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.
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.
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?
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.
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’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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Jason Bellamy ruminates on cinema at The Cooler.
Ed Howard chronicles his film viewing at Only the Cinema.
Review: Sunless Shadows Is a Wrenching View of Patriarchal Power in Iran
Mehrdad Oskouei’s documentary is striking for the way its subjects describe horrific forms of violence in the plainest of language.3
Mehrdad Oskouei’s Starless Dreams is striking for the way that it unhurriedly paints a portrait of its subjects, a group of teenage girls at a juvenile detention center in Iran, before then shocking us with matter-of-factly stated admissions of murder. At first, you may find yourself trying to determine the documentary’s reason for being, alongside wanting to know the girls’ reasons for being incarcerated. We sense that the film is supposed to have a cumulative effect, built on prolonged observation followed by intellectual reflection—until we hear one of the girls say, point blank, that she killed her father. Her no-nonsense statement is in chilling lockstep with the lack of prudishness to Oskouei’s line of questioning throughout Starless Dreams. Whether he’s asking the detainees for their names or details about their traumas and crimes, his disembodied voice maintains the same level of cool.
Sunless Shadows, Oskouei’s second look at the same detention facility, initially focuses on its subjects describing horrific forms of violence in the plainest of language. When a girl remembers the abuse she suffered, all that matters is her words. Redolent of Claude Lanzmann’s approach, Oskouei strips his images to their barest bones as his subjects openly speak about their traumas, as if trying to avoid aestheticizing their pain.
In Sunless Shadows, though, Oskouei eventually digresses from this no-frills approach. By design, the film lacks the astonishment of Starless Dreams, suggesting a great story being told anew and now given over to a sort of formula. A similar relationship can be drawn between Joshua Oppenheimer’s harrowing The Act of Killing and its follow-up, The Look of Silence. Order is the essential culprit in both filmmakers’ attempts to take a second look at the same subject matter. The first film takes advantage of the emotional possibilities of shock or fright, but the force of an unexpected blow is difficult to repeat. By the time we come to the second film, we’re already literate in and, in some ways, inoculated by the banality of evil.
At times, Oskouei also uses a more readily recognizable setup for his interviews. Although most of sequences here take place in the girls’ dormitories, with them sitting haphazardly on the floor surrounded by their bunkbeds, Sunless Shadows is punctuated by interviews with the girls’ mothers, who are also incarcerated (and on death row), and scenes where each girl enters a room and looks straight into the camera to address the family member they’ve killed. These moments bring to mind a reality TV confessional, and their gracelessness is replicated by sequences where the girls’ family members are presumably watching this footage and crying.
The film rekindles the aura of Starless Dreams more faithfully when it doesn’t try to dress up the scenario that links them—patriarchy as an interminable metastasis—with forms that deny the dramatic sufficiency of the girls’ accounts. Theirs are stories of parent-child relations mediated by chicken-carving knives, of a father driving to the desert with the intention of pummeling his daughter to death, of sons fighting tooth and nail for their mother’s execution, unless she pays up. Overtly calculated mise-en-scène in this context feels like an affront.
It’s refreshing, then, when Oskouei harkens back to the core of his project, the ultimately futile killing of the father, the acting out of the unthinkable, the avowing of the unsayable. He does this when he allows language do the talking by itself and when he reduces the cinematic encounter to a matter of language: sincere questions followed by disarming answers. As when the filmmaker asks one of the girls, “Is killing difficult?” To which the girl answers, unwaveringly, “At the time you feel nothing, except for the joy of having done it.”
Director: Mehrdad Oskouei Screenwriter: Mehrdad Oskouei Distributor: Cinema Guild Running Time: 74 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: Song Without a Name Boldly Confronts a Legacy of Marginalization
The film is strikingly fixated on exploring loss and pain on an intimate and personal scale.
Georgina (Pamela Mendoza) wakes up in the early hours of the morning to walk with her husband, Leo (Lucio Rojas), into Lima from their shack in a coastal shantytown on the outskirts of the city. Because she has few alternatives, her late-stage pregnancy doesn’t deter her as she sits in the street selling potatoes to passersby. It’s only natural, then, that when she hears a health clinic’s radio ad offering care to pregnant women, it sounds like a godsend. But once Georgina gives birth to her daughter, the clinic whisks the child off for some supposed medical tests, shoos her out the door, and then seems to vacate the location entirely. In an instant, her life is upended, but as Song Without a Name sensitively makes clear, the indigenous Georgina’s degradation is an all too familiar one in Peruvian society.
Though Melina León’s feature-length directorial debut is set in 1988, it appears as if it’s been beamed from an even earlier time. Its images, captured in boxy Academy ratio, are visibly aged, its faded edges and conspicuously distorted elements bringing to mind an old photograph. As a result, the scenes depicting government officials disregarding the needs of the indigenous Georgina gain a grave sense of timelessness, a feeling emphasized by the lack of period-specific markers amid the ramshackle houses. The events become detached from their specific historical backdrop, suggesting nothing less than the perpetuity of disenfranchisement.
