Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘David Lean

The Battle of Dunkirk

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During my junior year in college, I saw Christopher Nolan’s Memento at the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts, for no other reason except that I’d heard it was great. Since then, I’ve seen all of Nolan’s movies on their initial release, which is something I can’t say of any other director. At first, it was because I liked his work and his choices intrigued me, and it only occurred to me around the time of The Dark Knight that I witnessing a career like no other. It’s tempting to compare Nolan to his predecessors, but when you look at his body of work from Memento to Dunkirk, it’s clear that he’s in a category of his own. He’s directed nine theatrical features in seventeen years, all mainstream critical and commercial successes, including some of the biggest movies in recent history. No other director alive comes close to that degree of consistency, at least not at the same level of productivity and scale. Quality and reliability alone aren’t everything, of course, and Nolan pales a bit compared to say, Steven Spielberg, who over a comparable stretch of time went from The Sugarland Express to Hook, with Jaws, Close Encounters, E.T., and the Indiana Jones trilogy along the way, as well as 1941 and Always. By comparison, Nolan can seem studied, deliberate, and remote, and the pockets of unassimilated sentimentality in his work—which I used to assume were concessions to the audience, but now I’m not so sure—only point to how unified and effortless Spielberg is at his best. But the conditions for making movies have also changed over the last four decades, and Nolan has threaded the needle in ways that still amaze me, as I continue to watch his career unfold in real time.

Nolan sometimes reminds me of the immortal Byron the Bulb in Gravity’s Rainbow, of which Thomas Pynchon writes: “Statistically…every n-thousandth light bulb is gonna be perfect, all the delta-q’s piling up just right, so we shouldn’t be surprised that this one’s still around, burning brightly.” He wrote and directed one of the great independent debuts, leveraged it into a career making blockbusters, and slowly became a director from whom audiences expected extraordinary achievements while he was barely out of the first phase of his career. And he keeps doing it. For viewers of college age or younger, he must feel like an institution, while I can’t stop thinking of him as an outlier that has yet to regress to the mean. Nolan’s most significant impact, for better or worse, may lie in the sheer, seductive implausibility of the case study that he presents. Over the last decade or so, we’ve seen a succession of young directors, nearly all of them white males, who, after directing a microbudgeted indie movie, are handed the keys to a huge franchise. This has been taken as an instance of category selection, in which directors who look a certain way are given opportunities that wouldn’t be offered to filmmakers of other backgrounds, but deep down, I think it’s just an attempt to find the next Nolan. If I were an executive at Warner Bros. whose career had overlapped with his, I’d feel toward him what Goethe felt of Napoleon: “[It] produces in me an impression like that produced by the Revelation of St. John the Divine. We all feel there must be something more in it, but we do not know what.” Nolan is the most exciting success story to date of a business model that he defined and that, if it worked, would solve most of Hollywood’s problems, in which independent cinema serves as a farm team for directors who can consistently handle big legacy projects that yield great reviews and box office. And it’s happened exactly once.

You can’t blame Hollywood for hoping that lightning will strike twice, but it’s obvious now that Nolan is like nobody else, and Dunkirk may turn out to be the pivotal film in trying to understand what he represents. I don’t think it’s his best or most audacious movie, but it was certainly the greatest risk, and he seems to have singlehandedly willed it into existence. Artistically, it’s a step forward for a director who sometimes seemed devoted to complexity for its own sake, telling a story of crystalline narrative and geographical clarity with a minimum of dialogue and exposition, with clever tricks with time that lead, for once, to a real emotional payoff. The technical achievement of staging a continuous action climax that runs for most of the movie’s runtime is impressive in itself, and Nolan, who has been gradually preparing for this moment for years, makes it look so straightforward that it’s easy to undervalue it. (Nolan’s great insight here seems to have been that by relying on the audience’s familiarity with the conventions of the war movie, he could lop off the first hour of the story and just tell the second half. Its nonlinear structure, in turn, seems to have been a pragmatic solution to the problem of how to intercut freely between three settings with different temporal and spatial demands, and Nolan strikes me as the one director both to whom it would have occurred and who would have actually been allowed to do it.) On a commercial level, it’s his most brazen attempt, even more than Inception, to see what he could do with the free pass that a director typically gets after a string of hits. And the fact that he succeeded, with a summer box office smash that seems likely to win multiple Oscars, only makes me all the more eager to see what he’ll do next.

