Classic Movies – Ran

 

At a castle set in the mountains, an aged Lord and his small retinue of soldiers and advisers are viciously attacked by armies led by two of his three sons. As the Lord’s retinue is gradually annihilated, the violence is observed in detached fashion, through a series of distant wide shots. Arrows and bullets fly in quick succession, horses trample on scores of bodies, blood seeps into the earth. The Lord, trapped in a burning tower, looks steadfastly down at the ground, visibly descending into madness. What is more, for most of this scene, there is no diegetic sound. We hear no shouts of aggression or pain, no gunshots, no songs of steel. The shocked viewer is left only with Toru Takemitsu’s brilliant score, elaborating this terrifying visual distillation of chaos, in which its actors appear to be almost ghostly.

Ran 3
“this terrifying visual distillation of chaos”

It was not all so long ago that the same Lord sat on the side of a mountain, amicably addressing each of his three sons. Akira Kurosawa’s fearsome epic Ran begins with a political problem. Lord Hidetora is reminded through a dream of his looming mortality, and decides to give up most of his power to each of his three sons, Taro, Jiro and Saburo – though Hidetora expects to maintain the title of ‘Great Lord’. While Taro and Jiro accept graciously, Saburo attacks these plans, asking why he thinks his sons will be loyal to  him, given that Hidetora has previously used violent means to maintain his own power. Enraged by this, Hidetora banishes Saburo, but in doing so loses his greatest advocate; it is not long before his other sons begin to violently contest his authority, while both are in turn held in thrall by the Machiavellian siren, Lady Kaede.

Ran 4
“Akira Kurosawa’s fearsome epic Ran begins with a political problem”

Those familiar with Shakespeare’s King Lear will immediately notice some parallels within the narrative. Shakespeare’s Lear also decides to relinquish most of his power to his (female) progeny, with disastrous consequences. King Lear inspires Ran with much of its story, but also with much of its visual landscape. There was a precedent to this. Back in 1957 Kurosawa had made Throne of Blood, based on Macbeth, which used almost no dialogue from the original text. Instead, the miasmic horror inherent in Shakespeare’s language was evoked through the cinematography. The ‘blasted heath’ was translated into copious amounts of rain and the thickest of fog, all filmed and controlled with precision by the director. In the case of Ran, the totalising language of chaos and disorder in King Lear is embedded within the initially wordless scene of violence already described, a masterpiece of visual scale and emotion.

Of course, that’s not to say that there aren’t many quieter moments in Ran; the overall pace is at times quite slow. In particular, the opening scenes of Hidetora with his sons are marked by leisurely formality, something accentuated by Kurosawa’s decision to use mostly wide shots rather than incorporating close-ups of faces and objects. This achieves a distancing effect – we observe the characters, safe in our seats, later to be horrified at the carnage of stormy ambition. But this apparently ‘slow’ style is consistent with his method at this point in time. Kurosawa made Ran late in his life, in his mid-70s, by which time he had lost almost all of his sight. He had spent a staggering ten years preparing every single shot in the film as a painting, from which those who worked on the film operated. While I wasn’t aware of this fact while watching the film, the painterly aesthetics of its wide shots were readily apparent. In one stunning sequence, Lord Hidetora emerges from the flaming building described above, walking slowly down a long flight of stone steps. He knows his soldiers and followers are all dead. He is flanked by the yellow-clad supporters of Jiro on the left, and the red-clad of Taro on the right. The placement of the soldiers forms a remarkable piece of symmetry which intentionally clashes with the unruly fire in the background; the lone Hidetora, his mind raging like the fire, meets the cold violent fact of military organisation. Framing is everything to Kurosawa, but also detail; 1,400 costumes and suits of armour were made for the film in a process spanning two years. It is difficult to imagine such effort being put into a film today.

Ran 1 part 2
“the painterly aesthetics of its wide shots are readily apparent”

That said, it’s also commendable that Kurosawa achieves some exhilarating performances from his cast. Especially commendable are Tatsuya Nakadai as Lord Hidetora and Mieko Harada as the scheming, murderous Lady Kaede. Nakadai, partly with the help of prosthetics, achieves the transition from venerable septuagenarian Lord to tortured, damaged vagrant with the greatest of passion. Passion also marks out Harada, although of a different kind; as she coaxes Taro and then Jiro into following her commands, you are never quite sure whether she will continue to speak quietly or snap into high-pitched, knife-wielding threats.

