Friday, 24 July 2015

David Lean - a snapshot

Last weekend Adrian Martin initiated a spirited discussion about David Lean, and there were some requests that I should write about Lean here on my blog. I have been reluctant to write about Lean, even though he is second only to Hawks in my own pantheon of filmmakers, because I have felt that a blog post is much too short. That is still the case and I shall write a proper 6000 word-ish essay, but still, a post there will be. Consider it a preview of coming attractions. It is also off-schedule as you may have noticed, but next Friday the usual schedule will return (0900 CET every second Friday).

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"But above all he really loves film, and to see him at work in the cutting room running it through his hands is like watching a master painter at work. The change which comes over David in the cutting room is quite remarkable." (John Mills about David Lean.)

Great Expectations (1946)

In Brief Encounter (1945), the main character Laura Jessop (Celia Johnson) is sitting on a train and looks out through the window, watching the dark landscape passing by. As she does so she suddenly imagines herself in glamorous surroundings, her mind taking her far away from the dreary ordinariness of her life and the space in which she lives, and she sees dreamlike images of these other spaces in which she would rather be. This is what makes her a quintessential Lean character, this desire to get away, to unleash oneself from England (or one's home space) and to follow the dreams and the hidden passions. This is what Laura wants, this is what Pip wants, this is what Madeleine wants, this is what Jane Hudson wants, this is what T.E. Lawrence wants, this is what Ms. Quested wants, and, of course, this is what Lean himself wanted. And what he did. Most of them act on their desires to strike out.

A Passage to India (1984)

But it is not easy. On the one hand they have little control over their feelings, the bewildering passions that consumed them, and on the other hand they have no control over space. In Lean's films space is destiny, the environment in which you found yourself has an incredible power over you, it changes you and it decides your outcome. There is an pantheistic touch to Lean's films, right from the start with In Which We Serve (1942); the trees, the moon, the canals, the desert, the jungle, the cliffs, even a train station, it all has some kind of force, some spirit in them which makes them come alive, to speak to the humans who are privileged enough to have the gift of communication. Communication on a spiritual level. Mrs Moore in A Passage to India might be the one who is most sensitive to this. Sometimes people just seem to disappear into the space in which they find themselves. In The Sound Barrier (1952) they literally do, the air planes barely visible high up among the clouds; a film sprung from Lean's love of those very air planes. In it Susan Garthwaite tries to explain her feelings of flying, why she loves it so much, and she says it is like being in a dream.

Doctor Zhivago (1965)

Lean communicated this aspect of the world, or his view of the world, by sound and vision. He was not one for dialogue (even though they talk a lot in the three films scripted by Noel Coward) and there are large parts of his films when nothing is said at all, because it is not necessary and in any case our language is not equipped with a vocabulary capable of speaking about these things, about the wind, and the flowers and the sunbeams streaking through the forest. The shadows of birds over the jungle foliage in The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957). There is great beauty to be found in Lean's films, a constant sense of awe and wonder, which is almost unparalleled in world cinema.

This world is presented subjectively, Lean's films are frequently shot from an individual's subjective perspective even though this is not emphasised. Both the images and the sound can be subjective, unreal but this subjective experience is presented as if it was an objective record of the world, so the audience has to infer for themselves what is real and what is not. Pip's run to the graveyard with stolen food is an obvious example, or when Howard Justin walks up to his wife's room, having found out about her unfaithfulness (in The Passionate Friends, 1949), or when Henry Hobson is hallucinating, but in other films it is less obvious that the space has been distorted or that people behave in slightly odd ways.

Hobson's Choice (1954)

There is also a kind of technical beauty. Lean was a master of all aspects of the filmmaking process; camera movement, editing, lighting, staging, colours and so on. It is rare for a filmmaker to have this maddening sense of control and power. (To take one example, Hawks is a much better filmmaker in general than Robert Wise but Wise's films are much better edited than Hawks's.) It is not just nature that is breathtaking but Lean's skills as well. Sometimes this has made critics somewhat concerned, like Dilys Powell on Oliver Twist (1948). "This is an extraordinarily careful film; careful in construction, timing, cutting, movement, lighting, and details of gesture and dress."

Things hardly end well for his characters; their passions usually get the better of them, they are not as careful or controlled as Lean. Even in Bridge on the River Kwai, which is sometimes referred to as a Boy's Own adventure but is rather a study of pride, obsession and folly, in which everybody dies in the end. It does not always end as bad as that but the characters often end up miserable or at least disappointed, even though for a while they managed to live more fully than they had ever done before. The overwhelmed main characters, strangers as they are, are also often at odds with those with more experience, those who have inhabited this space much longer. Jane Hudson is criticised by the Italians she meets for her romantic, unrealistic idea of Venice, much like Lawrence is criticised for his romantic and idealistic view of the desert. There is a certain madness to them, and Lean shared this madness. "I'm I mad? Can I make the audience share my thrill? I know I'm a sort of maniac." he wrote when making Lawrence of Arabia. In River Kwai the doctor in the prison camp frequently shakes his head in disbelief, and at one point says, about the British and the Japanese commanders, "Are they both mad, or is it me? Or is it the sun?" The truth is that they have been transformed by the space into which they have been dropped, and consumed by it. In Hawks's films the characters create their own space, in Lean's films space create the characters.

"You don't have to scratch very deep in any human being to get down to the animal. We pretend we don't but we do. It's very, very little way below the surface, the wild and darker side of our nature." Lean said at one point, and he has illustrated this point over and over again. And Lawrence of Arabia (1962) is the one film of his in which he pushes all of his themes and his style to the outmost extreme; it is a film like no other. To again quote Powell: "I think it is the first time for the cinema to communicate ecstasy."

Lawrence of Arabia

To get back to Brief Encounter, Laura is sitting in her living room, remembering her love affair and when the flashbacks appear they do so in a double exposure, so that we see Laura sitting there while the past is shown in front of her, as on a screen, as if her own past was a film she was watching at the cinema, the cinema to which she went once a week. Not even to Laura herself is her experience real, but like a mirage or a hallucination, much like Lean's oeuvre as a whole.



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The quotes come from Gerald Pratley's The Cinema of David Lean, Kevin Brownlow's David Lean: A Biography and The Dilys Powell Film Reader.

8 comments:

  1. Yeah, Brief encounter is a really remarkable film. Have seen a few more, but still have most of them unseen.

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    1. There's still time to fill out the blanks.

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  2. An interesting and initiated post. Also one that makes me realise that I have seen more Lean movies (not the Toyota kind ;)) than I thought. All of them good but none of them amazing for me.

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    1. Then you'll probably like the rest as well.

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  3. I caught part of that Facebook discussion initiated by Martin (if that's what you're referring to), and I agree with what someone said: Lean didn't find his voice till he started making epics. I'm meh on BRIEF ENCOUNTER, but I love BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI and LAWRENCE OF ARABIA.

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    1. Yes, that was what I referred to. In what way would you say that River Kwai is more an expression of Lean's voice than, for example, The Sound Barrier, or Summertime, or The Passionate Friends?

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  4. I love Brief encounter but think Bridge on the river Kwai was very much a "meh".

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  5. It's hard to answer that question because BRIEF ENCOUNTER is the only early Lean film I've seen. I can say that he seems more confident as a visual stylist in the later films, but of course they're far more oriented around showcasing visual style. Also, I thought RYAN'S DAUGHTER was by far the worst Lean film I've seen - I don't know if that ruins my thesis.

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