In Song Without a Name, the only person who lends Georgina a sympathetic ear is Pedro (Tommy Párraga), a journalist who, as a gay man, understands what it means to be an outsider, though he initially tries to pass her story off to someone else, as he’s reporting on a paramilitary death squad whose handiwork he observes early in the film. And just when you think that León is going to steer the film into the terrain of a conventional investigative thriller, she remains fixated on exploring loss and pain on an intimate and personal scale, through the despair on people’s faces as much as through the formal touches that reflect it.
The film’s backdrop is tumultuous, and the characters have to move on from the kidnapping without truly wanting to because they need to eat, to pay for the roof over their heads, to live. In a haunting moment that evokes how tragedy diminishes the connection between people, Georgina mournfully stays in bed as Leo goes to work alone, but not before he leaves a handprint on the window, barely visible in the black and white of the frame.
León depicts anguish in such stark, all-encompassing terms that she risks overplaying her hand at times, like one scene that positions the closeted Pedro and his lover, Isa (Maykol Hernández), on opposite sides of a thick line of tiles that’s only made more prominent by the camera’s distant position. But mostly, she weaves an atmosphere that borders on ethereal through the jerky distortions of Georgina walking home at night and the ease with which certain pieces of Pedro’s investigation seem to fall into place. León channels Georgina’s devastation to particularly powerful effect in one long take where the mother is taken out of the clinic but continues pleading and crying, unseen, from the other side of the door. Across the minute-long shot, Georgina is determined not to go away, and the scene fades to black with such painful slowness that she seems to be prolonging the transition through force of will, beyond the point where the audience might normally look away.
Cast: Pamela Mendoza, Tommy Párraga, Lucio Rojas, Maykol Hernández, Lidia Quispe Director: Melina León, Michael J. White Screenwriter: Melina León Distributor: Film Movement Running Time: 96 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: Beyoncé’s Black Is King Is a Visual Love Letter to the Black Diaspora
The visual album proposes a pan-African vision of legacy, abundance, and unity.3
For Beyoncé, it’s no longer enough for us to listen to her music. We must witness and viscerally feel it. Which is why the visual album is increasingly becoming her preferred mode of expression. As she did with last year’s The Lion King: The Gift soundtrack, the singer recruited heavyweights from West African dance music like Nigeria’s WizKid and Ghana’s Shatta Wale, as well as emerging artists like South Africa’s Busiswa, to star in Black Is King, which Beyoncé based on the music from The Gift. Out of a dazzling fusion of the hottest R&B and Afrobeat trends, this visual album proposes a pan-African vision of legacy, abundance, and unity, making it Beyoncé’s most wide-reaching and ambitious effort yet.
Black Is King is largely inseparable from Disney’s live-action remake of the The Lion King, and to a fault at times. The project follows the arc of the film’s plot, personifying the animal characters with human actors. A young prince (Folajomi Akinmurele), the human stand-in for young Simba, falls from grace and embarks on a coming-of-age odyssey that eventually leads him back home to reclaim the throne. Throughout, large-scale sets, wide shots of the Saharan desert, and eye-catching dance routines distract from this plot. Indeed, it’s difficult to catch when the young prince grows into a young man (Nyaniso Dzedze) as the two actors abruptly switch places between songs without warning, and the introduction of an underdeveloped subplot involving a mysterious artifact may leave viewers scratching their heads.
But Black Is King is no traditional cinematic experience, because it’s performance, symbolism, and music that are integral to it, not any narrative minutiae. To wit, unlike the original version of the album, the deluxe edition of The Gift, which was released alongside Black Is King, forgoes the intermissions lifted from The Lion King’s dialogue, as if to suggest that the songs speak for themselves, without strict adherence to the film it draws from as inspiration.
Beyoncé, who co-directed the visual album, interprets Simba’s reclaiming of the throne for her ends; his royal lineage is evocative of the rich cultural heritage of Africa and her people, and his homecoming is representative of the Black diaspora’s turning to that heritage as a source of strength. The animated and live-action versions of the The Lion King are beloved, if not equally so, and they remain among the few Disney films to be set in Africa, but as they’re both devoid of Black bodies, there’s something galvanizing about witnessing the lavishness of The Lion King interpreted by Black actors, dancers, and musicians.
Black Is King will inevitably be criticized for its ostentatious display of wealth and ostensible failure to represent the day-to-day realities of African countries—which is to say, what the rest of the world hastily and egregiously presumes to be struggle and impoverishment. The visual album’s purpose isn’t to draft some documentary-style exegesis, but to illustrate an imaginative wonderland of possibility and celebration. Black Is King may well be steeped in the opulence of drifting, pimped-out cars (“Ja Ara E”), and a head-spinning wardrobe of designer clothing (“Water”), but this grandiosity is empowering and subversive in its own way. The “Mood 4 Eva” sequence boasts a splendor fit for a Baz Luhrmann film, complete with a breathtaking synchronized swimming routine. Generations of families, from regal grandparents to rambunctious five-year-olds, reside in a mansion and partake in elitist traditions brought to the African continent by European colonizers. All the while, white servants wait on them as they drink tea and play tennis in a verdant garden.
