Thanks for the Use of the Hall - Archive

This archive contains posts from May 2007 to November 2008. More recent posts are at:

Name: Dan Sallitt
Location: New York, New York, United States

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Notes on David Lean

Vadim Rizov asked me, in the comments for another post, for my reactions to the current David Lean retrospective at Film Forum. I don't consider myself a Lean authority, but here are notes from my journal, cleaned up a bit, on my last three Lean screenings. Unfortunately, I haven't the time right now to give the Film Forum series my full attention.

I've never been a Lean fan, always thought he belonged in "Less Than Meets the Eye" where Sarris put him. But it's not uncommon for directors to start their careers with promise (or more), and then lose the thread when their filmmaking circumstances are upgraded. I finally got interested in Lean when I saw Oliver Twist on television in 2005; and David Thomson's recent Guardian article on Lean make me curious to catch some 40s Lean films that I'd always let go by.

My journal notes:

Oliver Twist

I didn't like it for the first hour or so, but it grew on me. There is a pure expressionism to it that I find limiting, but Lean does all sorts of wacky style things, and some of them work for me: deep-focus effects where movement occurs in all layers of the image; generally a lot of density, lots of people and activity; some beautiful shots of London streets, with action moving from the front to the back of the frame; small touches of naturalism, like the excellent scenes with the dog. Overall, I feel weirdly drawn to the film. Lean seems to have less feeling for the material than Polanski, but one edge he has over Polanski is that he engages with the drama, so that the film gets better instead of worse as the hysteria mounts.


A compelling film, not original in terms of characterization, and not coherent, but full of interesting visual drama, often a result of overcrowded frames, sometimes a result of unexpected motion (like the sudden, glittering rain behind the first Todd/Desny kiss). There is a striking working-class dance-hall scene, used as an almost symbolic illustration of the lovers' state of mind, that is impressive in its density. (Unlike Thomson, I think that Lean has a taste for sex and abandon.) The most interesting aspect of the story, the brutality of the father's and the male lover's dominance, goes pretty much unexamined. At any rate, the plot mechanism in the second half makes nonsense of the first half: it requires an objective limitation of viewpoint that Lean had not tried for earlier, or even seemed to consider. I sense that he's weak on dramaturgy, though he likes drama.

The Passionate Friends

Less ridiculous in concept than Madeleine, but similar in that it doesn't seem to focus on any particular aspect of the love story. (It doesn't have much to do with duty, contrary to Thomson's implication.) The film also seemed less daring than Madeleine - on the whole, I liked it less. Its stylistic high point was a spectacular but rather meaningless ascent by cable car into the Alps. An important theme in the script - that Todd's character is a bit cold, and interested in money and security - is never manifested in characterization.

Labels: ,


Blogger Vadim said...

Thanks for this Dan. I was unprepared for how gonzo Oliver Twist is — it's far more out there than Great Expectations. It takes great confidence to set up an elaborate set piece like that boozy bar sing-along and basically just throw it away.

Madeleine is incoherent, but that sheer ambition makes it fascinating to me.

Good luck in Krakow. I note with some grim amusement that a movie I recommended they stay far, far away from (Love, Pain and Vice Versa) has joined the line-up.

September 21, 2008 2:15 PM  
Anonymous Daniel said...

Wonderful thoughts Dan, as always!

Still, I think you are severely underrating THE PASSIONATE FRIENDS, which struck me as a near-masterpiece. I see it as part of a growing trend in post-war cinema to value adult consideration of subject matter over coherency of drama or plot.

An emblematic example you cite, "that Todd's character is a bit cold, and interested in money and security - is never manifested in characterization" is to my mind a flaw but not a particularly important one. The script deploys a theme that Todd and Lean don't pick up, and their attention lie elsewhere, specifically in the nuanced characterization of fairly superficially written characters. These are two-dimensional on paper but strikingly three-dimensional on film: we watch Todd think through her situations, through her past, think through the moment. Thought has a terrific gravity in the film, and I think this is what I value most above all about it.

September 21, 2008 6:29 PM  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home