Better than BFI’s Top 100: 4-2

For a brief introduction and a running list of movies covered in this project, click here


4) Kes (1969), directed by Ken Loach

Kes is the first foreign-language movie I’ve written about for this series (waits patiently for laughs). In seriousness, this is a fairly talky movie, done in Yorkshire accents so thick that I honestly wouldn’t blame someone if they did reach for the subtitles. The best of this movie isn’t in the words, though, as is true for the other two movies below. It’s in the look of the movie, the qualities that go all the way down to the actors. It matters so much that David Bradley looks small and breakable compared to everyone else in the world, whether the bullies are related to him or not. For a movie that’s not all that long, there’s a relatively chunky scene of comic relief where the kids play soccer during gym. Billy’s put in goal because he doesn’t care and because he’s not good at the sport, and his shorts…his shorts are huge. He is light enough to swing himself around on the crossbar of the goal, but when he’s just standing in goal, wearing those shorts that would be a good fit on a man half again taller than him and four stone heavier, how little he is becomes less amusing and more stark. Billy is an isolated kid, a little greasy, the sort who is the odd man out for reasons that no one can adequately explain. He has to sleep in the same bed as his older brother, Jud. Every child’s home life has some certainty in it, but Billy is one of those unfortunates whose certainties are the worst kind. He knows his older brother is going to make his life worse, he knows his mom isn’t going to do anything about it, and he knows that money is perpetually tight. What makes this fairly stale set of circumstances interesting: first, that Loach tells this story without an ounce of condescension, and second, that it has a unique element. Watching Billy fly Kes is, and I don’t want to sound hyperbolic when I say this, one of the most wondrous things I’ve ever seen in a movie. The thought that this child, this funny, thieving, beat-up little kid could decide to train a hawk to fly about him and return to his hand when he calls, swinging a line and keeping the bird close as it swoops and dives around him…it’s intoxicating. Naturally, other people sort of poke fun at Billy about his “pet hawk,” because people poke fun at Billy about everything. Even the exceptional things an outcast does become fodder to cast him out further. But in the perpetually gray-green world of Barnsley, out in a little field where no one will bother him, Billy has accomplished something that no one else he knows could dream of accomplishing. It requires great patience, terrific determination, and, as it turns out, theft of a book on falconry. But he can say he’s done it, and no one can take the accomplishment away from him. Other things, yes. But the deed belongs to him.

The first and only time someone takes notice of Billy in a positive light comes at school, and it happens when his teacher, Mr. Farthing, decides to drag some effort out of the mostly sullen kid at the back of the class. His accent is very different from the dialect of the kids at school, and it’s worthwhile to note that figuring out that there is something special about Billy requires a level of remove. The kids are telling stories about themselves; Billy refuses to say anything until another kid, worried that the teacher will extend class time, volunteers the information about the kestrel. From there, Mr. Farthing greases the wheels. Billy says something about “jesses,” a word which Mr. Farthing does not know and which he explicitly says he does not know. (There are plenty of good teachers out there who never admit to not knowing something, but only the ones who admit to not knowing everything and who perform their learning in front of their students can become great teachers.) He sees it as an opportunity to bring Billy up to the front of the class so he can tell his story, which would have seemed impossible two minutes before, and it becomes a way to make Billy’s knowledge special. “Hands up those who’ve heard of ‘jesses’ before? Nobody,” he says. This particular rugrat, apt to get into fights during lunch because others won’t stop picking on him, now knows something that no one else in the room does, and Mr. Farthing makes the expert explain the jargon, the process, the excitement of falconry. Later on, he makes a surprise visit to see Billy fly the bird, and then even goes back to the shed to chat about the experience. He realizes that neither one of them wants to speak at even a normal inside volume inside the shed while Kes is there, and he credits it to an almost churchlike respect. Billy agrees. She’s not tame and she’s not a pet. She isn’t “bothered about anybody,” he says, and “that’s what makes it great.” You could put Billy through a year of therapy and never get a statement so clear out of him. He longs not to be bothered about anybody, has to perform a toughness he doesn’t really have; this little bird is as much a hero as an escape.

3) Walkabout (1971), directed by Nicolas Roeg

Before you say it: if I ever get around to an Australian movies list, Walkabout will be there too. For me, an English director, an English writer, two out of three major characters English and played by English actors, and a story deeply interested in England’s understanding of Australia makes enough of a British movie.

