Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Peter O’Toole

The Outsider

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Colin Wilson

When you achieve your greatest success at an early age, a long life can be a liability as well as a blessing. The headline for Peter O’Toole’s obituary was always going be “Star of Lawrence of Arabia,” despite the fifty years of performances that came afterward, and while there are far worse fates for an actor—it’s the most striking debut as a leading actor in the history of movies—it also reminds us of how shapeless a lengthy career can seem after its early peak. O’Toole belonged to an honorable tradition of great British or Irish actors, ranging from Olivier to Ben Kingsley, who were always happy to show up for a role and a paycheck, cheerfully willing to skate through a few weeks of filming on little more than a sonorous voice and superb bag of tricks. They’re great players, schooled in a theater tradition that emphasizes artifice and the cultivation of clever devices that can deployed at a moment’s notice. (Kevin Spacey may be the closest American equivalent, which goes a long way toward explaining why he seems most comfortable at the Old Vic.) And the results are a joy to watch, to the point where I sympathize with Olivier’s famous question to Dustin Hoffman on the set of Marathon Man: “Why not try acting?”

Still, the result is often a strange, uneven career, marked by long periods of slumming, and it grows all the less comprehensible as you move away from those definitive early roles. The same fate often awaits authors of a certain eccentric mindset, and I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently, ever since the death of the British writer Colin Wilson. His life coincided almost perfectly with O’Toole’s: he was born almost exactly a year before and died a few days earlier, and although his passing has gone almost unnoticed, their lives have some striking parallels. Both were born into working-class families, had their first big hit at an early age, and spent the rest of their careers trying to live up to that initial breakthrough. In Wilson’s case, it was The Outsider, which is the kind of book that so many ambitious authors in their early twenties have yearned to write: a study of Camus, Sartre, Dostoyevsky, and others, fueled by months in the reading room of the British Museum, with its central figure as, yes, T.E. Lawrence. I can’t say for sure that a copy ever crossed the desk of Lawrence screenwriter Robert Bolt—although both he and Wilson were close to the theatrical director Stephen Joseph—but its hard not to hear an echo here: “His most characteristic trait is his inability to stop thinking. Thought imprisons him; it is an unending misery, because he knows the meaning of freedom…”

Peter O'Toole

After The Outsider was published, Wilson was pigeonholed as one of Britain’s angry young men, alongside the likes of John Osborne and Kingsley Amis, but his work took him into weirder and more interesting directions. Wilson was fascinated with the occult and the psychology of murder, and his later career superficially resembles that of a pulp novelist and hack popularizer of the paranormal, although flavored with unexpected influences, like that of his mentor Robert Graves. He displayed an unfashionable tendency to follow his nose wherever it led him, resulting in works on Jack the Ripper, Aleister Crowley, and Wilhelm Reich, and such novels as The Space Vampires, later adapted into the movie Lifeforce, which Wilson famously hated. And although I can’t claim to be deeply familiar with Wilson’s work—I own copies of The Outsider and The Occult, his two most famous books, but I’ve done little more than browse through them—he’s still a figure I’ve long found intriguing, particularly in his prickly mixture of skepticism and credulity. (In many ways, he reminds me of Robert Anton Wilson, another literary genius who was most at home in disreputable subjects and genres.)

Wilson was also the author of one of my single favorite essays on the craft of writing, “Fantasy and Faculty X,” which I first encountered in the anthology How to Write Tales of Horror, Fantasy, and Science Fiction. Wilson defined Faculty X as a union of the conscious and unconscious minds, or of the left and right sides of the brain, that allowed writers, mystics, and other creative types to move beyond the present into another world, and although his terminology may be dated, the underlying principle remains sound. Intuition, and the ability to draw on it at will, is the most powerful tool that any artist can possess, and Wilson did as credible a job as any writer I know of describing its essential workings. The trouble, of course, is that intuition can lead you into strange places; it doesn’t lend itself to neat, easily classifiable careers, and it can result in the writers of obituaries straining to find a connective thread. Wilson may not, as he openly hoped, go down as “probably the greatest writer of the twentieth century,” but like O’Toole, he was an odd bird of a kind that may never come again, and the world is a little poorer for his absence.

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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