Although Black Is King preaches the moral that Black kingship amounts to responsible manhood, Black femininity is just as integral to Beyoncé’s conceptualization of the visual album. As an unidentified male speaker relates in one voiceover: “Many times, it’s the women that reassemble us. Men taught me some things, but women taught me a whole lot more.” Beyoncé embodies a maternal figure at several points, cradling a baby in “Bigger” and playing a handclap game with her daughter, Blue Ivy, in “Brown Skin Girl.”
It’s this last song that is the film’s most stirring dedication to Black women. Overhead shots of a ballroom depict a formation of debutante dancers, fanning in and out like a flower in bloom. Interspersed throughout are glamor shots of the dark-skinned women Beyoncé sings praise of: Naomi Campbell, Lupita Nyong’o, and Kelly Rowland. For all of its larger-than-life grandeur, Black Is King still succeeds in conveying the stark intimacy between two people in a scene in which Rowland and Beyoncé share an embrace and gaze at each other lovingly.
If The Gift is a love letter to Africa—as Beyoncé herself described the album—then Black Is King is a love letter to the Black diaspora. In her narration, Beyoncé remarks of “lost languages [that] spill out of our mouths,” and an American flag bearing the red, black, and green of Pan-Africanism proudly waves during “Power.” Like the ‘90s hip-hop MCs who espoused Afrocentricity before her, Beyoncé turns to the African motherland to reconstruct a heritage and identity stolen by slavery and the erosion of time. At the film’s beginning, young Simba hurtles toward Earth from among the stars, leaving the streak of a comet’s tail behind him. No matter how far you stray from home, Beyoncé reminds viewers throughout Black is King that the great Black ancestors can immediately be felt in the stars they inhabit in the night skies.
Cast: Beyoncé, Naomi Campbell, Lupita Nyong’o, Kelly Rowland, Folajomi Akinmurele, Connie Chiume, Nyaniso Ntsikelelo Dzedze, Nandi Madida, Warren Masemola, Sibusiso Mbeje, Fumi Odeje, Stephen Ojo, Mary Twala, Blue Ivy Carter Director: Emmanuel Adjei, Blitz Bazawule, Beyoncé Screenwriter: Beyoncé, Yrsa Daley-Ward, Clover Hope, Andrew Morrow Distributor: Disney+ Running Time: 85 min Rating: NA Year: 2020
Review: Waiting for the Barbarians Loses Its Apocalyptic Power on Screen
Ciro Guerra never quite finds an imagistic equivalent to the novel’s subtly hallucinogenic atmosphere.2.5
“Pain is truth. All else is subject to doubt,” intones the stone-faced Colonel Joll (Johnny Depp) in Waiting for the Barbarians, explaining his interrogation methods. The line might as well be the slogan of both J.M. Coetzee’s 1980 novel and director Ciro Guerra’s film adaptation. An agent of an unnamed empire, Holl has arrived at a colonial outpost to essentially produce truth via pain. Horrifying the Magistrate (Mark Rylance) who oversees the remote outpost, Joll captures and tortures members of the local nomadic tribe, forcing them to articulate the “truth” that the Empire needs: that these so-called barbarians are planning an assault on the Empire’s frontier.
Coetzee’s novel, published at the height of South African apartheid, is written in an allegorical mode that, through its nonspecific frontier geography and generalized designation for its protagonists, broadens its scope to address colonialism as a whole. At the same time, though, Coetzee imbues the psychosomatic effects of colonial systems with an unnerving specificity, his clipped prose achieving a paradoxical expressionist realism in its descriptions of the bleak nonplace of the frontier and the depiction of the Magistrate’s inner life. But as true as the film stays to its source—Coetzee wrote the adaption himself—Guerra never quite finds an imagistic equivalent to the novel’s apocalyptic, subtly hallucinogenic atmosphere.
The film’s narration lacks that sense of interiority that makes Waiting for the Barbarians on the page more than a simple moral tale; the anguish of the Magistrate and the barbarian stragglers held captive in the outpost aren’t expressionistically reflected in the exterior world, and the adaptation excises the dream sequences and reveries that Coetzee intersperses throughout the book. The scorched-desert oranges of Chris Menges’s cinematography communicate a sense of the oppressive frontier environment, but the staging of the Magistrate’s moral awakening and fall from imperial favor tends toward the cold and distanced. A degree of alienation may be an intended effect—the titular gerund “waiting” already indicates the story’s Beckettian overtones—but Lucretia Martel’s Zama much more impressively, and hauntingly, blends listless existentialism and colonial brutality.
As a man who believes himself to be kindly and modest, even as he serves in a position of authority, Rylance crafts an instantly recognizable and sympathetic performance of naïve white guilt. Still, the Magistrate’s arc of moral awakening has a tidiness that belies the rough frontier setting. In an early scene, the middle-aged colonial functionary confesses that he has no ambitions toward imperial heroism—that, hopefully, posterity will remember merely that “with a nudge here, a touch there, I kept the world on its course.” Through a series of tribulations that force the reality of empire into visual and tactile perception, he will realize that he has been complicit in a “world course” of endless war and extermination—proving, in a sense different than he intended it, Joll’s thesis that pain leads to truth.
