Maximum surrender

"Lawrence of Arabia" is back in the cinemas, bigger than ever

 

David Lean’s 1962 Lawrence of Arabia is back in cinemas this week in a new 4K restoration of the reconstructed version (first seen in its entirety in 1988). No, I didn’t know what 4K meant either so I had to draw on the wisdom of the oracles. (I used a search engine.) It’s the pixels, dummy. 4K  denotes a resolution of approximately 4,000 pixels wide and 2,000 pixels high, compared to the previous standard of 1,920 x 1,080 pixels. That’s more pixels than you’ve got popcorn in your Mega Meal Deal Bucket.

But we need not concern ourselves with pixels. What matters is the new clarity they provide, the familiar spectacles which they render with fresh vividness: Peter O’Toole’s eyes, which are now so alluringly blue that you feel you could dive right through the screen and into those azure peepers, leaving behind only a sand-splash; the tiny orange flame from which Lean cuts to the singed Arabian sunrise. When the wind ripples across the desert, you would swear now that you could make out each individual grain of sand shifting beneath it as if under the writhing of a vast invisible sidewinder.

I’d never seen Lawrence of Arabia on a cinema screen before. And though it’s a cliché to say that seeing it on television isn’t really seeing it all… well, it’s a cliché for a reason. The decades of respect and admiration lavished on Lean’s best-known and most-loved work (here is Steven Spielberg talking about the effect the movie had on him) has had the effect of interring it, as with most films regarded widely as masterpieces. Seeing it at the cinema can only rescue it from its reputation and bring it back to life. (I’d also recommend Kevin Jackson’s thorough and compelling study of the film, in the BFI Classics series, as an après-screening chaser.)

This is a film partly about depth of experience and depth of vision—both literally, in its most famous shot (of Omar Sharif as Sherif Ali riding toward the camera from afar), and figuratively, in its use of a flashback structure which purports, like Citizen Kane, to explain a man who turns out in the final analysis to be beyond mere explanation. So it feels only right that seeing it at the cinema takes a sizable chunk out of one’s own day: once you factor in the overture (how I love overtures, especially at the cinema, where they are now more of an anachronism than in the theatre), an entr’acte and an intermission, you’re looking at four hours, more or less, in the dark.

I’m a big fan of intermissions at the cinema. The ones stipulated by the filmmaker, I mean, rather than those imposed by the management. (I don’t know how widespread the practice was, but I remember the Odeon chain simply halting The Godfather Part III and Dances With Wolves so that one of their employees, who had clearly drawn the short straw that day, could flog some choc-ices from their wearable tray.) Intermissions are only commonplace now for Bollywood films, which are structured with that necessity in mind, but many other movies could really benefit from them. It suits Lawrence of Arabia to have that break approximately two-thirds of the way through; I feel it helps us to register more keenly the change in tone that’s marked by the arrival in the desert of the journalist Jackson Bentley (played by Arthur Kennedy), a fictionalised version of Lowell Thomas. With Bentley’s appearance comes an acknowledgement of the mythologizing process which T E Lawrence underwent, and a slight shift by the picture into a more analytical and contemplative sphere.

The theatrical engagement paves the way for the release of Lawrence of Arabia on Blu-ray. Blu-ray, schmu-ray: see it at the cinema for maximum impact, maximum surrender.

Lawrence of Arabia is on release from Friday.

A portrait of T E Lawrence

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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Conjuring the ghost: the "shape-shifting, queer, violent, hippie genuis" of David Litvinoff

A new biography tracks down the elusive Kray confidant who became a friend of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.

David Litvinoff is a mythic character to anyone with an interest in London during the Sixties. An intimate of the Krays, he was a tough and violent Jew from the East End. He was also a musical genius with an unrivalled knowledge of jazz, the blues and rock that made him a valued friend of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. It was his ability to move from the East End to Chelsea, from the dives of Soho to Notting Hill, that was the critical factor in the extraordinary vision of London that Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg conjured into the film Performance, for which Litvinoff is credited as dialogue coach. And yet, even though all this is known and recorded, he remains a ghost, a figure who wrote nothing and who systematically destroyed all the records of his life he could lay his hands on. Even his exact role in Performance is shrouded in mystery. He is said to have dictated much of the script to Cammell. This biography claims that Jagger’s mesmerising song on the soundtrack, “Memo from Turner”, was in fact a memo from Litvinoff.

Multiple reports describe him as the most brilliant talker London had known since Coleridge, but although there are rumours of tapes they have always been just rumours. I’d have thought he was a figure who would defeat any biographer – a shape-shifting, queer, violent, hippie genius lost in a mist of hallucinogens – but Keiron Pim’s account of this extraordinary character is a magisterial work of scholarship. He tracks down all the living witnesses; he has also unearthed letters, and even some of those long-lost tapes.

The story that emerges is even harder to believe than the legend. Litvinoff came out of the Jewish East End but he was from one of its most talented families. His name was not even Litvinoff: his mother’s first husband went by that name but David was the son of her second, Solomon Levy. Long before he met the Krays or the Stones, he was a gossip columnist on the Daily Express, practically inventing the Chelsea set that shocked the prim Fifties. By that time he had met Lucian Freud, who painted him in an astonishing study, the working title of which was Portrait of a Jew. Litvinoff was furious when Freud exhibited it with the new description of The Procurer, and the bad blood between these two men, both of whom inhabited the drinking clubs of Soho and the Krays’ gambling joints, remained for the rest of their lives. In fact, it is Freud who comes over as the villain of the book, fingered by Pim as the man behind the most violent assault on Litvinoff: he was knocked unconscious at the door to his own flat, on the top floor, and awoke to find himself naked and tied to a chair suspended from the balcony, nose broken and head shaved bald.

I learned much from this book: a period working for Peter Rachman before he became involved with the Krays; sojourns in Wales and Australia when he was fleeing threats of violence. The big discovery for me, however, was Litvinoff’s encyclopaedic knowledge of the jazz and blues traditions that gave birth to rock’n’roll. He taught the Stones a lot but he taught Eric Clapton even more – they were both living at the Pheasantry building on the King’s Road, and Litvinoff seems to have had unlimited access to the most recherché back catalogues and the most recent unreleased recordings. The book traces, but does not comment on, a transformation from an amphetamine-fuelled hard man in the Fifties and early Sixties to the oddest of hallucinogen hippies by the Summer of Love in 1967.

But, for all Litvinoff’s knowledge, wit and gift for friendship, his tale is a tragedy. A man who could talk but couldn’t write; an out gay man long before it was acceptable, who seems never to have been at ease with his sexuality; a proud Jew without any tradition of Judaism to which he could affiliate. Above all, this was a man who lived to the full the extraordinary moment when London dreamed, in Harold Wilson’s Sixties, that class was a thing of the past. Back from Australia in the early Seventies, Litvinoff awoke again to find that it had indeed been a dream. His suicide in 1975 was cold and deliberate. He had outlived his time. 

Colin MacCabe edits Critical Quarterly

Jumpin’ Jack Flash: David Litvinoff and the Rock’n’Roll Underworld by Keiron Pim is publisyhed by Jonathan Cape (416pp, £16.99)

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser