The Rear-View Mirror: Brief Encounter (1945)

Each Friday we travel back in time, one year at a time, for a look at some of the cultural goodies that may appear closer than they really are in The Rear-View Mirror. Join us on our weekly journey into the past!

David Lean is best known for movies that were anything but lean. Lawrence of Arabia, his longest feature, clocks in at 3 hours and 48 minutes, and Doctor Zhivago, Ryan’s Daughter and A Passage to India are significantly longer than your two-hour standard feature. These movies, however, are from the second half of his career; from 1940 until 1955, he was perfectly able to keep it brief, bringing in two Dickens novels (Great Expectations in 1946 and Oliver Twist in 1948) in well under two hours. He was an editor on much more movies than he was a director, so he knew how long a story had to be in order to be told well. Continue reading

Yoda isn’t always right

In case you were wondering whether I was ever going to write another blog post, fret not – I’m back with material for the next few posts. And yes, this warrants me taking issue with one of the little green jedi master’s famous pronouncements: sometimes size matters indeed.

Let’s contextualise this so your imagination doesn’t run away with you: as a film geek I like to see my movies on a big screen, so at home I’ve got a 50″ plasma HDTV that I’m fairly happy with – friends of mine buying bigger televisions notwithstanding. Most of the time I’m absolutely happy with the size of my screen… but then there are those times when a TV of that size doesn’t feel all that much bigger than the televisions of my childhood.

And one of those times is when watching Lawrence of Arabia on Blu-ray.

The cinema of David Lean is generally of the grandiose kind, calling for the big screen experience – though never more so than with Lawrence of Arabia. This isn’t just about beautiful visuals, by the way; it’s been years since I’d last watched the film, but even among visually stunning movies it stands out. Some of its brethren live almost entirely off their visual splendour, and once this aspect is removed they’re nice but by no means spectacular. Lean’s masterpiece, though, uses its cinematography to amplify the effect of its story and characters. It is undoubtedly epic, yet at the same time it is one of the most intimate epics I can think of. The size of the screen it’s viewed on doesn’t just make for pretty desert shots (and undoubtedly they are very pretty), it also pulls you that much more into the character of T.E. Lawrence (as played by a Peter O’Toole that has rarely been better), an intriguingly ambiguous character.

It is often said that “they don’t make ’em like this any more” when talking about modern Hollywood cinema, which may or may not be facile nostalgia hankering for a past that was rarely as good as (or in the ways that) people think it was. I wonder whether they ever made ’em like Lawrence of Arabia, though – this is not the big-emotions, big-visuals melodrama of Doctor Zhivago (a film that’s much better than I’d originally remembered, mind you), nor is it the action of The Bridge on the River Kwai, although both of those have some elements that recall Lean’s desert epic. No, for all the moments in other films that recall this one, Lawrence of Arabia is very much one of its kind, like its eponymous character.

And yes, it may just be the best advertising for a truly big TV screen.* Titanic? Avatar? Prometheus? Sit down and let the grown-ups show you how it’s really done.

*Okay, if it’s just visuals you’re looking for, any Terrence Malick or even Andrei Tarkovsky might do the trick – but a world where shops selling televisions showcase their wares with The Tree of Life or Stalker are likely only to exist in long-lost episodes of Fringe.

Lawrence of Arabia

P.S.: In spite of my pinko liberal credentials, I find myself entirely unbothered by the Brits and Mexicans in brownface playing Arabs. Go figure.

A tale of two movies

I like films that are cinematic, that show me images I wouldn’t see otherwise. I like directors who are audacious about their use of the camera and of editing. I like my movies not to look like TV fare. (I don’t like my TV fare to look like TV fare, for that matter.)

In spite of this, I very much like John Sayles’ movies. None of the ones I’ve seen so far are visually spectacular, although they’re definitely not drab. It’s more that Sayles clearly isn’t interested in David Lean-type filmmaking. As a matter of fact, his films don’t look like he’s trying to impress their audience. They seem, at first, unassuming little movies.

But, once you get into them, they pack a surprising punch. Much of this is down to the fact that they’re immensely political films, something not seen very often in American filmmaking. Certainly politics is often used as a backdrop for movies – how many thrillers or action movies get a kick out of putting the president in jeopardy? – but they’re not interested in politics, not really.

John Sayles

John Sayles’ films are, but they’re not of the finger-wagging, lecturing type. Clearly they’re mostly left-leaning in their politics – almost all of them are concerned with small communities being fundamentally changed by big business – but more than that, they don’t tell you what to think. They provide you with Sayles’ interpretation of facts, but you’re still the one who has to make up his or her mind.

Limbo, which we watched on Sunday, is a strange film. It starts very much like Sunshine State or Lone Star, depicting a small community undergoing changes, focusing on a small ensemble of characters… but about halfway into the movie, it turns into something else. There is a thriller element, just as there was to Lone Star, but what the second half of Limbo reminded me of more than anything else was Into the Wild (also see Roger Ebert’s comment on the movie). Sayles, whose focus on ensemble casts usually is almost as strong as Altman’s was, zooms in on the fate of three individuals in an exceptional situation. Yes, it ties in with earlier lines in the film about how Alaska is about to be turned into a themepark and how people want the illusion of danger – they want to feel at risk without actually being at risk -, turning these lines on their head, but in effect it feels like Sayles started making one film and decided half-way through that he’d rather make a very different film.

The net effect is strange but compelling. Ten minutes into the film, I thought I knew what to expect; one hour into the film I no longer knew where Sayles would take me, which was exciting and quite frightening. Anything, literally anything, could happen to these characters.

Limbo

And then came the ending. Absolutely fitting. And it felt like a punch in the stomach. Not because it was horrible or tragic or nasty. Because it was consistent to what had been set up. But, again, not the kind of thing you do if you want to impress or please your audience. I read that there’d been catcalls when the film was shown at festivals, and I understand why. But, the more I think about it, the more I feel that the “lady-or-the-tiger” ending was the only proper way to end the film.

But if I ever meet John Sayles, I’ll kick him in the shin.

 

P.S.: John Sayles is one of the consistently best writers for women, especially for middle-aged women, in American filmmaking. He should write for the stage…