Many things amaze me about this movie: it is shot to absolute perfection, its characters neither have nor need names, it is clear-eyed about colonialist attitudes, its dialogue is more an element of the soundtrack than it is exposition, it stars children and yet it is neither cloying nor annoying. But the moment that amazes me most in this movie is the way the girl gets back on the paved road towards the end of the feature. A giant truck muscles its way along. The girl and her brother can hear it and walk out of a little patch of forest. They see the road, the first sign of a mechanized civilization they’ve witnessed since their father lit their car on fire days before. The little boy gets there first and then stops. He looks both ways at the street the way one hopes little boys will, but he doesn’t get on. The girl gets there second. She stops too, looking both ways, but we can see something in Jenny Agutter’s eyes which suggests a little more thoughtfulness. She’s trying to decide which way to get on the road. She looks down. Roeg gives us an extreme, extreme close-up of the road, paved over, not merely a block of asphalt but made of individual grains. And then: she puts one foot on the pavement and almost jauntily swings her leg around to begin walking. It’s as if everything they’ve been through is already no more than a memory. It’s the walk of a girl who has never put a stick into the dirt to drink the groundwater below, who has never been courted by an Aboriginal boy on walkabout, who has never gone for a swim in a small lake. She has done all those things, and with one planted foot she has destroyed them all. Worse, maybe: she has betrayed them. It makes the epilogue of the film all the more important. We see her welcoming a man home, dinner prepared. It appears to be the same apartment where she lived as a child, as unlikely as it sounds. Her husband prattles on about work. Her mind flashes back to a swim, a watering hole, a little brother and an Aboriginal boy about the same age as her. Could she have stayed out there forever? Reality says no. But we realize that she was in such a hurry to save her life that she has lost a life in payment for it.

Walkabout leaves the big concepts to our imagination as we watch. “Survival” is not spoken in the movie, and even the word “dead” does not have a whole lot of time in the ether. “Colonizing” is another level beyond those two more basic words, but it’s where the movie chooses to begin and end. Walkabout is very much about the changes that England have made to Australia. Where there used to be wilderness, now there is Adelaide. Where there used to be the Pacific Ocean, now there are swimming pools. Where death was once the province of Nature to ladle out, now England has brought the ability to choose the moment of one’s expiration. Walkabout has a scene where the Aboriginal boy sees men shooting buffalo. The buffalo fall. The young man is dumbstruck; he has never seen something like that happen, cannot explain it, and must be, I think, a little revolted by the power those white men wield. The presence of these two English children, begging for water, begging for life, is the lit fuse which will kill him later in the picture, and Walkabout manages to be awfully cool about it. It’s wrong, and it’s sad, but it’s also inevitable. The invasion of the Outback began long before two helpless children wandered into it. Those hunters and their antecedents were there. So were the people making kitschy kangaroos, using Aborigines as a disrespected workforce. So were the climatologists heaving weather balloons into the sky. Wilderness is, for something so big and dangerous, an exceedingly fragile thing. Just as a few germs can fell a body, so too might two nice white English kids be the tipping point for the destruction of a way of life.

2) Lawrence of Arabia (1962), directed by David Lean

Simply, the greatest big-budget blockbuster ever made in English. It belongs in the highest rank of a particular type of movie that I’m no longer sure exists: Lawrence deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Les Enfants du Paradis or The Leopard, movies which can dazzle us with the scope of their vision and the vastness of their setting while simultaneously plumbing the depths of their characters. (America’s answer to this is probably Gone with the WindQuel dommage.)

Lawrence’s first act of genius to be mistaken as pure bravado in the moment is the crossing of the Nefud Desert as a first step to taking the city of Aqaba. (That it didn’t happen like this in real life is, again, proof that you should get your history from books and not Oscarbait biopics.) Everyone assures Lawrence that the Nefud cannot be crossed. Not only does Lawrence’s band of Harith fighters cross the Nefud, but Lawrence himself goes back on the “Sun’s Anvil” at midday to save a single man who fell off his camel in the night. Three men and one woman establish this scenario: Lean, writer Robert Bolt, composer Maurice Jarre, and editor Anne V. Coates. Bolt supplies the words. “Gasim’s time is come, Lawrence,” a man tells him. “It is written.” Lawrence, incensed by Ali’s statement that he is responsible for Gasim’s presumed death, yells his answer: “Nothing is written!” At the conclusion of this scene, with Lawrence receding into the desert and Ali gnashing his teeth at the Englishman guilty of “blasphemous conceit,” Bolt shuts up. The others press on. The composition of the shots for the next few minutes are as simple as they get: a man walking in the desert, items left in the sand, the Sun, the man looking up and collapsing, a boy on a still camel, a boy on a trotting camel, a boy on a galloping camel, a galloping camel passes a trotting one, wheels about, and rejoins the other. Jarre’s music teases us with the indelible theme, turns it at the last note into a minor, foreboding few bars. Daud, set at the edge of the Sun’s Anvil to wait for Lawrence to return from his suicide mission, thinks he sees something in the distance, and he pushes his camel forward. From his point of view, there are only two colors in the world: searing sky blue and the deceptively cool-looking white-beige of the sand. Lean has passed Mondrian in that moment and joined Rothko, although even Rothko’s paintings have more texture than those moving shots from Daud’s perspective. The cuts back and forth are slower to come at first. Fifteen seconds looking at Daud baking on his baking camel, ten seconds from his point of view trying to make out the smallest blotch against the sky. Then another cycle of the same, but with the shots at about 75% of the time. Then, faster, or at the very least alleviated with a camera moving forward. When we hear the whole orchestra go into the theme, we know Lawrence is saved, but Lean makes us wait a full cycle of the music before scratching out a black line even distributed between sky and earth. Daud shouts Lawrence’s name, Lawrence (with Gasim clinging to him) waves his arm in the air and rasps out Daud’s, one camel overshoots another, and the sequence ends. We don’t even see Peter O’Toole’s face, but with a relatively small toolkit (built by vastly talented collaborators, it should be said), we know a great deal. He has completed a miracle. He has leveraged the desert into a statement of his own mastery, the proof, as he will say later, that he is not just any man. Perhaps he suspected it back in that basement where he was painting maps, or maybe he discovered it when his voice rang through tremendous rock formations. Whatever the case may be, this is water into wine at a wedding, a marriage of absolute simplicity and complete impossibility.