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Mieko Harada as the “scheming, murderous Lady Kaede”

There are some films that are recognisably great, but which fail to stick long in the memory. Ran is so utterly unforgettable in its depiction of a world in turmoil (Kurosawa thought it was a metaphor for nuclear warfare), that it has compelled me to try and verbalise my experiences watching it, and in doing so to revive a film blog that I haven’t written on for nearly two years. Ran is for showing for a short while in a number of cinemas across the UK. If you get the chance to see it, you simply cannot miss it. It is a masterpiece from a director at the very top of his form, an epic driven not by copious CGI or contrivance, but by the patience of those who made it and the strength of its nihilistic convictions.

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“utterly unforgettable in its depiction of a world in turmoil”

 

Secret Cinema presents Back to the Future

I first heard about Secret Cinema a long time ago. Stories of a mysterious organisation that exhibited films amidst participating actors, themed set design and live music – naturally, in a secret location – reverberated around the internet and in word of mouth. There had been a Secret Cinema production of Blade Runner, which featured acrobatic displays on vertical walls, mirroring the vertiginous struggle of Harrison Ford at the end of Ridley Scott’s masterpiece. With a similar level of creative energy had come Bugsy Malone, set in a Prohibition-era nightclub concealed behind an outwardly harmless bookcase. The Red ShoesLawrence of ArabiaPrometheus and The Grand Budapest Hotel had been given this dramatic treatment, amongst many others. The mere idea of ‘experiencing’ the world of some of the greatest films ever made – and Prometheus – seemed  for a long time infinitely appealing to me.

I left it for a long time, but finally felt that Secret Cinema presents Back to the Future was the perfect way to experience Secret Cinema for the first time. I believe Back to the Future to be one of the greatest American films ever made, a tightly-scripted and magnificently entertaining piece with riffs on both the fifties and the eighties. The notion of wandering round a recreated Hill Valley, encountering small-town stereotypes and the characters from the film itself, did not seem kitsch by any stretch of the imagination; it was surely a necessity.

"Once this baby hits 88 miles an hour, you're gonna see some serious s-!"
“Once this baby hits 88 miles an hour, you’re gonna see some serious s-!”

 

When it finally came round to attending, there were a couple of worrying false starts; the first four events were cancelled due to “a number of issues that we have not experienced previously”. The backlash on social media was severe and, at times, somewhat overbearing; fans had come from as far as Cambodia, and a potential loss of trust in Secret Cinema wavered in the air.

It is thus all the more relieving and thrilling to announce that Secret Cinema presents Back to the Future is a stunning success. Theatre, cinema and music combine in a glorious celebration of the 1985 film, 1950s culture, and the sheer exultant joy of being alive.

Spot the actor... or is there one?
Spot the actor… or is there one?

At around 5.10pm on Friday, August 1, I exited the train at Hackney Wick station and waited for the rest of my family to arrive. We had been vigorously encouraged through email to dress in fifties clothing. This was easy enough for me – rolled-up jeans, converses and braces for the style, and the brownest shirt I could find for the rustic farmland feel of small-town America. Across the station platform spewed forth a wave of like-minded people; I glimpsed everything from Marlon Brando leather jackets to a profusion of great, voluminous, flowery dresses.

We soon began the long walk to the Back to the Future site. Though it would be unfair to ruin its exact location, I will say that it was somewhere within the 2012 Olympic village, and that several prominent landmarks – including the Orbit – were clearly visible. If you kept your head down, though, it was hard to believe that you were even in the twentieth century.

Secret Cinema have built in the heart of East London a bustling Hill Valley that is meticulous in its detail and filled to boiling point with gaiety. Buildings from 1950s America are painstakingly re-constructed. The one-room suburban houses are littered with comics, radios, pin-up posters and books from the period; the Hill Valley High school features iconic metal lockers and noticeboards; the movie theater is showing Cattle Queen of Montana, a 1954 American western featuring Ronald Reagan in one of his later roles. The site even features an old-style ferris wheel and a profusion of vintage cars, as well as a yellow school bus.