The Magistrate turns out to be virtually alone in his opposition to the regime of brutalization that Joll installs in the outpost. With his brusque disposition and strange accoutrements (his sunglasses are a novelty in the world of the story, and they have a peculiar, knotted design here), Joll is a Deppian villain if ever there was one. Thankfully, though, the actor doesn’t let his embodiment of faceless power slip into cartoonish mugging, as Joll mostly works as a Kafkaesque embodiment of cynical authoritarian severity. It may be simply that Joll doesn’t get enough screen time to cross the line between allegory and parody, as he’s briefly replaced by Officer Mandel (Robert Pattinson), a less outwardly “civilized” iteration of the imperial thug whom the Magistrate finds in Joll’s place after returning from an excursion to the desert.
Wracked with guilt over his complicity in the Empire’s campaign of torture and murder, the Magistrate takes in a native woman, identified only as the Girl (Gana Bayarsaikhan), whose ankles have been broken by Joll and Mandel’s uniformed goons. The Magistrate’s mostly chaste obsession with the Girl, whom he views as a means of soothing his white guilt, leads to his becoming a pariah in his own town, and the regime of torture he passively opposed is turned into a crucible for his new understanding of the barbarians’ plight.
There’s nothing particularly challenging or incisive about the notion that our main character must go through great pain to become a better person, and Guerra’s scenes of transmogrification through pain aren’t made to hit home in the way they do in the novel. However, it’s much to the film’s credit that it doesn’t see symbolic gestures on the part of oppressors—like the Magistrate’s Jesus-like washing of the Girl’s feet—as sufficient or effective acts of reparation. The story’s guilty conscience exceeds that of its protagonist, and the film, in the end, evinces the awareness that the unnamed but unambiguously European society at its center will be at the mercy of the “barbarians” that colonialism has invented.
Cast: Mark Rylance, Johnny Depp, Gana Bayarsaikhan, Robert Pattinson, Sam Reid Director: Ciro Guerra Screenwriter: J.M. Coetzee Distributor: Samuel Goldwyn Films Running Time: 112 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: A Thousand Cuts Sounds the Alarm on Rodrigo Duterte’s Tyranny
The film uses endangered press freedom in the Philippines to illustrate the threat posed to liberal democracy by weaponized social media.3
Centered on a heroic narrative that’s almost drowned out by the bleakness of its surrounding material, Ramona S. Diaz’s A Thousand Cuts uses endangered press freedom in the Philippines to illustrate the threat posed to liberal democracy by weaponized social media. Fortunately, Diaz resists the urge felt by many artists to see all geopolitical matters through the lens of America’s decaying polity. Still, it’s impossible not to feel the shadow of Donald Trump in the documentary when Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte tells crusading journalist Maria Ressa that her lonely, besieged, and truth-telling outlet is “fake news.” What works for one would-be autocrat apparently works for another.
Ressa is the executive editor of Rappler, a buzzy Philippines news site fighting disinformation at the source by optimizing itself for maximum social media dissemination. A sprite of cheery efficiency who seems happiest when presenting people with horrific facts, Ressa delivers a dire, if unsurprising, message when she says that “lies laced with anger and hate spread fastest” on social media. She adds that her country is particularly fertile ground for such viral firestorms, given that the average Filipino spends approximately 10 hours a day online.
While A Thousand Cuts appears more engaged in the flesh-and-blood conflicts of cutthroat Filipino politics, it highlights one of Ressa’s more impactful data dives: of a self-amplifying network of 26 fake accounts effectively spreading false Duterte propaganda to over three million people. The result of such dissemination ranges from fast-spreading memes (calling Rappler’s many female reporters “presstitutes”) to mobs (angry Duterte fans live-streaming from Rappler’s lobby while supportive posts call for the journalists to be raped, murdered, and beheaded). As is the case with strongmen the world over, the animus behind all this virtual bile is the reporting of inconvenient truths. All throughout the film, which commences in 2018 and follows the government’s anti-Rappler campaign through a court decision in June 2020, Ressa and her reporters put out punchy stories about potential corruption in Duterte’s family and how his anti-drug vigilante campaign led to thousands of killings in shadowy circumstances.
A Thousand Cuts presents this as a lopsided battle. Rappler’s upright, mostly young colleagues try to discern the real story behind a smokescreen of spin. Meanwhile, Duterte mesmerizes crowds with his surreally rambling speeches, careening from claims that a bullet is the best way to stop drug abuse to talking about the size of his penis. At the same time, we see his surrogates barnstorming around the country like fascist carnival barkers whipping up crowds. The president’s head of police, Bato Dela Rosa, is a bald and clowning bruiser who mixes bloodthirsty declarations of his eagerness to kill for his boss with off-key ballads. While Rosa goes for WWE appeal, girl-group performer and pro-Duterte mean girl Mucho Uson seems more like what would happen if a Pussycat Doll were employed by Steve Bannon.
