When I started the Motion/Captured Must-See Project, I published “The List Of Duh,” which was meant as a sort of short-cut. That list of films, by no means complete, represents everything from the first 900 discs in my collection that I consider the basics, the givens, the movies that I would assume everyone has seen.
I’m wrong, of course. There’s no such thing as a movie everyone’s seen, no matter how famous, no matter how basic to the history of film. And the proof of that is another Internet webmaster, Alex Billington, who runs the First Showing blog. Now, I wasn’t familiar with Alex until last year when Devin Faraci of CHUD zeroed in on Alex as a subject of scorn. Devin’s issues with Alex seem to be rich and varied, but one of the big ones is that “Alex hasn’t seen anything.” Someone’s even gone out of their way to create a “Fake Alex Billington” on Twitter, and I’ve seen other webmasters and bloggers slam the guy fairly hard.
But one of the reasons I have spent the last 14 years writing about movies online is because I think those of us who have this voracious appetite for movies, who have gone out of our way to mainline thousands and thousands of films, good and bad, big and small, mainstream and obscure… it’s our obligation to pass on to others why we do that, what makes those films worth that sort of investment of time and energy, and to steer people to the things that we think are most essential. In a world where you have as many options as we do now for entertainment, where you can constantly swim in the new without ever looking backwards, it seems to me more essential than ever to communicate our enthusiasm for the greats, the films that we hold dear.
So I called Alex. And instead of just lambasting him about what he hasn’t seen, I suggested a different approach to this, one that acknowledges that there are probably far more people out there whose relationship to movies is like his than like mine. Or Devin’s. Or Harry’s. One of the reasons I’ve had this long friendship with some of these other film writers is because they speak the same language I do. They have the same vocabulary. If I reference a movie, they’ll understand it, and they understand why I draw a comparison. And so if we’re going to treat this… all of it… like a conversation, then we have to acknowledge that if we want people to take part in that conversation, we have to invite them in, not attack them for something they haven’t experienced yet.
[more after the jump]
I asked Alex to take a look at the List Of Duh and tell me what he hasn’t seen off that list. He sent me back a decent chunk of titles. My idea is that I’m going to recommend him one film at a time, and I’m going to explain why I think the film is a basic, a movie that he absolutely has to see, and then he’ll watch it and, on his site, explain his reaction. And brick by brick, we’ll lay a foundation here, and hopefully it’ll motivate other people who have gaps in their own film knowledge to realize that it doesn’t matter… there’s always time to catch up and see things you haven’t seen before, things you should have seen or that you meant to see. And so once every couple of weeks, I’ll suggest another title for Alex, and we’ll publish these as this special series called…
When Alex sent me back his list of things he needed to see and asked me where we should start, I saw one title in particular that I felt he should see, but only if it happened to play locally in 70MM. And since it plays LA in 70MM about once a year, I figured we’d get to it eventually. I didn’t realize that there was a screening set for this weekend in Los Angeles, timed perfectly with the start of this series. Alex is leaving for Cannes this weekend, and he’s going on what looks to be an atypically strong year, so I figured if he could start the trip with what I consider my favorite movie, and if he could see it in the right way, then what better way to start this thing?
And what is my favorite film?
That’s a complicated question for most film fans. There are a number of films I cherish, movies I honestly can’t imagine my life without, but when I am asked to narrow it down to the one that sums it all up for me, that I love more than anything else, I have to be honest… it’s all about impact. The experiences I consider most important are the ones that altered me in some way. “Star Wars” when I was seven. “Halloween” when I was eight. “Raiders Of The Lost Ark” when I was eleven. It seems like a lot of those experiences were when I was young, and as I’ve gotten older, there are fewer and fewer moments when I am knocked flat by something.
In 1989, when “Lawrence Of Arabia” was restored by Robert Harris, I was a movie-crazy 19-year-old, working at a movie theater, going to college, and I already had my heroes, my likes, my dislikes. I considered the heroes of my childhood to be the authorities on what was great, and when I heard that Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg were behind this new restoration of this 27-year-old film, I figured it was time to give it a second chance. The only other time I’d ever attempted to watch the film was on television when I was younger, panned and scanned to hell and back, butchered to fit into a two hour TV time-slot on a Sunday afternoon. It was pointless, and I remember being annoyed by it. Still, if Scorsese and Spielberg were expending all this effort to clean it up, it must be at least worth seeing, I figured. And when I saw that there was a 70MM print booked for a one-week engagement in Tampa, I made arrangements to see it the first day, just to make sure I didn’t miss it. I walked in a little nervous about the screen time, but committed to giving it a shot.
I walked out chemically rewired by what I saw.