Just another day in Hill Valley...
Just another day in Hill Valley…

Yet it is really the eighty-five actors within Hill Valley who best bring the world of Back to the Future to life. I was approached by an impressive variety of people from car mechanics to television salesmen; all (well, most) spouting a chirpy Californian drawl, conversing to convince. But they do more than speak to you. They purposefully draw you into their fictional existence, whether that be by carrying tires, pushing a broken-down car or playing pool. It is evident Secret Cinema offers everything for those who prefer not to be mere sedentary spectators.

A full list of everything I did in the three-hours or so I spent wandering around the town would be exhaustive, but I’ve condensed my favourite parts, very unprofessionally, into bullet points:

  • Sat in on a talk outside a suburban house where two people dressed like Mormons taught us methods to protect ourselves against the “plague” of homosexuality affecting the town. Never was homophobia so hilariously conceived.
  • Joined in as a group to sing a song about a hair salon, led by an ominously bearded guitarist and his female companion, who I promptly fell hopelessly in love with (the companion, not the guitarist).
  • Took part in a “scientific” experiment led by Doc Brown himself – or at least a very convincing likeness – by rubbing shoulders in a circle to produce static electricity. Doc Brown then announced after the experiment: ‘I now have your combined discharge. No, it’s not funny.’
  • Before the event every attendee was given an alternative identity and workplace, and was encouraged to bring certain items for that workplace. I assumed the guise of Emanuel Mathews, Proof Reader for the Hill Valley Telegraph. I carried with me three copies of an article I had written for the obviously fictional newspaper, with the headline: “UNCOVERED – – THE REASON BEHIND THE DELAYS TO THE HILL VALLEY FAIR.” I handed in the article to Rita, the editor of the newspaper – who stood in front of old-fashioned printing presses – and was later pronounced “Mr. Telegraph” for the quality of my work. Rita spoke at great length on the importance of producing news by the people for the people, and also tried to convince me that Mayor “Red” Thomas was secretly a communist.
  • I also spotted Fabien Riggall, the Founder and Creative Director of Secret Cinema, and gave him one of my articles. He stayed completely in character despite this illusion to the insidious delays that had taken place the week before, and accepted my handshake graciously.
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“Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.’ – Samuel Johnson

Such listing is perhaps crude but it hopefully gives you a sense of my relentless enjoyment of what Hill Valley had to offer, and also a sense of the immersive kind of experience Secret Cinema strives for. If you really make an effort, you get so much out of it. You even get to a point when, wandering round, you cannot always make the distinction between actor and spectator; the lines between fiction and reality can blur irrevocably. I even found myself trying to ape an American accent, though my success on that matter is probably best left to the imagination.

For an event with so much hype, there are bound to be disappointments. It must be said that the exhibition of the film was something of a mixed affair. After two false starts owing to technical problems, Back to the Future finally began, observed by a vast lawn of ticket-holders. During some of the more exciting parts of the film we were greeted with live-action replications of what was happening on-screen. The fog-shrouded, mass-hysteria-inducing entrance of the Delorean was an evident highlight; another was the sight of an actor dressed at Marty Mcfly skateboarding whilst holding onto a car, whizzing round the town square. This sometimes took attention away from the film itself, particularly towards the end. But it was really a few isolated members of the audience who proved most disruptive; I happened to be sitting next to a drunk person who insisted on standing during parts of the film and yelling something akin to Yuuueueuueeeaaaaaaaahhh!’ Such unwarranted exhibitionism somewhat undermined the family atmosphere Secret Cinema were clearly aiming for, what with the minimum attendance age being only 5. It could perhaps be concluded, with a great deal of irony, that most of the problems that occurred on the evening were caused by the audience, not by the organisers themselves.

You can't quite see the drunk guy from here...
You can’t quite see the drunk guy from here…

Overall, however, it was a totally enchanting experience, a celebration of the best elements of 1950s culture and of Back to the Future. It is only when you experience it for yourself that you realise how much ambition Secret Cinema has, and how its events can very occasionally go wrong as it did the week before. I will undoubtedly be back for more, whatever the film. The possible challenge for Secret Cinema – as put by the BBC’s Newsnight – must surely be to preserve some of the mystery that it first started with, to continue to cherish the unexpected in the face of widespread media coverage and the incessant mobile phone culture that was so blissfully suspended for the one evening that I was there. If it can do that, its artistic future remains secure.