The film is most darkly enthralling when it’s showing this combat (albeit a mostly physically distanced one) between a cartoonish villain like Duterte and underdogs like Ressa. In addition to bringing a frisson of interpersonal drama to the narrative, the almost existential conflict shows in stark terms just how much the country has to lose. The conflict over press freedom ranges from legal harassment to a barrage of violent threats. Some of the film’s most wrenching moments are the testimonials from Rappler’s inspiring writers, who are as dedicated as Ressa but not as seemingly impervious to the atmosphere of constant menace created by the sense of impunity implied by Duterte’s bullying swagger. “I’m terrified every day,” says Patricia Evangelista, wiry with tension and fear. “Maria doesn’t scare easily. I do.”
A Thousand Cuts loses some steam when it departs the hot conflict of the Philippines for the cooler environs of Manhattan. There, on a couple occasions that we see later in the film, Ressa speaks at or is honored by a number of gala first-world events, from the Atlantic Festival to a shindig with Amal and George Clooney. While these moments are likely there to show Ressa in more relaxed settings, they seem far less necessary than what’s happening back in the Philippines. Ressa’s happy-warrior personality shines so brightly in this film that watching her fight the good fight is all the humanizing she requires. “We are meant to be a cautionary tale,” Ressa says about her battle for press freedom and the democratic rule of law in an environment increasingly choked off by vitriol and propaganda. “We are meant to make you afraid.” Sounding an alarm meant to be heard around the wired world, her film does just that.
Director: Ramona S. Diaz Distributor: PBS Running Time: 110 min Rating: NR Year: 2020
Review: I Used to Go Here Mines Cringe Comedy from Collegiate Nostalgia
The film is almost sadistically driven to turn a woman’s trip down memory lane into fodder for cringe humor.2
Following the unceremonious cancellation of the book tour for her recently released debut novel, 35-year-old Kate (Gillian Jacobs) is suddenly afflicted with the existential angst that can result from taking stock of one’s life. Kris Rey’s lightly comedic I Used to Go Here proceeds to chart the aftermath of Kate’s personal and professional disappointments after she’s pulled in various directions by her desperate struggle for acceptance. And in doing so, the film initially taps into the insecurities that plague many a professional writer. But once Kate starts to cope with her subpar book sales by taking her old professor, David (Jemaine Clement), up on his offer for her to speak at her alma mater, I Used to Go Here begins to indulge all manner of collegiate nostalgia, trafficking in the clichés of so many works concerned with adults who struggle to recapture the hopefulness of their youth.
For her part, Jacobs is rather convincing at portraying the exhausting mental gymnastics that some artists do in order to appear confident and successful in public, while licking their wounds in private. Rey, however, grows increasingly disinterested in probing Kate’s state of emotional instability in any meaningful way, instead leaning into the sheer awkwardness of situations wherein Kate attempts to relive her glory days. Indeed, there’s an almost discomfiting sadism to the manner in which Rey has Kate grapple with one embarrassment after another as the young woman tries to regain some semblance of self-respect.
From the baby shower where Kate is forced to take a picture with three pregnant friends and hold up a book as her proxy child, to the uncomfortable revelation that David’s wife, Alexis (Kristina Valada-Viars), doesn’t like Kate’s writing, I Used to Go Here relentlessly stacks the deck against Kate. In fact, her failings are laid on so thick that it becomes impossible to imagine how she ever managed to get a legitimate book deal in the first place. By the time she’s had her third blow-out with her bed-and-breakfast host (Cindy Gold), her ex-fiancé stops returning her calls, and her much awaited New York Times book review is revealed to be emphatically negative, it’s clear that the film primarily sees Kate as a mere avatar for every struggling artist, leading her through broadly comic stations of the writer’s cross as her dreams of fame and success crumble on the very same campus on which they were birthed.
This parade of humiliating experiences is given a brief respite as Kate’s bonds with Hugo (Josh Wiggins), a college student who admires her work and with whom she shares a real, albeit short-lived, connection. It’s the lone relationship in the film that feels truly authentic, and it’s when Kate is with Hugo that we begin to get a sense of who she is and what informed her personal life before her professional one fell apart. But soon Kate is being pitted against David’s new star pupil, April (Hannah Marks), who is, of course, revealed to be Hugo’s girlfriend. It’s a particularly trite way of highlighting the stark contrasts between who Kate was in her youth and who she’s become in the decade-plus since, and it’s par for the course in a film driven to turn a woman’s trip down memory lane into fodder for cringe humor.
Cast: Gillian Jacobs, Jemaine Clement, Kate Micucci, Hannah Marks, Jorma Taccone, Zoe Chao, Josh Wiggins, Forrest Goodluck, Jennifer Joan Taylor, Rammel Chan Director: Kris Rey Screenwriter: Kris Rey Distributor: Gravitas Ventures Running Time: 87 min Rating: NR Year: 2020
Review: Like Its Characters, She Dies Tomorrow Stays in a Holding Pattern
Perhaps as a result of her attempting to avoid all matter of clichés, not just of genre, Amy Seimetz revels in vagueness.2.5
For a while, Amy Seimetz’s She Dies Tomorrow seems like a chamber play about a single woman in a tailspin. Amy (Kate Lyn Sheil) wanders her recently purchased, relatively empty house, drinking wine, playing opera on vinyl on repeat, and shopping for leather jackets online. Sheil, one of the rawest actors working in American cinema, informs these actions with wrenching agony, communicating the lost-ness, the emptiness of profound depression, which Seimetz complements with surrealist formalism. Lurid colors bleed into the film’s frames, suggesting that Amy is potentially hallucinating, and there are shards of barely contextualized incidents that suggest violent flashbacks or memories. And the subtlest touches are the most haunting, such as the casual emphasis that Seimetz places on Amy’s unpacked boxes, physicalizing a life in perpetual incompletion.
