Book vs. Movie: Jaws

The cliché tells us that the book is always better than the movie. Except when it isn’t. I know. I just read Jaws.

Most people associate that title with the blockbuster hit that put Steven Spielberg on theimage map. But before Spielberg got his hands on it, Peter Benchley’s novel was a blockbuster in its own right, staying on the bestseller lists for 44 weeks. Today, the film’s considered a popular classic. And while the book remains in print, it’s remembered primarily as the source for the film.

And that’s as it should be. Benchley’s novel isn’t bad. But unlike the movie, it doesn’t hold up as a classic.

There’s nothing special or engaging about Benchley’s writing style. In the first part of the book, he digresses far too often into uninteresting exposition.

The story is still Enemy of the People meets Moby Dick, but the emphasis is far more on the people and community, with the three-men-on-a-boat story delayed until the final chapters. Much of the time, Benchley writes like he’s worried that the book will be too short. There’s an adultery subplot and a mafia subplot. Neither of them add anything to the story.

A novel can give you more detail than a film, and some of the detail in Jaws works for the story’s benefit. We learn much more about the island’s economic problems, which helps explain why everyone is so reluctant to close the beaches. The 1,000 people who live in Amity year round make all of their money in the summer, when the population balloons to 10,000, most of whom are money-spending tourists. Close the beaches, and by next spring everyone will be on welfare. Much is made of the economic differences between the summer and year-round folk.

Benchley describes some early scenes from the shark’s point of view, making it clear jaws2that this is an unthinking, instinct-driven eating machine. But these scenes, while scientifically accurate, contradict later ones, where the shark seems capable of strategic thought.

Several of the characters changed significantly on the way to Hollywood. Hooper, the young scientist played in the movie by Richard Dreyfuss, is a rich snob in the book, untrustworthy, arrogant, and not all that competent. Chief Brody’s wife is also a snob in the book, one who married below her class and now resents her lower society status.

Aside from making these characters more likeable, the film sacrifices realism for suspense. For instance, in the last part of the book, Brody, Dreyfuss, and Quint leave in the Orca every morning looking for the shark, then come home every night. That actually makes sense if you’re looking for something in the immediate waters off your home. The film implies that they sailed out one day and won’t come back until they’re done. Realistically, that’s ridiculous. But it makes better story-telling sense.

For more on the movie, read my Blu-ray Review.

Thoughts on Lawrence of Arabia

The best motion pictures span genres and overcome their limits. They open a window into the mind and soul of fully developed, complex, imperfect human beings. They push the artistic and technical limits of the medium. And they do it all while entertaining an audience.

Lawrence of Arabia is one of the greatest motion pictures ever made.

Within the last two years, I’ve written three posts about Lawrence of Arabia, two of them in the last three months. But all three concentrated on theatrical presentation–an important part of appreciating a roadshow epic like Lawrence. But Hollywood released many big roadshow blockbusters in the 1950s and 60s, and they all required a giant screen and great projection. What makes Lawrence of Arabia so special?

At its heart, this big, epic adventure studies the enigma of one very strange man. T. E. Lawrence, at least as betrayed here, is a military genius with a love/hate relationship to violence. An idealist, an exhibitionist, and a raving egomaniac, he believes that he and those who follow him can do anything. The fact that he usually succeeds only feeds his already too-high self-esteem. Yet he also knows that, deep down, he can never truly become what he wants to be–an Arab.

During World War I, the British saw Arabia as a sideshow, but also as a potential conquest. It was part of the Turkish Ottoman Empire, which had allied itself with Germany. By aiding an Arab revolt against the Ottoman, the Brits could keep the Turks occupied outside of Europe. But helping the revolt was tricky. Well-armed Arab freedom fighters wouldn’t easily become part of the British Empire.

And into this comes Lawrence. First sent to Arabia as an observer, he disobeys orders and pulls off a daring raid. Suddenly he’s a hero, both to the British and even more to the Arabs, whom he truly wants to liberate. But somewhere, in the back of his mind, he must know that his superiors have less idealistic intentions.

I don’t know much about the historical T. E. Lawrence, but I do know that he was gay. That sort of historical fact had be either ignored or danced around carefully in 1962, and the filmmakers rightly chose to dance. Peter O’Toole’s performance is slightly feminine (the Mad Magazine parody was called "Florence of Arabia"). It all makes you wonder about the extremely close friendships he makes with other men.

