and expunging it so that you may become a carefree hottie again, and frolic on the beach with a new, even hotter woman without fear of bashing in her brains. Erasing said ugliness also involves elaborate black-and-white visions of a quasi-Aztec society, where Vessel 13 sees himself as a barbarian eating a live human baby. By this point in the film, one might as well shrug and ask, “Why not?”

Perfect is desperately evasive about what it’s actually eaten up with: sex. The film feels like an excuse to corral a bunch of good-looking people together at a hip location and fashion a variety of lurid pillow shots. That’s not an inherently unpromising desire, though Alcazar can’t lay off the self-aggrandizing mumbo jumbo, and a sense of humor would’ve helped. The filmmaker honestly appears to believe that Perfect is an examination of privilege, particularly our ruthless standards of beauty, when it’s really just an embodiment of the same. This interchangeable collection of sequences has no soul.

Cast: Garrett Wareing, Abbie Cornish, Courtney Eaton, Tao Okamoto, Leonardo Nam, Maurice Compte, Alicia Sanz, Sarah McDaniel, Rainey Qualley Director: Eddie Alcazar Screenwriter: Ted Kupper Running Time: 87 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Review: Ritesh Batra’s Photograph Lives and Dies by Its Frustrating Excisions

In pushing so many seemingly crucial moments off screen, the film transforms its main characters into blank slates.

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Photograph
Photo: Amazon Studios

Ritesh Batra’s Mumbai-set Photograph is a film as reserved as its protagonists. Full of quiet, contemplative shots of would-be lovebirds Rafi (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) and Miloni (Sanya Malhotra), the film strikes a muted tone that serves as a conscious contrast to the high-blown romances of mainstream Indian cinema. Even as it takes a subtler, more realistic approach to romance across class and religious divisions in India, it almost self-reflexively resembles a Bollywood love story, but only in outline form, as if its stillness were an effect of its having lost the musical numbers that typically define such films.

In the tradition of so many works about star-crossed lovers, Rafi and Miloni come from different worlds. Rafi is a Muslim from a rural village who works as a street photographer, attempting to force his services on tourists visiting the Gateway of India. Miloni is a young, bourgeois Hindu excelling in, but not particularly excited by, her courses on chartered accountancy. They meet one day when Rafi convinces Miloni to pose for a photograph, using his usual pitch that a photo is a material memory—the preservation of a moment that would otherwise fade away. Miloni poses for the photograph, but lost in her thoughts, she leaves with one of the two copies before Rafi can hand her the other.

Separately, the twentysomething Miloni and fortysomething Rafi are each coping with pressure from their elders: Miloni’s parents want her to move to America to study, while Rafi still deals with admonitions from his grandmother (Farrukh Jaffar) that he hasn’t yet married. To mollify her, Rafi includes the photo of Miloni in a letter, claiming she’s his fiancée, and soon the grandmother announces that she’s on her way to Mumbai to meet the prospective bride. It’s at this point that anyone who’s ever seen a romantic comedy can guess where this masquerade is headed, and that the film isn’t going to be interested in a rewriting any rules. If anything, the places where the story does diverge from the expected path, as in a conversation between Rafi and a ghost, are more mystifying than meaningful.

Rafi’s plan to hoodwink his grandmother is contingent on Miloni’s participation. Luckily, he runs into Miloni on the bus, but Batra leaves their conversation out of the film, cutting to Miloni agreeing to the scheme. Her motivation, beyond the general impression Photograph gives us of her kind-heartedness, is that she’s lost the original photograph Rafi gave her. The photo was confiscated in class by her creepy accountancy teacher (Jim Sarbh), whose attraction to Miloni becomes a minor subplot. It appears Miloni liked her own image so much that she’s willing to play the part of Rafi’s fiancée in exchange for a new picture.

Batra excises other pivotal plot points from the film, giving scenes an elliptical, allusive tone. The point, underlined by Rafi and Miloni’s visits to a movie theater playing Bollywood musicals, appears to be the filmmaker’s belief that he’s telling a familiar story whose more rote moments don’t need reiteration. Photograph tries instead to focus on interstitial, lived-in scenarios, like Rafi lying awake in the one-bedroom apartment he shares with four other street photographers, or he and Miloni enjoying shaved ice and kulfi, an ice cream-like desert.

But in pushing so many seemingly crucial moments off screen, Photograph transforms its main characters into blank slates. For one, the absence of the scene in which Miloni agrees to lie to Rafi’s grandmother makes Malhotra’s character seem inscrutable, a meekly smiling void. In a society chock-full of imaging technologies, the prospect of a new photograph doesn’t seem a particularly strong motivation to entangle herself in Rafi’s lies—particularly considering that he involved her by using her image without her knowledge. Photograph’s admittedly clever conclusion suggests that Batra wants to make his audience swoon, but the film’s contrivances and conspicuous excisions undercut our connection to the characters.

Cast: Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Sanya Malhotra, Farrukh Jaffar, Vijay Raaz Director: Ritesh Batra Screenwriter: Ritesh Batra, Emeara Kamble Distributor: Amazon Studios Running Time: 108 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019

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