9/10

Footnote – here’s the article I wrote for the Hill Valley Telegraph:

HVT 1HVT 2

Classic Movie – 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

Silence. A black screen. Then the rumblings of a strange, atmospheric music; a brief overture that spells ominousness, uncertainty. Then, more music – the thumping opening to Richard Strauss’ Thus Spake Zarathustra. On-screen, a shot of the shadowed moon. On cue perfectly, the powerful, stirring rise of the earth behind the moon, and the sun behind the earth. As the music builds to a dazzling crescendo, emphatic words are emblazoned before our eyes:

METRO-GOLDWYN MAYER PRESENTS

A STANLEY KUBRICK PRODUCTION

2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY

Such is the opening to perhaps the greatest example of science-fiction in the history of cinema. Avant-garde, visually and aurally glorious, 2001 remains the most ambitious of Stanley Kubrick’s films; a paean to human evolution and discovery that has inspired vast hordes of filmmakers. Yet for some the film can be trying; a willingness to forsake convention is certainly required for its more protracted, uneventful sequences. Even so, despite its status as a ‘classic’ movie, the deeply modern aesthetic of 2001 surely ensures that it will continue to endure, whether or not we ever reach its optimistic predictions for the fate of the human race.

Astronaut Dave Bowman in 2001: A Space Odyssey
Astronaut Dave Bowman in 2001: A Space Odyssey

The genesis of the film lay in a creative partnership practically matchless for its genre, between director Stanley Kubrick and science-fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke. Kubrick had just mercilessly satirised the Cold War in Dr. Strangelove and had subsequently become interested in the possibility of the existence of extra-terrestrial life. After much creative pondering, Kubrick and Clarke began to develop a story which would track humanity’s relationship with the universe, from early evolution to space colonisation, and then beyond. Clarke developed his novel at the same time Kubrick was making his film. While Clarke allows the reader a clearer telling of this vast narrative, Kubrick’s creation is more mysterious and subjective, relying on the power of imagery and suggestion – though it is by no means impenetrable.

We begin on a beautifully rendered, arid prehistoric earth, as a collection of apes live out a relatively untroubled existence – that is, until the arrival of a large, black monolith, accompanied by a terror-filled strain of music. It is this eminently alien object which reoccurs throughout the film, guiding the progress of man. Indeed, soon afterwards, one the apes soon discovers the first human tool – an animal bone – a joyous moment of advancement that marks one step closer to modern man. What comes minutes later is utterly unprecedented. Kubrick cuts from a shot of an airborne bone to one of an object in space. Millions of years of war, empire-building, human advancement and space exploration are encapsulated in a single cut. Whether or not you believe in evolution itself – I am personally sceptical – Kubrick’s cut is a breathtaking coup de théâtre.

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From this…
...to this.
…to this.

The eternally graceful Blue Danube Waltz by Johann Strauss suddenly fills our ears as we begin to explore the weightless precision of colonised space. We follow Heywood Floyd, one of the men behind the discovery of an artificial, buried object on the moon. But little sooner than that we again leap settings. Several astronauts, only two actually conscious, are on their way to Jupiter, though they know little about why they are going. Also on-board is the HAL 9000 computer, the mechanical patriarch of the ship. He is the pinnacle of technological advancement in that he exhibits human characteristics. After HAL begins to show some anxiety about the mission – with tense and devastating results – we arrive at Jupiter. The final movement leads us into the unknown, into a potential future for mankind as terrifying as it is unexplained.

The film thus exhibits a variety of different narratives and characters, all the more surprising considering the leisurely delivery of some of its episodes. A measure of the audacity of Kubrick’s approach can be found in the ways the director subverts film convention. The most interesting character of any turns out to be not human at all, but machine – the HAL 9000. Represented visually by a single, unmoving red dot, he is voiced with uncanny ambiguity by Douglas Rain; the transition from quiet amiability to malice is the only real character arc of the story. Many of the humans, by contrast, are curiously cold. Without wanting to spoil any of the film, it should be noted that there is one moment which casts some doubt on astronaut Dave Bowman’s sympathy for his colleague Gary Lockwood. By enacting such ventures, Kubrick poses a vital question of what it essentially means to be human, while also conjecturing the potential for technological progress. This only makes the ensuing man-machine conflict more vital and exciting.

The ominous HAL 9000 watches one of the astronauts.
The ominous HAL 9000 watches one of the astronauts.