This film has something very close to an all-male cast. You never hear a woman’s voice, and the only shot of a female face is in a photograph. The few times you see women, they’re wearing vales. Women in the audience have the pleasure of watching O’Toole and Omar Sharif when they were young and gorgeous.

Speaking of gorgeous, Freddie Young’s photography turns Lawrence of Arabia into a visual feast, intended to be served on a giant canvas. The desert never looked so hot, so foreboding, or so enormous. Or, for that matter, so beautiful. Important characters often appear as tiny dots in the distance, emphasizing the size and emptiness of the environment that they inhabit. You can easily understand why Lawrence falls in love with desert life.

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David Lean and his exceptionally talented collaborators took the ingredients of the roadshow epic–long length, lush music (including an overture and intermission music), and a large, wide frame that fills a giant screen–and turned it into a masterpiece. There were bigger epics, and longer ones, but there’s only one Lawrence of Arabia.

Wait 20 Years, and Then You Can Call a Groundhog Day a Classic

It’s Groundhog Day! I repeat: It’s Groundhog Day!

The movie Groundhog Day first played to paying audiences 20 years ago today. I saw it soon after the release, and fell instantly in love with it. But only now, 20 years later, am I willing to give it my highest rating: A+. I don’t give that rating to new films–or even those only 19 years old.

Nineteen years ago, when everyone was talking about the best films of 1993, the two imagetitles on everyone’s lips were Schindler’s List and The Piano. They were on every critic’s Top Ten list. Everyone assumed that one of those two, most probably (and correctly) Schindler, would take the Best Picture Oscar. Groundhog Day made few lists (only one that I saw), and wasn’t even nominated.

But two decades later, Schindler is more respected than loved, and The Piano is all but forgotten (which is unfair; it’s an excellent film). Yet Groundhog Day is more loved and respected than both of those serious works put together. No one predicted that in 1993.

I only give the A+ grade to classics, which by any reasonable definition are works of art that has stood the test of time. And we have no way of knowing what new pictures will do that. I picked 20 years as the minimum age for a classic because it represents a generation. A 20-year-old movie can be appreciated by college-educated adults who don’t remember the world in which the film was made. (I also picked 20 years because it’s a nice, round number.)

Not that this is a full-proof system. When they were 40 years old, the better Marx Brothers movies looked like timeless masterpieces. Now, at 80, they’ve lost some of their luster. Their impolite, anti-authoritarian, surreal style fit very well with the 1970s, but less so now.

So what, besides its age, gives Groundhog Day that A+?

Few other motion pictures are as spiritual and as humane, and certainly none that wrap themselves up in the entertaining package of a slick Hollywood comedy. Without explanation, it places its self-centered protagonist into a time warp that becomes his purgatory. Living the same day over and over for who knows how long (it could be thousands of years), he goes through stages of panic, giddiness, and despair before figuring out what life is all about: charity and loving kindness.

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And yet not a frame of this movie feels preachy. Fast-paced and brilliantly edited, it’s pure, inescapable entertainment. Even in its darkest, most hopeless moments, something comes up to make you laugh–usually Sonny and Cher’s "I’ve Got You, Babe."

The film would never have worked without Bill Murray. His deadpan delivery hits every note and every punch line as his character goes through one change after another. He’s loveable, even when he’s a jerk. We feel his despair as he realizes that he’s trapped and may never get out, and his deepest depression when he wins Andie MacDowell’s love, knowing full well that come the morning, she’ll only remember him as a jerk.

Groundhog Day manages to be both profound and profoundly funny. What else can you ask of a work of art?

The New Parkway screens Groundhog Day tonight at 10:00.

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.

Sight and Sound’s Top 50 Greatest Films of All Time

As you probably know, the British Film Institute and its magazine, Sight and Sound, recently published its once-a-decade list of the The Top 50 Greatest Films of All Time, based on a survey of 846 critics, programmers, academics and distributors. And for the first time in 50 years, Citizen Kane didn't lead the pack. It's no longer officially the greatest film ever made. It's merely number two.

What is number one? Vertigo, which tops my list of the most over-rated films of all time. I know I'm in the minority here, but I find Vertigo slow, uninvolving, and pretentious–three words that seldom describe Hitchcock's work. His true masterpiece, Rear Window, didn't even make the list.

On the other hand, there's no real concensus here. Vertigo received only 191 votes. More than 75 percent of the experts didn't vote for it.

But that's to be expected. All such lists, including this most respected one, are inherently flawed. You can't accurately and scientifically track personal opinions about art.

A Case for Silverado as a Great Western

Before he became the auteur of mediocre drameties like Darling Companion, Lawrence Kasdan wrote or co-wrote The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi, and Raiders of the Lost Ark. For his third directorial effort, Kasdan created another action entertainment gem–although an unfairly overlooked one: the neo-classic western Silverado.

Shot against beautiful New Mexico scenery, Silverado plays as great escapist action adventure–big, loud, rousing fun, entirely lacking in moral ambiguity. When a villain kills a man, it’s murder. When one of the four heroes does it, his action deserves cheers. Kasden and screenplay collaborator (and brother) Mark Kasden laced the script with memorable lines ("I don’t want to kill you, and you don’t want to be dead") and cues for audience applause. Bruce Broughton’s rousing musical score evokes adventure and the bigness of the West.

I’d be hard-pressed to think of another western so nakedly in love with the genre. The movie opens in quiet and dark, as the camera lovingly examines a saddle, gun, and silveradoother cowboy accessories in a tiny, unlit cabin. Sounds from outside–a hawk’s cry, horses–come quietly through the walls. Suddenly a gunfight breaks out–several men on the outside vs. the loner inside. With each shockingly loud gunshot, a new hole opens up the cabin wall, introducing a new shaft of sunlight. (Silverado is also nakedly in love with it’s visuals, and with the still-relatively-new Dolby Stereo.) As the victorious loner (Scott Glenn as Emmett–the first of Silverado’s four heroes) walks out the door, the camera follows, taking us from a dark and cramped interior into sunlit, wide-open spaces as the music swells.

Between that opening and the climatic gun duel in the deserted street, Kasden treats us to a wagon train crossing a river, two jail breaks, multiple gun fights, several horse stunts, a stampede, and a saloon staffed with women of easy virtue. It’s as much an homage to westerns as a western itself.

And yet, with all that going on, Silverado takes time to breathe. Compared to Kasdan’s work for George Lucas, the pace is downright casual. It takes nearly an hour of screen time for the four heroes to meet, team up, have a couple of comic adventures, and finally get to the town of Silverado, and the more serious story.

While the characters are far from realistic (no one in the west was that good a shot), they’re deeper and more engaging than any found in a Star Wars or Indiana Jones flick. There’s one man–I won’t say who plays him—who may or may not be a villain. You suspect that he probably is, but you’re not sure. Then he fires a thieving employee, and when the ex-employee pulls a gun on him, he shoots first and kills in self-defense. Totally justifiable acts. But the cruelty with which he fires the man, and the joy he seems to take in the killing, leave us with no doubt. He’s a bad guy.

But what about the good guys? Two of the heroes–the above-mentioned Emmett and Danny Glover’s Mal, are iconic cowboys who seldom speak but know right from wrong. Mal is the more interesting of the two, partially because of Glover’s talent and charisma, but also because he’s a black man in an overwhelmingly white world. (Yes, I know, the frontier wasn’t overwhelmingly white, but Silverado is about the movie west, not the real one.) He conveys a great deal without talking. There’s a moment when, upon hearing of a heinous crime and people in trouble, he silently sighs and climbs onto his horse without saying a word. It’s a quietly commanding moment.

The picture deals with Mal’s race quickly and efficiently. In his first scene, he’s menaced by racists. After that, the issue is never raised again. Not historically accurate, but dramatically effective.

Kasden regular Kevin Kline plays Paden, who seems almost too urban to be a cowboy. A gambler and former outlaw, he sees everything as luck (good or bad), and it "only truly happy" in a saloon.

And it’s in Silverado’s saloon that he meets the picture’s most interesting character, Stella, played by the diminutive (4’9") Linda Hunt. In a world of tall men, decent wives, and dancehall girls, she fits no assigned role yet has found the perfect niche. She runs the town’s saloon with strength, determination, and good will. Stella and Paden hit it off immediately–not as lovers, but has very close friends. It becomes the most endearing relationship in the picture, and Hunt’s performance stands with Thomas Mitchell’s in Stagecoach amongst the great supporting parts in westerns.

