Sunday, March 23, 2014

LAWRENCE OF ARABIA - 1962



I had never seen Lawrence of Arabia until viewing it for this blog, despite being well aware of this film ever since I was a kid. My grandma had a copy of it on VHS, spread across three videotapes, due to its mammoth length. Needless to say, as a kid I chose to watch Ninja Turtles and Pound Puppies instead. As for later on in life, I’m not quite sure why I never got around to watching Lawrence of Arabia. There’s been nothing but ebullient praise uttered on its magnificent behalf. Adjectives such as epic, masterpiece and stunning have all become permanent fixtures in hailing descriptions of this desert adventure. Given the fact that I haven’t watched it until now has resulted in a lot of built up expectation for me over the years that this film was going to be the cinematic equivalent of riding the lightening. After becoming familiar with David Lean’s previous Best Picture winning effort, Bridge on the River Kwai, I was expecting Lawrence of Arabia to be that much more of a thunder punch of awesomeness. 

So imagine my disappointment when the film turned out to be just OK for me. I know that sounds incredibly snotty to say, bitchy even. But it’s true, and I’m not going to deliver a bunch of canned praise that isn’t sincere and genuine just because everyone else seemingly loves this film. Actually, truth be told, Lawrence of Arabia’s first act had my complete and full attention. But as the film wore on, my interest in the story and lack of connection to the characters and their plight increasingly waned until my mind basically checked into the classy establishment known as the “I Couldn’t Give A Rat’s Ass” hotel. But I beg you, old sport, don’t misinterpret my sentiment to be a confession that I detested the work in its entirety; quite the contrary. There is a lot to admire about Lawrence of Arabia, and it is an unquestionable achievement. But if a film delivers the razzle dazzle on all of the senses save the heart, then it never truly delivers, which is the dilemma Lawrence and I encountered together. 

Directed by the terrific David Lean, Lawrence of Arabia is toplined by Alec Guinness, Jack Hawkins, Omar Sharif and the prodigiously talented Peter O’Toole. Incredibly, the role heralded O’Toole’s film debut, essentially making him an overnight sensation. The film also caused a sensation among Academy voters, who wrapped the film in Oscar glory with 10 nominations, and seven eventual victories, including Best Picture in 1962. In terms of Oscar trivia, Omar Sharif’s nomination for Best Supporting Actor marked the first acting nomination given to an actor from the Middle East (Sharif is from Egypt). Additionally, the film marked the first of eight acting nominations for Peter O’Toole, who, wickedly, was never awarded a competitive Oscar. Although, the Academy did their best to make amends for this travesty by presenting O’Toole with an Honorary Oscar in 2003.

Lawrence of Arabia follows an important chapter in the military career of T. E. Lawrence, an enigmatic misfit lieutenant in the British Army stationed in Cairo during WWI. Anxious to get out into the field, Lawrence is offered an assignment to go and assess the prospects of Prince Faisal in Arabia, and his campaign to put on his shit-kickers and revolt against the Turks. This assignment marks the beginning of Lawrence’s later success in boldly uniting the heretofore contentious tribes of Arabia in their struggle to finally oust the Turks from their land. 

Due to experiences in leading the guerilla campaign assaults on the Turks, Lawrence gradually becomes a changed man, after waging and suffering atrocities. He’s like the proverbial Jedi Knight who feels assured of his place on solid ground, only to lose his footing and stumble into the realm of the Dark Side. But what unnerves Lawrence the most is that he fearfully discovers that he isn’t repulsed by unchaining his darker impulses. In fact, he even relishes them to a degree. In the end, Lawrence is hailed a hero for leading the liberation of Arabia from Turkey. However, the situation’s resolution also signals the termination of Lawrence usefulness, and he is ordered to return home in a state of dejection.

As I hinted at before, Lawrence of Arabia has many striking features that make it difficult to refuse. The most salient component is the cinematography. Stuh-ning. All of the desert vistas and rippling sandscapes are latitudinous in scope and size. The scenes where Lawrence and his band cross the Nefad desert is like an issue of National Geographic magazine’s greatest desert hits come to life. I’ve never seen desert landscapes presented on film in such a domineering and crushingly beautiful fashion. It truly created such an uncommon and unfamiliar looking backdrop to the story that it produced the effect of being otherworldly, as though David Lean had transported his entire cast and crew to another planet. I’m conscious of the fact that it sounds like I’m over hyping the visual splendor of this film, old sport, but I assure you that is not possible. It’s a marvel and provides great merit to the film.

The other aspect pertaining to Lawrence of Arabia that ignited my senses was the film’s score, composed by the brilliant Maurice Jarre. I’ve loved so many of his other scores, such as Ghost and Doctor Zhivago, but in my estimation, Lawrence of Arabia places as the crown jewel of Jarre’s career. It’s exquisite and lush, with an elegant quality that swells in its sonic capabilities. It all felt like a cool drink of water to the senses, particularly during the sustained scenes in the desert. Thus far, I would rank it second only behind Max Steiner’s work in Gone with the Wind on the list of those most accomplished Best Picture scores. It adds so much emotion to the film, preventing it from stumbling during the portions lacking in humanity and depth.

