The Digital Lawrence of Arabia Experience

I spent yesterday afternoon at the Castro, watching one of my all-time favorite films, Lawrence of Arabia. I’ve seen it many times, and over the last few years, always at the Castro. But this time was different. Sony digitally restored the epic this year, and this new version was played off a DCP instead of a film print.

A bit of history: Lawrence of Arabia was recut and shortened multiple times after its 1962 release. In 1988, Robert A. Harris restored the film to something like it’s original cut–with the help of director David Lean and editor Anne V. Coats. That restoration received a major 70mm release, and became the definitive Lawrence. For the film’s 50th anniversary, Sony restored the film again, using digital technology not available in 1988 to better clean up the image. This new restoration follows the 1988 cut.

So how did the digital Lawrence look? As always with this sort of film at the Castro, I sat in the center of the first row. And from there, for the most part, it looked very, very good. The details were clean and sharp, the vistas expansive, and with a visible film look. The dramatic impact of the images were all there.

But it wasn’t perfect. The image occasionally looked over-processed–as if someone was trying too hard to remove a film-based flaw. But these moments, which may not have been noticeable to someone sitting a few rows back, marred maybe five minutes of this nearly four-hour movie.

On the whole, this new restoration improves upon Harris’, which I last saw, at the Castro and in70mm, about 18 months ago. Faded images and cracks in the film emulsion that marred earlier versions are now gone, and the image is much closer to what, I imagine, Lean wanted.

But was this the best way to project this restoration? The Castro’s 2K digital projector can screen an image slightly superior to a pristine 35mm print. But 35mm was never the optimal way to see Lawrence of Arabia. It was always intended for 70mm presentation, and a 70mm frame is nearly three times the size of a 35mm one.

I suspect the film would have looked better in 70mm. The 2012 restoration credits mention 70mm print timing, so I assume that at least one print was struck. I don’t know if Sony is making that print commercially available, and if they have, why the Castro didn’t rent that.

I also strongly suspect that the picture would look even better with 4K digital projection (which has four times the resolution of 2k). Alas, for economic reasons that are understandable even if they’re regrettable, the Castro doesn’t have a 4K projector.

But the folks running the Castro did a crackerjack job presenting the film. Like most big roadshow pictures of its time, Lawrence starts with an overture–music with no image. The houselights slowly faded throughout the overture, plunging the audience into darkness just in time for the curtain to open on the Columbia logo. The projectionist was awarded with applause.

The audience expressed its appreciation throughout. No one thinks of Lawrence of Arabia as a comedy, but it has its moments of dry British wit. The audience laughed in all the right places.

A few weeks previously, I watched Lawrence without a skilled projectionist or an audience. I was at home with the new Blu-ray. It still works on that medium, and still looks great, but the experience didn’t really do it justice.

The Castro will screen Lawrence of Arabia three more times today and tomorrow–at 2:00 both days and 7:00 tonight. Click here for details.

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