Another technique Kubrick insists upon is the reliance on image and sound rather than dialogue. There are no spoken words for vast sections of the film, notably the entire opening and closing movements. The frenetic dogfights and swift pace that would be championed in Star Wars nine years later, and which now seem commonplace in mainstream Hollywood cinema, are entirely absent. Instead, we are given a more balletic, measured pace in keeping with a classical soundtrack; this is a slow waltz rather than a sprawling jive. This can seem ill-fitting to some who expect it to move more quickly, but this approach in reality only adds to the film’s greatness. Kubrick forces us to properly appreciate the majesty of that vast starry silence that is the solar system, rather than pass it by with a mere indifferent gaze.

The best indication of the strength of Kubrick’s cinematic derring-do, however, is to be found in his use of special effects. Even after forty-six years, virtually nothing in the film appears aged; first and foremost the scenes in space itself, Kubrick capturing its black eternity and danger brilliantly. The interior scenes too remain impressive, with the astronaut Dave Bowman appearing to jog all the way around a circular ship in an utterly seamless fashion, the imperatives of zero-gravity pinning him to both floor and ceiling. But arguably the most stunning use of effects comes right at the end, a fifteen-minute swirling neon fantasy that well and truly transcends worlds. In short, the film is utterly extraordinary from a visual perspective, and further commendable when considering how much of it was performed practically, without CGI; the influence on Christopher Nolan is transparent. Though Kubrick’s only Oscar was for the special effects in 2001, the protean visual work of Douglas Trumbull should be acknowledged; he would later be able to make his own film Silent Running in 1972. Indeed, emerging into an iridescent Leicester Square after seeing the film, my friend turned wide-eyed to me and declared: ‘That film just messed with my mind.’

The effects work by Kubrick and Trumbull was pioneering for its time.
The effects work by Kubrick and Trumbull was pioneering for its time.

For such a gaping, ambitious evocation of space life, it seems impossible to completely comprehend everything in just one viewing. I didn’t entirely ‘get’ 2001 at first; I had no problem with its pace, but did find the lack of a definite explanation a questionable inclusion. What caused the stratospheric rise in my opinion of the film? Partly, a growing interest in the aesthetics of cinematic image and a realisation that classical music is not just for upper-class Telegraph readers. But mostly, it was to do with seeing 2001 in a cinema. Only that way could I properly contend with Kubrick’s vision, could I gaze open-mouthed at the bewildering detail of its visuals and the cathartic splendour of its music. Only by seeing 2001: A Space Odyssey this way could I gain a greater recognition of cinema’s ability to transform and minds through the miraculous fusion of image and sound. Finally, only be seeing the film this way has it remained so strongly in my thoughts for days afterwards – including now, as I write this, my fingers and hands trembling at the memory of the closing image, a final tribute to the exploring potential of man throughout the ages, and in the future.

Classic Movies – Lawrence of Arabia

It has been over six months since I last wrote about my thoughts on what I see as a ‘Classic Movie’; I promised then that there would be more like that post, and then… there weren’t. Yeah. Sorry about that. My excuse (which you shouldn’t believe) was that I simply couldn’t choose a particular film to write about. There are so many films of incredible significance, cultural or historical, that I just couldn’t make a decision. Seeing the digital re-release of Lawrence of Arabia a few days ago, however, ultimately made that decision for me.

Directed by widescreen legend (and fellow south-Londoner) David Lean, Lawrence of Arabia depicts in truly epic fashion the exploits of the controversial British Army Officer T.E. Lawrence, who had a key role in the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire from 1916-18. While showing some of the events of that revolt as they unfold, the film is mostly a meditation on Lawrence’s character: his conflicted loyalties, his issues with violence and inflicting pain, and so on. Peter O’Toole, in his first major role and the one which he is continually defined by, plays Lawrence, and the supporting cast includes Alec Guinness, Omar Sharif and Anthony Quinn.

Peter O’Toole as Lawrence of Arabia

I will be totally frank: the only place to really see this film is in a cinema. I was incredibly lucky to see it the first time round a few days ago at the BFI Southbank, featuring a moving curtain covering the screen, an actual interval splitting up the near four-hour length and a musical overture. Were it not for the mobile phone usage and chatter during the latter, I would have felt utterly immersed in a vintage cinematic environment. And that’s exactly what the film needs. As long as cinema continues, as long as directors keep directing and budgets keep escalating, there will never be anything like Lawrence of Arabia ever again.

