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Lawrence of Arabia reassessed 
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Post Lawrence of Arabia reassessed
I've contemplated starting a thread about this movie, as its popularity begins to perplex me more and more.

Of its 3.5 hours, a huge portion is devoted simply to wide shots establishing the open expanse of the desert. In the first half of the movie, there's very little plot. The plot is: Lawrence goes to the desert, meets the Arabs, makes the decision to go to take the Arabs across the desert to fight the Turks on the coastal city, goes back to tell the generals in Cairo. That's it. Nothing happens in the movie for very long expanses of time. As a spectacle, it often falls flat, David Lean having a tendency to pancake his shots into the simplest, most rudimentary blocking he can think of. There is also an immense tonal disjointedness in the movie. Sometimes, it's a jolly adventure yarn, other times a plodding piece of political discourse. The "torture" scene especially is painfully outdated and unintentionally hilarious. The film becomes especially talky in the second half. And seriously, not all of it is substance. There is a great deal of padding in Lawrence, because of the producers feeling the need to compete evenly with Ben-Hur and other epics of the time. Many moments are empty of any substance, and there are times when Lean makes his dramatic beats redundant. For instance, when Lawrence rescues Gasim from the "Sun's Anvil," Maurice Jarre's music swells up into a big crowd-pleasing moment as the boy Daud sees them emerging from the desert. But then Lean shoots for exactly the same crowd-pleasing moment immediately after when Farraj sees Lawrence arriving at the camp.

Many of the characterizations strike me as kind of fun, but kind of childish. Anthony Quinn's Auda Abu Tayi is never developed as a character beyond being the old familiar "loveable oaf" type. He might as well be Ballou the Bear. Peter O'Toole's performance is at times electrifying, at times obnoxious, and it largely consists of exaggerating the surface aspects of the character. Anthony Quayle looks like a cartoon, with his face permanently frozen in a childish pout. Alec Guinness plays the old, wise sage for the millionth time in his career. Omar Sharif gives the movie's best, most-well rounded performance. And Arthur Kennedy is just a drier version of the rough cowboys he played for Anthony Mann.

Also, the complete lack of women over the entire running length is just absurd and off-putting.

Most of all, it's just not anywhere near as good as Bridge on the River Kwai. The success of that film clearly went to Lean's head, as he took to simply indulging himself for the rest of his career. And the backlash that came with Doctor Zhivago demonstrates that Lean's weaknesses were beginning to show. Few had the courage to stand up to Lawrence (although some of the most famous critics did, like Bosley Crowther and Andrew Sarris), but Doctor Zhivago's extreme boredom wasn't lost on a lot of people. The rest is history. Ryan's Daughter was the flop that killed Lean's career.

But Lawrence is highly overrated. For epic desert vistas, The Searchers is far more visually dynamic, and 90 minutes the shorter. For the length, Seven Samurai is far richer and Gone with the Wind far more interesting as an artifact of classic Hollywood mythmaking. For the spectacle, the severely under seen El Cid and The Fall of the Roman Empire are leaner, meaner, and more visually rich and kinetic, with more dynamic photography from Robert Krasker. As action epics, they're top of the class, but I also can enjoy serious dramatic epics that have no trace of action or adventure. The Good Shepherd is, to me, infinitely more entertaining and substantial than Lawrence. For me, Lawrence is largely just a bizarre footnote of cinematic history coming at a period of international upheaval in the art form. It's caught halfway between classic and modern Hollywood, not pure drama, not pure adventure, not pure epic, just a gigantic, awkward concoction. Plus it copies the opening scenes of Citizen Kane for no reason.


Thu Aug 28, 2014 9:29 am
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Post Re: Lawrence of Arabia reassessed
Unke:

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Unfortunately, I'm a bit pressed for time at the moment, so cannot respond at length. I also agree that a discussion on 'Lawrence of Arabia' would deserve its own thread. Go ahead, MGamesCook!

And before you do, you may want to reconsider or rephrase some parts of your post. "Lawrence of Arabia is largely a bizarre footnote of cinematic history"? Come on. The backlash that met 'Doctor Zhivago', the extreme boredom of which wasn't lost on a lot of people, makes it the eight-hightest grossing movie of all time (as of now, adjusted for inflation). And you have heard of 'A Passage to India' (which got Lean Oscar nominations for editing and directing in 1984, i.e. after his career appears to have been dead and buried), haven't you?

