Lawrence and Me – Personal Journeys That Our Favorite Films Take Us On

When I started writing this blog nearly 4 years ago now, my hope was to share my knowledge and opinions on a wide range of topics related to all things cinema.  And for all these years, I have expanded this thing into an extensive body of work.  I run twelve different series of articles on here and to date I have reviewed 50 plus films for this site, as well as covered exciting public film exhibitions within the Los Angeles community where I live.  Conventions, festivals, art galleries; it’s all an effort from me to all of you, my readers, to give you an open look into my passion as a fan of cinematic art.  And believe me, I have enjoyed this journey we’ve taken together.  If I didn’t have this blog, I probably wouldn’t be doing all the same things.  I’d still be watching new films every week, going to all these film festivals, and attending these conventions, but this blog also gives me even more of a purpose to.  I’m not just a participant, but also a reporter, using this site to share experiences with those out there who otherwise would’ve missed out on them.  Now truth be told, I am still an amateur at best, but this site is also an unfiltered expression of my own passion.  I write on this site, because it is something that I take pleasure in.  And even if my readership may still be limited to friends, family, and the always welcome curious newcomer, I feel honored to have at least built something that other people can appreciate.  The reason, you might ask, why I am waxing nostalgic all of a sudden, is because with this article I have now reached 200 posting on this website.  For a milestone like this, I tried to think about what would be the best subject for the occasion.  And for #200, I thought it would be fitting to talk to you about my all time favorite movie, Lawrence of Arabia (1962), and how it has shaped my life ever since I first saw it nearly 18 years ago.

For a lot of people, their favorite movies usually end up being something tied to their childhood, or perhaps a discovery in their adulthood that changed their life forever.  I’m a child of the 80’s, an era where there was no shortage of influential movies that I could have latched onto.  So, why did a movie released 20 years before I was born make such a difference in my life?  It might have been just because it was the right movie at the right moment for me.  From early childhood, I was already a keenly aware observer of the aura of cinema.  It was mostly started by my passionate love of Disney movies.  I was the kid in school who had seen every Disney animated classic up to that point, and knew them all by heart.  I was also the kind of know-it-all kid who wanted to share all of my fandom with everyone else; probably to level of obnoxiousness.  Still, it was a passion that spurned me on to pursue more knowledge and expand my expertise.  Once I became a teenager, I started to move beyond just Disney fandom and actively take interest in movies of all kinds.  I became more interested in film history, and found myself watching channels like HBO and Turner Classic Movies more than I was watching the Disney Channel.  The yearly run-up to the Academy Awards interested me more than before, and ever since turning 13, I have not missed seeing a single Best Picture winner in it’s first run in theaters ever since.  But, even though I was aware of my interest in film at the time, what I lacked was the knowledge of what to do with it.  I was certainly not the only person who loved movies this much; but I felt that there was something about them that was calling out to me specifically and pushing me towards something else.

And then there was the summer of 1999.  I had just finished my sophomore year in high school and was looking for that one thing that would guide me towards what I would do with myself going into adulthood.  At the same time, I was trying to catch up on my film history knowledge as well; more specifically, I was trying to see every movie that had won Best Picture at the Oscars up to that point.  This particular summer, a golden opportunity came to my hometown of Eugene, Oregon.  Columbia Pictures was showcasing a traveling film fest, spotlighting movies in their catalog that had recently been selected for the American Film Institute’s Top 100.  The fest came to the last remaining old movie house theater in my town, the now re-purposed McDonald Theater, and was playing a dozen of these films the way they were originally intended to be seen; on the big screen.  The opening film of this fest was Lawrence of Arabia, and it was an opportunity that I didn’t want to waste.  I was just old enough to start seeing movies on my own, so my parents allowed me to go by myself to the theater to see it.  For an older movie, the screening was still surprisingly popular, and it ended up being a packed house.  I, at the time, was only expecting to be entertained for 3 1/2 hours and have another title crossed off my Oscar watch-list.  What I got instead was a trans-formative moment; the closest I’ve ever had to a religious experience in my life.  I was stunned by how much this movie drew me in.  The flawless use of editing, music, performance, and most importantly visuals to tell this story.  It was at that point that I no longer had just a love for film.  Now I had a love for film-making.  I had seen the pinnacle of what cinema can accomplish, and now my obsession had changed from wanting to see every movie to wanting to understand how they were made.  I returned home that evening almost in a daze.  It took me a few weeks more to put into words the impact that that afternoon in the theater had on me.  And then it dawned on me what I needed to do.  I had to become a filmmaker.

