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David Lean (#110 of 11)

Summer of ‘89: Star Trek V: The Final Frontier

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Summer of ‘89: <em>Star Trek V: The Final Frontier</em>
Summer of ‘89: <em>Star Trek V: The Final Frontier</em>

A camera pans across a desert, its cracked ground rife with holes. A miner runs obsessively from one hole to the next. His reverie is broken by the distant sound of a horse galloping. Cut to a cloaked figure shimmering like some dark wraith as he rides toward the miner, slowly growing clearer and more substantial as he gets closer and closer.

This sequence, a visual quote of David Lean’s epic Lawrence of Arabia, is the eerie opening to Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, the ambitious failure directed by the science-fiction franchise’s star, William Shatner. Though Shatner had already directed nearly a dozen episodes of his other notable TV series, T.J. Hooker, The Final Frontier was his feature directorial debut, a contractual obligation owed him because of a clause that gave him parity with co-star Leonard Nimoy, who had just directed a pair of Star Trek’s most successful films, The Search for Spock and The Voyage Home.

Images of NYC and the Inscription of Louis C.K.

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Images of NYC and the Inscription of Louis C.K.
Images of NYC and the Inscription of Louis C.K.

It can be tricky to describe what distinguishes Louis C.K. from other stand-ups, even from those who specialize in observational, storytelling, confessional comedy. I first heard about him from a friend in the mid-2000s, who related to me the “suck a bag of dicks” routine, where C.K. relates his forensic analysis of a drive-by shouting. The way C.K. spins the recollection (I caught up with the routine on YouTube) into a close reading, drawing concentric circles around the moment of shock in order to reframe it and give it perspective, is a trademark for his work as a comic, and an indication of the way he thinks and dialogues with others. This practice—reframing, always examining, interrogating—occurs again and again both in his routines and on his TV show for FX, Louie. A close relative of the “suck a bag of dicks” bit is a conversation in the “Poker/Divorce” episode when he explains to a poker buddy just what another player meant when he made a crack about the first player’s mother. The crack is dissected and given context, like a Wikipedia article, and the genius of it is, he enhances, rather than mitigates, the absurdity of the original remark.

British Invasion: Brief Encounter and The Pitmen Painters

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British Invasion: <em>Brief Encounter</em> and <em>The Pitmen Painters</em>
British Invasion: <em>Brief Encounter</em> and <em>The Pitmen Painters</em>

Another season, another round of Brit transfers, and the newest Broadway offerings from across the pond will truly test your theater taste buds; this fall has a messy but delectable sticky bun (Brief Encounter) and a minutely satisfying yet rote cucumber sandwich (The Pitmen Painters). Some may crave the tidy, bite-sized appeal of the latter, but it’s the hearty naught of having the former that results in the more edifying choice.

Actually, you can witness both foodstuffs at Brief Encounter (they even feed you the cucumber treats post-curtain call), and nibbles or not, the production more than justifies the gimmicks. Kneehigh Theatre’s acclaimed multimedia version of David Lean’s 1946 heartbreaker has its share of nagging winks to the audience, and perhaps there’s a tangential ditty too many. But director Emma Rice, working with an excellent cast of hardworking troupers, has enveloped the evening with that inimitable let’s-throw-it-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks theatricality seemingly deep-rooted in scrappy U.K. upstart theater companies, and occasionally said tactic results in a shrug, but at least it’s always an honest-to-God, fervent embrace of the theatrical for theater’s sake.

Lean on the Big Screen: The Bridge on the River Kwai

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Lean on the Big Screen: <em>The Bridge on the River Kwai</em>
Lean on the Big Screen: <em>The Bridge on the River Kwai</em>

These days anyone can watch a masterpiece of world cinema on their cellphone. A familiar contemporary debate frames this as either a welcome innovation or a detestable crisis. You want to see a film. Questions arise. Will it be the iPhone or the multiplex? The Criterion DVD on your laptop or the print at Film Forum? Those who unequivocally elevate the static theater screen over the wide array of portable devices have no better evidence to bolster their argument than David Lean’s magnificent epics. “Imagine watching Lawrence of Arabia on your iPod!” they tell us. “Such a reduction in size would greatly diminish the film’s superlative visual power and therefore result in a less fulfilling experience.” I personally feel ambivalent about the general issue—hell, faced with the proliferation of options, I’m just plain confused—but in Lean’s case the nature of his work automatically dictates the necessity of the theater experience. I first encountered Lawrence on the enormous screen at the Ziegfeld. I recall that when the film ended I stumbled through the sumptuous lobby in a desperate search for the water fountain, feeling as if I too had just crawled across the desert.

