Fun in the Desert

Thelma Schoonmaker was in town (yay!), participating in a forum on digital restoration. As a sort of discussion piece (but much more than that), we got to see the 8K restoration of LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, which has been fine-tuned since its appearance in Cannes (which makes this a world premier, in a way). Which inspired me to make the following geeky observation —

Gasim (I.S. Johar) abandons his belt and gear in the desert as he wanders, lost in LAWRENCE —

David Niven dreamily discards his kit on the beach in A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH.

Lean’s contribution to Powell’s films as editor is well known (49TH PARALLEL, ONE OF OUR AIRCRAFT IS MISSING), but maybe there’s room for further consideration of Powell’s influence on Lean? Here, the shot height and framing isn’t the same, but there’s a similar feeling of the distracted character being towed along by the tracking camera, as if on invisible wires.

Lean’s camera takes the position of the sun, beaming brutally down on poor old Gasim from on high, whereas Powell’s hugs the earth as if afraid of falling upwards to heaven — the frame positions Niven as caught precisely between heaven and earth, wearing the horizon as a belt.

When Gasim is lost, Niven makes the desert as abstract as possible — there’s the giant painted sun, and shots which lay a featureless blue rectangle atop a featureless manilla rectangle with a straight flat horizon joining them like to slices of cut card. In Gasim’s shot, even the horizon and sky have been mislaid. Yet Gasim is traveling left-to-right, and Lawrence is going right-to-left, so in such a flat world they MUST find each other.

Freddie Young, ace DOP, talked about LAWRENCE containing only one special effect shot, a painting of the sun. And indeed, the commitment to doing everything for real is still awe-inspiring. If a filmmaker tried some of these shots today, the audience would simply assume they were digital effects. But Young didn’t quite tell the truth — there’s also a shot of twinkly stars which is faked up (skillfully), and if we want to really nitpick there are some studio scenes with fake backdrops by production designer John Box and his team. The various solutions to filming at night also involve some trickery —

PROBABLY this whole shot is an interior set, but even if not, that moon is definitely on a stick. Gorgeous, though, isn’t it? MUCH gorgeouser in 8K, though…

18 Responses to “Fun in the Desert”

  1. Interesting, I feel ”Ryan’s Daughter” is even more Powellian, particularly ”Black Narcissus” and ”Gone to Earth”.

    Powell said that David Lean inspired Colonel Blimp, apparently on One of Our Aircraft is Missing, there was a scene about a young pilot talking to the older man and the latter told him he didn’t know what it meant to be old. Lean cut the scene out of the film but he told Powell that the conversation about an age-gap in England, could make a film in its own right. And that led to “The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp” which naturally prefigures all of Lean’s films about the decline of the British Empire. The culmination is ”Lawrence of Arabia”, his best film.

  2. Lean nearly made his directing debut under Powell, a film about an orchestra during the blitz, but Coward offered him In Which We Serve and he jumped ship in order to do it. Powell responded, “You’re like a cheap tart walking down Oxford Street — you see some glittering bauble in a shop window, and you can’t resist it!”

    Probably the last time Lean was called a cheap tart.

  3. Speaking of the desert. . .

  4. I had the enormous pleasure of speaking to Mr. Powell a number of years back. It was when Lean was revving up to make Nostromo (which alas never happened.) Mr. Powell said “Well tha’t so typical of David to pick Conrad’s most impossible book.”

  5. specterman Says:

    “A film about an orchestra during the blitz”. I’d die to see that film. Though maybe with Powell at the helm, capturing the fun and hi-jinx spirit of Contraband. Lean I’m sure would of made something a little less frothy than what I’m dreaming about. Still, would of been wonderful to see.

    Obviously I can’t regret Lean abandoning Powell for Coward (I have to differ with S.R.) as Brief Encounter is Lean’s best film in my book. This Happy Breed is also a great film and maybe a bit overlooked in comparison to some of Lean’s later movies.

