Full Disclosure: Twitch's Lists of Shame - January (Part 1)
And so it begins...
While there are certainly wrong ways to approach this feature - either as a contributor or a reader - there are many different right ways to do so. For a full debriefing on exactly what we are setting out to accomplish with this once-a-month feature, the rules, guidelines, restrictions and the intricacies of the logistics, please take a moment to read my formal introduction here. Suffice to say that this is January, and more than 20 of my esteemed colleagues have sought out and finally laid to rest a noted classic from each of their personal Lists of Shame.
Where possible, I did my best to coordinate writers to see the same film on the same month so that we can compare notes, and so you can see the varying opinions that make up our paddock of talented contributors.
So without further ado, let's get on with the show.
Lawrence of Arabia (dir. David Lean, 1962 UK/USA)
Winner of 7 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, 3 BAFTAs, 4 Golden Globes.
David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia is the sort of film that people simply don't make any more, and probably never will again. It features both Alec Guinness and Anthony Quinn in brown face, for one thing. And while it very much challenges the politics of the world when it was created, the approach is based on a subversion of a prevalent patriotism and sincere love of country that is entirely absent in our ironic and distrustful times. But, more to the heart of the matter, it was shot on location in absolutely gorgeous yet enormously hostile terrain, employing a literal cast of thousands. This is filmmaking as spectacle from an age when spectacle meant actually doing these massive scale things in the real world rather than on a computer, and when spectacle did not mean dumbing things down in the name of four quadrant marketing.
Lawrence of Arabia is the first major role for Peter O'Toole as well as the first feature film for Omar Sharif outside of his native Egypt, and both are simply astounding. O'Toole has the flashier part by a country mile - and nails it with a sophistication that prevents it from slipping into the caricature of tics and neuroses that it could easily have become. Meanwhile, Sharif captures the growth and subsequent disillusionment of his proud nomadic leader with a quiet gravity. That Lean was even permitted to cast two unknowns in such a massive production at all is pretty remarkable, that they both stand opposite Alec Guinness at his peak without giving him an inch is simply astounding.
Having had a few days to process the picture before writing this what strikes me most about it is not the scale - though it is remarkable and the film should definitely be seen in the largest format possible - but Lean's ability to both embrace and subvert the standards and styles of his time. Though brief, Jose Ferrer's appearance is shockingly edgy and uncomfortable in ways that must have given the ratings board of the time absolute fits. At the halfway mark of the film, I caught myself thinking more than once how this is an awfully colonial film for such anti-colonial subject matter, before Lean yanked that carpet out from under me with the finale. This isn't what I would call a timeless bit of art - it's very much of its time - but it absolutely is the work of a master.
David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia is an inarguable classic, but judging by the number of Twitch writers who are discussing it here, it's also one of the most skipped classics. I've owned the DVD for years, but never made the time to watch it. The gorgeous visuals are surely best-viewed on 70mm mega-projection, but there is value to watching this fascinating story on a good home setup as well. The real surprise of the experience was just how complex a character study of Peter O'Toole's Lawrence the film turned out to be. I was expecting a rah-rah adventure epic, and while there is plenty of that, the heart of Lawrence of Arabia is the tale of an odd, tortured soul, propelled to incredible feats by a sense of destiny.
Another unexpected consequence of finally diving into the film has been a greatly-expanded interest and understanding of the lands that make up the Arab world. I wouldn't have guessed that this movie would send me running to Wikipedia to learn more about the geography of the region (where is Aqaba?) and the great warriors who arose from the Arab war against the Turks (what happened to Prince Feisal's rule?). Living in an America that is increasingly entangled with the Arab world, this has been a fascinating history lesson. Lawrence of Arabia has been on my mind numerous times in the few weeks since first watching it, and I can tell it is an experience I will continue to reflect upon for a long time to come.
I'm not really sure why I had never watched Lawrence of Arabia, but as I've not seen many of the great epics from this era - Ben Hur included - I'll put it down to reticence when it comes to long, lumbering supposed-classics. The gravitas attached to watching them always made them feel like a chore. And, for me, Lawrence of Arabia almost lived up to this promise. A vast monument of Cinema no doubt, and truly impressive in parts, however as a whole I found the experience lacking in whatever I needed to consider it a masterpiece or something I'd revisit regularly.
I did enjoy being surprised quite a few times by the movie, despite all the decades since and films it's cast its shadow across. I was surprised by how much T.E. Lawrence was presented as a massively flawed man; something about this impressed me considering the era it was made in. I also had no idea Alec Guinness was in the movie, which suddenly gave his Star Wars role a whole other significance I'd never considered. However as good as Guinness was, it was hard not seeing a version of Inspector Clouseau in his performance, given all the parodies of this sort of role we've had in the years since.
