Sunday, March 30, 2008

David Lean

Perhaps my favorite part of the last Oscar telecast was when Jon Stewart pulled out an iphone and said he was watching Lawrence of Arabia. In that moment everything good about technology and bad about the film business came into focus. Funnier yet was when he turned the phone on its side and said you really have to see it in wide screen.

David Lean, Lawrence of Arabia's director, would have turned 100 on March 25. Lean is the person who comes to my mind when I think about directors who make BIG pictures. David Lean was the epic director.

David Lean began as a film editor. Michael Powell, another one of my favorite directors, said David Lean was the best editor he ever worked with. And Powell knows something about good editors- he was married to Thelma Schoonmaker who has won three Oscars for editing Martin Scorsese films.

In his early films as director Lean worked with Noel Coward- no slouch either. In Blithe's Spirit Lean actually makes the ghost a little scary, not something Coward probably had in mind. Lean then went on to direct perhaps the two best film versions of Dickens' novels- Great Expectations and Oliver Twist. Those opening images of Great Expectations are beautiful and haunting- no mean feat as the opening pages of the book are about as good an start to a novel as you will find. Twist, too, is great despite Alec Guinness' over the top and perhaps anti-Semitic Fagin.

Powell, Coward, Dickens and Guinness are great for starters but come on dumb filmmaker get to the big films. OK. How's this for big films: Summertime (1955), The Bridge on the River Kwai, (1957) Lawrence of Arabia, (1962), Dr. Zhivago (1965). That's a pretty decent career in that one ten year stretch. If you haven't seen those films do yourself the favor- just not on an iphone.

To illustrate some of Lean's directorial genius I am going to share a couple of interesting (to me at least) attention to detail moments from Lawrence of Arabia. 1) In the famous scene in the desert when Ali appears- while it seems like all we see is sand- Lean's art department has put coal in the desert helping us draw our attention down the darker lines and towards the character. Lean was forcing us to see what he wanted us to see. 2) The costume designers put Peter O'Toole in more translucent robes as the film progressed to make Lawrence more Angelic.

Those are details that aren't taught in film schools, but perhaps should be. (Note to self, start teaching it!)

One more thing about David Lean. He made his last film when he was 76 years old- A Passage to India. For that film he was nominated for Oscars as Best Director, Editing and Adapted Screenplay. Has anyone ever been nominated for an Oscar for writing AND editing the same film? No bad for an old man. I hope to do that when I am 76.


Check out Anthony Lane's article on David Lean in the current New Yorker. Lane's piece was the inspiration for this post.

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