Thursday, October 4, 2012

Lawrence of Digital

Lawrence of Arabia 50th Anniversary Event: Digitally Restored

This afternoon - almost all of this afternoon, by the way - I sat in a theater and watched the digitally-restored version of one of my absolute favorite movies, Sir David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia.

There was a time I would have assumed no film person would not have seen this great film, but recently, I seem to encounter many people in the film industry whose knowledge, appreciation and interest in film leaves them thinking Quentin Tarantino is "old school."

If you follow the link at the top of this post, it will take you to some information on how the digital restoration was done. In one of the segments leading up to the presentation in the theater, there was a segment on the process, and why scanning it at 4K delivered 'as much of the information the filmmaker intended' as possible.  As Sir David is no longer with us, and the post facility mentioned nothing of mediums, I took from the clip that this process did more to bring the original information that is on the film print than any other process can do.

My background is in production, not tech, and while I fully understand both the process that delivered the original print (I've actually edited on film, and regularly worked with the best labs in the world on films I line produced or produced) and the basics of the post process, I usually leave the "tech talk" to geekier and better-trained people than me.

Google geek-dom away, and feel free to offer techie insight in comments.

I was not old enough to have seen the movie when it first came out in theaters; my parents were wise enough not to take a 5-year old to a movie that ran more than four hours with intermission.

I was neither as wise nor as compassionate 24 years ago when I dragged my (then) wife to the restored showing on film in theaters. No, it was not the reason for our eventual split, at least not directly.

Trying to compare the two experiences is difficult. I cannot trust my memory to match images over that span of time, and as much as I love the film, I see no chance that I will watch a digital and film projection back-to-back any time soon. As my (now) ex suggests, I have too much free time, but not that much free time.

I can say that watching it today, there were many things I had not noticed before. Some were technical, some were elements of scenes I did not remember.

My ex noted at the time that for a movie that long and expansive, there was not one woman in it. That amazing fact always stuck in my head. Watching it today, there are, indeed, no speaking roles for woman - not a one that I noticed, and I was looking. There are women up on a hill in one shot; and there are women with their backs to us when they come to Auda's (Anthony Quinn) tent the first time. The other women I noticed did not speak, well, because they were dead, bodies at the site of massacres.

OK, this is the point in the post where I need to do this, remembering that there will be those here who have not seen it.

********SPOILER ALERT**************

Don't know if protocol is needed for spoiler alerts fifty years after a movie premiers, but, now, you can't say I ruined it for you. Guilt assuaged.

There are certainly elements that I do not remember from the last time I saw it, which was more recently than that time in 1988 but at least five years ago.  The detail of things like the composition of the desert floor and the wardrobe is clearer than I remember, especially the changes in the texture of the desert from sand to harder surfaces. The lighting, especially on faces, is amazing, and this is not because of some post trick, as is often the case today, but because of the brilliance of the original cinematography, at a time when gaffers and cinematographers had to depend on light meters and their understanding of how film is processed to get a desired affect. The digital restoration process certainly serves these elements incredibly well, probably better than a new print might do at this point.


For those who worry that this is the point at which I start to talk about how much better things used to be, you are correct, to some extent. Shoot me (but know you will not be the first person to have thought of doing it).

Hey, as a production person on set today, I love the fact the WYSIWYG in digital monitors today. It makes it easier for me - and everyone - to see what you are getting. It has also, from my experience, made some - and I stress some - DPs, gaffers and such lazy. It just has. There, I said it.

Now, I know many many many incredibly talented folks in both those areas today, but I also know people who today call themselves directors of photography who could not have been third electrics when I first started.

When the movie ended, I spoke with two ladies who enjoyed the movie while sitting behind me. One mentioned that there were a few shots that she originally assumed were CGI before remembering that process did not exist in 1962. They were rather knowledgeable film-goers, and pointed out how amazing the back-lighting of characters was.