Seimetz and Sheil, who collaborated on the filmmaker’s feature-length debut, Sun Don’t Shine, and the first season of The Girlfriend Experience, are intensely intuitive artists, and Seimetz, an extraordinary actor in her own right, is almost preternaturally in tune with Sheil. The first act of She Dies Tomorrow is a cinematic mood ring in which Seimetz invites Sheil to explore the emotional spectrums of alienation. This stretch of the film is poignant and almost intangibly menacing, redolent of the final 30 minutes of David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, which also bridged mental illness with surrealist fantasy and horror-film tropes.
Despite its undeserved reputation as an inscrutable riddle to be solved, Mulholland Drive ended on a note of devastating, cathartic clarity. In She Dies Tomorrow, however, Seimetz pointedly doesn’t give the audience closure, which is meant to communicate the endless work of mental health as well as the lingering aura of doom that seems to be a permanent part of modern life. These are laudable ambitions in theory, but as it expands on its high-concept premise, the film comes to feel more and more, well, theoretical, trapped as an idea in its author’s mind, rather than existing as a fully living and breathing work.
Amy is suffering from more than depression. She’s convinced that she’s going to die, which her friend, Jane (Jane Adams), attributes to Amy’s falling off the wagon. But this fatalistic sensation is revealed to be contagious, as Jane councils Amy and then returns to her own home to find that she also feels with utter conviction that her hours are numbered. Seimetz then springs a startling and resonant surprise: Jane, a totem of stability to Amy, visits the house of her brother, Jason (Chris Messina), and his wife, Susan (Katie Aselton), where she’s seen as an alternately annoying and pitiable kook. Rarely has a filmmaker captured so delicately how we play different roles in different people’s lives, our identities shifting with an ease that’s scary when one gives it a moment of thought. The ease of this self-erasure, or self-modification, suggests instability, for which the film’s communicable death fear is in part a metaphor.
Eventually, though, She Dies Tomorrow goes into a holding pattern. We’re trapped with a half dozen people as they writhe in fear, proclaiming endlessly the approaching expiration of their lives. Seimetz doesn’t offer conventional horror thrills, but she stints on existential ruminations too. After Brian (Tunde Adebimpe), a friend of Jason and Susan, is driven by a death fear to commit a startling act, his girlfriend, Tilly (Jennifer Kim), says to him that she’s been waiting for Brian’s ailing father to die so she could break up with him after a certain waiting period with a clear conscience. And because this confession is delivered in offhanded and robotic fashion, you may wonder why Tilly wants to leave Brian.
We learn nothing else about their relationship, and so this confession feels like a conceit—an acknowledgment of the hypocrisies and evasions of grief—without the detail and immediacy of drama. Such scenes, commandingly acted and possessed of unrealized potential, are a disappointment after the film’s visceral first act. Later on in She Dies Tomorrow, there’s a moment with Jane and several other women laying by a poolside that has incredible visual power—bridging zoning out in the sun with complacent disenchantment with death with the power of taking control of female identity—but it’s similarly left hanging.
Perhaps as a result of her attempting to avoid all matter of clichés, not just of genre, Seimetz revels in vagueness. The notion of a communicable fear of death leads the characters to talk, minimally, of seizing the day, which is a cliché in itself. Seimetz is principally concerned with mood, with stylized dread that’s created by lingering on everyday objects and the use of slow motion and frenzied color schemes. Jane is a struggling artist who takes pictures of protozoa-like things blown up by a microscope, and Seimetz lingers on these to suggest that an explanation for life’s mysteries, or at least those of She Dies Tomorrow, are nearly within sight.
The apocalyptic atmosphere that Seimetz conjures here, especially among the privileged characters, is reminiscent of Karyn Kasuma’s The Invitation. That film’s ending was also disappointingly ordinary, but Kasuma gave her protagonists more room to breathe, revealing in their desperation, bitterness, and suffocating superficiality. In She Dies Tomorrow, Seimetz only gets that close to Amy and Jane, before splintering her film into off into missed opportunities. And given the film’s ambitions, that sense of squandering may be intentional.