It is fitting so many of the Twitch staff kicked off their Lists of Shame with one of Cinema's most famously decorated films. Very few films come as loaded with expectation as David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia. I'm a neophyte to Lean's work, and could have picked any of his films to kick off my experience, but figured the one everyone knows by name, yet surprisingly few have actually seen, was best. Why is it a film widely regarded as one of the most purely cinematic joys has escaped so many people?
Lawrence of Arabia is a film overwhelmingly known by reputation, less by actual familiarity. Even for cinephiles like me, who spend much of our time basking in the glow of a screen, Lawrence is an intimidating idea. At 225 minutes, it sounds more like an endurance test than an enjoyable experience to even the most hardened viewer. I review Indian films every week, which routinely top two-and-a-half hours, and even I balked at Lawrence's runtime. Add the fact that it takes place in a desert, a largely uninspiring visual palette, and my own fear: What if I don't get it?
It's that last, most personal fear that keeps me from films all the time. What if this film, so universally praised and lauded for fifty years, goes over my head! This comes from a place of ignorance and lack of understanding of what the film is. Lawrence of Arabia is a film we are expected to enjoy and is expected to fill cinephiles with a joy of which echelon only classics are capable. What if I miss it? What if I get too bored to finish it?!? What if I hate it? Has my life and my passion for films all been a sham if I can't connect with one that should fill my soul with light and reaffirm my appreciation of this craft?
Here's what happened. I intended to watch the Blu-ray (I know 70mm is preferable, but you do what you can), over two nights, breaking at the intermission. I had no intention of sitting for 4 hours straight, but that's exactly what happened. Lawrence of Arabia is not about its length, or its setting, or even its plot so much; Lawrence of Arabia is about David Lean and Peter O'Toole creating a character, whose reckless abandon and inherent charisma wins over an entire nation. O'Toole delivers one of the most astonishing performances I've ever seen as the fearless British lieutenant who "goes native", eventually leading thousands of men to both glory and their own demise, both corporeally and their own sense of decency. It is a story about charisma and power, and the uneasy relationship between the two. It's one of the most beautiful films ever shot, and is an epic story with a cast of thousands, but ultimately is the story of one man and his journey from passion to poison. It is fantastic. I get it now.
Oh man, I wish I'd caught the recent 4K restoration of Lawrence of Arabia on its theatrical run. Instead I had to settle for watching the new 50th Anniversary Blu-ray on a 46" HDTV in 5.1 surround sound. It may sound like I have no right to complain, but trust me, when it comes to a film like this, Blu-ray is an inferior viewing experience. Regardless, the Blu-ray is a visual and aural delight. Peter O'Toole's teeth are so white; his eyes are so blue. I could feel the desert sun beating down on me, the camel froth misting off the screen. I was effectively transported to another time and place.
All I really knew going in was that Lawrence of Arabia was a modern sword and sandal epic; I had no idea of the historical context or the complexity of the titular character. (Frankly, I think I may have been confusing it with Ishtar all these years.) O'Toole portrays Lawrence as a sassy, Christ-like Brit; a Great White Hope who unites the Arabs in their fight against the Turks, for reasons not even he understands. He earns their respect, and maybe even their love. The film, on the other hand, may not have earned a spot on this viewer's all-time love list, but it sure as hell earned his respect. This public shaming is off to a good start.
I watch a lot of films and movies (and I do dilineate between the two). The beauty of Cinema is, no matter how deep you dig, there is always something left to watch. Factor in the amount of new stuff people who write about films, even semi-professionally, have to watch just to stay current, and it's easy to turn around and realize some titles have gone unseen.
It's also nice to take a title and stick it on a shelf for a rainy day, when faith in the medium is waning, and hits a lull. It happens. That's when it's a gift to have a treasure to pull down and experience for the first time, something you know unequivically is going to be good, if not great. One of those titles, that I have finally got to, is David Lean's mega-classic Lawrence Of Arabia. To break down the plot at this point would be redundant, so let me just mention a couple things that surprised me about this acknowledged masterpiece.
First is how amazingly gentile, soft spoken and wise the title character is. I had formulated a pre-conceived notion that Lawrence was going to be a rough hewn Patton-esque hard ass. Not the case. Peter O'Toole informs his portrayal of the legendary military man with an incredible amount of sensitivity. He's gentle and empathetic, even while organizing a rag tag band of warriors to lead into an impossible battle. It was revelatory, and allowed me to enjoy the film in a fresh way. It's exciting, but it was much more human and intimate than I had anticipated. It shouldn't have been a surprise, given another Lean film, one of my top shelf favorites, The Bridge On The River Kwai, is exactly the same way. There's a reason why a David Lean film is a David Lean Film. Scope doesn't betray depth of characterization.