But as I said earlier, a film can charm the senses, but if it fails in its effort to capture the heart, then it doesn’t truly succeed. I found this to be my dilemma with Lawrence of Arabia. It’s a great paradox: The film fired on all cylinders, yet failed to kindle an investment of feeling in the characters, particularly in the man himself: T.E. Lawrence. By the time the final credits unexpectedly roll, I felt as though I was meagerly any more attuned to understanding the character of Lawrence than when the film began. I get that he was an enigmatic character, I really do. But it seemed only thin strands of light filtered through to reveal his character, and in a film running nearly four hours long that is inexcusable. I felt as though the film hit all the right points in moving us through Lawrence’s adventure as it unfurled. But what of his disposition to join the tribes? The genesis to strike out into the desert to unite them? The origin of his short-lived streak of sadism? These questions and more rooted in the flesh of Lawrence’s character never really produce answers that can create any satisfactory dimension.

Clearly, Lawrence is a self-tortured man, but the complex parts working in concert to produce his drives is never fully brought to bear. One reason owing to this lack of illustration is that the film spends too much time pulled back, showcasing the story on a more macro level. How can an audience be expected to appreciate someone’s character when the story is more wrapped up in sprawling scenery, exploding trains and arguments with commanding officers? The simple answer is that they can’t. I’m convinced even the largest personalities can’t compete against such entertaining splendor that the film projects up there on screen, and T.E. Lawrence proves he isn’t up to the task, either. The irony is that Lawrence of Arabia is, to a certain degree, a character study, only except for the fact that no character is being fully studied. In the end, it isn’t sufficiently moving, which left me feeling somewhat like our hero, despondent in wondering what it was all for in the first place.

Favorite Line: In speaking to Lawrence of his work with the Arabs and whether the British are dealing openly and squarely with them, Mr. Dryden, his superior, tells him, “If we've been telling lies, you've been telling half-lies. A man who tells lies, like me, merely hides the truth. But a man who tells half-lies has forgotten where he put it.”

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

WEST SIDE STORY - 1961



In many ways, West Side Story feels like a film shingled with clich├ęs and thin dialogue. I suppose the reason it feels this way is because it is. It’s quite amazing, then, to consider that a film with these types of blemishes should conquer its own imperfections to emerge so resoundingly victorious on Oscar night. However, I think the explanation for this apparent separation between perception and reality is really quite simple, old Sport: The film’s music and choreography are so kinetic and irresistible that it pulls the whole enterprise back from the brink, ultimately overshadowing and minimizing the detrimental impact any negative traits might pose on West Side Story.    

Directed by the team of Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins, West Side Story encompasses an eclectic gang of actors taking center stage, including Rita Moreno, George Chakiris, Richard Beymer and Natalie Wood. In addition to its large cast, the film also initiated 10 Academy Award statuettes into its posse, from the 11 nominations it received. In terms of Oscar trivia, West Side Story holds the distinction of being the musical with the most number of victories, including the apex Oscar for Best Picture in 1961. Both Chakiris and Moreno also took home the Golden Boys in the Supporting Actor categories, paving the way for Moreno to eventually go on to become one of only four women to have an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony victory to their credit, with Helen Hayes, Audrey Hepburn and Whoopi Goldberg rounding out the distinguished company. 

Adapted from the 1957 Broadway smash, West Side Story is an urban retelling of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Instead of Verona, the fair scene is laid in a gritty section on the west side of Manhattan’s claustrophobic asphalt jungle. And swapped out for two warring families, both alike in dignity, are the Jets and the Sharks, two rival street gangs, both alike in pride, angst and some resolute misdirection. The central feud is territorial, with the Caucasian Jets lobbing accusations that the Puerto Rican Sharks are trespassing on their concrete turf. Thus the two sides engage in an escalating struggle to control the streets, punking and harassing each other with a series of threats and minor skirmishes.

However, the stakes become significantly raised when Tony, the leader of the Jets, falls hopelessly in love with Maria, the younger sister of Bernardo, who is of course the leader of the Sharks. The star-crossed lovers defy the street’s conventions, leading them to carry on a secret whirlwind romance. But faced with the unalterable reality that a future together cannot possibly flourish in their present environment, Tony and Maria make plans to leave the west side in search of somewhere more accepting. In the meantime, their forbidden affair has dialed up the heat between the Jets and the Sharks, causing their hatred to collide and boil over, eventually spewing Tony and Bernardo’s blood out into the streets and on to the hands of all those involved.  

