Friday, April 20, 2012

Lawrence of Arabia

"The trick is not minding that it hurts."

Lawrence of Arabia hurts. It is just shy of being four hours long. (It has an intermission for flip sake. The last film I saw with an intermission was The Ten Commandments, and I'm pretty sure it's still going. These are epics like we do not witness today.) Setting out to watch Lawrence of Arabia was like setting out into the desert. I questioned whether I had the supplies, the mental strength, to make it out the other side alive. But I knew I had to do it, for this was a journey remembered fondly by those who had gone before me - namely, my uncle. The memory of him sitting there on a sofa during the Christmas holidays watching Lawrence of Arabia (which was a synonym for "we're never gonna get to watch what we want to") still lingers. I wondered what he was doing. Did he just put it on to annoy us? From the outside looking in it was like watching a man watching a painting. I couldn't understand this event, yet the event itself stayed with me. What kind of person would I have to become to actually sit down and watch this paint dry? Moreover, what kind of person would I have to become to enjoy it?

"The trick is not minding that it hurts."

It is this line, one of the first in the film, that gave me hope for the journey. T.E. Lawrence has just put out a match with his fingers, and showed no sign of pain. A fellow officer tries to replicate the feat, but the burn causes him to yelp "It hurts!" "What's the trick?", he asks Lawrence. "The trick," says Lawrence, "is not minding that it hurts."

But while Lawrence of Arabia is long and slow and sparse, it is epic not just for its length, but for its imagination and beauty. You do not have to be a masochist (as Lawrence is portrayed as being) to enjoy this film. The vast expanse of the desert and the perspective that it makes possible -- seeing human beings as tiny dots flickering in the distance, evolving as the distance narrows -- is captured magnificently and leaves the world of Arabia lodged deep within your consciousness.

Of course the driving force of the film is Lawrence himself. His subordinations, enigmatic motives, friendships, quirks, and passions make up an enthralling character who is happy to play the fantastical war hero at one moment and just looking to live a quiet, normal life at another. He is extraordinary, but it is hard to know what makes him so extraordinary, or at least hard to know if what makes him extraordinary is actually good. We are known by our relationships, but Lawrence's are not easily defined. His closest friend is an Arab leader played by Omar Sharif, though it is usually Sharif who gives himself to Lawrence rather than the other way around. Lawrence is known as merciful, yet also as barbarous. He is courageous, but to what end it is unclear. Does he go beyond the call of duty for the sake of Arabian freedom, or for his own? His freedom from the confines of what it meant to be a British officer at the time, his freedom for anarchy and self-determination, for living a life in which "nothing is written".

What kind of person did I have to be to watch this film? I had to be someone with nothing better to do on a Thursday night. I also had to be a subscriber to Love Film, and thus with little else of quality to chose from. Watching Terrence Malick's filmography in the last eight months has also helped in terms of film endurance. It takes hard work to watch a good film sometimes, but that's okay. The trick is not minding the hard work that it takes. 

In my desperation to watch Home Alone I never thought it possible, but perhaps some day the shoe will be on the other foot, and I'll be the uncle half-asleep on the sofa watching Lawrence of Arabia while my nephews look on with frustration and bafflement. That is the kind of cultural, historical and aesthetical education children need, and I'm grateful to my uncle for providing it. 

Though I'm convinced he really was just doing it to annoy us.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks Declan its nice for once to be included in the "CREDITS". Hope you enjoyed what is truly an "EPIC". I remember many times in the past in "one TV households" you took any chance you got. Would watch it again anytime. Of ourse I'm pretty good at watching "PAINT DRY" Regards John