Second is the soundtrack. The work of composer Maurice Jarre on Lawrence Of Arabia is by turns majestic, somber, bombastic, and romantic. In particular, call me crazy (and I am speaking on the fly here) I can see the imprint of Jarre's work on John Williams' cues for Star Wars. I have the Lawrence score on vinyl now actually, found at a local used record shop, and it's pretty much worn out my needle in the past week.
I'm always telling people "Run don't walk" to particular films, so they can be watched as many times as possible before you die (a little morbid, but yes!). So while I was indeed aware of the greatness that awaited my eyeballs, I left Lawrence Of Arabia on the proverbial "In case of emergency break glass" shelf, when I should have been running for the hammer long ago. Still. what a gift, and this crowing achievement of Lean's is now on the "Watch every few months" list. Next bluray purchase? that's easy. The new Lawrence Of Arabia 50th Anniversary Collectors Edition.
I'm not going to go into why Lawrence Of Arabia is thought to be one of the greatest films ever made, just watch it and you'll see why. Watching it I realized something, that a film like this will never be made again, ever. Not on this massive scale anyway. The sheer logistics behind making it boggle the mind when compared to how films are made today. When a movie proclaimed to have a cast of thousands they meant it, when the truth now is more like a cast of dozens and a few thousand CGI extras. We have lost the tactile world of filmmaking and will most likely never get it back.
I wish I had seen Lawrence Of Arabia the way it is meant to be seen, on a large silver screen in 70mm, gloriously remastered. But alas that was not meant to be, so a Blu Ray would have to do. Fortunately the latest Blu Ray release of the film manages to capture its epic greatness perfectly, leaving no detail behind.
The cinematography in this thing is just ridiculous, it's beyond words really how incredible this film looks. I have never before seen a film that captures the desert like Freddy Young did, the shades and textures of the mountains and plains. This is EPIC.
Had I seen Lawrence Of Arabia before now, it would have most likely been on either VHS or DVD because the film is, of course, way before my time and Iceland doesn't really do re-runs of old classic films. I'm sure that either of those two formats would have impacted greatly on how I would feel about the film, as neither of them would be able to capture its greatness. So I'm glad that this experiment forced me to see it in full HD on a large TV screen, slightly closer to the way it is supposed to be seen. Lawrence Of Arabia is one of those films you don't just watch, you experience. I love that.
Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (dir. F.W. Murnau, 1927 USA)
Winner of 3 Academy Awards, including Best Unique and Artistic Production
Love! Lust! Marriage! Infidelity! Murder! Special effects! F.W. Murnau tackles big issues in the face of insurmountable obstacles - and that's just in the first 15 minutes. I had formed the erroneous impression that Sunrise would be a lyrical, visually beautiful, but thoroughly stodgy silent era drama with moral lessons to impart, which is why it had never been high on my list of classics to see.
Lyrical and visually beautiful? Yes. Stodgy? No way. This is a populist movie, suitable and satisfying for all ages, made with the artistry of a true auteur. Murnau moves smoothly from the country to the city, from drama to thriller to romance to comedy, and then back again, all without skipping a beat. He delivers a transfixing cinematic experience, utilizing dissolves and montages in a manner that is still breathtaking today - and a lot of fun to watch. I will definitely be visiting it again, which makes me glad I sprang for the all-region Blu-ray/DVD package from Masters of Cinema.
After Sight & Sound magazine placed it 5th on its 2012 list of the 10 Greatest Films of All Time, becoming the only entry on that list I hadn't seen, I was running out of reasons not to watch F. W. Murnau's 1927 Hollywood debut, Sunrise. Not that I had actively avoided it until now, but I hadn't ventured far beyond Nosferatu and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari when it came to Silent Cinema. It was probably the touring restored version of Fritz Lang's sci-fi masterpiece Metropolis in 2010 that spurred me on to explore the treasure trove of cinematic delights that existed before the Talkies.
As luck would have it, the Hong Kong Film Archive recently completed a retrospective of both Lang and Murnau's impressive bodies of work, and while poor scheduling on my part forced me to watch Sunrise on DVD (finely restored by my beloved Masters of Cinema), I was able to contextualise it alongside The Last Laugh, Faust and Tabu, which I was able to catch on the big screen. And frankly speaking, Sunrise eclipses them all, both in terms of concise, compelling storytelling and bravura technical innovation.
