On the Screens
David Lean, in love and war
By Donna Bowman and Jim Ridley
AUGUST 24, 1998: David Lean never enjoyed the unanimous accolades of the critical establishment, and even his death in 1991 failed to reverse the tide of opinion that labeled him a magnificent creator of spectacle but a shallow interpreter of his sources. Yet from his days as Michael Powell's editor on 49th Parallel through his incomplete plans for an adaptation of Joseph Conrad's Nostromo, Lean distilled an often harsh, uncompromising vision of the British character out of the thousands of competing voices of fact. Never the most stylish of directors, he preferred to make a trademark out of the tension he created in audiences, who sensed life-and-death issues in Lean's presentation of a character, a place, or a moment in time. As much as any other filmmaker, it is Lean who convinced me that movies need not be hamstrung by slavish veracity to history or literature, but can create their own truth through perfectly selected imagery.
Although it lacks variety and breadth, the Watkins Belcourt's current slate of David Lean films represents at least one thing that a revival theater should do: present classic big-screen epics. The main knock on video--or even laserdisc and DVD--is that it can't possibly deliver the full experience of the CinemaScope pictures made before the multiplex era. A movie like 1957's The Bridge on the River Kwai (closing Thursday night) is simply too big for TV--and in fact it was part of the movie industry's "bigger is better" response to the threat of TV. Even though the home screen has grown, part of the mission of any repertory house should be to present these larger-than-life, often longer-than-life epics in as close to their original screening conditions as is possible.
For comparison's sake, those who exit The Bridge on the River Kwai this week whistling the "Colonel Bogey March" will want to see Lean's last epic, his 1984 adaptation of E.M. Forster's A Passage to India (next Wednesday and Thursday). By this time, TV was unbeatable in terms of audience numbers, but Lean continued to work on a scale, and with a seriousness, that the small screen refused to match. Like Bridge, A Passage to India has the length, complexity, literary pedigree, and cast (Judy Davis, James Fox, Dame Peggy Ashcroft) to make it a purely theatrical "event," an accomplishment beyond the imagining of a movie-of-the-week mentality.
Viewers of both Bridge and Passage will also want to compare the work of that master chameleon, Sir Alec Guinness. In the former, he's the emblem of British pride, that mysterious irrationality which is the film's enduring hallmark; in the latter, he's an aging, cryptic Indian who can be seen either as an appalling ethnic caricature or as the elusive link between the British and Hindu cultures--the bridge that, upon close examination, doesn't quite reach the other side.
I've never been a big fan of 1965's Dr. Zhivago, playing Friday through Sunday, although there's no doubt that its lavish production design and symphonic Maurice Jarre score fare better on the big screen. However, Lean doesn't provide the insight into Russian history that Lawrence of Arabia and A Passage to India provide for British history. What's more, Julie Christie's Lara gives the movie a soft-focus, pastel, love-and-flowers 1960s quality that marks it as ultimately minor.
For Lean's true romantic side, nothing can hold a candle to 1955's Summertime, playing Monday and Tuesday. Katharine Hepburn radiantly portrays an American tourist seduced by the romance of Venice when she's old enough to know better. The film has been labeled Lean's love letter to the Venetian canals and piazzas, but Summertime isn't naive. Lean understands the person who loves something for the fantasy of what it could be; although she shies away at every turn from the inevitable dashed illusions, she can't hold herself aloof at the last. One of my favorite movies of all time, Summertime is a fairy tale for grownups, as sweet and sophisticated an indulgence as bittersweet chocolate.
The David Lean films with which Summertime has most in common, though, aren't the epics that the Belcourt has bracketed around it, but the tightly constructed, highly emotional dramas of Lean's black-and-white days. Indeed, the shortcoming of the Belcourt's Lean festival is that it makes no effort to show the scope of the director's career beyond his color extravaganzas. 1945's Brief Encounter and Blithe Spirit, both based on Noel Coward plays, are the roots of the mature love on display in Summertime. 1942's In Which We Serve is essential for grasping Lean's later essays on patriotism in River Kwai and Lawrence. And 1954's Hobson's Choice, with Charles Laughton as a hugely entertaining meanie, is just the kind of underseen classic that a David Lean festival should offer. The Belcourt isn't doing its patrons any favors by sticking to the most recognizable titles in this or any of their other mini-festivals; a revival theater only becomes great through discovery, not repetition.