The movie is famously long, and while I’m sure one could get this movie down to about 150 minutes from 220 or so, it would be as fatal as being thrown over the bars of a motorcycle at speed. There are too many iterations of Lawrence to work through. When Jackson Bentley, the movie’s answer to Lowell Thomas, describes Lawrence on the record as a “poet, scholar, and a mighty warrior” and then stage whispers a bit about him being “the greatest exhibitionist,” he has it right. So too does one of Lawrence’s coworkers in the basement, who calls him “balmy.” Allenby and Faisal, both slim customers, have their own ways of bringing out different aspects of Lawrence’s personality. Allenby is the one who discovers that Lawrence is particularly susceptible to flattery, the one who coaxes him to go back into the field and, though he never says so, “hold down the Turkish right.” Allenby is the one who puffs up Lawrence enough that he delivers an unforgettably arrogant line, one that is a postcolonial critique all in itself: “The best of them won’t come for money. They’ll come for me.” Faisal, on the other hand, is a man Lawrence respects deeply, and although he takes a gunshot wound, a flogging, and heaven knows what else as punishment in this movie, the thing that must hurt most are Faisal’s last words in his presence: “He is almost an Arab.” Ali is essential to the many flavors of Lawrence, the one who doubts the white man’s ability to perform in the desert, the one who says, “For some men nothing is written unless they write it,” the one who supports Lawrence in increasingly desperate and irrational missions. And the one who confides in Auda when Lawrence returns with mercenaries to take Damascus, who says out loud what we’ve been thinking since the Deraa fiasco:

Auda: He is your friend?

Ali: Take your hand away.

Auda: You love him.

Ali: I fear him.

Auda: Then why do you weep?

Ali: If I fear him, who love him, how must he fear himself, who hates himself?

Ali is also the one who gifts Lawrence the white robes which he prefers to wear, complete with ceremonial knife. It’s in that knife that Lawrence chooses to see his new reflection, and it is a dangerous choice indeed to see oneself in a weapon of violence; later on he’ll see how he looks with blood on the knife, and the look of horror on his face is unique to the film. O’Toole makes a bunch of faces in this movie, but that’s the only one that goes full-on scream queen, and what might be sort of comically overstated doesn’t feel that way when we see the extent of what his column did to the disorganized Turkish troops they ambushed.

Above all, the one who characterizes Lawrence most in the desert. A guide takes him into the desert to find Faisal, and it’s a chapter of the movie that is absolutely essential. Lawrence likes it from the first, but he is clearly a tourist. He cannot ride a camel the way the guide can ride. (At the end of the movie, the car he’s riding in passes men on camels, and that same joy we feel watching him try to negotiate a camel three and a half hours earlier is answered by our sadness at knowing he’ll never get on a camel again.) He is expected to drink water at certain points, but refuses to drink until the Bedouin does. That first moment of genius, to cross the Nefud, is come up with in an all-night brainstorming session in which Lawrence refuses to return to his tent, choosing to walk into the desert instead. Head bowed in a world of semi-darkness and sand moving at his feet like a plague of insects, we can practically feel him putting his entire soul into the environment, reaching for an answer to help the Bedouin he already feels more connected to than the English. When Daud is sucked into a patch of quicksand en route to British headquarters, it is particularly difficult for him. The desert is an ocean for the Bedouin, Lawrence reminded Faisal earlier, and losing someone to the desert is like the British Navy losing a man to falling overboard, another reminder that what Lawrence has staked himself to is as fickle and dangerous and implacable as any other voiceless land. At one point, Bentley asks Lawrence what he likes about the desert so much. “It’s clean,” Lawrence replies, and Bentley laughs off the answer, which seems totally ridiculous to him. But in the desert, certain things are true. There are no baronets who father illegitimate children with helpless governesses. There are no British generals and British politicians dividing up the world with the certainty of gods. If that’s what makes clean, no wonder Lawrence is drawn to the desert like filings to a magnet.

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