And "lean" and "mean" aren't exactly the terms which I would use to describe 'The Fall of the Roman Empire'. I mean, it has Alec Guiness sitting on a chair watching a parade for half an hour!


Thu Aug 28, 2014 9:30 am
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Post Re: Lawrence of Arabia reassessed
What's wrong with calling Lawrence a bizarre footnote of cinematic history? I think I made valid points which support that argument. It's halfway between classical and modern modes of filmmaking. Lawrence himself is half El Cid, half Alex DeLarge almost. Seriously, it's a strange movie.

Doctor Zhivago had and continues to have a backlash regarding its length, in spite of its massive success, and is widely thought to be a rather boring film. Not that it doesn't also have supporters. Thunderball was also a huge blockbuster success, but it's one of the more bloated, tiresome Bond films. Box office success didn't necessarily indicate quality in the 60s anymore than it does now.

I do know A Passage to India, and it was one of only three films Lean managed to make after Lawrence. Less well-known are his earlier 1940s Dickens adaptations, for instance, which I find generally more visually rich and sharper than his epics. And I always loved Bridge on the River Kwai. Still, there's a basic coldness in Lean's approach that does make me long for Howard Hawks' ample personality a lot of the time. Lean liked to extenuate the simpler aspects of a story, sometimes to good effect, sometimes not in my opinion.

Fall of the Roman Empire is at times a bit slow, but overall faster and more mobile than Lawrence or Zhivago. Also about a half hour shorter than the latter two. The assembly, or parade, that Alec Guinness's roman emperor oversees is a stationary establishing sequence, which is pretty typical for an epic. Definitely quite important to the plot. And it gets to the meat of the story quickly enough. There are many stunning sequences, such as the first battle in the forest, the chariot chase, the whole assassination plot of the senators, Marcus's funeral in the snow, the arrival in Rome (still the biggest set ever built?). Even though Stephen Boyd may be a bit bland, we're really not meant to sympathize with his character anyway, and the acting in general is memorable enough, especially Christopher Plummer as the credibly maniacal successor.

Certainly, what's most impressive with David Lean generally is the acting. Many outstanding performances in River Kwai ground the film and drive it forward. In Lawrence, that's also true up to a point, but I think 3.5 hours is simply too long for actors to carry so much weight. And all actors, without a single actress among them. Nashville is very actor-centric, with a larger ensemble than Lawrence, but manages to be an hour shorter. Of course, in Nashville's case the movie never quite feels like it's being driven by the actors, but rather by Altman's aggressive, unusual directorial approach. Such tends to be the case with Mann as well. Lean's direction is very passive at times. A lot of static shots that have a one-at-a-time rhythm to them. Also, I just can't help suspecting that most of the passion for Lawrence goes to the first half of it. Scenes from the first half are what people remember fondly when the movie gets brought up. His funeral scene, which sets itself up as a bookend, is never returned to, and the second half almost feels like an appendix to the first.


Thu Aug 28, 2014 9:31 am
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Post Re: Lawrence of Arabia reassessed
I suggest you read what major wrote about it in this thread. nails what makes it great to me.

viewtopic.php?f=48&t=1284


Thu Aug 28, 2014 12:17 pm
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Post Re: Lawrence of Arabia reassessed
calvero wrote:
I suggest you read what major wrote about it in this thread. nails what makes it great to me.

viewtopic.php?f=48&t=1284


Major:

Quote:
It’s earned the right to get placed ahead of thousands of movies because it does something unique among virtually all other movies, especially in the genre of Historical Epic: it tells the story of Lawrence while going out of its way to tell anything but that story.


I see what he's getting at here, but just as "Lawrence is a sword with two edges," as Alec Guinness claims at the end, Lean's conceit is also a sword with two edges. I don't deny that the film is unique in some ways, but that doesn't automatically make it great. It feels as if Lawrence is often cancelling itself out as a movie. By being both intimate and epic, it's only halfway good at either.