Maybe it is the length. Maybe it’s the exquisite cinematography. Maybe it’s the intense portrayal of character. Perhaps it’s just the 1950s and 60s epic sensibility, of using thousands of extras as opposed to CGI, and the booming, rousing score. But there was something about the film that just struck me when I left the cinema, and not a day has passed when it has not entered my mind.

Mostly, it was to do with the visuals; the images from the film profoundly affected me from beginning to end. David Lean, with his cinematographer Freddie Young, introduce the flaming desert by instantly cutting from a scene where Lawrence blows out a match to a striking, orange-tinted landscape, where the blazing sun slowly rises in the distance. Another very memorable scene is shot in an expansive desert, where Lawrence witnesses a figure on a camel emerging from a distant mirage. Lean doesn’t quicken the pace but holds the audience in anticipation as this tiny, distant dot trots closer to the scene. That figure will turn out to be Sherif Ali, a key character, but the ambiguity and scope of his arrival is truly unique and marks the film’s incredible visual look. (That scene was filmed with a special 482mm lens from Panavision, which has not been used since.)

Sherif Ali rides out of a mirage to join T.E. Lawrence

And what of the acting? Peter O’Toole was Oscar-nominated for his starring role although he didn’t win – he would go on to be nominated a further seven times, still without success. Despite Noël Coward’s comment after seeing the film that, were O’Toole any prettier, it would have to be ‘renamed Florence of Arabia‘, Lawrence’s conflicted, tormented self is brutally and psychologically portrayed, adding a very dark and menacing edge.

Indeed, the story and the intense ideas about Lawrence’s psyche are as epic as the film’s production values. The script, principally written by Michael Wilson but perfected by Robert Bolt, explores Lawrence’s egoism and his mental decline in detail while never seeming sentimental or clunky. It also, interestingly, includes some very topical discussion about the Suez Canal in terms of British interest; the film came out in 1962, five years following the Suez Crisis.

The supporting cast are no less excellently chosen than O’Toole. Omar Sharif as Sherif Ali portrays a character that moves from a purveyor of violence into much more restrained territory; his exit scene is the finest in the film. Anthony Quinn absorbs himself in the role of Audu abu Tayi, the leader of an Arab tribe; before filming, Quinn meticulously added his own make-up with a picture of the real man sitting beside him so he could achieve a near-perfect likeness. And who could forget José Ferrer as the Turkish Bey, a man that appears for little more than five minutes and yet gives a truly unsettling performance as he torments and tortures the eponymous Lawrence?

While I can’t comment on how far the digital restoration improves the film in general, I will say that the landscapes really stood out and were beautiful to look at. Crew illness and increasing costs preventing shooting entirely in the Arabian desert, but rural Spain does just as well: the sweeping, empty deserts, the colossal rock formations that tower over the characters, the densely populated tribal camps and the vastness and colour of the Suez Canal are all part of a vast and overpowering technicolour British film that was, no doubt, unlike any before it.

A beautifully framed shot from the film.

I also loved the soundtrack. Maurice Jarre was given just six weeks to write and record the orchestral score for a near four-hour film, and he did an astonishingly good job. The overture begins with a round of thumping drums and a complex trumpet arrangement, before slowly transitioning into the rich, atmospheric theme on the violin, a theme that will repeat itself throughout the film (memorably, at one point, on a harp), giving a true sense of place. Just having the experience of sitting in a cinema while the overture blares out was exhilarating, and I found its depth remarkable considering the short scale of time in which it was conceived.

Everything I’ve talked about confirms my assertion that the film could not be made today. There are practical considerations, of the reluctance of modern audiences to give up half of their day for a film, and of budgetary concerns – Steven Spielberg, who calls the film his all-time favourite, estimates it would take nearly $300 million to make today. But there is also a sense of its scale, of its complexity, at which modern studios would likely balk. What Lean did in 1962 was release a film that topped his previous The Bridge on the River Kwai both in terms of spectacle and in terms of the depth of its characters, and came to define not only his career but those of many who worked on the film. I was utterly, utterly astonished by Lawrence of Arabia, and its uniqueness both as an epic and as a film give me no reluctance to refer to this not only as a Classic Movie, but also as a masterpiece.

