Sunday, June 8, 2008

Don't Make a Scene: Lawrence of Arabia

The Set-Up: I recently read an article from a film academic extolling a scene from "There Will Be Blood," in which its playing-out in one shot, or camera set-up, is praised to the skies as a master-stroke of direction.


While it is true that far too many directors these days are seemingly relying on the craft of montage (editing) as opposed to mise en scene (camera placement),* I would submit that it is not that special an achievement, but, rather "Directing 101." Any director worth his view-finder knows the importance of "blocking," or the arranging of actors in a scene. It establishes relationships, points-of-view, all sorts of sub-conscious signals to the audience about the participants of a scene. And it allows the actors to do what is their natural inclination to do: act in an unbroken line with their fellow-actors, playing off of each other, without the technical interruptions of setting-up for another angle.

A competent director knows when to get out of the way of his actors (just as a competent studio should know when to get out of the way of the director). But to praise a director for letting a scene play out in one shot without cutting? Only understandable from someone who's never been exposed to the process, I guess. Or someone who's just griping on the over-reliance of editing in today's movies (given the dependence on editing to create "energy," especially the false kind as pioneered by the hackers at MTV) and is doing it in a back-handed kind of way.

Anyway, the point is--a director who pathologically couldn't let a scene play out without editing, "couldn't direct traffic if given white gloves and a whistle" (in the words of one disgruntled writer I've met).

Or...are directing for the limited band-width of television. Or...are insecure in the material to keep interest. Or...are being told what to do, as in someone's directing the director (so what does that make him? An employee, not an auteur.)
Here's one of many scenes I've found lately, that, with the exception of the opening three establishing POV shots, is done in one shot/one take, and it's one of my favorites. It's the "introduction" to the titular hero of "Lawrence of Arabia," and it contains two of my favorite lines in this movie, full of great ones.

The Story: Aside from a sequence dramatising T.E. Lawrence's*** (Peter O'Toole)death in a motorcycle accident, and the subsequent funeral at which we hear many opinions of the man, this is the first sequence in the long flash-back of the tumultuous events of his life presented in the film. The first image shows him as we will soon come to know him: dissatisfied with his station, and re-drawing the map of the Middle East. Action!

T.E. Lawrence: Michael George Hartley, this is a nasty, dark. little room.
M.G. Hartley: That's right.

Lawrence: We are not happy in it.
Hartley: I am. It's better than a nasty, dark little trench.
Lawrence: Then you're an ignoble fellow.
Hartley: That's right.
Lawrence: Ah! Here is William Potter with my newspaper.

W.Potter: Here you are, Tosh.
Lawrence: Thanks. (Potter waits)
Lawrence: Would you care for one of Cpl. Hartley's cigarettes?
Potter: Ah! (Potter grandly takes one)
Hartley: Is it there?

Lawrence: Of course. Headlines. But I bet it isn't mentioned in The Times. "Bedouin tribes attack Turkish stronghold."

Lawrence: And I'll bet no one in this whole headquarters even knows it happened. Or would care if it did.

Lawrence: Allow me to ignite your cigarette.
Potter: Sir...

Adjutant: Mr. Lawrence?
Lawrence: Yes?
Adjutant: Flimsy, sir.
Lawrence: Thank you.

(Lawrence takes the burning match and working his fingers up it, extinguishing it while the others watch)

Hartley: You'll do that once too often! It's only flesh and blood.
Lawrence: Michael George Hartley, you're a philosopher.

Potter: And you're balmy!
(Adjutant leaves. Lawrence reads. Potter lights a match tries to put it out with his fingers while Lawrence watches.)

Potter: OH! It hurts!

Lawrence: Certainly, it hurts.

Potter: Well, what's the trick, then?

Lawrence: The trick, William Potter, is not minding that it hurts.

Lawrence: Oh! By the way, should Col. Gibbon enquire for me, tell him I've gone for a chat with the General.

Potter: He's balmy!
Hartley (laughs): He's alright.

"Lawrence of Arabia"

Words by Robert Bolt and Michael Wilson

Pictures by Freddie Young and David Lean

"Lawrence of Arabia" is available on DVD from Sony Home Video.**

* I attribute this to studio insistence on "coverage"--over-shooting a scene from different angles to ensure that the film will "cut" (edit in a way that isn't "jarring" to the viewer), and, by the way, gives the studio enough material to work with in case thay want to fire the director if he isn't ameanable enough to cut it the way the studio insists. It's why having the "final cut" in a director's contract is so cherished a clause (Would you like a list of the names of great directors who've had their movies re-cut against their wishes? We don't have time, but I can make a rough estimate---almost all of them!)

** Movie theater advocate Roger Ebert has written that "Lawrence of Arabia" on video "crouches inside its box like a tall man in a low room." That's a wonderful description. He continues "You can view it on video and get an idea of its story and a hint of its majesty, but to get the feeling of Lean's masterpiece you need to somehow, somewhere, see it in 70mm on a big screen. This experience is on the short list of things that must be done during the lifetime of every lover of film." In Seattle, it happens infrequently at the Cinerama. Next time you see it mentioned, go.

*** That link leads to the general Wikipedia entry, for a better site on the man who's the subject of the movie, go here.

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