It all amounts to the closest film in recent memory to what Omar Sharif once said of Lawrence of Arabia: “If you are the man with the money and somebody comes to you and says he wants to make a film that’s four hours long, with no stars, and no women, and no love story, and not much action either, and he wants to spend a huge amount of money to go film it in the desert—what would you say?” Dunkirk is half as long as Lawrence and consists almost entirely of action, and it isn’t on the same level, but the challenge that it presented to “the man with the money” must have been nearly as great. (Its lack of women, unfortunately, is equally glaring.) In fact, I can think of only one other director who has done anything comparable. I happened to see Dunkirk a few weeks after catching 2001: A Space Odyssey on the big screen, and as I watched the former movie last night, it occurred to me that Nolan has pulled off the most convincing Kubrick impression that any of us have ever seen. You don’t become the next Kubrick by imitating him, as Nolan did to some extent in Interstellar, but by figuring out new ways to tell stories using all the resources of the cinema, and somehow convincing a studio to fund the result. In both cases, the studio was Warner Bros., and I wonder if executives with long memories see Nolan as a transitional figure between Kubrick and the needs of the DC Extended Universe. It’s a difficult position for any director to occupy, and it may well prevent Nolan from developing along more interesting lines that his career might otherwise have taken. His artistic gambles, while considerable, are modest compared to even Barry Lyndon, and his position at the center of the industry can only discourage him from running the risk of being difficult or alienating. But I’m not complaining. Dunkirk is the story of a retreat, but it’s also the latest chapter in the life of a director who just can’t stop advancing.

Written by nevalalee

July 26, 2017 at 9:21 am

Quote of the Day

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The closest definition of [star quality] was one I heard from David Lean…He told me, “When you are cutting a scene with an excellent actor, you can cut as he finishes the line; but with a star, you can hold the shot for at least another four frames, because that is when the magic happens.”

Michael Caine, What’s It All About?

Written by nevalalee

April 17, 2017 at 7:25 am

The intermission song

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Tom Courtenay in Doctor Zhivago

A few weeks ago, a user on Reddit posted a copy of the original projectionist’s instructions for Gone With the Wind. They make for a fascinating read, both because they reflect a level of care in a film’s presentation that you’re unlikely to find today at your average multiplex, and because they remind us of what it meant to treat a movie as a genuine event. Each screening opened with an overture, during which it was urged “that the house lights be gradually dimmed,” followed by a drum roll that signaled the parting of the curtains. And there was an intermission with four minutes of orchestral music, which in practice was often extended by theater owners by delaying the start of the next reel. Every aspect is a tribute to David O. Selznick’s obsessive attention to detail, and while its efforts to mimic the feel of a theatrical performance might seem artificial—in the way the earliest automobiles took their design cues from the horse and buggy—the impact on the audience is a real one. It extends the narrative from the screen into the space of the theater itself, and in the end, the physical experience of viewing the movie can’t be separated from the shape of the overall story.

Lately, intermissions have gone out of style. As far as I can remember, the last film I saw with an intermission on its original run was Titanic, and even that seems to have been on the exhibitor’s initiative—the movie simply stopped, unceremoniously, between two reels. At first, it isn’t hard to see why theater owners would prefer to show a movie straight through: they’re anxious to pack as many screenings into a single day as possible, and once a film approaches three hours, it can be hard to schedule more than one showing during the crucial evening hours. Yet as blockbusters continue to test that limit anyway, and as the majority of a theater’s profit is increasingly derived from concessions, you’d think that they’d welcome any additional excuse to sell soda and popcorn. In Look, I Made a Hat, Stephen Sondheim notes that theater owners on Broadway have taken the opposite stance:

It will probably not come as a surprise that theater owners abhor one-act shows. Without intermissions, what happens to the concession stands and bars, of which they have a significant percentage?

Projectionist's instructions for Gone With the Wind

Clearly, then, there comes a point when an intermission makes economic as well as aesthetic sense. But a real intermission is more than just a matter of arbitrarily pausing the movie halfway through: it calls for a thoughtful reconsideration of the structure of the story itself. Martin Sherman, author of Bent, refers to the intermission as “one of the great weapons that a playwright can use,” since it allows the tone of the play to change radically between the first and second acts. (Even when the tone remains pointedly the same, as in Waiting for Godot, the intermission—and its lack of forward motion in the meantime—creates its own set of expectations for the author to push against.) Similarly, an intermission in a movie can serve as a source of tension or narrative punctuation, creating a sense of two contrasting movements. David Lean, the master of the cinematic epic, understood this completely: Lawrence of Arabia goes from fun and games in the desert to a narrative of growing ambiguity and disillusionment, and I don’t think there’s ever been a greater act break in movies than the one we find in Doctor Zhivago, which follows the revelation of Strelnikov’s identity with a smash cut to the intermission title card.