Major seems to largely just be reaching for reasons to justify its ranking on theyshootpictures top 1000 list. Stubbornly imposing old tastes on new generations, even though classic cinema as a whole is ripe for some reassessment here and there. Over time, one learns that obscure alternatives to the widely accepted signpost classics can be just as good, interesting, in some cases better, than their more famous counterparts.

In any case, heaping praise and obsession on just one movie hampers understanding of cinema as a whole. It was as true then as it is now.

Two interesting ironies:

1. Just as I was railing against Wolf of Wall Street, Scorsese is actually the one who has many times chosen to focus his passion on Mann's epics over others. Spielberg is the one who obsesses over Lawrence.

2. Armond White has always listed Lawrence as one of his top 10 favorite films of all time. Out of everything White's ever written, this is probably the point on which I disagree with him the most.


Thu Aug 28, 2014 9:14 pm
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Post Re: Lawrence of Arabia reassessed
MGamesCook wrote:
What's wrong with calling Lawrence a bizarre footnote of cinematic history?


The word "footnote" is the wrong way to describe it. It implies that Lawrence is a small, minor film of its time and in director David Lean's career, which from any objective standpoint it really isn't. Lawrence is certainly a major work in Lean's filmography, and also one of Peter O'Toole's finest performances. So to call it a footnote is a bit incorrect.

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Thu Aug 28, 2014 10:36 pm
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Post Re: Lawrence of Arabia reassessed
Sexual Chocolate wrote:
MGamesCook wrote:
What's wrong with calling Lawrence a bizarre footnote of cinematic history?


The word "footnote" is the wrong way to describe it. It implies that Lawrence is a small, minor film of its time and in director David Lean's career, which from any objective standpoint it really isn't. Lawrence is certainly a major work in Lean's filmography, and also one of Peter O'Toole's finest performances. So to call it a footnote is a bit incorrect.


Okay, maybe I used the wrong word. I'll say a "curious product" of a crazy, transitional period in film history.


Thu Aug 28, 2014 11:27 pm
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Post Re: Lawrence of Arabia reassessed
Since I’ve supported the idea to make this thread, I should’ve written a post earlier. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the time for the lengthy response I mentioned, but, finally, here it goes:

MGamesCook, I don’t so much object to your opinion on ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ as such, although I don’t share it. It’s one of my favourite movies. Insofar as you discuss specific aspects of the movie, such as musical cues or the way the torture scene is filmed, I’m afraid that I would probably have to rewatch the film again in order to provide counter-arguments (if there are any), because it’s been over ten years since I last saw it.

My problem with your post is the way by which you construct your argument, which is so unsound that I find it hard to take it seriously.
You write:

Quote:
Few had the courage to stand up to Lawrence (although some of the most famous critics did, like Bosley Crowther and Andrew Sarris)


You are referring to two critics, who didn’t like the film. Notable critics as they may have been, they appear to be in a minority of two. Roger Ebert, to name another well-known critic, lists it in his “Great Movies” section. In the most recent Sight & Sound poll of the 250 best movies ever made, ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ is ranked at #81. Are you saying that every other critic is wrong and these two are right, just because they are in line with your opinion? To be fair, there is no scientific way to determine the overall importance of a film in cinematic history. Neither a place in a critical ranking, nor the fact that ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ won a whooping seven Academy Awards, including best picture, necessarily makes it a good movie. Yet, invoking the only two critics who don’t like the film in order to prove your point is somewhat absurd.
Further, you state:

Quote:
Scorsese is actually the one who has many times chosen to focus his passion on Mann's epics over others. Spielberg is the one who obsesses over Lawrence.


What is the point of contrasting Steven Spielberg’s “obsession” with ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ with Martin Scorsese’s “passion on Mann’s epics over others”? Are you suggesting that Martin Scorsese doesn’t like ‘Lawrence of Arabia”? That is evidently not true. You may watch the clips of Martin Scorsese discussing ‘Lawrence of Arabia’, which are available on youtube and are probably taken from his doucmentary featurette ‘The Lure of the Desert’ . I also found this quote in a New York Times article about the rerelease of ‘Lawrence of Arabia’:

For Mr. Scorsese, seeing ''Lawrence of Arabia'' was ''one of the great cinema experiences - seeing the curtains open, hearing the overture, and then being in the presence of a masterwork,'' he said. ''It's on such a grand scale, with a cast that can never be reassembled.''