Which brings us to the last of the four heroes: Jake–Emmett’s kid brother and yet another variation on that reoccurring western character, The Kid. A young, not-yet-famous Kevin Costner plays him as a happy, immature, post adolescent just bursting with energy. In his first scene, in jail, he swings on the bars like a monkey while explaining why he was arrested. I can’t help wondering how Costner’s career would have turned out if Silverado had been the success it deserved to be.

So why didn’t Silverado succeed commercially? I suspect that 1985 was a bad year to release a western. The cultural changes of the 1960s killed the classic western, replacing it as the decade ended with revisionist works like The Wild Bunch, Little Big Man, and McCabe and Mrs. Miller. These soon lost their audience, and by the mid ’70s, the western was for all intents and purposes dead. 1985 was too soon for a joyous, upbeat revival.

I consider Rio Bravo the most entertaining western ever made, but Silverado comes in a decent second. (For what it’s worth, Rio Bravo screenwriter Leigh Bracket wrote the first draft of The Empire Strikes Back, Kasden finished it.) Both lack the mythic power of John Ford, the dark humor of Sergio Leone, or the sad beauty of McCabe. But they’re as fun as this always-entertaining genre gets.

Casablanca: The Accidental Masterpiece

I’ve already told you about watching Casablanca at a big multiplex. Now I can talk about the movie itself.

To my mind, Casablanca is Hollywood’s accidental masterpiece. The handful of equally beloved films from the studio era–Citizen Kane, Stagecoach, The Wizard of Oz, It’s a Wonderful Life–were unique from their inceptions. They were either independent films made outside of the studio system, or specials that the studios intended to be exceptional.

But Casablanca was just another movie off the Warner Brothers assembly line–a modest A picture with a somewhat expensive director and cast and penny-pinching production values. For most of the people who worked on it, it was just another assignment.

Yet somehow it turned out a masterpiece–one of the great American films. Perhaps it’s the million monkeys on a million typewriters theory. With seven major studios grinding out 40-50 features a year each for 20 years, one of them was bound to come out great.

A warning: I’m assuming here that you’ve seen Casablanca. If you haven’t, don’t read about it–just see it.

So why has this factory-built movie, designed to be topical in 1942, stood the test of time so well? Why does everyone still love Casablanca?

First, consider the movie’s themes. The idea of personal sacrifice for the greater good was topical as America joined World War II, but it’s also timeless and universal. Anyone who has ever had to weigh their personal desires against what they knew was right understands Rick’s dilemma. A disillusioned idealist, Rick knows that he cannot remain neutral without losing his humanity. His moral victory inspires us all.

Second, although the filmmakers added nothing innovative or experimental, they crafted a very well-made film. Consider the early sequence of police “rounding up the usual suspects.” Within a very short period of time, we’re drawn into the environment, told that the people have good reasons to fear the government, and introduced to a couple of minor characters who will turn up elsewhere.

Just look at the sequence’s last 24 seconds:

Notice the young couple glimpsed as he runs away? And the way composer Max Steiner highlights the words on the poster?

Or consider the rain at the Paris train station, and how it substitutes for the tears that Rick is too manly to shed.

Have you ever noticed that most the first act takes place in Rick’s Café, and unfolds in real time? During that nearly half an hour we meet all the major and minor characters, discover the conflicts that will drive the plot, and watch Peter Lorre’s entire performance. The camera and editing take us to public and private dining rooms, Rick’s upstairs office, and the front entrance, and we never feel confined. Casablanca was based on an unproduced stage play, and this sequence could work in live theater with minimal script changes, but it never feels stagey.

Next, consider the cast. Sure, Bergman and Bogart were great stars, and Casablanca helped both of their careers. Claude Rains and Conrad Veidt added their own layers as the collaborator and the Nazi. But think of all the bit players who turned small roles into memorable icons: S.Z. Sakall as headwaiter Carl, Leonid Kinskey as the Russian bartender Sasha, Madeleine Lebeau as the lovesick and alcoholic Yvonne (that close-up of her singing La Marseillaise can bring tears to my eyes).

And, of course, Dooley Wilson as Sam.

