Thursday, October 04, 2012

Lawrence of Arabia

1962, US/UK, directed by David Lean

It's been a long time coming, though I had to be a good more patient than I would have liked: I was saving David Lean's film for the big screen, but it's increasingly rare for pictures like this to get the outings they deserve. In the end, I had to compromise on format, a point likely of interest only to people like my good self: I could have waited another age in the hopes of a local 70mm screening or settled for the new digital restoration on a somewhat smaller scale. While I'm sure that the 70mm experience would have been tremendously impressive, this was still quite the experience -- the sheer intrepidness of the filmmaking is quite astonishing, particularly when the actors, and presumably the numerous support personnel, are out in the desert for long stretches of the film.

The justly famous scene in which Omar Sharif first appears, almost as a trick of the light in the heat haze, gives a sense of the scale and the stakes, and that thrill is repeated, and perhaps even amplified by the momentum of the camera, in the subsequent sequence where we see Peter O'Toole materialise in the far distance after embarking on what seems a suicidal rescue mission. While I anticipated to some degree the scale of the picture, what was unexpected was the degree to which Lean's goals were those of intimacy and psychological insight: the thrills of the gorgeous landscapes, the swelling score, and the many points of physical and emotional drama are there not simply as moments of big-screen spectacle, but rather in the service of understanding just what drove this unusual, perhaps troubled man (in his screen incarnation, at least, given that the relationship to the actual Lawrence and his experiences seems frequently to be rather tenuous).

As articulated by Lean, it's a portrait of colossal egotism, where the fates of Arabian peoples are subsumed to Lawrence's own ambitions and efforts at self-understanding, though it's by no means the schematic psychology so familiar in latter-day Hollywood, which would probably set up Lawrence's anxieties over his parentage (his father held a minor title, and was not married to his mother, matters which are mentioned onscreen) as the precursor to a simplistic resolution. It's striking to see how Lean's concerns with psychological portraiture track from the much smaller scale of many of his 1940s films to his later epic phase.

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Boston, Massachusetts, United States