And I knew from the moment I stepped out of the theater that I had a new favorite film. “Lawrence Of Arabia” represents many things to me. I think it’s one of the grandest epics ever put to film. I think it’s a piercing character study of what pushes some men towards greatness, and how fine a line it is from there to madness. It is, compositionally, one of the most visually spectacular things I’ve ever witnessed, a testament to the extraordinary beauty of a part of the world I had never really considered before I saw the movie. It is political and personal and philosophical. It features one of the greatest lead performances in film history, and the supporting cast is, pound for pound, one of the best ever. It is thrilling and sad and angry and human. It is more a journey than a film.
And I saw it three times in that one week it played. And since then, I’ve seen it another eight or nine times theatrically. Each time in 70MM. Living here in LA, I am fortunate to have that scheduled as a near-annual event, so I’ve been lucky enough to take friends to see it, introducing them to the movie in the same way I was introduced to it. And each time, the person I took walked away rocked by what they saw.
If you’ve never seen the film, it’s the story of T.E. Lawrence, a British officer who became a controversial figure in the Middle East when he played a key role in the Arab revolt of 1916 – 1918. He became world famous when journalist Lowell Thomas turned him into a symbolic figure, the face of the conflict for readers everywhere. Later, Lawrence published his own book, Seven Pillars Of Wisdom, an autobiographical work that has been factually disputed over the years. Whether it’s exactly true or not is unimportant. Lawrence understood the power of myth, and the film traces his evolution from soldier to Legend, and the way he harnessed that to help a cause he believed in.
It’s also about Peter O’Toole becoming an instant movie star.
Lawrence is the sort of role that would eat most actors alive. I can’t help but wonder what the film would have been like with Albert Finney playing the lead. He was not only offered the role… he screen-tested for it and was director David Lean’s first choice. He just didn’t want to sign a seven-year holding contract with Sam Spiegel, the film’s producer. His loss is film history’s gain, though, because Peter O’Toole absolutely destroys in the role. He has this gangly physicality that works perfectly, elegant at times, awkward and goony at others. He has crazy blue eyes that seem to regard everyone else as aliens to be studied and analyzed. His obvious intelligence and his savage wit come shining through in scene after scene, and he charts a fascinating emotional journey for Lawrence, one where he’s required to change completely.
And as great as O’Toole is, I think I prefer Anthony Quinn in the film as Auda abu Tayi, a desert chieftain who is the first to sign on to Lawrence’s cause. He’s a huge personality, and Quinn plays him as a stereotype on the surface who hides behind that image, a crafty old warrior who uses sound and fury to disguise his own hard-earned wisdom. The way his respect for Lawrence ebbs and surges over the course of the film is complex, but it helps illustrate where Lawrence is on his own journey. There are many characters who serve as important markers along the way, like Sharif Ali (played with magnetic intensity by Omar Sharif), Prince Feisal (Alec Guinness, dangerous because of how benign he seems to be), and General Allenby (Jack Hawkins), and in each case, these are characters etched so strongly they could stand in films of their own. It’s amazing to me just how dense the storytelling is, and the script (written largely by Robert Bolt and Michael Wilson) is as rich and subtle as any great novel. The film starts with Lawrence’s death, and it traces his entire stay in the Arab theater, and I love how it feels like two different movies on either side of the intermission equator. The first half is all about Lawrence becoming the legend and doing everything right. The second half is about how hard it can be to sustain that sort of legend, and how it almost destroys Lawrence as a human being. It’s a rough second half, and it gets so dark at times that you wonder how Lawrence can keep going. Or why. And those questions are exactly the questions we should ask about heroes, real or symbolic. Lean understood how to draw you in and make you feel the excitement of the war that Lawrence chooses, but he was a great enough filmmaker to also realize that you have to show the toll it takes on any man to make himself a figurehead.
I honestly believe we will never see a larger physical production than this one. I can’t even imagine how Lean accomplished what we see here. It’s so huge, involving so many extras, that it almost seems like it has to be a special effect. Today, you just throw the Massive software at it, but in Lean’s day, it all had to be staged. It was real. And that accomplishment alone would impress me, but to make a film that is as intimate and personal and character driven as this one that also has that sort of scope and size… that’s what makes this great. I respect the rest of Lean’s career, but for my money, this was his moment, the place where everything he did and everything he was interested in all came together in one perfect moment. It’s a comment on the fading British empire, on the futility of any outside effort to tame the Middle East, and the arrogance of colonialism in all forms. That’s a lot to ask of any movie, let alone one as involving and entertaining as this. Freddie Young’s jaw-dropping photography and Maurice Jarre’s magnificent, pounding score both contribute to the artistic accomplishment of the piece, but in the end, it comes back to the way the film mixes ideas and spectacle. All the polish in the world doesn’t matter if your film has no soul, and “Lawrence Of Arabia” is nothing but soul. Time after time, when I return to this film, I find new ideas, new dynamics, new things to enage me. I suspect I will never be able to fully articulate why the film speaks to me the way it does, but here’s hoping tonight’s 70MM presentation of this classic masterpiece was a suitable way for Alex to begin what I hope can ultimately be a very fruitful series of articles and encounters with some of the very best that film has to offer.
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