Monday, September 17, 2012

Filled gaps

In this post I listed a few famous movies that I'd never seen. I've now seen two of them.

Gone With the Wind: structured like an opera, the overture of this epic does a lot of flaunting of something that would have given its 1939 audience the sense of sitting in the lap of luxury: colour. The MGM lion would have been zappy enough but when the opening tableaux vivant faded in and disolved to more the thrill of it would have felt more electric than any of today's big CGI beginnings. And then we're straight into it with more and more colour as though someone discovered that chocolate ice cream cured cancer.

But it's not all colour. The famous preselling campaign to cast Scarlett O'Hara had landed on Brit up and comer Vivien Leigh. Mrs Laurence Olivier was infamously bratty on set and whether this was the method before its time or like for like casting, the screen is filled with her radient trouble or the aching lack of it. Then the war ends and part two of this film's four hours begins. And so do troubles of all kinds. Scarlett has had real trials from the civil war and she's flown through them all. But there's a problem when everyone has to get back into post war life and it's this. The good people stay good and Scarlett stays bad, using the character building of her recent travails to design herself as a better brat, a gold-digging, husband-coveting, manipulative hellmonster. Clark Gable as Rhett Butler, one of the most appealing figures from his cinematic era, has a famous line at the end of this film. I sing it with him.

What would have worked brilliantly on the pages of Margaret Mitchell's potboiler is at best only well-supported by cinema, here. It's just too much strain to keep watching an unsympathetic character continually triumph, especially after seemingly surviving the kind of things that ennoble other fictional characters. Not even the grevious events that befall her can quite balance this. Still, there's so much treasure on the screen here that at least one viewing would reward anyone.

Lawrence of Arabia: I've wanted to see this from childhood as from that time I've harboured a fascination with the first world war. For some reason or several I've just sat in front of it until recently. The closest I came bears qualifiers: a group of people I was hanging around because of someone I knew were watching it one afternoon and I went into another room and tried to write a novel (uh huh, those kind of days).

From there I heard what appeared to be dialogue constructed entirely from feed lines and heroic rejoinders. It didn't occur to me that these might in fact be delivered over parts of the soundtrack (score plus effects) that had boosted volume so I was only noticing the big bits but my impression was that it was an epic Boy's Own with good locations.

Well, I'm glad I waited for the blu-ray (or a screening of a restored print at the Astor). The vistas and set pieces are awesome (not "awesome!" when you get a free skinny latte as part of a promo deal but included to mean inspiring of awe) and David Lean's use of mise en scene to variously convey power or privation AND his way with his players all combine to make this long film a breeze to watch.

But even if none of these were present in such force there would still be the arresting fusion at the heart of this film which forms its cheif compulsion: T.E. Lawrence and Peter O'Toole. Lawrence was a born hero whose turbulent times fit him as though they were bespoke darkest hours. He thought brilliantly below and beside contemporary military wisdom, wove himself into an alien culture while remaining alien to it and upon finding the abyss, stared into it and found it staring back. If he'd been born in the initial Christian eon he would be replicated in plaster and pelted with prayers like any of the other figure in the Catholic canon. If he'd been alive in Nelson's time we would be saying Horatio who?

He famously described the effect of the castigating punishment (including rape) he received from the Turks as refreshing. He was heroic. He was weird. O'Toole shows us both, often at once and from the halfway mark we are unable to discern one without the other. This is the true setpiece of Lawrence of Arabia, its core and chief reward, overriding every instance of historical innaccuracy or the very dated presentation of English as the sole language spoken on Earth. If we watch this film we are watching O'Toole's heroic and weird reanimation of the historical figure as a dangerously volatile living legend. Recommended for first and repeated viewings.

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