Looked at through a progressive, socially conscious, 2012 San Francisco point of view, there's a lot to laugh at or actively dislike about David Lean's 1962 Lawrence of Arabia. Yes, it's about colonialism. Yes, the hero is a white man, arguably portrayed as a savior to dark-skinned people. Yes, one of those dark-skinned people, Prince Faisal of Iraq, is played by another white man -- by Obi-Wan Kenobi, no less -- in what we would now consider to be a blackface performance. To put it in YouTube-comment parlance, omg thats so racist wtf!
Y'know what, though? It's still a film worth seeing, especially in the 4K restoration playing at the Castro Theatre this weekend.
Lawrence of Arabia is a resolutely analog movie. For all its spectacle, and it has a whole heck of a lot of spectacle, there are very few optical effects. Most of what you see on the screen at any given time is what was really there in front of the camera in the desert, being captured on 65mm film -- and since the film is that much bigger than standard 35mm, it captures that much more detail, resulting in a deeper, fuller image.
Historically, the only way to properly see Lawrence of Arabia is in its original 70mm format (the extra 5mm, if you're curious, is six-track stereo sound). Here in the Bay Area, we're fortunate enough to have that opportunity every so often at the Castro, one of the few theaters left that is capable of and/or has any interest in showing 70mm. Then there's the fact that 70mm films, being physical artifacts which are vulnerable to the ravages of time and entropy just like any other kind of film, fade and die. (My heart is still a little broken about that faded-to-red 70mm print of Apocalypse Now I saw some years ago, the only 70mm print that exists now or is ever likely to exist.)
That's where 4K scans come in. In a way simplified nutshell, it's a scan of the film which reads about 4,096 pixels horizontally and 2,160 pixels vertically, resulting in a metric ass-ton of pixels and an absurdly lush and detailed picture -- often revealing things which the camera recorded on film but which have never actually been seen because even standard 70mm projection wasn't enough to show them. It's a sharper and clearer picture than even director David Lean ever expected to see.
My personal misgivings about digital presentations have been largely soothed by one of my favorite film writers, Glenn "DVD Savant" Erickson, who had this to say about the version of Lawrence of Arabia playing this weekend: "Not everyone has seen this picture, and if you haven't the first bit of advice I have is to wait, if possible, until the new 4k theatrical presentation comes your way. This is one show that really can become a life-altering experience in a good theater screening."
For as much as the film is benefiting from its digital resurrection, Lawrence of Arabia has also been cited as an example of how pre-digital filmmaking had certain aesthetic and creative advantages -- specifically, in the documentary Side By Side, which looks at the pros and cons of how digital has overtaken analog. (I really liked Side By Side, listing it the 2012 Village Voice Film Critics' Poll as Best Documentary, and the No. 6 Best Film of the year overall. I highly recommend watching it in double feature with Visions of Light, if you can find the latter.) Anne V. Coates, the editor of Lawrence of Arabia, explains how one of the most famous edits in the film's history -- Lawrence blows out a match, and the film cuts to the desert at dawn -- was almost an accident, one that wouldn't have happened if she was editing the film on a computer. Also, I'd like to enter into the record that Lawrence of Arabia was edited by a woman, half a century ago.
Deep, huh? The shiny new digital presentation of Lawrence of Arabia plays Saturday, December 29 through Monday, December 31 at the Castro Theatre, 429 Castro (at Market), S.F. Admission is $8.50-$11.