Lean-Spirited: Film Forum Celebrates David Lean
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“Nothing lasts, really,” Laura Jesson, the guilt-hobbled heroine played by Celia Johnson, laments in director David Lean’s 1945 film “Brief Encounter.” “Not happiness, not despair, not even life lasts very long.”
Though inspired by Noël Coward’s play “Still Life,” Laura’s musing (delivered, like much of her dialogue, in voice-over) was co-scripted by the British-born Lean (1908-91). Indeed, that resigned assessment of the impermanence of things would make sense delivered by nearly anyone in the 16 films showcased in Film Forum’s new centenary revival of the director’s work that begins Friday.
Naturally, Film Forum’s Lean season includes his multiple Oscar-winning epics — “The Bridge on the River Kwai,” “Lawrence of Arabia,” “Dr. Zhivago,” and “A Passage to India” — films in which the impermanence of human love, life, and scheming are celebrated in wide-screen grandeur. But the bulk of the two-week retrospective represents the result of a real-life effort to permanently preserve the director’s early work, an effort that has been considerably more successfully than fictional efforts to safeguard the bridge in “Kwai,” T.E. Lawrence’s life, and Yuri Zhivago’s “paper thin” heart, as dramatized in the pictures themselves.
Through a joint effort led by the British Film Institute, 10 of Lean’s British-made, pre-road-show movies have been restored to a level of clarity that will likely extend their exhibition lives indefinitely. That Lean’s romantic fatalism, writ large in his epic films, is best appreciated via the projector is a given. But Film Forum’s presentation is a reminder that his more intimate pictures of the 1940s and ’50s also represent the director’s pure and absolute command of film expression to the best advantage on the big screen.
Near the end of his life, as he reminisced with biographer Kevin Brownlow about his early career as a film editor, Lean praised a journeyman director for whom he had toiled as having a gift for “giving a kind of weight to a scene. I know I can do it myself,” Lean told Mr. Brownlow, “but I’m buggered if I know how I do it.”
In fact, Lean learned to do what he did behind a camera in the cutting room, as did directors with gifts as varied as Hammer Studios’ low-budget auteur Terence Fisher, the maverick 1970s American filmmaking icon Hal Ashby, action genius Don Siegel, and “West Side Story” and “The Sound of Music” mastermind Robert Wise. All of them possessed the same formative educational experience as Lean, creating their best work with an effortless grasp of film grammar — the nuts and bolts application of framing, movement, and cuts — that came from early stints as editors.
The storytelling excisions and manipulations that take place in the cutting room are an ideal training ground in which to learn the creative consequences of choices and compromises made in writing, casting, rehearsing, and principal photography. Lean’s characteristically crisp, confident dramatic tempo, acute narrative point of view, and novelistic exposure of the interior workings of characters arguably make him the valedictorian of editorial alumni.
The son of a well-to-do Quaker family, who was shattered when his father left his mother for another woman, Lean sought escape from the wreckage of his broken home at the movies, in the suitably distancing hobby of photography, and then via entry-level employment in Britain’s eternally struggling film industry. At Gaumont-British Studios, one of the upscale 1930s dream factories that churned out low-budget “quota quickie” features that were legally required by British protectionist statutes to share screen space with American imports, Lean’s initial enthusiasm for on-set travails took a backseat to an obsession for the cutting room after he attended a screening of the rushes (a film’s first print) of a movie he had helped shoot.
“It seemed so real,” Lean recalled of the contrast between being on set and then experiencing what the camera saw during editing. “Much better than it seemed in the studio when we did it.”
Cutting newsreels and features led to regular uncredited jobs as a film doctor, as Lean made suggestions to Gaumont’s directors on how best to cover scenes for maximum editorial impact, and occasionally directed additional footage he deemed necessary to make an individual story work. After cutting two wartime propaganda films for Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, Lean began what would be a four-decade hiatus from editing credits (he received an Oscar nomination for cutting his final feature as director, 1984’s “A Passage to India”) to co-direct Noël Coward’s stiff-upper-lip dramatization of the 1941 sinking of the destroyer HMS Kelly, “In Which We Serve.” It was the first of the 16 features Lean would helm before dying in 1991.
The late film critic Manny Farber groused that “Lawrence of Arabia” was “almost a comedy of overdesign” in which “the actors, stuck like thumbtacks into a maplike event, are allowed — and then for only a fraction of the time — to contribute a declamatory, school pageant bit of acting.” But the features showing at Film Forum, restored by the British Film Institute, catch Lean at a considerably more attentive point in his collaboration with his casts (one that in later years by many accounts was fraught with bullying mind games).
“I always feel conscious when I make a movie that it’s an eavesdrop,” Lean told Mr. Brownlow. The eavesdropping in “Brief Encounter” bores into the mind of the films’s heroine with an intimacy that is unrelenting. Even in his cast-of-thousands films, the director took pains periodically to pause, listen to his characters, and share what he heard. A brief cut, during the opening funeral scene in “Dr. Zhivago,” to young Zhivago’s mind’s-eye-view of what his late mother must look like inside her sealed casket, is typical of the marvelous turns of cinematic phrase that Lean routinely delivered, whether adapting the prose of Coward, Dickens, Boris Pasternak, or E.M. Forster to the screen.
The remarkably modern and subdued use of Technicolor in 1944’s “The Happy Breed,” the 1949 cloistered Victorian marriage forensic “Madeleine” (featuring a spectacularly nuanced performance from Lean’s third wife, Ann Todd), the class-conscious comedy of 1953’s “Hobson’s Choice,” and the other early entries in Film Forum’s retrospective demonstrate that one of cinema’s bona fide household names was originally as much at home telling household stories as he was directing the broad-canvas superproductions for which he subsequently became famous
Through September 25 (209 W. Houston St., between Sixth Avenue and Varick Street, 212-727-8110).