I don’t know if things would’ve been different if I had seen Lawrence of Arabia for the first time on television as opposed to on a big screen in a theater packed with other people like myself.  I may be sitting here today writing about a different movie or a different subject entirely.  Lawrence might not even have become my favorite movie.  But, it did because it was the one movie that put into focus everything that I was trying to understand and steered me in the direction that I have followed ever since.  In my senior year of high school, I enrolled in my first ever film class; an elective course that mixed a film history and literature curriculum with film making projects.  In addition, I joined the school newspaper and became it’s film critic.  After graduating, I spent my college years broadening my film knowledge further.  I sought out films of all kinds; especially the ones that are not widely available like international, art house, and independent flicks.  While working towards my Bachelors Degree in English at the University of Oregon, I also earned a certificate in film studies, giving me not only a broader knowledge of the film arts, but also the skills to write more articulately about them.  And while attending college, I also lucked out in getting a job at a movie theater, where I could watch as many as 80-100 films a year, if I so choose.  But, my goal in life was not just to learn about movies; it was to participate in making them.  That is why I wanted to spend my graduate years in a formal film school environment.  In my last year at the U of O, I applied to three different film schools, and was accepted to every one.  I ended up choosing to attend my top pick overall, which was Chapman University in Orange, California.  There, I got my first real taste of actual film-making, and was able to make friends and acquaintances of some truly talented and impassioned future filmmakers like myself as well as professionals, many of whom have helped me to become a better student of the art-from overall and given me encouragement that have I always appreciated.  I graduated with my Masters Degree in Screenwriting and since then have been trying to make a life for myself in the movie capital of the world, and all because of that one afternoon that I decided that I wanted watch Lawrence of Arabia for the first time.

But, stepping away from the impact that it left on me, I’d like to look at exactly why this movie ended up being the one that changed my life.  Lawrence of Arabia, despite it’s universal praise, may not exactly be to everyone’s taste.  It’s 3 1/2 hours long, about a little known historical period in time in the early 20th century, and centered on a protagonist who is both narcissistic and dangerously naive.  And yet, what director David Lean delivered became the cinematic epic that all others are now judged by.  What he did was take this history lesson of the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Turks in World War I, a campaign that one character describes as “a sideshow of a sideshow” in history, and made it into a story biblical in both scale and theme.  And this was accomplished through a perfect execution of it’s presentation.  The 70mm widescreen photography alone is unmatched in the history of cinema.  David Lean and cinematographer Freddie Young not only pushed the cameras to the limit of their capabilities out there in the unforgiving Arabian desert locations, but they also managed to invent new techniques on the fly that filmmakers today have them to thank for.  Lawrence for example was the first ever film to capture the mirages on film; a distortion caused by extreme heat that is commonly seen by the naked eye, but is near impossible to capture on film.  Using extremely sensitive telephoto lenses, we got the first ever mirage captured on film, used to spectacular effect to introduce Omar Sharif’s Ali into the movie.  High definition blu-ray technology has been a blessing to this movie recently, giving us a full appreciation of it’s spectacular visuals, but even still, this is a movie that must be seen on the biggest screen possible.  It’s why I fell in love with the first time.  I still remember the goosebumps I got when I saw the establishing shot of the Wadi Rum valley where Anthony Quinn’s Auda abu Tayi made his camp.  This was the movie that convinced me that anything was possible in film, because it showed how cinematic language can be transcendent, that it finds the beauty in the most unexpected details, and make a “sideshow” feel like the greatest story ever told.

