Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

From Aqaba to the Lonely Mountain

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Peter O'Toole in Lawrence of Arabia

Jean-Luc Godard once said that the best way to criticize a movie is to make another movie, and I inadvertently spent this weekend contemplating this principle in action. On Saturday, thanks to my wife’s kindness in giving me a dad’s day off, I saw what I’ve come to think of as The Hobbit: The Triumph of Hope Over Experience. The following day, after hearing of Peter O’Toole’s death, I revisited Lawrence of Arabia, watching its first hour and its last twenty minutes and lingering particularly on its closing image, which may be the greatest final shot in the history of movies. (The fact that, three hours earlier, it also includes the single most memorable cut of all time is only one reminder, as if we needed one, of the riches that this movie contains.) And seeing them back to back made me a little sad. There’s still an appetite for epic cinema, perhaps even more so now than ever, when film competes with so many other media that can’t compare to the movies at their best in terms of scale and immersion. But even as the technical resources at a filmmaker’s disposal become all the more astounding, it’s growing harder to find the deeper qualities that make an epic worth our time.

The difference, to put it as unkindly as possible, is that between a leap of the imagination and an act of brand extension. Roger Ebert has beautifully described the conceptual daring at work in the older film:

What a bold, mad act of genius it was, to make Lawrence of Arabia, or even think that it could be made…The impulse to make this movie was based, above all, on imagination. The story of Lawrence is not founded on violent battle scenes or cheap melodrama, but on David Lean’s ability to imagine what it would look like to see a speck appear on the horizon of the desert, and slowly grow into a human being. He had to know how that would feel before he could convince himself that the project had a chance of being successful.

The Hobbit, or at least its middle chapter, may have had its roots in a similar vision, but in the form it finally takes, it feels like movie born solely out of commercial calculation. The decision to split this story into three lengthy parts may have seemed questionable from the beginning, but now it seems totally indefensible: The Desolation of Smaug isn’t without its merits, but after a promising first act, it turns into ninety minutes of nonstop entertainment stretched into two and a half hours. It’s a movie that only exists for the—admittedly valid—reason that it would add another billion dollars to the coffers of three studios, who can now sleep like Smaug on their treasure hoard, and much of it, like the first half of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, feels like nothing more than marking time.

Martin Freeman in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

As a result, I found myself silently questioning many of the movie’s decisions, rather than getting caught up in the story itself. When an entire movie begins to feel unnecessary, it’s hard for any individual element to seem essential. Evangeline Lilly may be very good in the newly invented role of Tauriel—whose name, I believe, is Elvish for “pandering”—but there’s no escaping the suspicion that her presence here is less about an organic expansion of the material than an attempt to check off all four audience quadrants. Many of the scenes carry an air of obligation, a sense that the filmmakers included them only because of what viewers allegedly expect from this kind of movie. And while Bilbo may be more of an obvious hero in this installment, it also feels as if the writers are scrambling to give him enough to do to justify his name in the title. Lawrence, in fact, has more in common with Bilbo than you’d expect: he’s an unlikely protagonist, not naturally a man of action, thrown into a group of bearded doubters, and ultimately determined to restore a king to his rightful place. Yet he dominates every scene while remaining uniquely himself throughout, while Bilbo spends much of his own movie’s endless middle section as just another face along for the ride.

And despite its huge cast, enormous scale, and plethora of settings, it comes off more than ever as a movie taking place somewhere in a hard drive at Weta Digital. Only a handful of scenes bear any mark of a real location: the beautiful New Zealand landscape is barely in evidence, replaced by what David Thomson has aptly called its “superb, pewterized undertone” created in the absence of real photographed light. Contrast this to Lawrence of Arabia, where the recent digital restoration revealed places where the original negative had cracked and healed over in the desert heat, and you see the difference between a movie that opens a vast window onto the real world and one that merely renders it. Even Pauline Kael, no great fan of Lawrence, wrote: “If you went to see it under the delusion that it was going to be about T.E. Lawrence, you probably stayed to enjoy the vastness of the desert and the pleasures of the senses that a huge movie epic can provide.” And that sensual pleasure is precisely what is missing from The Hobbit. I don’t mean to discount the expertise and care that went into each frame of The Desolation of Smaug, which, on an abstract level, filled me with gratitude for the effort involved. Yet it pales in comparison to the legacy of Lawrence as a dispatch from another time and place, a tale, or an adventure, that its makers have survived to tell.

Written by nevalalee

December 16, 2013 at 9:43 am

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