Lawrence of Arabia – 50 years old

Classic Movies – American Graffiti

This, dear readers, is the beginning of a new frontier in my blogging career. OK, “frontier” is a little over-dramatic, but there you go. I have considered for a while doing a series of blogs every week to celebrate the best that cinema has given us, what we may call “Classic Movies”. They can be of any country, of any year and any length – although what they all share is a compelling cinematic language. They may be culturally significant or otherwise, popular or little-known. Over the series I will question what it means to be a “Classic Movie”, and what is in store for the future. It will bring me to mainstream and cult-ish directors, a range of different styles and stories. The first film in this series is American Graffiti (1973).

Ah, the 1970s. A decade of exploitation and rock music. It was also the decade in which George Lucas actually directed some good films. There’s the obvious candidate, Star Wars (1977), which pretty much ensured his future, as well as inspiring a whole generation of lightsabre-wielding enthusiasts. Then there’s the lesser-known but distinctly Orwellian THX 1138 (1971) , another sci-fi film, which was (like Star Wars) restored lavishly but impassively in 2004.

Between these two came American Graffiti, a film which is entirely different to anything Lucas has directed. Set in 1962 California, it revolves around a group of high school graduates who go cruising in their cars in the city for one last night before they go off to college. Partly based on Lucas’ own “cruising” experiences, the film is a heavily nostalgic experience, featuring classic vehicles, old-style haircuts and a soundtrack of rock and roll hits. From the opening scene, the viewer is thrown back to the decade epitomised by youth culture and social revolution. The teenagers discuss the decline of rock music, relationships and leaving town, whilst racing each other in old Chevrolets, and the film’s potent tagline is: “Where were you in ’62?”

Just look at those cars!

Misunderstood by Universal prior to its release, Lucas reluctantly accepted removing certain scenes that the executives had suggested. Contrary to the studio’s expectations, American Graffiti ultimately went on to become a major success, and holds out to this day as one of the most brilliant portrayals of youth in cinema.

The studio still had their reservations before production had even begun. A group of unknown young actors would make up the cast and Lucas himself was still in the background as a director. After getting Francis Ford Coppola on board, however, the film was greenlit. The director’s keen eye for casting  is immediately noticeable;  despite his lack of words during their interviews, all of the film’s young leads are utterly convincing. Richard Dreyfuss searches aimlessly for the dream woman he glimpsed in a white Thunderbird, whilst philosophically contemplating whether or not he should leave town. Paul Le Mat cruises around and is angered at the entrance of a tenacious young girl into his car. Ron Howard attempts to sort out his relationship issues, while Charles Martin Smith tries in vain to avoid embarrassment in front of Candy Clark. As several stories are told simultaneously, the film is never dull and its technique is intriguing. Lucas chose to film every scene at night, and more in a documentary style. Much is improvised, including several key scenes. This gives the actors free reign over their characters and makes the whole thing incredibly fresh and believable, as well as extremely funny.

(L to R) Paul Le Mat; Cindy Williams; Ron Howard

Pre-released music is used throughout and is treated almost like a sound effect in itself. The filmmakers do an extremely good job in arranging the  songs when considering they were on a low budget (which somewhat explains the strange lack of Elvis from the soundtrack). In one of the best-executed scenes in the film, Dreyfuss enters a radio station and converses with the real-life gravelly-voiced and mysterious disc jockey Wolfman Jack. After reading a script of the scene whilst on the air, Jack immediately agreed to star in the film, saying it was one of the most emotional things he had ever read.

And emotion is what really ties American Graffiti together. These four teenage friends are burdened by the petrifying prospect of maturity and adulthood, and each goes through their own personal journey. The film can be related to by practically anyone on the planet – the new experience of leaving your home town, your surroundings and your friends, perhaps permanently, is an emotional ride and often a very difficult procedure. Lucas perfectly captures the joys and sorrows of youth in a 1960s Californian setting, and the film is a living tribute to that illustrious decade of new ideas and culture.

Paul Le Mat

It has and will continue to suffer inevitable comparisons to other high-school-film offerings such as Grease, which is a terrible shame. While Grease is glossed over with cheese, American Graffiti is far more sensitive, honest and homegrown. Its cast is well-chosen, its directorial execution impressive; a true achievement.

N.B. George Lucas’ American Graffiti was added in 1995 to the National Film Registry for “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant films”.