Even if Scorsese isn’t calling ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ the greatest film of all time, he still considers it a masterpiece. I’ve read a similar quote from Stanley Kubrick. How does that provide an argument for your opinion? You also wrote:

Quote:
In the first half of the movie, there's very little plot. The plot is: Lawrence goes to the desert, meets the Arabs, makes the decision to go to take the Arabs across the desert to fight the Turks on the coastal city, goes back to tell the generals in Cairo. That's it. Nothing happens in the movie for very long expanses of time.


Your plot summary is extremely reductive. It’s like describing ‘Psycho’ as “Crossdresser kills people nothing happens”. You omit that Lawrence is portrayed as a stranger to Arabs and has to win their trust, against the objections of a fellow British officer no less, that he leads a ragtag tribal army across a patch of desert, which they thought of as impossible, that he daringly rescues one of them in a sandstorm and thereby wins their respect, that he has to kill the very person he saved to forge an alliance with an enemy tribe of Bedouins, that there is a large scale cavalry attack on a heavily fortified city and that he crosses the Sinai in a sandstorm, during which he loses another of his companions. If you think that nothing happens in the movie for a long time, we seem to have watched a different movie. Then, you state:

Quote:
For me, Lawrence is largely just a bizarre footnote of cinematic history coming at a period of international upheaval in the art form. It's caught halfway between classic and modern Hollywood, not pure drama, not pure adventure, not pure epic, just a gigantic, awkward concoction


Sexual Chocolate bet me to it, but I’d like to repeat it: Calling the movie a “footnote of cinematic history” suggests that ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ would be a minor, unimportant and/or (relatively) unknown movie. You have already conceded that the wording of your original post was wrong in this respect. But terminology aside, what do you actually mean when you criticise it for being “caught halfway between classic and modern Hollywood”. I think of ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ as a good example of classic filmmaking and I’m sure I’m not alone. It certainly is of a consistent style. And even if its style would have been outdated at the time, so what? Can’t an old-fashioned movie be good? You unfavourably compare the film to other epic movies. Well, Anthony Mann made ‘El Cid’ in 1961 and ‘The Fall of the Roman Empire’ in 1964. These movies aren’t exactly French New Wave-influenced either. Are they worthless because of this? Haven’t they been made at the same “crazy, transitional period”? And don’t they have elements of action, adventure, love story and drama as well? Finally, you wrote:

Quote:
Also, the complete lack of women over the entire running length is just absurd and off-putting.


Firstly, I think you know very well that, regrettably, women don’t have the same social standing in the societies of the Arab peninsula as they do in so-called Western cultures. Introducing a strong female character, a warrior-princess perhaps, would have been an ahistorical and ridiculous conceit. Also, this film is about military operations, which were indeed nearly exclusively performed by men in WWI. Would you have preferred it if there was a stereotypical nurse character in the movie? A damsel in distress, who needed to be saved? Or a love interest? The historical T.E. Lawrence didn’t actually have any female relationships. Many biographers consider him homosexual, which is also suggested in the movie. Introducing a female love interest would simply be false. Above all, female characters aren’t necessary, because I think that ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ is very much about masculinity or the protagonist’s ideal thereof. It is also an interesting inversion of the typical “going native” narrative, which usually works that a foreigner is taken in by stereotypical “noble savages” and learns about their way of life, which is presented as more in line with nature or with the true nature of man, and is then involved in a conflict with his more “civilised” culture of origin, which is portrayed negatively. “Avatar” is a good example for such a story, although it plays in an entirely fictional fantastical world, of course. In ‘Lawrence of Arabia’, the Arab tribes themselves ultimately aren’t able to overcome their enmities and squabble endlessly amongst each other, while the British take control. They aren’t capable of fulfilling Lawrence’s ideal of a unified Arabia. It’s an ideal they don’t really share and all the violence has been for nothing (from Lawrence’s perspective). Even worse, he recognises that he has been a pawn of British colonial interest rather than the freedom fighter he aspired to be. So, there’s your substance.


