March Highlights on TCM
TCM Birthday Tribute: David Lean (March 25, 6am ET) These days, I find myself wondering what young people think of studio era movies. I mean young people without the knowledge of film history that readers of this column probably have. Those of us who grew up with those pictures have a shorthand, and that means we take certain things for granted. For instance, the term "studio era"--many young people probably don't know what that means. The very sense of cinema has changed. Moviemaking now is about as different from moviemaking in the '40s and '50s, as an iPhone playing music through a Bluetooth speaker is from an Edison cylindrical record player. The basic idea is the same, but in all other ways they're worlds apart. We all know that film grammar, or even the idea that there is such a thing as film grammar, has changed, but along with it so has the very idea of what constitutes a shot, a cut, a character, a scene, a story and...a movie. If you don't know how we got to where we are or if you don't know the evolution of moviemaking, then it will probably be a jarring experience to suddenly find yourself watching a film by one of the masters of those earlier generations. But only at first. David Lean, whose birthday is being celebrated by TCM this month, was one of those masters. He began as an editor and by the time he started directing in the early 1940s, Lean had an extremely precise sense of the pacing of each scene in relation to the movement of the entire film. He would rehearse a scene with his actors and time it with a stopwatch. If it came out four minutes long, he would say, "Okay, let's get it down to two minutes," and they would rehearse the scene until they got it down to two, and then he would say, "Okay, now let's get it down to 90 seconds." His sense of distance and size--in other words, the size of people and objects in the frame relative to the emotional content of the scene--was impeccable, and so was his understanding of movement, flow, light, shadow and color. Lean was a filmmaker through and through, as you will see from the six pictures in his birthday tribute. The film that really made him as a director, Brief Encounter, is a romantic classic that is intimate but grand: every emotional turn seems to take place on a heightened level. People used to talk a lot about the stark contrast between his early pictures (like Great Expectations, one of the most beautiful Dickens adaptations, also included) and the later epics like The Bridge on the River Kwai and Doctor Zhivago, which round off the program (his penultimate picture, Ryan's Daughter, will be shown a few days earlier). But now the contrast doesn't seem so stark: the only thing different was the scale. From frame to frame and film to film, David Lean was one of the most passionate and refined artists we've had in the cinema.
by Martin Scorsese