The more you watch Casablanca, the more you see in it. I’ve always been intrigued by a line of Rick’s, “It’s December, 1941 in Casablanca. What time is it in New York?” Huh? That makes no sense. But it tells us two things: That the story is set during the month that the US joined the war, and that one of the screenwriters wanted us to know that. Could Rick, the man who begins the film saying that he “sticks his neck out for nobody” and ends it ready to “join the fight” be a metaphor for his home country?

And could Louis be, mildly and subconsciously, bisexual. His treatment of women is shocking by modern standards–the worst kind of sexual harassment. But his feelings for Rick may go beyond mere friendship. “If I was a woman…I would be in love with Rick,” he says at one point. But maybe the line simply tells us what we already know: Louis Renault is not only an amoral, corrupt government official, but a witty one.

Casablanca is so good, so inspiring, so well-made, and so damn entertaining, that we hardly notice that the plot makes almost no sense. Just one example: The authorities know that the letters of transit are stolen. In fact, anyone caught with them in Casablanca will be arrested for accessory to murder. So how come they can still be used at the airport to get you legally out of the country?

Seventy years ago, a group of well-paid artisans, most under long-term contracts, made a movie that was supposed to be like every other movie. Many of them didn’t like the story and wished they were doing something else. Somehow, they made a masterpiece. With a miracle like that, we can ignore a few holes in the plot.

Children of Paradise: Mystery of the Second Credits

Like a lot of long epics, Marcel Carné’s Children of Paradise has an intermission. But there’s something odd about it. When the intermission is over, Part II begins with a full repeat of Part I’s opening credits, which is then followed by a brief summary of Part I’s action. Both seem pointless.

Carné wanted to release Children as a three-hour movie, but the studio, Pathe, wanted it released as two shorter features (like Kill Bill in recent years). Carné’s contract required Pathe to release it as one movie in Paris, but only for the initial run. After that, it was released the way Pathe wanted it–as two separate titles.

Knowing that it would be released both, Carné provided two versions. Part II’s repeat of the opening credits and summary were only meant to be seen when the two parts were not screening together. But Pathe, perhaps out of spite, included those parts at all screenings.

And thus, redundancies that Carné only wanted for a compromised way to present of the film have become part of how it is always shown.

By the way, to my knowledge, Pathe is the oldest film company still in existence. It was founded in 1896, a good five years before movies started telling stories and 15 years before the birth of any Hollywood studio.

Children of Paradise

Something struck me as I watched Children of Paradise Saturday at the Castro. The main characters are, at heart, all extraordinarily selfish. Even when expressing deep and undying love, they’re thinking only of their own needs and desires. They want to own the object of their adoration, but they don’t see that object as a human being with desires of his or her own. No wonder there are no happy endings here.

Perhaps that’s why I so pity the two most love-struck characters in the story, Baptiste and Nathalie, but I can’t bring myself to like them very much. They’re doomed by their intense, melodramatic, but ultimately unattainable loves–even when they appear to, perhaps briefly, attain them..

Yet I adore two other major characters: Garance and Frédérick. For them, love is simple pleasure. They’re almost as selfish as Baptiste and Nathalie, but they, at least, are honest about their desires. Garance and Frédérick are merely hedonists, while the seemingly serious and romantic Baptiste and Nathalie have sunk into narcissism.

And yet no character in this large cast earns more affection for me than Avril, the criminal sidekick (and possibly murderer) with the innocence and demeanor of a child. Avril has no ambitions or desires. He does what he’s told, even when he’s reluctant to do so. His eyes are soulful, and he almost always carries a small flower–sometimes by hand, or in his teeth, or behind his ear. How can you hate a man like that?

Avril takes those orders from Lacenaire, who comes as close as anyone to being children_of_paradise2Children’s villain–a well-educated dandy with a deep distain for almost everyone, he steals for a living and dreams of committing a grand murder. Like Baptiste and Frédérick, he’s a planet orbiting Garance–the gravitational center of the film’s solar system. But while Baptiste needs Garance to be his true love, and Frédérick merely wants to sleep with her, Lacenaire’s desires are less clear. He’s fascinated by Garance, and she’s fascinated with him, but there’s nothing sexual between them. Perhaps Lacenaire is gay–or asexual.