Tue Sep 02, 2014 11:01 am
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Post Re: Lawrence of Arabia reassessed
Yeah, it has substance, but I don't find that substance to be altogether dramatic. And its substance isn't particularly cinematic, in my view. The cinematography is as flat and pancaked as the desert it depicts. The editing is nonexistent. No matter where you are in the movie, you're always looking at either a wide shot of the desert or a bland straight shot of some number of people riding in the desert...or people talking their heads off in order to pad the running length. Even when the opportunity presents itself for a little variation, Lean avoids it. The story eventually progresses, but to me it always feels like it's going nowhere, because it never progresses visually. In visual terms, it's staring at the same stuff for 3.5 hours. Not much variation in production design either. It's desert, desert, desert. And the fact that everything is shot left to right adds further to the visual monotony.

Your answer to my inquiry about the lack of women doesn't answer the essential point: why make a movie about Lawrence in the first place? Why, instead of making it a quiet introspective study of an enigmatic man, make it a bloated action blockbuster? I know why: box office and, probably egotism on Lean's part. Making this kind of movie about someone as weird as Lawrence would be like making A Clockwork Orange into a Lord of the Rings type of production. It mesmerizes some people, clearly. For me, it's just odd and problematic.

Many classical directors knew how to move their camera very well. Lean keeps his almost entirely static. In a way, it's the opposite of Lola Montes. Ophuls could really move a camera, but his story sucked. Lean has juicier material to work with, and keeps the camera boringly still.

I think the movie never draws to a satisfying conclusion. It's almost like Bridge on the River Kwai but without the ending. Instead of "madness, madness!" it's "uhh...I don't know what to make of this guy Lawrence. Whatever. At least the desert was fun."

The reason I mentioned Crowther and Sarris is that I agree with their points. Obviously I didn't mean for that to objectively prove that their opinion is the right one.

Even so, I don't think it's a terrible film. I think it's simply very flawed in ways most people aren't willing to consider as even a possibility. And because of this movie's untouchability, for me it gives off the air of elitism. Inherent to that is my feeling that movie exists more intimidation than for entertainment. It's a self-important mammoth if ever there was one, and seems to offer very little pleasure beyond the pleasure that importance clearly gives to some people. It's also, unlike Mann's epics, a deeply manipulative movie. It manipulates the audience into clearly feeling certain ways about certain characters without actually developing those characters. Auda is the lovable old bear; that's all we need to know about his character, apparently. General Allenby the stalwart general who follows orders. He's as shallow as a Colonel Blimp sketch comic in a newspaper. Prince Feisel is Arab Obi-Wan. He's wise, and that's about it. Arthur Kennedy is Cowboy Paparazzo. I'm not being reductive here. Lean himself sketches these characters reductively, as cartoons. And that's what puts me off about the film most of all: it's a very cartooned presentation of an historical period that was anything but cartoony. It takes place in the 1910s, and Lean paints it as if it's the 1910s B.C.

Of course, there's a way to turn epic cartoon into pure genius, as Kurosawa demonstrated many times. Lean doesn't have Kurosawa's sense of fun, and even with Seven Samurai (at least until Kagemusha), Kurosawa kept his subjects small enough to give them room to breathe in a joyous, character-centric manner. Whatever fun can be gleaned from Lawrence's cartoons is very much drowned out in the second half by endless diplomatic discourse on the larger picture of British colonialism.


Fri Sep 05, 2014 6:14 am
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Post Re: Lawrence of Arabia reassessed
Quote:
Even so, I don't think it's a terrible film. I think it's simply very flawed in ways most people aren't willing to consider as even a possibility. And because of this movie's untouchability, for me it gives off the air of elitism. Inherent to that is my feeling that movie exists more intimidation than for entertainment. It's a self-important mammoth if ever there was one, and seems to offer very little pleasure beyond the pleasure that importance clearly gives to some people.