But, in the years since watching it the first time, and after gaining a broader knowledge of film-making in general, I have also come to appreciate the movie beyond just the wonder of the spectacle.  At it’s center, Lawrence of Arabia is about a singular journey of one man’s self discovery.  T.E. Lawrence (played in a career-defining performance by Peter O’Toole) is one of history’s most celebrated figures, but at the same time, also one of it’s most enigmatic.  We don’t know exactly what drove this well-educated Englishman to spend so many years embedded among the various tribes of Arabia and help them to both drive out their Turkish oppressors and form a unified nation under the rule of King Feisal of Mecca (played by Alec Guinness in the film).  Not only that, but he did so in defiance of his own home nation, who sought to claim Arabia for themselves after deposing the Ottoman Empire.  The movie examines what would drive a man like him to do something like that, and what the film ultimately finds is that nobody really knew what drove Lawrence’s ambition; not even himself.  Lawrence, in the film, is a man driven by passion and a desire for accomplishing the impossible.  But at the same time, we also see that he’s a person who dangerously tests his own limits in a kind of perverse self mutilation.  He playfully puts out matches with his own fingers, and reveals that the trick is not minding that it hurts. Overall, he is a man who’s incapable of putting his own self preservation ahead of his desires.  While it can sometimes enable him to accomplish inhuman tasks, like when he miraculously saves a lost companion in the desert, it also drives him towards a dangerous path of being swallowed into a hell of his own making, as the film’s more disillusioned second half brilliantly portrays.  It’s a remarkable character study of a truly enigmatic man, and it’s that exploration that I find so fascinating and reflective in my own journey as a film student.

Because of my need to test my purpose in life and strive to succeed in a career in film, despite all the odds placed in my way, I can understand a little more about what drove Lawrence so deep into the desert.  We are all driven by a little bit of our own madness sometimes, but it’s how well we manage our ambitions and focus our madness into creativity that enables us to do great things in life.  I certainly am no where near as lost in the wild as Lawrence was, but there’s something in his character and story that I identify with.  I could have chosen a different avenue of life; taken a steady 9-5 job in some office cubicle back home in Oregon and just lived an average life where I would have been safe and content.  But instead, I have followed my passions which have taken me away from home and have allowed me to get ever so much closer to living out my dreams.  Of course, it hasn’t all been without risk (substantial student debt and all the dangers that big city life throws at me), but had I not taken those risks and accomplished something out of it, would I have been as content as I am now.  When Lawrence decides to challenge all rational and cross the impassable Nafud Desert, he never stops to think about the cost; only the final destination.  It’s reckless, but once it’s accomplished, he becomes a hero to all around him.  Will I ever achieve something like that in my life time?  I don’t know, but it’s better to test my limits than to try to live by them and do nothing.  I never thought that 4 years ago that I would have it in me to write a blog every week, and yet I took a shot at it and here we are, 200 articles later.  The same with attending film school and working in the film industry; I never would have known if these were right for me or not had I not taken a chance and applied my name for acceptance into these institutions.  The journey still has a ways to go, and there are regrets over time about some roads not taken, but the final destination is something that I still have on my horizon.

So, this is why Lawrence of Arabia is my all time favorite movie.  It pivoted me towards a purpose in life and represents the ideals that I want to live up to as a student of film.  I hope to one day write a movie that has even just a little bit of the wit and impact that Lawrence has.  Robert Bolt’s screenplay is often one that I quote with regularity and respect with awe for it’s sheer, simple brilliance.  It’s amazing how the screenplay deftly answers some of the more existential questions with the simplest of answers.  For example, when asked by a reporter, “What attracts you Major Lawrence to the desert?” he answers, “It’s clean.  I like it, because it’s clean.”  That right there is a fundamental screenwriting magic trick; using a non-sequitur to explain the un-explainable, and it’s beautifully delivered with delicious sarcasm by Peter O’Toole in the movie.  But, apart from that, Lawrence is also a movie that helps me to understand the limits of ambition and the need for understanding.  There is a strong theme throughout the movie spotlighting the failings of misunderstanding, and how lack of intelligence leads to disorder and hatred.  Lawrence went into the desert not only to learn more about himself, but to understand the world, and it’s an example that I have to tried to live up to myself, broadening my understanding of how the art of film is differently reflected in the larger world as a whole.  Lawrence of Arabia is more personal to me than any other film that I have seen and that’s why I always claim it as my all time favorite movie.  I’m sure that everyone else has that one movie that speaks to them too, and in many ways, a person’s favorite film can reveal a lot about who they are.  Sometimes it’s a personal attachment to the main character that defines a person’s favorite movie, or the message it delivers that they hold so dear.  But the one thing that every favorite movie has in common is that it plays a role in molding us into the people that we are.  Lawrence of Arabia solidified my purpose in life; to play a part in the growing legacy of cinema, and whether I am making a film, or writing about them, it’s a purpose that I still live out every day.  As I look ahead to the next year on this blog, my hope is to expand it further and make it even better; maybe someday try turning it into a vlog and starting up sponsorship to allow my readers more input into what I write about.  Anything is possible at this point.  As the movie states, “Nothing is written, unless you write it.”