Last night, I had what Roger Ebert called an “experience that should be on the short list of things that must be done during the lifetime of every lover of film.” I put on my comfy pants, grabbed a bottled water, and headed over to the Hollywood Arclight for the 8:00 pm showing of Lawrence of Arabia.
Lawrence of Arabia… the movie is a giant, an epic, an intimidating bull of a machine. I actually was intimidated by it, mainly because I knew that it was 4 hours long and was known to be light on plot and action. Also taken from Ebert’s review in which he recounts an interview he had with Omar Sharif, one of the stars of the movie: “If you are the man with the money and somebody comes to you and says he wants to make a film that’s four hours long, with no stars, and no women, and no love story, and not much action either, and he wants to spend a huge amount of money to go film it in the desert–what would you say?”
I had seen it once, but on a 27″ television and over a couple of days. The movie didn’t make much of an impact on me, and when something that is so revered fails to make a dent on my psyche, I always feel like it was me who missed something. So when I found out this beast was showing on the big screen, I decided to go see what all the fuss was about.
I’m not going to get into a review of a movie that has been talked about in hushed tones since 1962, because what is left to say? It is mandatory to see this on the big screen, though- it really makes a difference. I’ve never seen a landscape shot in such a way to frame how tiny people (and camels) are in the grand scheme of things. The director, David Lean, and his team composed shot after shot with the action happening in the bottom 1/8th of the screen, while the rest was filled with images of vast sky, desert, dune, and sun.
Doesn’t seem like much, but it does create a spell. And that is the key to this movie- you really need to settle in and just accept that what you are going to see is not Transformers. The cuts here are going to last long enough for you to get a good look around, and you will always have your bearings as to where you are and what is happening. For long stretches at a time, not much happens in terms of plot. There is a scene where a group of 50 men have just crossed one of the harshest deserts in Arabia only to realize they have lost one of their men. Lawrence goes back after the guy, saying “Nothing is written,” in response to the notion that it was the lost man’s fate to die this way. There is no dialogue following this exchange for what must be a full half-hour as we simply watch the men wait to see if Lawrence will be successful in his rescue attempt. We see a sentry looking into the blinding desert. We see the wind shape-shift the dunes. We see the landscape… well, being the landscape. Lawrence finally returns with the words: “See? Nothing is written.?
All this is very beautiful, but I can’t say that it isn’t a slow movie. It isn’t one of those that you could say, “Yeah, its 4 hours long but you don’t really feel the time passing,” because you do. It takes its own sweet time, and that is exactly what I appreciated about it. In this summer of terrible movies, it was pretty refreshing to see something that was made in a different time for people with different attention spans.
I read somewhere that with all the choices available to us now (IPods, IPhones, Satellite TV, Netflix, etc.), we are ultimately becoming more depressed. Our focus has become increasingly shorter- as Dennis Miller once said, “We are a nation of ferrets on speed.” If this movie were released today, how would it do? Well, theater owners wouldn’t want to even put in the multiplex because with the running time, it would be impossible to show it enough times to make a profit.
The kids who go to movies would be bored, bored, bored, and it isn’t really their fault. I think we have progressed where movies like this our just outdated. It doesn’t take away from the greatness of Lawrence of Arabia (and it IS great), but it does make it an outdated model. There are still guys making big epics, like P.T. Anderson with There Will Be Blood, but that movie was an action extravaganza compared to the leisurely unfolding of the Lawrence plot.
I’m glad I got to see it in this way. I don’t know if it needs to be on most people’s shortlist of things to do in their lifetime, but I am glad I can put a little check mark next to it on mine.