None of this happens by accident, and a movie that earns the right to an intermission, aside from reasons of mere bladder capacity, has to be conceived as such from the beginning. Which is why there’s one place where intermissions seem likely to come back into style: in IMAX. With movies like Interstellar already reaching the limit of what a single platter of celluloid can hold, it isn’t farfetched to think that we’ll eventually see an epic of three hours or more that requires a break for a reel change. In this digital age, IMAX already feels like the last refuge of the dialogue between a movie and its physical medium, and it’s ripe for a rediscovery of the intermission as a tool for storytelling. (If nothing else, the kind of moviegoer willing to spend twenty dollars to see a blockbuster on the largest possible screen is probably more open to the idea of a movie as an event, rather than just as a way to kill a couple of hours.) A movie like The Fellowship of the Ring is dying for an intermission, and in practice, it has one: the extended Blu-ray—which is the way in which most viewers will experience it in the future—divides it across two discs, restoring it almost by accident to its ideal form. Which is just another case of the medium reminding us of something that we should have remembered all along.

Written by nevalalee

March 9, 2015 at 9:57 am

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

Making it long

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In Search of Lost Time

Along with giving up movies and music, another consequence of becoming a new father is that I’ve found it increasingly hard to read long novels. Earlier this year, I started Infinite Jest for the first time, but I trailed off after a few hundred pages, not because I wasn’t enjoying it—I liked it a lot—but because it was becoming all but impossible for me to carve adequate reading time out of the limited hours in the day. Since then, I’ve read a lot of nonfiction, mostly for research, and a few shorter novels on the order of John D. MacDonald, but when I look at some of the larger volumes on my bookshelf, I feel a little daunted. I’m not sure when I’m going to have time for Life: A User’s Manual or The Tunnel or The Recognitions or any of the other big novels I bought years ago in full intention of reading them eventually. And although it’s possible that this year will turn out to be a fluke, it’s more likely that my reading life, like so many other things, has undergone a decisive shift. (Even my old trick of reading a big book on vacation may no longer work: it’s hard to balance Underworld in your hands when there’s also a baby strapped to your chest.)

Which is a shame, because I love big novels. This may sound strange coming from a writer who constantly preaches the values of cutting, but I can only report the facts: of the ten favorite novels I discussed here recently, fully half of them—In Search of Lost Time, The Magic Mountain, Gravity’s Rainbow, It, Foucault’s Pendulum—are enormous by any standard. I enjoy long novels for many of the same reasons it’s hard for me to read them these days: their sheer size forces you to give up a significant chunk of your life, and the psychic space they occupy can change the way you think, at least temporarily. When I first read Proust, there were moments when I felt that the events of the novel were objectively more real than anything I was doing at the time, which is something I suspect most readers of big books have experienced. Reading an enormous novel can start to feel like a second job, or an uncredited college class, or a stranger living in your house, especially once you’re been at it for a while. I spent something like a decade picking at The Gold-Bug Variations before finally finishing it, and even though I have mixed feelings about the novel itself, the emotions it evokes are still vivid, if only because it was a part of my life for so long.

Lawrence of Arabia

And length can affect the content of the novel itself in unexpected ways. Edward Mendelson, in his famous essay on encyclopedic narratives, notes that many of these big, insane books—Gargantua and Pantagruel, Moby-Dick—deal with literal or figurative giants, as if the novel is conducting a narrative battle with its own bulk, like Don Quixote fighting the windmill. This also runs in the opposite direction: a subject like a white whale deserves a whale of a novel. Even in books that tackle more intimate themes, length can be a statement or strategy in itself. I’ve noted before that In Search of Lost Time is both a modern version of The Thousand and One Nights and a novelette that expands itself infinitely in all directions, like a Japanese paper flower dropped in water, and it needs to unfold over multiple volumes: we might be able to abridge Dumas or Hugo, but an abridged version of Proust would be a contradiction in terms. Its length isn’t just a consequence of a longer series of events or a more complicated story, but a philosophy of life, or of reading, that can only find its full expression in the span of pages that a long novel provides.

