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Sand in my living room
by Asa Butcher
2008-07-02 09:46:21
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Lawrence of Arabia
Directed by David Lean
1962, Columbia Pictures

Heroic, grandiose, momentous, significant, tremendous, huge, vast and monumental are just a few of the synonyms suggested by my thesaurus when looking up the word 'epic', and I can declare, unflinchingly, that Lawrence of Arabia deserved the American Film Institute's recent declaration that it is the best epic film ever if we are to judge it by those few synonyms… it even leaves you with the feeling that there is sand in your shoes.

Depending upon which version you happen to watch, the running time of Lawrence of Arabia comes in at over three hours - almost the same duration as the AFI's #2 choice for best epic Ben-Hur - but your attention is spellbound, and the sand in that 216-minute hourglass drains away faster than you would expect or want. The restored DVD that I watched split the film on to two discs, in the same way they split Cleopatra, and when I got off the sofa to swap the disc at the Intermission the joints in my body gratefully cracked and popped.

Sadly there is an element of compromise when it comes to watching an epic, such as Lawrence of Arabia, since very few of us have access to a huge cinema screen and 70mm projector. The best you can hope to achieve is to find the largest available screen and ensure every square inch is dedicated to doing the Super Panavision 70 camerawork justice - and not watch it on your iPhone, as Jon Stewart wryly joked at this year's Oscars!

In the DVD Special Features it was interesting to listen to an interview with Steven Spielberg, who was involved in the restoration and also filmed Close Encounters of the Third Kind in Super Panavision 70. Spielberg had the opportunity to sit through a viewing with Sir David Lean, who provided him with a live Director's Commentary, and he rightly observed that the film was made using no digital effects - all the shots were done for real. The film was made for an estimated $15m in 1962, but Spielberg believes to make the same film today would cost a whopping $285m, which is $110m more than the infamous Waterworld!

For those ignorant of the existence of Lawrence of Arabia permit me to poke you in the eye, but at least you have made it this far into the review and show signs of wanting to know more. The film opens with the death of Thomas Edward Lawrence and his subsequent funeral before flashing back to Cairo 1916 where he is working as a bored intelligence officer in the British Army. He is ordered to investigate the Arab revolt against the Turks in World War I, but slowly begins to find his loyalties changing.

Peter O'Toole was the eventual choice for the leading role, despite a strong preference for the young Albert Finney, but Finney didn't want to commit to such a long filming schedule (five years in the end) and O'Toole became a household name. What can I say about O'Toole's intensely dramatic and convincing portrayal of such a complicated man? I guess the best word would be 'epic' and it is such bad timing that To Kill a Mockingbird was released the same year because the Academy Award for Best Actor went to Gregory Peck - in fact, O'Toole has had eight nominations making him the most-nominated actor never to win the award.

When it came to the Best Picture award To Kill a Mockingbird didn't stand a chance and the statue duly went to producer Sam Spiegel for Lawrence of Arabia, as did seven other Oscars; two of these seven went to director David Lean and director of photography Freddie Young - both English, by the way! Before I begin to rain more praise down upon David Lean, I must acknowledge the expertise of Freddie Young, who actually won the Best Cinematography Academy Award every time he worked with David Lean.

It was the merging of these two great film visionaries that Lawrence of Arabia still dazzles and overwhelms forty years on. There are dozens of sweeping shots of the desert that leave you breathless from their beauty or reaching for a glass of water to rehydrate your dry mouth, but it is the legendary two-minute entrance of Omar Sharif's character Sherif Ali through a mirage that will send shivers down the spines of cinema lovers.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of the late Sir David Lean, who sadly died in 1991, but his epic films will ensure his legacy for a long time to come. Before Lawrence of Arabia he directed The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), also starring Sir Alec Guinness, for which he also won Best Director and that's another you should take the time to watch. However, for those of you who will begin by watching Lawrence of Arabia then watch out for the director's cameo as the motorcyclist by the Suez Canal.

Lawrence of Arabia is more a work of art than a movie and you should approach it as such. The technical achievement of this masterpiece was recognised by the Academy in the categories of Art Direction, Film Editing, Best Sound and Best Direction, but I would be amiss not to single out the score, written and conducted by Maurice Jarre. His score has become the quintessential desert music and you can't help but check your hair for more sand when it plays. Between his score and the film your living room will resemble a beach and you won't mind one bit.

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Emanuel Paparella2008-07-02 14:04:03
To review a work of art is indeed to invite the potential audience/viewers to enjoy it. This does the job indeed.

When Walter Benjamin defined art as auratic and then pointed out that photography and film had brought out the exhibition value of a work of art, I wander if he realized that in fact film and photography are all about exhibition; they are accessible to all and they make it as a work of art only with the consent of the viewing public.

Emanuel Paparella2008-07-02 15:46:27
As a complement of sort, here is an insight from a Greek who calls himself simply Stef:

"If we are to classify the two complete different cinematic styles, it would be those of Hitchcock and Ford. Hitch was a very 'confined' director. He captured his movies from the point of view of one character. His movies took place, most of the time, in closed spaces. In a sense, Hitchcock's films were a journey in people's emotions and a study in people's characters. On the other hand, Ford was an open director. He wasn't confined to one character, or one location, his films where actual journeys. His basis was mostly on theme, and his main ability was to amaze with his imagery. Thus, these are the two different shooting styles....Well, Lean combines both.

Which is basically why his best film, Lawrence, is the best film of all times."

Leave it to the Greeks to come up with a theoretical insights about the praxis of artistic expression! Arostle had it right: theory comes before praxis just as diagnosis comes before prognosis in medicine.

Emanuel Paparella2008-07-02 15:48:32
Errata: Arostle above should be Aristotle.

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