The Conversations: Lawrence of Arabia

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The Conversations: Lawrence of Arabia
The Conversations: Lawrence of Arabia

Jason Bellamy: “It’s the pictures that got small.” Those words make up the second half of one of the most famous quotes in movie history. They are spoken, as any good film fan knows, by Norma Desmond in 1950’s Sunset Blvd., 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?

David Lean x 4: This Happy Breed, Great Expectations, Madeleine, & The Sound Barrier

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David Lean x 4: <em>This Happy Breed</em>, <em>Great Expectations</em>, <em>Madeleine</em>, & <em>The Sound Barrier</em>
David Lean x 4: <em>This Happy Breed</em>, <em>Great Expectations</em>, <em>Madeleine</em>, & <em>The Sound Barrier</em>

If it weren’t for Lawrence Of Arabia, I might well not be typing this out: probably some other movie would’ve sparked nascent cinematic consciousness when I was 10, taking me over the hump from ingesting every G- and PG- rated piece of garbage I was allowed to see (getting out of the house was very important in the post-divorce days) to actually thinking about what I was watching as something other than the easiest time-killer around, but who knows. Lawrence Of Arabia is a moment-of-truth moment for a lot of kids, because it’s famous, fairly popular in revival (would I have been the rep-going freak I am without it? It’s a one-movie argument for the importance of big-screen viewings), and the kind of widescreen spectacle you don’t need actual human experience and interaction to respond to. Of course, Lawrence is a great epic not just for its dunes—though I like to think my taste for the most static-framed kind of arthouse formalism gestated here as well—but for its acute psychological understanding of a man who surely ranks among the least explicable mass of contradictions ever to serve the British empire, something that took more years to appreciate.

Film Forum’s David Lean retro is the series I’ve been most excited about since their Don Siegel fest two years ago. It looks like NYFF press screenings won’t let me make it to every single damn film (poor me etc.), but I’m pleased to have filled in more of the gaps before the killer one-two of Bridge On The River Kwai and Lawrence (and, uh, Doctor Zhivago, har har). This isn’t an overview—turn to Dan Callahan for that—just notes on four films that all deserve your time, one way or another.

Brief Summertime: David Lean at Film Forum

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Brief Summertime: David Lean at Film Forum
Brief Summertime: David Lean at Film Forum

To most people, the name David Lean means Lawrence of Arabia (1962). Many still remember its famous re-issue in 1989 on the big screen, and few question that film’s supposed greatness now, even though Andrew Sarris originally condemned it as “dull, overlong and coldly impersonal.” That’s not quite fair; Lawrence often seems to be about some kind of deep-dyed English dread of inadequacy, and whenever Lean gets sun-struck with his endless desert vistas, Peter O’Toole pulls the film back into the far-out agony of one very strange, sadomasochistic man. Before that, Lean had won acclaim and awards for The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), his first real epic, and an even vaguer movie than Lawrence. Despite fine acting from Alec Guinness and Sessue Hayakawa, Kwai raises issues of duty and madness only to scuttle them in one of the most confusing endings in film history. In Kevin Brownlow’s massive, definitive biography of Lean, it is revealed that the director and his collaborators didn’t know how to end Kwai, so they shot the climax in such a muddled way that it’s impossible to know how the bridge is destroyed. By accident? Deliberately?

Wild Reed: The Key

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Wild Reed: The Key
Wild Reed: The Key

When Film Forum recently announced an upcoming David Lean retrospective, I had two reactions: excitement, but also puzzlement that I’ve seen more Carol Reed films in rep since I arrived in New York four years ago than any Lean films. Both Reed and Lean are terminally unfashionable figures, stodgy British masters (or hacks, depending on where you stand). And yet most people (besides Ray Carney) can admit an admiration for Lawrence Of Arabia; in fact The Criterion Collection has put out four Lean titles. So why is it that Reed is the one who gets shown the most in New York? Print availability issues, I suppose, but since 2004, in addition to Rialto’s deservedly successful The Fallen Idol re-issue, Film Forum’s also shown the mostly mediocre Our Man In Havana, and I think I missed a Night Train To Munich screening at some point as well. At this point, for whatever reason, I’m getting closer to a fuller understanding of Reed’s work than Lean’s. (Hurry September.)

William Holden: To Live Like a Human Being

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William Holden: To Live Like a Human Being
William Holden: To Live Like a Human Being

“I feel lousy about the pain that I’ve caused my wife and kids. I feel guilty and conscience-stricken, and all of those things you think sentimental, but which my generation calls simple human decency. And I miss my home, because I’m beginning to get scared shitless, because all of a sudden it’s closer to the end than the beginning, and death is suddenly a perceptible thing to me, with definable features.”—William Holden as Max Schumacher in Network

William Holden’s face, with its deep crags, blazing blue eyes, and the seriousness behind the straight-up all-American handsomeness, tells the story of the man’s life better than any biography could.