High Art, a slow, serious, and ultimately rewarding film due in Nashville theaters in coming weeks, not only manages to say something interesting about art but also finesses the question of quality in a disarming way. Syd (Radhu Mitchell), an assistant editor at a photography magazine, is trained in critical theory. So when she takes an interest in the photographs on her neighbor Lucy's bathroom wall, she praises them with a thesaurus-load of critical buzzwords about "intensity" and "immediacy." Syd believes the pictures are art because Lucy carefully chose composition, setting, and all the other photographer's variables; Lucy (Ally Sheedy) doesn't care if they're art, only that they represent her life. "Actually, I think that was a snapshot," she answers when Syd praises the casual qualities of an image.
Syd is drawn to Lucy's lack of ambition--she retired from the art-photography world 10 years ago--and the static, emotionless world of her circle of bohemian druggies, who include Lucy's girlfriend Greta (Patricia Clarkson), a former Fassbinder actress turned full-time addict. Lucy's life contrasts favorably to Syd's life as a magazine flunky with a fancy title and frustrated ambition. But when Syd persuades Lucy to create a spread for her magazine, she can't help bringing her working self, the one who takes deadlines seriously, into Lucy's world of found art. She is a willing partner in Lucy's seductive purposes, but their passion finally leads to an artistic achievement that Syd finds hard to reconcile with her professional persona.
Writer-director Lisa Cholodenko has crafted her plot well: The final revelations about Syd's character and the nature of art don't become clear until just before the credits roll. And her cast is uniformly excellent. Although the movie has attracted attention because of Sheedy's "comeback" role, the standout performance is Mitchell's. Her character suffers from a combination of eager youth and genuine good taste without an environment in which she can prove herself and mature as a critical thinker. Mitchell's inner conflicts enliven many a scene where to all outward appearances nothing is happening.
The one real flaw in Cholodenko's work is that a lot of scenes cry out to be so enlivened. Lucy had heroin chic before heroin chic was cool, and most of the movie takes place in a narcotic haze. Moments of ironic levity, provided by the snobbish editors in Syd's workplace, are few and far between. And as such, it's even possible to mistake High Art's solemn tone for a reverent attitude toward art and artists.
That would be a shame. Cholodenko understands that chaotic vitality and personality need to be recognized in, and as, art; she's in direct opposition to the movie's professionally managed, deadline-crunched arbiters of taste, who canonize collectibles, not creations. That High Art presents this dilemma in a solid, character-driven movie indicates that Lisa Cholodenko is herself an artist to watch.
Such a vehicle cries out for stars to carry the show, and two step forward: costumer Anthony Powell, who strikes a perfect balance between Savile Row suavity and Carnaby Street mod; and production designer Stuart Craig, who ransacks every source from Escher to Jules Verne and devises wonderfully fanciful sets and gadgets--giant floating globes, trompe l'oeil staircases. Even the supporting players have style, especially Eileen Atkins as an operative with a motherly way of wielding a submachine gun.
However, in Ralph Fiennes and Uma Thurman, the filmmakers seem to have found the only two people in the world who never thought it would be fun to be John Steed and Emma Peel. They're overqualified in every way, except for the ability to walk through this lunacy with blithe confidence. Fiennes looks pained and distracted, as if he were experiencing an embarrassing itch just below the frame, and he's graceless in the big action sequences. Thurman, who could play Emma Peel just by showing up, doesn't show up.
Not that you can blame either one of them. Alongside the movie's feeble displays of verbal wit, your average playground loudmouth sparkles like Joe Orton, and the script's idea of local color is having everyone sip tea. (Thank God screenwriter Don Macpherson didn't write Braveheart, or the screen would be awash in haggis.) The problem, which Fiennes and Thurman must've guessed long before the shoot was over, is that there's simply no reason for this movie to exist. The TV shows of our youth were engaging precisely because they were so ephemeral; now they're being dredged up, recycled, and imposed upon another generation, as if to establish the hegemony of baby-boomer crap. Ralph Fiennes, Uma Thurman, Sean Connery et al. have better things to do with their time. So do you.
The premise riffs on a classic Hitchcock/De Palma setup: the morally compromised peeper who stumbles onto something too queasy even for him. The director, Pal Sletaune, has fun confronting Roy with situations that pique our prurient curiosity--which Roy as often as not acts on for us. (The movie can be taken as a good joke on its audience, since our stand-in is a socially inept geek who wolfs spaghetti out of a can.) More entertaining than the familiar suspense plotting, though, is the movie's portrait of underground Oslo, which teems with karaoke nuts, sloshed barflies, and itchy hooligans. And Roy's motley coworkers are a hoot: Their daft irritability suggests that Scandinavia has its own equivalent of going postal. Junk Mail shows through next Thursday at the Watkins Belcourt; it's a welcome delivery indeed.
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