July 16, 2013

LAWRENCE OF ARABIA Is The Best Theater Going Experience I've Had In Years

"Aqaba is over there.  It's only a matter of going."
This is why I love going to see movies in the theater.

You don't need me to tell you that Lawrence Of Arabia* is a fantastic movie.  It's probably the best example of a largely abandoned tradition of filming in exotic locations with hundreds of extras, giving it a real sense of scope that feels totally different from today's artificial landscapes populated by legions of digital limbs.  This puppy has got scope, full of sweeping vistas and epic adventure, fish out of water humor along with gut-wrenching drama, all anchored by one of the all-time great lead performances by Peter O'Toole.   Also, Obi-Wan Kenobi in brownface.

What more could anyone ask for?

Let me set the scene for you.  Coolidge Corner is hands down the best theater in the entire Boston metropolitan area.  It's just off the Green Line, tucked right between the posh suburbanites of Brookline and the rowdy college drunks in Allston.  Originally built as a church in 1906, the Coolidge was converted into an Art Deco moviehouse in the thirties and has been rocking ever since.  There are a handful of screens ranging in size from a couch-filled 14 person viewing room to the grandiose 440 seat main theater.  Oh yeah, and did I mention there's craft beer on tap and the tickets are only $10?  That's my kind of theater.

So I arrived at the theater and met up with Warren O'Reilly, my erstwhile best man who's recently been spending more and more time at the Coolidge since it's so close to his house.  (Lucky.)  We grabbed our tickets from the outdoor ticket window and made our way into the vintage lobby, which actually has a display with old-style lobby cards for upcoming attractions.  After securing a bucket of popcorn and two large waters (clutch beverage choice for a movie about the desert) we snagged two seats in the back right corner, giving us a great view not only of the screen, but of the theater itself.


We had arrived pretty close to showtime, so after a few minutes of idle chatter the clock struck seven.  But much to my surprise, the lights did not dim and the film did not begin to play.  Instead, we heard the opening notes of Maurice Jarre's stirring theme begin to fill the theater.  Talk about setting a mood!  As the overture continued, we saw the lights slowly turn out section by section, so that the darkness started in the back and slowly crept toward the screen, which remained bathed in a red light.  As soon as Jarre's music finally faded out, the Columbia logo instantly appeared on the screen and the score kicked right back in again.  And the audience applauded.  It was an absolute perfect moment.  Playing the music of the film you're about to see is such a simple thing, but it's massively effective.  It creates an instant sense memory, so that only a few minutes into the film I was literally pumping my fist along with the music as the camera swept over the desert plains.  I'd love to see more theaters start playing the appropriate music before a movie begins, but I think it would really only work for classic screenings like this.  In your local multiplex you'd have 15 minutes of commercials and previews to sit through between the music and the film itself, thus watering down the effect.  Still, it couldn't hurt.

As I mentioned, I hardly need to extol the virtues of the actual film - that's well covered territory.  But I will say that the recent restoration is absolutely breathtaking.  Almost every frame of the movie is gorgeous in its own right, (even the adorable day-for-night stuff) while some shots are nothing short of visual masterpieces.  But the actual image quality is nothing short of immaculate.  I'm serious, the movie looks like it was shot yesterday.  And it certainly helps that the Coolidge actually knows how to properly project a film.  The entire thing was bright and vibrant and felt as if I could just stroll right through the screen.  The infamous cut from Lawrence blowing out the match to the sunrise over the desert was nothing short of astounding to behold.  Not only were the visuals top notch, but the sound mix was superb.  There's a scene where Lawrence is talking to Prince Feisal in his tent, which is held up by a series of wooden poles.  I could hear each individual pole bending and creaking in the wind all around me.  After spending a lot of time in theaters with dark, muddy images from overtaxed projector lamps and uneven sound marked by deafening explosions and garbled dialogue, this was like a chilled canteen of spring water after crossing the Sun's Anvil.

I knew that Lawrence Of Arabia was a lengthy film, but somehow I was not anticipating an intermission.  While I'd usually prefer to just power straight through a film, it was actually nice to be able to stand up and walk around for a bit.  (More evidence that I'm turning into an old man.)  And as it just so happens, one of my very favorite ice cream joints, J.P. Licks, is located directly across the street from the theater.  And so, in our 15 minute interlude we had time to use the restroom, get giant waffle cones and still make it back to our seats with five minutes to spare.  And once again, when the timer ran down to zero, we heard the overture kick in and saw the lights slowly go down across the theater as we settled in for the last hour of the film.

Every movie you watch has to stand on its own merits, but this is why I've always said that the actual viewing environment is a crucial part of the movie watching experience.  I'm not a snob; I stream movies on my laptop and I even watch some stuff on my phone while riding the subway.  But for certain films, you want to put in a little extra effort to watch them in an ideal setting.  And that setting should vary depending on the film.  I waited an extra month to see Django Unchained for the first time because I had already scheduled a trip to Los Angeles and wanted to see it at the New Beverly Theater, complete with an animated short and a series of throwback trailers handpicked by Quentin Tarantino himself.  I remember seeing Cloverfield at my local IMAX theater in LA on opening night, in a packed and rowdy house that had absolutely no idea what they were about to see.  Or the time I worked a screening in Inglewood for the Fatal Attraction-esque film Obsessed starring Beyonce, Idris Elba, and Ali Larter.  That was a perfect marriage of campy subject matter and vocal audience reaction that actually made watching that mediocre film really fun.  But they all pale in comparison to Lawrence Of Arabia at the Coolidge, easily the classiest movie theater experience I've ever had.

How do you know it was effective?  When Warren and I parted ways for the evening, I climbed into my car and watched as he pedaled his bike down Harvard Ave, bellowing out the main theme and whipping an imaginary camel.

Every movie should end like that.

*Whenever I think of this movie, I always think of my high school AV crew's annual movie marathon.  Every year we'd put suggestion sheets in the homerooms and then collect them in search of inspiration.  One year, the first entry on the sophomore class suggestion sheet said, in huge block letters, "LAWRENCE OF OLIVIER."  Hilarious.

Title: Lawrence Of Arabia
Director: David Lean
Starring: Peter O'Toole, Omar Sharif, Anthony Quinn, Alec Guiness, Jack Hawkins, Claude Rains
Year Of Release: 1962
Viewing Method: Theatrical - Coolidge Corner

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