There is, indeed, one shot that I can remember in this version, where Lawrence walks indoors from outside, where he is so skillfully separated from the desert that it does, indeed, look like it was shot on a stage with green-screen behind him. Anyone who knows the history of the production of Lawrence of Arabia knows that was not the case, and the incredible hardship the cast and crew went through working on location in the deserts of Jordan.

The other thing that has always struck me about the movie-making is that, unlike many "epics," the film works both as a big, sprawling story and an intimate look at a man being torn apart by the difference between his image of himself and the reality of who he is. As Omar Sharif's Ali reminds him, he is just a man.

This got me thinking of yet another difference between an epic like Lawrence of Arabia, and what separates it from both the epics of yore and the video games/studio blockbusters of today.

It has patience. It takes time. There are a number of scenes that give an idea of the expanse of the desert, that allow things to happen in close to real time. A modern studio mogul, or, more likely a committee of eggheads who understand nothing about movies they don't rent, would say that an audience will not sit through it, and cut the length of those scenes. Doing so would remind us that we are watching a movie, and not give us credit for appreciating the way the unfolding action holds our attention. No one in today's screening seemed bored at any moment.

Those who know the film know there is a scene where Peter O'Toole's Lawrence is tortured by the Turks. The actual torture scene is thankfully left mostly to the imagination, which makes it so much more effective than a lot of blood and gore. When blood appears some time later on the back of his uniform back in Cairo, the horror of realizing that these wounds, both physical and psychological, have not healed is that much more powerful.

The way that scene plays shows another aspect of Lean's brilliant story-telling. Dryden, the politician played by Claude Rains, is standing behind Lawrence. He first notices the blood. The British general, played by Jack Hawkins, is in the process of reprimanding Lawrence for not wanting to go back to "Arabia." Instead of Dryden saying "hey, his back is bleeding," or acting shocked, he merely calls Lawrence's name. When Lawrence turns to address him, the general can then see the blood, and his mood changes. No one had to remind Lean to show when he could tell.

It got me thinking of the latest Christopher Nolan Dark Knight effort. Better certainly than the cookie-cutter video game/movies that permeate the landscape today, it's attempt to delve into the mind of it's tortured and beaten lead is nowhere near as powerful.

No, I am not knocking Nolan's film-making. He is very talented. Truth is that Lawrence is the exception even for movies of its era, and before. It's also true the larger part of the audience for spectacles like Dark Knight would not appreciate or have the patience for it. The irony, I think, is that the true aficionados that made the whole Batman series popular to begin with would probably eat it up.

When you're spending a couple of hundred million on a "project," those numbers would not be enough.

My experience in the film-making process also drew my attention to something Martin Scorcese said in the into to the film, which is that Sir David was trying to re-edit the restored version right up until it made it to the screen in 1988.

This reminded me of something I heard many years ago from a friend who was an assistant editor on Francis Ford Coppola's own sprawling epic, Apocalyse Now Redux. Coppola's multiple endings and original fight over the first release of the movie, and then Redux years later, with the "director's cuts" in-between, are testament to the fact that a director on any film, from Studio to Indie, sometimes has trouble letting go.

The assistant editor shared she once heard Coppola, near the final stages, say, "It's not over, but it's  done." Anyone who has tried to convince a director that they didn't need to re-cut their movie one more time can relate. This goes for everything from the quirky feature I worked on, The Rook, to a short I worked on more than two years ago that the producer tells me went through three edits and is still not done.

The phrase that comes to mind is: just because you can, doesn't mean you should. At some point, someone needs to say, "Step away from the editing console."

Lawrence of Arabia will soon be out on Blu-Ray, and the current version is certainly well-worth watching. Hey, the good folks who made the movie don't need me to hype it for you, and it is no fault of their's that the experience will probably not match today's theatrical presentation. In fact, I saw it at the Regal Union Square Cinema, and the sound could have been better and may be better in your home.

Some things are destined to never be as good as you remember them. For me, the feelings I had today were just as strong as the first time I saw this film. Young filmmakers, do not take from this post that Sir David Lean did something you cannot do; don't put it up on a pedestal to be shown at museums, rather, I just encourage you to set your sights higher than the fare that passes for "great" in many corners.

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