I think that you are projecting your misgivings about the status of ‘Lawrence of Arabia’, as you perceive it, onto the film itself. The movie doesn’t have an elitist message and is arguably designed to appeal to a broad audience.I also think that the movie’s fans aren’t so much unwilling to consider the flaws, which you find in the movie, but rather don’t perceive them as problems. For example, you wrote:

Quote:
The cinematography is as flat and pancaked as the desert it depicts. The editing is nonexistent. No matter where you are in the movie, you're always looking at either a wide shot of the desert or a bland straight shot of some number of people riding in the desert...or people talking their heads off in order to pad the running length. Even when the opportunity presents itself for a little variation, Lean avoids it. The story eventually progresses, but to me it always feels like it's going nowhere, because it never progresses visually. In visual terms, it's staring at the same stuff for 3.5 hours. Not much variation in production design either. It's desert, desert, desert. And the fact that everything is shot left to right adds further to the visual monotony.


I’m not sure what you mean by stating that the cinematography is “flat and pancaked”, but I agree that the there are a lot of wide shots of desert landscapes with minimal editing. Perhaps it’s fair to describe this as monotonous. Whereas you find it visually boring, which is also fair, I think it is very fitting in order to portray the vastness of the desert and how humans are dwarved by the wide open spaces as well as, yes, the monotony of a desert landscape. Lawrence himself says in the movie that he likes the desert because it is clean (or something to that effect). There is only land and sky, life or death and Lawrence, who is confused about his role in the world (arguably his sexuality and values), likes exactly that. So the desert should be shown that way, too. Again, it’s fine that you find it off-putting, but don’t assume that everyone will feel about this aspect the same way as you do.

Quote:
Your answer to my inquiry about the lack of women doesn't answer the essential point: why make a movie about Lawrence in the first place? Why, instead of making it a quiet introspective study of an enigmatic man, make it a bloated action blockbuster? I know why: box office and, probably egotism on Lean's part. Making this kind of movie about someone as weird as Lawrence would be like making A Clockwork Orange into a Lord of the Rings type of production. It mesmerizes some people, clearly. For me, it's just odd and problematic.


No, your original point wasn’t “why make a movie about Lawrence in the first place”, your point was that the lack of female characters would be “absurd and off-putting”. Nevermind.

When you ask why this hasn’t been made as a quiet introspective study of an enigmatic man, the clue for the answer is in the title. It’s about T.E. Lawrence, who became famous as "Lawrence of Arabia" because of his daring exploits in the Arab desert during WWI. There would be no point in making a movie about him, if it didn’t include his adventures in the desert; that would be like a Superman movie, which had nothing in it but Clark Kent writing newspaper articles for the Daily Planet. You could make a movie like that, sure, but would anybody be interested in it? Would you?


Thu Sep 11, 2014 9:58 am
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Post Re: Lawrence of Arabia reassessed
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I’m not sure what you mean by stating that the cinematography is “flat and pancaked”, but I agree that the there are a lot of wide shots of desert landscapes with minimal editing. Perhaps it’s fair to describe this as monotonous. Whereas you find it visually boring, which is also fair, I think it is very fitting in order to portray the vastness of the desert and how humans are dwarved by the wide open spaces as well as, yes, the monotony of a desert landscape. Lawrence himself says in the movie that he likes the desert because it is clean (or something to that effect). There is only land and sky, life or death and Lawrence, who is confused about his role in the world (arguably his sexuality and values), likes exactly that. So the desert should be shown that way, too. Again, it’s fine that you find it off-putting, but don’t assume that everyone will feel about this aspect the same way as you do.


I know. People don't see it the way I do, but I see you understand why I might find it monotonous. The cinematography itself, however, is flat because it lacks depth contrast. The actors always seem to be standing at the exact same distance from the camera, and it's usually a pretty far distance. By extension, there tends to be only one plane of focus in any given shot. Bridge on the River Kwai is the same way. Lean's actors are stacked together uniformly, whether in military formation or not. I find the method of staging actors at different depth planes in the same shot, used by Orson Welles and many others, is just fundamentally more dynamic, regardless of the context.


Sun Sep 14, 2014 5:10 am
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Post Re: Lawrence of Arabia reassessed
It's "THE Bridge on the River Kwai," BTW. Sorry, I get annoyed when people drop that first article. :ugeek: :ugeek:


Sun Sep 14, 2014 6:42 am
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