site stats

Lawrence of Arabia, the way it was meant to be seen

It's been, years, since I last posted, and the desire to post has lessened with each of those passing days and months and yet, sadly, my desire to make flawless and well-thought out posts has not; a mean combination. As such, I promised myself I would do this one quick and dirty.

My return to posting has been motivated by none other than my re-watching of Lawrence of Arabia on the big screen at Bytowne! When I was first getting into classic cinema I always lamented about not getting the opportunity to watch three films on the big screen: Star Wars, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Lawrence of Arabia.

The funny thing was that at the time I wasn't even a big fan of the film and yet still recognized that this was the type of film that could only be experienced in a darkened cinema. I first watched the film around 1999, the beginnings of my cinephilia, and at the time I found it boring and tedious. A few years later and the DVD-era had arrived and it was only a matter of time before a newly-restored fully uncut 222-minute version of the film was released on DVD. I decided to use this occasion to give the film another whirl. This time around, things began to crystallize, I started to realize that this wasn't simply a beautifully shot film with some boring obligatory biography/plot chunks spliced in, but an incredibly intimate character portrait, the complexity of which was beyond my comprehension during my first viewing. I happily purchased the DVD and devoured some of my favourite scenes over and over the only way I could, on my 27-inch television.

And then, last week when I realized that it would be playing again at Bytowne (for 3 days only!) I made sure that I was going to be there. And you wouldn't believe how disappointed I was when I thought that I was going to have miss it for one of my best friend's bachelorette party! I have to admit that some excuses briefly went through my head. Thankfully, I got the date's mixed up and I didn't have to make that decision in the end.

And so, as for this third and latest viewing: wow! I suppose its effect is evident enough in that it got me posting again after almost two years! Far and away my most satisfying viewing, visually and mentally. As for 4 hours being a long time? It wasn't long enough for me!

Even as I write this post days later, I'm still trying to figure out how Lean managed to make a film that was both supremely epic in its grandeur and scope and yet so psychologically complex. Before watching it I would have honestly thought that to mix such - seemingly - opposing elements in a single film wouldn't work well and to do either one well would be downright impossible. And yet, Lawrence performs both beyond just about any other film in history that has concentrated on just one. No wonder it had to be four hours long!

Epic, in every conceivable way.

Labels: , ,

Napoleon Dynamite (Jared Hess, 2004)

Following dinner for our church's young adults group.

Whoever was organizing had picked out the movie. I wasn't too disappointed as it was a movie I had been curious to see for awhile.

By the time I finally got around to watching Napoleon Dynamite – or was more accurately, forced to – I had already long been subjected to an endless string of context-lacking and seemingly banal ND quotes from various peers, most of whom’s cinematic tastes I found, suspect, to say the least. This cult-classic-mania fallout had admittedly conditioned me to expect yet another cookie-cut-juvenile-teenage film. And while its backers might still describe it as a juvenile-teenage flick, I can’t imagine even its sharpest detractors ever accusing it of being archetypal.

I was amazed not only by the film’s most noticeably unique brand of humour – a sharp contrast to the extremist gross-out comedies of today – but more strikingly by writer/director Jared Hess’s visionary direction of the film itself.

Napoleon is certainly a unique as far as comedic protagonists go. While he can be firmly categorized as a loser, unlike his other genre counterparts he never expresses any real longing to be part of the crowd and appears perfectly content being who he is. Neither does Hess shows any interest in dissecting or psychoanalyzing Napoleon’s behaviour to show it isn’t all a ploy.

The film’s unconventional narrative resembles a series of good ol’ high school “hey, remember back when…” anecdotes replete with such esoteric details as Tater Tots and reverse leg sweeps which don’t amount to an overall thesis, but certainly constitute or perhaps more importantly, evoke, what one might deem to be an experience.

Hess’s vision combined with the subtlety and restraint he displays in his direction are rare enough for any director in any genre, miraculous and unheard of in the world of teen comedies. You get the feeling that if this were a more “ambitious” (read: serious) film, critics would be falling over themselves dissecting the symbolism or metaphor of Pedro’s hair shaving, Napoleon’s dance moves or his love of ligers.

Unfortunately, ND’s strength ultimately proves to be its downfall. The film rests solely upon its unique vision and brand of humour, this uniqueness gives the film a fresh feeling, but with little else to sustain it, the shtick eventually gets old. We can only watch the characters stare blankly off into space so many times before it ceases to become effective – comedically or dramatically.


300 (Zack Snyder, 2007)

At Silver City with Steph, Chan, Andrew and Krystle. We had originally planned to see the IMAX version but it was sold-out so we had to "settle" for good ol' 35mm.

Trailers looked fantastic and I loved what Robert Rodriguez had done with Frank Miller's 300 spiritual predecessor, Sin City. Needless to say, I had high hopes.

Every scene in 300 is a beautiful mesh of – first and foremost – composition (thanks mostly to Frank Miller) and production design. Zack Snyder does an admirable job of infusing Miller’s stills with a beautiful sense of motion – most often of the slow variety. For a film that’s all style and no substance, you could certainly do worse than 300. That’s the good news. The bad news? It’s still all style and no substance.

