Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Day 90: Sir David Lean

One of my earliest cinema-experience memories is of going to see Lawrence Of Arabia, which, given that the film was made in 1962, would have put me at about four or five if and when I saw it. Maybe my mind is playing tricks and what I think of as a memory is in fact a mirage, just like those Peter O’Toole’s historic character would have seen in the desert?

That towering figure of the British film industry, the director Sir David Lean, was in the epic phase of his career, having just come off the back of The Bridge On The River Kwai and about to embark on Doctor Zhivago, Ryan’s Daughter and the questionable A Passage To India. What I love about David Lean’s work in this third stanza of his filmmaking was indeed that breathtaking, cinematic, broad canvas that he painted on, classics all.

As a director, David Lean made sixteen films which garnered 56 Academy Award nominations and 27 wins, a giant if ever there was one.

The second period of his filmmaking, as a director, that I have a preoccupation with, not so much a “period”, but actually two films, was his treatment of two works by Charles Dickens: Oliver Twist and Great Expectations.

The picaresque novels of Dickens have lent themselves much to film and especially television over the years. Productions that spring to mind, are the award-wionning musical Oliver of the late 1960’s by Lionel Bart, a recent remake of the proverbial Oliver Twist story by Roman Polanski, a recent bizarre contemporary transformation for Great Expectations featuring Robert De Niro and Gwyneth Paltrow and the well-documentyed BBC TV dramatisations. Seems that wherever one might be in the world, if you turn on a television on a Sunday night, it will be a BBC production of one of Dickens’s novels. Very professional, well acted, perfectly crafted, but something missing.

That “something missing” is what David Lean so indelibly brought with him when he translated Charles Dickens onto the cinema screen. What I love about Dicken’s novels is not the twee and the romantic, the bonnets and the bouquets, but the grotesque. I love the convict Magwitch rising in the fog of the lonley graveyard to grab young Pip on Christmas Eve (Great Expectations). And I’m terribly disquieted by Miss Havisham, “whose life is frozen at the moment of rejection, and who lives in her wedding dress, still seated at the dust-enshrouded wedding table” (that from Kevin Brownlow’s biog on Lean) also in Great Expectations. David lean brought the stuff of childhood nightmares to the Dickens cinema screen, just like the writer did to his novels: moments of misshapen, distorted, gnarled and twisted, hideous black and white expressionism. No one is singing the merry ditty “food glorious food, cold jelly and custard” in Lean’s overture to Oliver Twist. Oliver Reed’s bully of a Bill Sikes is a cruel incarnation inn the musical, but surely he was invoking Robert Newton’s cruel and brutal earlier performance?

But favourite David lean for me, is three of his four-film collaboration with Noel Coward: In Which We Serve (1942), This Happy Breed (1944), Blythe Spirit (1945) and Brief Encounter (1945). I’ll save the Brief Encounter discussion for another day as it merits a blog all to itself, but today I’d like to turn my attention to This Happy Breed.

With a title taken from Shakespeare’s 'Richard II', Coward adapted the film script from his own stage play. The film opens on the rooftops of South London, with a voice-over, courtesy of Larry Olivier, telling us that “the men are coming home from the war”, it is 1918. We then are transported inside a vacant house in Battersea or Clapham and tarvel from the attic, down the stairs, as the front door opens and the Gibbons family moves in. We then live with the Gibbons family until the outbreak of the next World War in 1939, finally staying in the once-again empty property as they move out.

In between thees two poignant onscreen (and off-screen) bookends, the matter of the film is that of everyday life, death, births, love and marriages for this extended family. Many many films (especially British) have dealt, in depth, with the dramatic years that precede and supercede this film, but this slice of humanity reveals the painful and pleasurable day-to-day comings and goings of all our lives getting on along this mortal coil as best we can. The stuff of this film is the landmarks of this family, any family, not the signposts of global history. Old, creaky and possibly sentimental (in parts) it might be but there is a truth within the walls of this house (and film) that is moving, touching and intimate. “Intimate”, not a word we norammly use in association with the films of David Lean?

Day #90 Tip: Consider the empty space
This Happy Breed begins with an empty space and ends with an empty space, as does Twelve Angry Men, two great films (I refer ro the Sidney Lumet original of the hury room drama) where the camera, barely, if rarely, ever ventures outside (in This Happy Breed, it's with archival library footage and in Twelve Angry Men it’s in the final shot).

The drama comes from the relationships between the characters and their given circumstances, nothing more, nothing less. That stuff is eminently hard to write, it’s more the province of the playwright than it is the screenwriter, at least the screenwriter for the cinema. Both the films I mentioned negan their respective journeys on stage: This Happy Breed I’ve already mentioned, whilst Twelve Angry Men is a screenplay by Reginald Rose, based I think, on his own stage play.

Wordy, these films might be - the script of Twelve Angry Men is 176 pages long and dense with dialogue, try giving that to a producer these days - but unquestionably dynamic they are. it’s worth meditating on ‘the empty space’ and what it means, just as Peter Brook does in his seminal work (book) on the nature of theatre.

Nature abhors a vacuum, always ready to fill it with something...especially drama.

No comments:

Post a Comment