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This Happy Breed (#110 of 2)

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?