Even in the realm of exciting and action-filled battles, 300 disappoints. I’d love to be able to say that it simply gets old, but truth be told, it’s never very exciting to start with. I was puzzled by how the battles which seemed most exciting (e.g. rhino attack, elephants, bombs) were only briefly shown, as if the budget for these scenes was cut halfway through post-production. All the fight scenes seem to blend together in a mish-mash of generic-looking enemies and Spartans with few identifying tactics or landmarks to make each battle distinct. The cinematography for the most part is also guilty of the same offense committed by many an action film cinematographer in our post Saving Private Ryan era: artificially creating a sense of chaos using a handheld shaky camera and shooting in close-ups. While Ryan popularized it by making good discerning usage of it, too many filmmakers since (Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring comes to mind) have tried and failed miserably to emulate it. All 300’s cinematography does is serve to replace a genuinely created sense of action created through exciting choreography and camera movements with an artificial and less satisfying (not to mention headache inducing and comprehension retarding) freneticism.

That said, 300’s most notable flaw seems to be that it lacks any sort of narrative drive, and not simply because we already know our valiant heroes are doomed to fail (if that’s all there was, we wouldn’t be able to watch our favourite films over and over). There is simply nothing here, to use my blog title, to keep our brains alive: no plot-driving action, no suspense, no three-dimensional character, and what little dialogue exists is either completely expositional or naively clichéd. A common grievance with action films is that they mash together a convoluted plot as a sorry excuse to string together a few highlight-reel scenes. I wish that could be said about 300, which makes no such token effort as it mercilessly cranks out one action sequence after another. Apart from their final heroic death, the order of any of the battles could be rearranged without taking away from the story because they all completely exist outside of it (which is to say that 70% of the movie exists outside of any narrative).

If the old adage is true, that conflict is the essence of narratives, then it’s pretty clear why 300 fails. The plot offers slim pickings as the majority of the film is taken up by random battles. And the only possible point of suspense: whether or not the Queen will be able to convince the council becomes a moot emotional point relative to the Spartans since the council’s decision will only affect the larger (more objective) mobilization of all of Greece and will not save the 300.

The Spartans themselves also pose a problem to the advancement of any sort of narrative. They are the most dedicated of soldiers, unwavering in their courage, loyalty to Leonidas, and cause. All this I can only assume was true, in which case, its undeniably admirable… and incredibly boring from a narrative and artistic point of view. Despite all its visual movement, the characters are faced with no moral/emotional conflicts and as such they might appear to be good or heroic, but from a storytelling perspective also causes them to seem inevtiably bland and undynamic.

Like a true Spartan warrior, Snyder’s film focuses on little else besides action, bodies, and battles, without time for moral/emotional conflicts or even self-gratifying revelling. I imagine Snyder himself tried to "immerse" himself in the time, place and mindset of the warriors. Unfortunately, it’s a role he should have left to his actors and focused more on his own role: making a compelling film.

  1. Why Jeffrey Overstreet won't see 300: Obviously not a review. Overstreet brings up an interesting point though which doesn't get aired very often. And I can certainly confirm his suspicions about the film lacking any real edifying meaning while flaunting sex and violence.
  2. Trailer & Teaser: I suppose it makes sense. Seeing as how the film is simply a pastiche of iconic images, it might not make a great narrative film but it sure does make for amazing trailers and teasers! I prefer the teaser to the trailer personally...


2001: A Space Odyssey! In theaters! Again!

Had to document it before I forget. Last Saturday, got to see Stanley Kubrick's masterpiece, 2001: A Space Odyssey for the second time in my life on 35mm at the Bytowne (how lucky am I?!).

Krystle came with me and was - luckily - the catalyst for going again. She still had yet to see a Kubrick film and I told her, well, if you're going to see 2001 at all, this is the way it was meant to be seen: on a huge screen, in a darkened theater, Richard Strauss' Also Sprach Zarathustra blaring at you!

Had to drop off the road bike for maintenance at Pecco's beforehand and ended up running late. We parked and ran to buy our tickets and fortunately made it inside just as the overture was finishing up. Since it's played over a completely black screen, we couldn't see a thing. Knowing that perhaps the greatest film opening in history was about to come on, I tried to hurry us into some seats in the front once we could see. Well, we made it to the front but couldn't find seats in time so we ended up crouching in the aisles for the intro. Ah, even those circumstances weren't able to ruin my love of that opening!

Dawn of Man: Wow, so many more details you can see on 35mm as compared to a 27-inch television screen. Beautiful. Without even trying to be pretentious, I can 100% honestly say that I don't remember the still shots in this section passing by so quickly. What a difference a few years make I guess. When I first watched it I think I started getting antsy after about the third "nature" shot which seemed to last an eternity. This time around, there was never enough time to appreciate each one. I think I've now seen this movie 6 times.