Cast: Kate Lyn Sheil, Jane Adams, Chris Messina, Kentucker Audley, Jennifer Kim, Katie Aselton, Tunde Adebimpe, Josh Lucas, Michelle Rodriguez, Adam Wingard, Madison Calderon, Director: Amy Seimetz Screenwriter: Amy Seimetz Distributor: Neon Running Time: 84 min Rating: R Year: 2020
Review: Jessica Swale’s Summerland Revels in Recycling Tales As Old As Time
Throughout, the film’s characters exhibit little life outside of their moments of tragedy and symbolic connections.1.5
Writer-director Jessica Swale’s Summerland does a maddening double Dutch between cliché-laden genre modes. It is, by turns, a melancholic reverie on England’s home-front struggles during World War II and the looming end of an empire, a melodrama about a child teaching a crotchety spinster how to love, and a remembrance of a lesbian love affair. Each of these kinds of stories are typically prone to treacly sentiment, and when thrown together here, the end result is a film whose characters only seem to exist as vessels of pathos, exhibiting little life outside of their moments of tragedy and symbolic connection.
We first meet Alice (Penelope Wilton), a reclusive author and scholar, in her dotage, bristling at unwanted visitors to her seaside cottage in Kent. The film then flashes back to the war, with a younger Alice (Gemma Arterton) writing in the same home. Though tormented by local youths and resented by townsfolk for her antisocial behavior, Alice is perfectly content with solitude, until she learns that she’s been placed in charge of Frank (Lucas Bond), a boy evacuated from London as the Blitz rages on. Alice is, of course, outraged, and struggles to fob the child off onto anyone else in the United Kingdom, insisting that she must live under self-imposed isolation in order to focus on her research into pagan myths.
From the moment Frank arrives on her doorstep, there’s never any doubt that Alice will warm up to the child, and it’s to the film’s credit that it doesn’t obsess over her emotional thawing. But the boy’s presence does reawaken Alice’s suppressed memories of a romance she once shared with a young writer, Vera (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), during their university days. Their relationship suffered from their shared fear of discovery, and as it flits between past and present, Summerland never takes the time to build its characters, only providing simplistic glimpses of Alice’s past that are restricted to such overplayed images as the accidental brushing of hands and tear-stricken admissions of the impossibility of her being with Vera.
The revelation of Alice’s romantic life is the first of a series of twists that drive the remainder of the story, frequently at the expense of giving the actors room to breathe. Swale comes from the world of theater, and it shows in her functional compositions, which often frame the characters against the English countryside, typically in long shot and static medium-close-ups of them stagily expounding upon their feelings, almost as if they were playing to the cheap seats. And the film’s dialogue is perennially on the nose, as when Alice abruptly goes on a rant about religion and its suppressiveness that’s so obvious that even young, naïve Frank appears to understand that she’s really talking about her sexuality. And as each new dramatic upheaval shoves the slightest hints of subtle character growth out of the frame, the actors are reduced to repeatedly shuffling through the same gestures of shock and grief.
By constantly darting between so many overlapping forms of misery and longing, Summerland never gives its characters any interiority, making them purely reactive agents to the hell to which Swale subjects them. Though the film, surprisingly, concludes on a hopeful note, it indulges every dour cliché along the way, which, when paired with Swale’s drab direction, effectively saps the energy out of its many demonstrative moments of sorrow.
Cast: Gemma Arterton, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Penelope Wilton, Tom Courtenay, Lucas Bond Director: Jessica Swale Screenwriter: Jessica Swale Distributor: IFC Films Running Time: 100 min Rating: PG Year: 2020
Review: The Fight Is a Humanizing Look at the ACLU’s Fight for Civil Rights
The film justly draws attention to the perpetual work that must go into preserving democratic institutions.2.5
Wearing its allegiances on its sleeve, Eli B. Despres, Josh Kriegman, and Elyse Steinberg’s snappy The Fight often succeeds at making the travails of civil rights lawyers in the Trump era visually and emotionally engaging. It follows five lawyers at the American Civil Liberties Union as they shuttle between New York, Washington D.C., and the Southwest, spearheading efforts to counter numerous assaults on the rights of immigrants, women, and transgender people. The film might be described with equal accuracy as a humanizing look behind the headlines or as a particularly slick ACLU fundraising video.
After evoking American liberals’ most concentrated moment of collective trauma by playing audio from Trump’s inauguration over the production company logos, the film jumps into a prologue showing ACLU attorney Lee Gelernt obtaining a stay on Donald Trump’s “Muslim ban.” After this (later overturned) legal win, Gelernt becomes the lead on the ACLU’s lawsuits over child separation at the U.S.-Mexico border, while colleagues Brigitte Amiri, Dale Ho, and the team of Lee Block and Chase Strangio work on abortion rights for detained migrants, the notorious “citizenship question” proposed for the 2020 census, and trans rights in the military.
Lawyering and court proceedings become fast-paced and heroic in the filmmakers’ depiction of the crusading attorneys. Film crews follow them as they file briefs, struggle to balance family and work life, cope with surprising rulings, and—in a moment of unrehearsed farce—do battle with Microsoft Word’s imperfect dictation feature. Some behind-the-scenes moments have a rehearsed, reality-TV quality to them, like Block and Strangio’s stilted discussion of why Block should take the lead on the trans rights case, even though Strangio is the only trans lawyer at the organization—a decision that had clearly already been made before the cameras started rolling. On the whole, however, the documentary achieves the narrative flow it strives for, presenting its somewhat nerdy heroes rising to face the left’s most infamous bêtes noirs—like when Amiri presents a case before a pre-Supreme Court Brett Kavanaugh.