Garance acquires another male admirer before the film is through–the Count Eduard of Monteray. He wants to own Garance and make her his mistress. He’s rich and powerful, and used to getting whatever he wants. But I’m not sure if he desires Garance for sex, for status, or for an excuse to kill other men honorably in duels. (Eduard is more evil than Lacenaire, but there’s too little of him onscreen to call him the villain.)

And all of this is set in the theater world of 19th century Paris. Baptiste, a mime, grows as an artist as unrequited love burns a hole in his heart. His staged mime children_of_paradise3routines are amongst some of the film’s best moments–funny, touching, and sad. Baptiste and Frédérick are both historical figures. Jean-Baptiste Debureau was one of the greatest mimes of all time. Frédérick Lemaître was his era’s great dramatic actor. (Lacenaire and Avril are also historical figures. The other characters  are, as far as I know, fictitious.)

The large sets, filled with extras, and captured with Roger Hubert’s atmospheric cinematography, bring the audience back to a teeming, lively, and romanticized time and place. I’d be hard-pressed to think of another black-and-white sound film that works so well as period spectacle. The high production values are all the more impressive when you remember that Children of Paradise was shot during the last months of the Nazi occupation.

Which brings me to Pathe’s new restoration. It’s gorgeous, from the sharp, fine detail of the crowd scenes to the smoky insides of the theaters–so brilliantly lit by Hubert to give the impression of gas lighting. Wisely, Pathe did not attempt to sharpen scenes that were never meant to look sharp. A handful of shots fail to look as good as they should, probably because they were restored from inferior sources.

The Castro screened Children of Paradise digitally in DCP. I know that many will object, but I don’t. 35mm film couldn’t have looked better.

September 10, 2012: After watching the film again on Blu-ray, I have made a few changes to this article.

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Great Projection Saturday, Part 2: 70mm & Lawrence of Arabia

After yesterday’s digital projection morning, I went home, relaxed for a few hours, then went with my wife to the Castro to see Lawrence of Arabia in 70mm. This wasn’t a new experience, but an old, beloved one.

Hollywood made a lot of long epic movies in the 50s and 60s. Many of them were shot in large formats, and initially presented in 70mm roadshow limited releases—shown in only a few big theaters worldwide, with high ticket prices, reserved seats, and intermissions. After they had played out that way, they’d  get a conventional 35mm release “at popular prices.”

Some of these movies were pretty good. A few were excellent. Some were unwatchable. But only one stands out among the greatest masterpieces of the cinema: David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia—as perfect a blending of medium and story as you can find. Here the sweeping desert vistas, captured in Super Panavision 70, are inseparable from the story of a World War 1 British officer in love with a way of life that can never entirely be his.

As far as I know, the Castro is one of only two Bay Area theaters that still screens 70mm (the other being San Jose’s California). Even a mediocre movie can be improved by this format. But for Lawrence, it’s an essential part of a great movie-going experience.

Whoever projected Lawrence last night understood the roadshow experience. The house lights came down slowly throughout the overture, with the curtain opening just before the Columbia logo appeared onscreen. They repeated the trick with the music that ends the intermission.

My wife and I sat in the front row, dead center. Those seats allowed us to admire both the sweeping spectacle and the tiny details of a film shot in a large format for a giant screen. Lean shot one triumphal reunion in extreme longshot, with tiny characters at the bottom of the screen, dominated by the desert at the sky. That worked great for us.

The large scale of the film compliments the giant achievements, goals, and ego of the complex title character. As played by then-newcomer Peter O’Toole, T.E. Lawrence loves the desert and wants to be part of the Arabian world, but knows that he never can be. A brilliant tactician and charismatic leader of men. He hates war primarily because he feels guilty about loving it. He’s a megalomaniac who believes he can do anything, and who nurses a wide streak  of exhibitionist theatricality. He tells his followers, and himself, that he’s creating a free Arab nation, while knowing deep down that he’s working to expand the British empire.

The movie runs three hours and 47 minutes—not including the intermission. I wouldn’t cut a frame.

But I couldn’t help wondering: Would it look just as good, or even better, in 4K digital projection? Assuming, of course, an excellent digital transfer and a theater that knows what to do with it. I don’t know the answer, but I’d love to find out. Considering that Sony makes 4K projectors and owns Lawrence of Arabia, I don’t know what they’re waiting for.

You have one more chance to see it in 70mm in the foreseeable future. Lawrence screens tonight, at the Castro, at 7:00.

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