Sure you watch movies without speaking to other people, but there's something incredibly special about watching a trance-like film such as 2001 with a group of other people in the dark. In my mind, that is part of the magic of watching these types of films, that a couple hundred people can be completely silent while the also silent images of Frank hurtling through space or HAL terminating the life support systems are projected.

I love this film. What a trip indeed.

Labels: ,

Le Samouraï (Jean-Pierre Melville, 1967)

Watched it at home with Krystle as part of our weekly movie watching.

I had never seen anything by Jean-Pierre Melville and of his films, Le Samouraï had always been at the top of the to-watch list. Even before becoming a serious cinephile I had been intrigued by the film, having heard its name cited along with Melville’s as major sources of inspiration by directors like John Woo and Quentin Tarantino.

Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samouraï tanatalizes with the promise of cinematic greatness right from its opening shot: hitman Jef Costello (Alain Delon) lies in bed passively while a pensive quotation fades in overtop of the beautifully composed image, infusing us with the promise of a handsome-looking film with an equally handsome star (or is it vice versa?). Melville’s use of the long, still, single-take and “Book of Bushido” quote immediately lends the film an air of intellectual and artistic gravity.

John Woo has described the film as “nearly perfect”, and if Woo is referring to its directorial execution he is nearly right, it is perfect. Most of the fun in watching Le Samouraï lies in the novelty of having to interpret just about everything for yourself without the aid of clumsy expositionary dialogue, including and most notably, Costello’s state of mind thanks to Delon’s constantly impassive face which brings with it more than a hint of Robert Bresson. This decidedly cool, quiet and somber vision which Melville imposes on the film from its outset never wavers, period. The professionalism of Costello is perfectly reflected in that of his own directorial style. As Roger Ebert points out in his review, “there is nothing absolutely original in Le Samouraï except for the handling of the material”, but this in itself is so miraculous, so unique to the genre, that it definitively sets the film apart from any of its peers within the film noir/gangster genre.

The danger however with any novelty is that eventually, it grows old. And unfortunately for directors, the lifespan of their tricks are invariably and considerably shorter than the runtime of the feature films they choose to implement them in.

Le Samouraï‘s style belies that of an “art” film whose sole purpose is to plumb the depths of Jef Costello`s soul. To his credit, Melville is able to maintain this jig for a considerable length of time. But as the film wears on (specifically, past the extended police station scene) it becomes clearer by-the-scene that its controlled style is no more than a veneer. Style without substance. But whereas this bromide has traditionally been associated with kineticism (of the “hip” MVT music video kind), Melville’s appropriations are of the opposite sort.

The trouble appears to be a conflict of storytelling elements. It’s as if the director and cinematographer were told they were making an art film while the writers and editor believed they were making just another genre piece. Alain Delon’s Costello acts and is treated by the camera like a character directly lifted from a Bresson (i.e. art) film. And at a glance, the two directors’ usage of actors with impassive faces appear similar in look, their effects are dramatically different. Whereas Bresson would often hold shots for many seconds beyond what was required by the plot, Melville's hurriedly cut away as soon as the point is established. They are never held for that extra second or two that is paramount in allowing a shot to pass from being strictly functional into the realm of “art”.

The script compounds this sense of functionality by rooting all of Costello’s scenes firmly within the context of the overall plot and orienting them around the actions of his character. We are subjected to many stationary shots of Delon’s emotionless face: in the car as he tries the different keys, in the police lineup, the interrogation room etc. But none of these lend themselves to any psychological introspection given the easily inferred practicality associated with each of them: not wanting to draw attention to himself. And unfortunately for Melville’s artistic ambitions, Occam's razor applies even in the realm of film-watching. Is this not why Antonioni’s most psychologically probing works only came once he had “removed the bicycle from neo-realism” by re-casting his characters as rich socialites, removed from any practical considerations? Melville too has learned to remove any hints of sentimentality, but he has forgotten to replace it with anything else of substance. How appropriate is it that a little research reveals the film’s opening passage from the “Book of Bushido” as a fabricated quote and novel by Melville himself? Le Samouraï emulates all the style of the art film but little of its substance.

The lone moment in the film where it breaks free of its superficialities – if only for a brief moment – occurs as Costello flees his apartment after finding it bugged. The brief glance he gives to his bird (which alerted him to the bug) before leaving lasts but a second or two, but goes further towards humanizing his character than any of the more prolonged interactions he has with either his girlfriend or the lounge pianist (as Rosenbaum so brilliantly states: “Neither character can be said to interact with Costello in any way except iconographically; Melville can only cut away sheepishly from intimate moments between both couples, asking us to fill in the ill-defined blanks.”) That he only hesitates ever so slightly before leaving without it further underlines his character’s cold and calculated professionalism. It is a magnificently effective and efficient moment that is unfortunately neither preceded nor proceeded by any similar ones.

  1. Jonathan Rosenbaum's review: Refreshing to find a serious critic who isn't completely ga-ga over this film. Fantastic and succinct insights.
  2. Roger Ebert's review

Labels: , , , ,