David Lean: Time and Space

I’m embarrassed to say that until this week I had never seen David Lean’s classic Doctor Zhivago (1965).  It’s the favorite film of one of my colleagues; he’s been insisting that I watch it for several months now, and since I’m currently working my way through films of the 1960s I figured it was a good time to sit down with it.  It’s a grandly entertaining movie in that particular Lean way; the sheer length of a Lean film, its expansiveness, and the unhurried rhythms of its pacing are all part of its appeal.  (Lean’s use of length—nearly all of his major films run over three hours—became one of his particular tools.  It’s hard to think of other filmmakers aside from Cecil B. de Mille who were able to successfully use running time as an auteurist trademark.)  Like Lean’s other epics (and perhaps even more than, say, Lawrence of Arabia), Doctor Zhivago is long enough that you feel the length without getting antsy for it to end.  It moves along at a good clip while still allowing for the occasional reflective pause.  Most modern-day action epics clock in at three hours and don’t even give you the pauses—the whole thing moves at the same tempo.  Jean-Luc Godard talked about Breathless as a musical composition in three movements, and I would argue that Lean also applied a composer’s sensibility to his films, which shift elegantly in an out of different movements and time signatures.

I was also startled to see Julie Christie re-paired with Tom Courtenay here (he plays the idealistic Bolshevik revolutionary-turned-sadist, Strelnikov; she, of course, plays the love interest, Lara).  Only two years before, they had appeared as lovestruck teenagers in John Schlesinger’s excellent Billy Liar (1963).  Coming off of that film, Courtenay is almost unrecognizable as Strelnikov; even his lips look thinner, his face cruel.  Christie looks easily ten years more mature here.  The two films themselves seem to have been made decades apart—with Schlesinger’s kitchen-sink realism and dark humor coming after, not before, the lush Hollywood gloss of Lean’s film.  However else one feels about Lean, though, one has to admit: the man knew how to shoot exteriors.  The screen capture above is taken from the film’s transition from prologue into flashback.  It may not be as good as the cut from the burning match to the Sahara in Lawrence of Arabia, but it’s still a stunner.

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