Thursday, March 3, 2011

Top Ten Movie Theater Experiences #3: “Lawrence of Arabia” (1962)

This is probably the best film on the list. It got the Academy Award for Best Picture the year it came out. But I didn’t see it the year it came out. I saw it in re-release when I was in the 4th grade. I think it I saw it at the Coddingtown Cinema in Santa Rosa. I liked it, but had a hard time following the plot. This could because I was in the 4th grade. It could also be because in re-release an hour had been hacked out of its nearly four hour length. This was not a top movie theater experience.
The next time I saw the film was in 1989 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The film had been carefully restored to David Lean’s original vision. (But not fully restored. Some footage appears to be forever lost, and other segments needed to be dubbed because the original sound track was lost.)
Mindy and I went to see the film in 70 mm, a huge picture on a huge screen. And that is how this film is meant to be seen. The story of a passionate, perhaps mad, Englishman who entered the world of the Arabian desert is perhaps the greatest epic ever made (step aside “Gone With the Wind”.) There is a scene in the film where Sherif Ali (Omar Sherif) thinks T. E. Lawrence (Peter O’Toole) is lost in the desert and may never return. But then he (and we) sees a tiny speck on the horizon through the sand billowing in the desert wind. That speck becomes a man…Lawrence. That scene does not have the same impact in 35 mm on a smaller screen, let alone on a television screen (even a home theater.)
That was a wonderful night, but it was still not the best.
An even better experience, #3 on this list was when I could take my kids to see “Lawrence” in 70 mm at the Castro Theater in San Francisco. It is a true cinema palace, with art deco interior and an organ that plays before the show. The huge theater was full the night we went. It was amusing to hear the audience laugh knowingly when the dialogue referred to the foolishness of Western nations interfering in the Middle East (this was not long after the start of the second Iraq war.)
We watched up in the balcony. During intermission, the projectionist let the kids into the booth to look around.
But the best thing was being able to share with my kids the glory of Lean’s beautiful vistas, O’Toole’s impassioned performance and a story from history told with humor, majesty and mystery. One of the most lovely images in cinema is Lawrence spinning in the sand in his first native robe.
I’ve taken the kids to other films at the Castro (the original “King Kong” and “Blade Runner”), but this was a truly memorable night.

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