Lawrence of Arabia versus Tess: Looking up and looking around | Bleader

Lawrence of Arabia versus Tess: Looking up and looking around

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Natassia Kinski in Tess
  • Natassia Kinski in Tess
I was satisfied to see how well the DCP (Digital Cinema Package) restoration of Roman Polanski's Tess, which screens next weekend at the Gene Siskel Film Center, preserves the texture of the film's cinematography. Shot on Panavision equipment at a time when it yielded particularly grainy images (think of Robert Altman's Nashville or Polanski's own Chinatown), Tess has a rough and speckled beauty like that of an old stone. The look is a perfect fit for Polanski's portrait of late-19th-century England, which avoids the pageantlike splendor of traditional historical epics and offers the spectator a plausible abundance of dirt, faded clothes, and asymmetrical compositions. As is often the case in the director's work, the movie's tied to the perspective of a social outcast who regards brutish conditions as a fact of life and proper society as alien. The granular images, which sometimes appear to be crumbling from within, reinforce this point of view; by contrast, the photography of latter-day Polanski films, no matter how good, seems a little too solid.

And so does that of Lawrence of Arabia, which just played at the Music Box in a new DCP restoration. As much as I admire its craftsmanship, intelligence, and historical sweep, I could never get into David Lean's celebrated epic. It looks almost too pristine—as if you'll blow the perfect images out of place if you breathe too hard. Somehow Lean's desert landscapes convey the same exacting brilliance as his interior shots, suggesting giant painted frescoes rather than real locations. Lean was a successful film editor before he started directing, and many have noted the editorial quality of his storytelling. Detail follows detail with flawless order, always directing attention to the shape of the overall construction; I imagine Lean could have been a successful architect.

Lawrence of Arabia, of course, is one of the great skyscrapers of film history, with slick, tall surfaces that encourage you to look up in admiration. Tess, on the other hand, is designed like a long row of cottages, and it encourages you to look around. Perhaps I identify more closely with Polanski's period epic because I have an easier time imagining myself living in it.

Ben Sachs writes about moviegoing every Monday.

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