In a plot so simple Murnau doesn't even name his characters, a lowly peasant (George O'Brien) from a picturesque seaside town is seduced by an amoral city girl (Margaret Livingston), who convinces him to murder his wife (an Oscar-winning Janet Gaynor). Setting out to stage his wife's drowning, the man loses his nerve, and instead the couple sails up river to the big city. There they contend with all manner of fish-out-of-water comedy hijinks that have informed everything from Chaplin and Tati to Crocodile Dundee and Babe: Pig in the City in the decades since. On their return, the couple battles a tempestuous storm, setting the stage for a hideously ironic finale, punctuated by, what else, but a glorious sunrise.
Murnau switches deftly between genres: romance, film noir, thriller, slapstick comedy, and high melodrama, while exploring all manner of new aesthetic techniques, including split screens, super-imposition and rear-screen projection as he breaks boundaries and rewrites the very language of the medium along the way. The results won Sunrise a special one-of-a-kind Oscar for "Unique and Artistic Production" and proved even more captivating than I could have possibly hoped for. Sunrise is a true cinematic masterpiece, perhaps the most assured and accomplished silent film I've ever seen, and remains an enthralling viewing experience almost 90 years after its original release.
Please allow me to start with a confession, which may seem odd since this entire series is premised upon the shameful confessions of supposed cinephiles. Sunrise (1927) is easily the film I most wanted to watch out of the 12 on my personal list.
Does that mean I should be more ashamed because, despite such eagerness, I was too lazy to have watched it before now? Probably. But it also signals my love of its director, F.W. Murnau. Like many (most?) of us, I saw Nosferatu (1922) as a teen and, along with the films of Fritz Lang, it transformed my sense of silent film itself. Over the years I subsequently discovered the wonders of Faust (1926) and The Last Laugh (1924).
It's certainly easy to spot shades of the latter in Sunrise, especially in the crossing-the-street sequences, which feature the same dreamily gliding camerawork that somehow evokes both danger and elation simultaneously. I suppose that's fitting, given the story, which swings between a seamy, love-triangle-inspired murder plot and disarmingly tender moments between a man and woman attempting to salvage their marriage against all odds.
This simple narrative is easy to dismiss in favor of Murnau's stunning technique, but the truth is that the filmmaking matches the content superbly, transfiguring the material into something quite fabulous (in both senses of the word - spectacular and fable-like). Although often recalling an older, painterly sensibility (post-impressionist still lifes, Renoir's memorable way with social gatherings) and the lingering notes of expressionism, the direction and production design are also astoundingly prescient.
In the tracking shots, you see precursors to Max Ophüls' genius; in the overall tone, the "poetic realism" of Marcel Carné and others (in fact, Thérèse Raquin  features an inverted form of this story). And of course I can't help but think that someone like Guy Maddin must have been staggered by Sunrise at some point (I'd love to see clips from it intercut with ones from My Winnipeg ).
I'm probably missing a bunch more obvious reasons why Sunrise is such a landmark, is so influential, but I'm not really a film historian, only an overzealous fan who's lived long enough to see a lot...
Finally, Sunset boasts what may be the single greatest intertitle ever: "Couldn't she get [a brief, but telling, pause before the next word appears] drowned?" It's not the dialogue per se that's special, but the way the letters then droop and "sink" that startled me in their creativity and power. I guess most film students already know this, but that's kind of the purpose of these confessions, right?
The first item on my List of Shame is also one of the oldest. While I don't consider myself an expert on Silent Cinema, I knew that F.W. Murnau's Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927) represented a rather big hole in my film viewing history. I can't say that I outright love Silent Cinema. Sure, I count Chaplin and Keaton among the greatest filmmakers to have walked the Earth and, while I have greatly appreciated some early works by Fritz Lang (Dr. Mabuse the Gambler, 1922), Victor Sjorstrom (The Phantom Carriage, 1921) and Sergei Einsenstain (Battleship Potemkin, 1925), others have earned my respect if not my undivided attention. Racial polemics aside, D.W. Griffith's The Birth of Nation (1915) is a landmark work that forever changed the form of the medium but that, along with a number of other famous silent films, have done little to stir my imagination.
Murnau was already a legend before he came to Hollywood for his debut. Having previously made Nosferatu (1922) and Faust (1926), he was considered a master of the medium. But with Sunrise he completely rewrote film history. Griffith may have taught filmmakers of the day how to string images together and that editing was a storyteller's tool rather than a physical necessity, but Murnau advanced cinematography and production design (not to mention pioneering sound work), while blending all these elements into real, palpable catharsis. Sunrise is a masterstroke of filmmaking and a historical treasure, but it is also an utterly gripping work that irreverently blends genres in pursuit of the emotional highs that, as we now know today, Cinema can provide.
Sunrise deserves all the praise that has been heaped on it over the decades. If the fact that it is a silent film makes you reticent to check this out, I urge you to put that fear aside. By the time you get to the second act you'll have completely forgotten about it.
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