A limitation on the film’s project is that the sexiest part of a civil rights attorney’s job—delivering soaring speeches about right and wrong to impassive figures dressed in the black robes of authority—isn’t accessible to cameras. Federal courts allow audio but not video recording, so for the latter the filmmakers substitute minimally animated illustrations, inspired by courtroom sketches but rendered in much more stylized fashion—expressively shaded and, for some reason, dominated by autumnal hues.
The animated sequences emblematize the film’s main fault: how it emphasizes easy visual appeal at the expense of a more interrogative approach. The title sequence is a fast-paced montage of news footage sliding in and out of shifting panels that subdivide the screen. It’s a motif that’s repeated throughout the film, and resembles the opening credits of Parks and Recreation, as if consciously channeling the Obama-era optimism of liberal millennials’ beloved sitcom. Following a theme, then, the first third of The Fight also introduces us to the ACLU’s New York offices as an energetic, offbeat space: Among the generally youthful staff, the middle-aged and out-of-the-loop Gelernt, his iPhone perpetually on the brink of battery death, comes off here as a more competent version of Parks and Rec’s Jerry Gergich.
Despite how often the film tries to be consumable at the expense of being thorough, at The Fight’s best moments, it both humanizes figures who only appear in the news stories as one-dimensional side notes and provides deeper context for viral footage that has defined the Trump era, like that of migrant children being reunited with their parents. And while the whole has been engineered to not overtax viewers with details of legal labor, it also contains illuminating tidbits of courtroom strategy—like when Block and Strangio page through candidates for the perfect plaintiff to represent in a class-action suit, or when Ho describes the oblique angle at which one must approach arguments around government officials’ racial bias. There’s a more complex documentary on the legal front in the struggle against authoritarianism waiting to be made, but The Fight’s lionization of the ACLU justly draws attention to the perpetual work that must go into preserving democratic institutions.
Director: Eli B. Despres, Josh Kriegman, Elyse Steinberg Distributor: Magnolia Pictures Running Time: 96 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2020
Flesh and Blood at 35: Medieval Ironies
By all accounts, this should have been Paul Verhoeven’s Vera Cruz.
Paul Verhoeven’s Flesh and Blood is styled on screen as Flesh + Blood, as though the filmmaker were consciously working out an algorithm to account for his artistic sensibilities. By all accounts, this should have been his Vera Cruz: a down-and-dirty medieval romp that adumbrates the fallout of former partners in carnage parting ways and turning on each other. But the burdens of helming a logistically convoluted international co-production, wrangling a diverse and opinionated cast, and running the gauntlet of studio interference in the central storyline inevitably took their toll. What resulted is a solid actioner with flashes of brilliance. Outrageous in its unabashed blend of ultraviolence and profanation, Flesh and Blood stands as another testament to its director’s determination not to push the envelope, but rather to fail to recognize the envelope’s very existence in the first place.
In other words, Flesh and Blood is the anti-Ladyhawke, that other Middle Ages-set epic starring Rutger Hauer to come out in 1985. In place of the latter’s lush romanticism, complete with tortured shape-shifting lovers separated by a churchman’s curse, and a helpful little burglar played by Ferris Bueller, we’re treated over the course of the film to the more dubious spectacle of a gang rape and a catapult flinging plague-ridden dog carcass into a besieged stronghold. “Pretty strong meat there,” as the sniffling film critic in “Sam Peckinpah’s ’Salad Days,’” one of Monty Python’s funniest sketches, would have observed. However compromised the central conceit, moments of brazen effrontery help Flesh and Blood effectively shatter the staid sheen of chivalry studiously cultivated by many a medieval film.
Then, too, there’s Verhoeven’s cheeky appropriation of religious iconography for more sanguinary martial purposes. Early on, the sword-for-hire Martin (Hauer) unearths a statue of St. Martin of Tours, a saint with a sword, which the mercenary band of brothers’ resident cardinal (Ronald Lacey) promptly declares a sign from God above. Throughout Flesh and Blood, they will use this relic as a tool for divination to guide their way (with questionable results). Late in the film, Verhoeven brilliantly frames a shot with the saint in the background and Martin, a veritable double in the flesh, whetting his sword in the foreground. Needless to say, Martin’s proclivities are far from sanctified (witness the aforementioned sexual assault).
Beyond the portentous irony contained in these saintly invocations, Verhoeven doubtless has a larger point: Throughout history, relics and iconography have been used as armaments in battles between cultures and religions. They have a double meaning, seemingly proclaiming: “Not only is your god my devil, but my god has sanctioned, through martial figures like Martin of Tours, the deployment of all-too-earthly means by which to prove it.” In the end, the film’s greatest irony, and the often-pedestrian narrative’s most brilliant stroke, isn’t to decide in favor or against Martin. He’s of a piece with his nature, and he leaves the story as he entered it: unchanged and unbowed by the carnage he’s both witness to and agent of.
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