  6. Thanks for the link to LA CICATRICE INTERIEURE – and in such a mint-condition copy, too!

    My copy, alas, has genital fogging that obscures the view of Pierre Clementi’s naughty bits. Given that I once fell in love with a man largely because he was a dead ringer for Pierre, I find that immensely frustrating.

  7. That reaction is not very far from Roberto Rossellini’s anger about Fellini betraying him by becoming a director himself.

    From what I have read Powell tended to be very proprietary with his collaborators, he was distraught at Deborah Kerr for going to Hollywood, maintaining that only he gave her her best roles, not unlike a certain impressario in one of his best films.

    That said, contrary to revisionist historians, I always feel that David Lean’s early period with Noel Coward are not as interesting as his epic films. I like Brief Encounter but it seems too much like British William Wyler(another influence on Lean) and not his own thing, which comes out more in the Dickens films and Hobson’s Choice. I am very sorry to people who don’t like epic films but ”Lawrence of Arabia” and ”Ryan’s Daughter”(which mixes the grand scale with the intimist story of his early films) are his best films.

  8. Well Mr. Powell was in love with Deborah Kerr — so he gets a pass on being proprietary with her.

    Brief Encounter IS British Wyler. And I can’t look at it anymore without thinking of Samuel Barnet’s rendition of Celia Johnson in The History Boys.

    As for Lawrence it’s unquestionably the queerest (in very sense of the word) film to win an Oscar. It totally upends conventional notions of heroism while delivering the “spectacular” goods. And Peter O’Toole is overwhelming.

    One of the greatest risks for any film is to quote a masterpiece. Prometheus was sunk them moment that th charming-yet-sinister replicant played by Michael Fassbender shows himself a clip of it and starts copying O’Toole’s gestures.

  9. I think the most destructive movie quote may be Ben Hur cropping up in Any Given Sunday, reminding us that Chuck Heston used to get to appear in decent movies.

    Lawrence is queer, complex and nimble, which makes it the antithesis of most epic filmmaking. Lean’s admiration for the French new wave really enlivened it with the direct cutting, which strips it of any sense of being lumbering and elephantine, imho.

    Lean’s work with Coward was certainly an essential part of his development, whichever films one prefers — and I doubt Lawrence would’ve been possible without Coward adding a dash of queer sensibility to Calvinist ladies’ man Lean.

  10. The more pertinent movie quote vis-a-vis Charles Heston is in ”Bowling for Columbine”, when Moore interviews him, behind him is the poster for ”Touch of Evil”, a far cry from Vargas who said, “A policeman’s job is only easy in a police state” to Mr. NRA.

  11. Well, the lack of gun control actually makes the cops’ job much harder, so I guess you could argue Heston was still being true to that message.

  12. Yes, NRA 101 is that citizens must bear arms in order to protect their constitutional rights from the looming police state. It’s just that the only constitutional right they care about is the right to bear arms. We need to bear arms in order to protect our right to bear arms.

  13. For those not actually planning armed uprisings, it IS simply a fear of symbolic castration, isn’t it?

  14. Not symbolic at all. Gun fetishism is entirely about castration. I don’t know how to put this more delicately but one would do well to check the penis size of gun fanatics.

  15. Depends what you mean by “do well” — I’m not sure how rewarding it would be.

  16. Ditto with cars.

    Show me a car fanatic, and I’ll show you a man with insecurities…

  17. There’s a good Graham Chapman story about this. While filming Monty Python and the Holy Grail he got drunk in a Scottish puband decided to kiss everyone, male and female, in the joint. One guy made a homophobic remark and it looked like getting ugly. Chapman said, “You know what? I bet you’re a very boring man. The kind of man who can only talk about his car and the number of girls he’s slept with.” And it looked like getting even uglier, except that the guy’s friends then AGREED. “Actually, yeah. He only ever talks about his car and the number of girls he’s slept with. He’s a very boring man.” And then they all bonded.

  18. Something tells me ‘the number of girls he slept with’ was grossly exaggerated. Great story!

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