Back in college, Andrew Sarris’ The American Cinema was my unofficial gospel. And since Sarris famously dissed the revered British filmmaker David Lean — relegating the two-time Oscar winner to his reductive “Less Than Meets the Eye” category — I did too. I was even suspicious of the Lean films I loved as a kid (Dickens adaptations Great Expectations and Oliver Twist, and wide-screen epics like Lawrence of Arabia and Dr. Zhivago).
It wasn’t until the release of A Passage to India, Lean’s 1984 adaptation of the E.M. Forster novel — which coincidentally helped launch the Forster cinematic bandwagon that’s erroneously credited to the Merchant-Ivory team — that I came around. In fact, Lean’s directorial swan song just may be my favorite Lean movie of all. An elegiac, exquisitely moving distillation of many of the themes and concerns (British imperialism, military mania, star-crossed romance, etc.) that obsessed him throughout his 50-year-plus career, India was totally out of step with the times when it was released the same year as Ghostbusters and Beverly Hills Cop. Ironically, the same audiences that rejected the film as hopelessly stodgy and old-hat would turn around and embrace the Lean Lite of Sydney Pollack’s Out of Africa a year later. What goes around comes around, I suppose.
Since A Passage to India made it cool to dig Lean again (his burnished craftsmanship and stubbornly quixotic quest for a kind of formal “perfection” felt nearly as iconoclastic as the hipster-minimalist work of Akron native Jim Jarmusch), I gradually reacquainted myself with the early Lean movies I had foolishly disowned. In no time at all, I had elevated Sir David to a “Far Side of Paradise” slot in my personal revision of Sarris’ tome.
For anyone curious about checking out the oeuvre of one of the most celebrated directors of the post-WW II era — or simply revisiting some beloved old favorites — the Cleveland Institute of Art Cinematheque has just what the movie doc ordered. Running from January 5 through March 1, David Lean 101 not only commemorates the 101st anniversary of Lean’s 1908 birth, but it also serves as a useful primer on Lean the artist.
The 10 titles in the Cinematheque mini-retrospective (being the control freak that he was, Lean completed only 16 films in his lifetime) offer a representative sample culled from both phases of Lean’s prodigious career. Lean’s sterling Dickens adaptations, Oliver Twist and Great Expectations, play back to back on Sunday, January 18, and 1945’s nonpareil love story Brief Encounter — a spiritual antecedent to the upcoming London-set Dustin Hoffman/Emma Thompson vehicle, Last Chance Harvey — screens on January 11. The Sound Barrier (January 25), starring Lean’s then-wife Ann Todd, and 1955’s Katharine Hepburn-Rossano Brazzi Venetian romance Summertime (January 31) round out Lean’s pre-blockbuster fare. (Five of the director’s early British movies will be shown in new 35mm prints courtesy of the British Film Institute.)
The most famous of Lean’s big-budget color spectacles (Bridge on the River Kwai and Lawrence of Arabia on February 8 and February 22, respectively) demand to be seen on the big screen, and Cinematheque director John Ewing promises superb U.S. prints. The 1965 roadshow perennial Dr. Zhivago — starring an impossibly young Julie Christie at her most incandescent — plays, fittingly enough, on Valentine’s Day, and A Passage to India concludes the series on Sunday, March 1. The most intimate of Lean’s widescreen epics, India is arguably the filmmaker’s crowning masterpiece. It is truly a must-see for fans of such later Forster adaptations as A Room With a View and Howards End.
Cleveland Institute of Art Cinematheque
January 5-March 1