We find much the same thing in other works of art, particularly movies. William Goldman says that if you can’t tell a story in an hour and fifty minutes, you’d better be David Lean, and even then, you don’t know if you’re going to get Lawrence of Arabia or Ryan’s Daughter. Really long movies tend toward the grandiose, as if its ambitions were expanding simultaneously in space and time, but certain stories, regardless of scale, need that room to breathe: I wouldn’t want to lose a minute of Seven Samurai or Barry Lyndon or Yi Yi. And there’s something about a long movie that encourages a different kind of contemplation. As Roger Ebert notes in his review of the six-hour Little Dorrit:

Very long films can create a life of their own. We lose our moorings. We don’t know exactly where we stand within the narrative, and so we can’t guess what will happen next. People appear and reappear, grow older and die, and we accept the rhythm of the story rather than requiring it to be speeded up.

Hence a movie like Shoah, whose nine-hour runtime becomes a part of its message: its quiet, systematic accumulation of detail begins to feel like the only valid response to the monstrousness of the story it tells. Length, at its best, can represent a vision of the world, and it can feel as big as the world itself—as long as we give it the attention it deserves.

Tomorrow: Keeping it short.

Fiction into film: The English Patient

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A few months ago, after greatly enjoying The Conversations, Michael Ondaatje’s delightful book-length interview with Walter Murch, I decided to read Ondaatje’s The English Patient for the first time. I went through it very slowly, only a handful of pages each day, in parallel with my own work on the sequel to The Icon Thief. Upon finishing it last week, I was deeply impressed, not just by the writing, which had drawn me to the book in the first place, but also by the novel’s structural ingenuity—derived, Ondaatje says, from a long process of rewriting and revision—and the richness of its research. This is one of the few novels where detailed historical background has been integrated seamlessly into the poetry of the story itself, and it reflects a real, uniquely novelistic curiosity about other times and places. It’s a great book.

Reading The English Patient also made me want to check out the movie, which I hadn’t seen in more than a decade, when I watched it as part of a special screening for a college course. I recalled admiring it, although in a rather detached way, and found that I didn’t remember much about the story, aside from a few moments and images (and the phrase “suprasternal notch”). But I sensed it would be worth revisiting, both because I’d just finished the book and because I’ve become deeply interested, over the past few years, in the career of editor Walter Murch. Murch is one of film’s last true polymaths, an enormously intelligent man who just happened to settle into editing and sound design, and The English Patient, for which he won two Oscars (including the first ever awarded for a digitally edited movie), is a landmark in his career. It was with a great deal of interest, then, that I watched the film again last night.

First, the good news. The adaptation, by director Anthony Minghella, is very intelligently done. It was probably impossible to film Ondaatje’s full story, with its impressionistic collage of lives and memories, in any kind of commercially viable way, so the decision was wisely made to focus on the central romantic episode, the doomed love affair between Almásy (Ralph Fiennes) and Katherine Clifton (Kristin Scott Thomas). Doing so involved inventing a lot of new, explicitly cinematic material, some satisfying (the car crash and sandstorm in the desert), some less so (Almásy’s melodramatic escape from the prison train). The film also makes the stakes more personal: the mission of Caravaggio (Willem Dafoe) is less about simple fact-finding, as it was in the book, than about revenge. And the new ending, with Almásy silently asking Hana (Juliette Binoche) to end his life, gives the film a sense of resolution that the book deliberately lacks.

These changes, while extensive, are smartly done, and they respect the book while acknowledging its limitations as source material. As Roger Ebert points out in his review of Apocalypse Now, another milestone in Murch’s career, movies aren’t very good at conveying abstract ideas, but they’re great for showing us “the look of a battle, the expression on a face, the mood of a country.” On this level, The English Patient sustains comparison with the works of David Lean, with a greater interest in women, and remains, as David Thomson says, “one of the most deeply textured of films.” Murch’s work, in particular, is astonishing, and the level of craft on display here is very impressive.

Yet the pieces don’t quite come together. The novel’s tentative, intellectual nature, which the adaptation doesn’t try to match, infects the movie as well. It feels like an art film that has willed itself into being an epic romance, when in fact the great epic romances need to be a little vulgar—just look at Gone With the Wind. Doomed romances may obsess their participants in real life, but in fiction, seen from the outside, they can seem silly or absurd. The English Patient understands a great deal about the craft of the romantic epic, the genre in which it has chosen to plant itself, but nothing of its absurdity. In the end, it’s just too intelligent, too beautifully made, to move us on more than an abstract level. It’s a heroic effort; I just wish it were something a little more, or a lot less.

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