While West Side Story may be a contemporary offshoot of Romeo and Juliet, the non-musical elements of the script apparently took no root in the emotion, depth and prose that made Shakespeare’s classic so compelling. The dialogue is prosaic and pedestrian, devoid of anything that would emerge from the conflicts of dangerous passion or gang warfare. Frankly, it came off about as clunky and middle school as the chatter in any of the Twilight films. After a while, it becomes clear that the spoken dialogue is given the blue-collar task of existing simply to move the plot along. It adequately performs its function, albeit in an uninspired manner, which feels like a sorely missed opportunity. The dramatic situation is as tense as a cat in a dog pound, with the characters grappling with a host of complex issues that seem evolutionary on the shifting landscapes of the streets. I think any great writer would have relished the opportunity and taken advantage of such an interesting state of play to cobble together some livewire conversation. But curiously, this occasion seems to have been passed up altogether.

The glaring drawback of the paint-by-numbers parlance is that it gives the film a distracting imbalance. The non-musical scenes feel like moldy crusts of bread in comparison to the feast of musical sequences, preventing the film from really rocketing into the stratosphere a truly great films. To watch West Side Story feels like going for a ride on an open highway that is littered with 25 mph zones and a lot of cops. The enjoyment of speeding off into the horizon is tempered if the ride is frequently slowed down by wooden dialogue and story development, so to speak. 

Fortunately, the film spends the majority of its time with its foot on the gas pedal, thanks in large part to the choreography spiking the film with a nuclear, high-powered energy with destructive potential, which I mean in a good way. All of the actors, whether they be principals or background extras, leave blood on the dance floor, sometimes literally, infusing the film with a spectrum of force ranging from spicy and cool, to rumbling and sweet. Not that I’m some huge connoisseur of movie musicals, but I’ve seen my fair share to the point that I feel confident in stating that the choreography and dancing in West Side Story is unique and stylistically idiosyncratic in a way that separates it from any other film with frolic. I think this unconventional artistry is best exemplified after their big rumble with the Sharks; the Jets have regrouped in a murky delivery truck garage to figure out their next step, leading the gang into the number “Cool.” The choreography bubbles with instability and irregularity, lending it an unpredictable nature. In a way, the moves feel like jazz, in that there are all of these parts simultaneously moving independent of one another, yet combining to create a marvelous spectacle moving in subtle unison. Ironically, for a song about keeping it cool, real cool, the number crackles and sweats with enough vitality to raise the dead. 

Although, as great as the choreography is, I gotta say that for me, basketball and ballet moves will never and should never be brought into a mix together. Just like there is no crying in baseball, there are no ballet moves in basketball. There just isn’t. I mean, you don’t see Kobe Bryant out there doing a pirouette before taking the rock to the rack, do you? No. And you want to know why? Because there is no ballet in basketball. I mean that settles it. 

But obviously, great choreography is nothing without great accompaniment, and Leonard Bernstein and Steven Sondheim composed some incredible tunes that inject West Side Story with snappy pulse, a broken heart and youthful rage. It’s been ages since I last watched this film, and I had forgotten what a hit parade of songs there are on the soundtrack, with recognizable numbers like “Tonight,” “Maria” and “America.” It’s a testament to the music’s enduring strength and catchiness that it has continued to live on all of these decades later by permeating different avenues of pop culture, such as Saturday Night Live, Mountain Dew commercials and even an Adam Sandler movie. It’s fortunate for the film that the music is so dominantly memorable that it helps to usher out the movie’s more lame or odd elements from one’s memory, as much as it is possible to do so. 

One odd element that lightly intersects with the narrative of West Side Story is that it flirts with aspirations to be a pseudo-psychological study, attempting to touch upon deeper themes of identity linked to cultural transference, to belonging to a broken family and to being the product of a society indifferent to at-risk youth. This is on full display during the number “Gee, Officer Krupke,” as the Jets ridicule the failed attempts of the judicial system to reform them of their ways, due to the system’s unwillingness to understand them. In mock tones, the lyrics attribute their problems to being the product of abusive homes with drug addicted parents and communist grandfathers. These moments are peculiar detours that come off even more so in the form of a musical presentation. I enjoy musicals, but I’m not entirely convinced that it’s a format that lends itself to deep character development and meaningful, sociological analysis. For musicals to work well, they tend to have to move at a quicker pace, which typically results in a lean, condensed narrative, not one that is conducive to performing a lot of heavy lifting. The film sags whenever it tries to deliver some deeper commentary about societal breakdown or the friction generated by tense race relations. Instead, West Side Story is muscular when it is able to keep things simple, maintaining the attention on the core conflict between the Jets and the Sharks. Fortunately, for the most part it sticks to what it does best, making West Side Story an overall strong film, but a sporadically weak one, as well. 
 
Favorite Line: During the number “Pretty,” Maria dreamily prances around the shop where she works, singing about how pretty and wonderful she feels in the wake of falling in love with Tony. At one point in the song, Maria declares, “I feel charming. Oh so charming. It’s alarming how charming I feel.” This line makes me laugh because it is so ridiculous and funny, making it the highlight of the film.