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The Great Directors: Vol. 5

Mar 10th, 2011

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David Lean (1908-1991)

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In a forum like DVDFile, arguments are often had about what it means to 'see a film on the big screen'. We've had a writer who literally refused to watch films in a cinema because he could not get a guarantee on audio/video quality control and/or audience behavior. We have a current writer who only watches 'certain types of movies' at home because the act of experiencing giant imagery and sound in a theatre can't quite be replicated in the home theater arena.

With that in mind, we're all too prepared to weather each side of these disparate perspectives when we say that the cinema of David Lean could be the biggest in the history of the medium. And, all haughtiness aside, when it comes to Lean - even his more intimate works - the mainstay edict is: "The bigger the better." I've seen Lawrence of Arabia upwards of fifty times, but at about the halfway mark in that figure, I had a chance to see a 70mm print of the movie in a cinema in San Francisco, and as boorish as it might sound, it was as though I were watching it for the first time.

That being said, to focus solely on Lean's epics is to miss out on a varied and bravura slate of cinematic offerings that exists as one of the more varied in movie history. Arabia, Kwai and Zhivago will be what the filmmaker is remembered for on a mainstream level, but early efforts like Summertime and the career-capping A Passage to India are just as worthy filmic accomplishments: They lack his iconic works' big-budget scope, but in terms of interpersonal drama and romantic earnest, they're right there near the top of the heap. 

The fact that Lawrence of Arabia is as yet unavailable on Blu-ray is a tragedy of seismic proportions, but the rest of Lean's output has a firm establishment on DVD and high-def, and in this week's column, we hope to draw focus both to the director's widely-appreciated efforts as well as his more off-the-radar fare that lack Kwai's massive cultural import. It's important to soak in all of Lean: For every Zhivago, there is a Brief Encounter, for each Oliver Twist a River Kwai. In the cinema of David Lean, the dynamism and juxtaposition of the macro and the micro, the major and the minor is key to his signature dramatic evocation - somehow he was able to make the ordinary extraordinary and the extraordinary ordinary (often at the same time....).

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Memorable Lean quotes:

“Always cast against the part and it won't be boring."

"I wouldn't take the advice of a lot of so-called critics on how to shoot a close-up of a teapot."

"I hope the money men don't find out that I'd pay them to let me do this."

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