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August 2019

The Tragedy of Lawrence of Arabia

Aristotle says that a tragic destiny is precipitated by the hero’s tragic fault, his 'error or frailty' (hamartia), but Aristotle also calls this turn of events a change of “fortune."

Aristotle fits with Lawrence of Arabia perfectly. In the epic film that won Best Picture in 1962, T.E. Lawrence steps into the role of the classical hero who strives to do "the right thing" for the Arab people by uniting them together. At least as portrayed in the film, his confidence is actually arrogance, his belief that he knows better than the Arab people he leads what is best for them.

His arrogance leads Lawrence to a low point in the movie, in which he has to lead his men into an attack against the Turks that becomes a total rout. All the Turks are killed, including the ones that are trying to surrender, which contradicts Lawrence's earlier philosophy against unnecessary violence. Lawrence's ego succumbed to the "white savior complex" and he became a cold-blooded killer with no mercy. 

Scott Anderson of the Smithsonian Magazine delves into this, describing Lawrence as "a man trapped by divided loyalties, torn between serving the empire whose uniform he wore and being true to those fighting and dying alongside him. It is this struggle that raises the Lawrence saga to the level of Shakespearean tragedy, as it ultimately ended badly for all concerned: for Lawrence, for the Arabs, for Britain, in the slow uncoiling of history, for the Western world at large. Loosely cloaked about the figure of T.E. Lawrence there lingers the wistful specter of what might have been if only he had been listened to."

At one point, Lawrence sees his reflection on his blood-stained dagger. Seeing himself through the blood, he realizes that he has become worse than the enemy, betraying his own core beliefs in order to "win."

There have been many criticisms of this undoubtedly classic film, specifically regarding its depiction of Lawrence, who was described by some as far more humble and less egotistical than his depiction in the classic film. Is it possible that the filmmakers accentuated Lawrence's ego to make a point of their own about colonialism and Eurocentric attitudes? His sexuality also has been a topic of historical speculation, largely ignored by the film - but that is unsurprising, given the far more restrictive cinematic environment of 1962.

It is a film that begins with tragedy: at the very beginning, Lawrence dies in a senseless motorcycle accident. It is the ultimate irony, after going through all that he endured in the desert, his death proves that life can be senseless and wasted in a moment’s notice.  

 

This is part of an ongoing series involving philosophical approaches to classic films, as studied by our resident philosophy student, Jim D. Gillentine. Jim is an author and self-professed comics geek, having immersed himself in four-color prose since the 1970s, and is the biggest Godzilla fan in the western hemisphere. He is currently completing his bachelor's degree in English literature and philosophy at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. Website.


At long last, Othello

For a movie I waited six years to see, Othello wasn't bad.

I've already told the tale of how a Netflix DVD of Othello ended up hanging around my house for six years. This week, I finally watched the bloody thing, which allows us to return it and begin using the DVD mail service again, just in time for a semester in which two of the three members of my household will be studying film.

It was an early outing for Laurence Fishburne, who burns up the screen with Othello's contained fury (and even pulls off his seizure with some measure of realism, a feat not always accomplished by other actors). Despite being a product of the 17th century, race is endemic to the story, and Fishburne pulls off the balance of playing a black man in military service to white leaders in ancient times while never ceding to anyone as master. It's really amazing to watch.

Believe it or not, this 1995 film was the first time an actor of color actually played Othello on the big screen. Today the idea of whitewashing this iconic character of Shakespearean lore would probably burn Twitter to the ground, but onstage Othello had been played by white actors (usually in blackface) until Paul Robeson in 1945, and all prior movie adaptations likewise had such noted ethnic actors as... Laurence Olivier, Sir Anthony Hopkins and Michael Gambon. Oops. (In Orson Welles' 1952 version, he simply rewrote it so that everyone's objection to the marriage with Desdemona had to do with age and physical attractiveness instead of race, so that Welles could play Othello himself. Okay, Orson.) 

Notably, Sir Patrick Stewart took on the role in 1997 with the Washington, D.C. Shakespeare Company - but in what they billed as a "photo-negative" variation, where he was the sole white actor with an otherwise all-black cast. I'm not sure how the racial politics would have played out with such an adaptation, but I would have been quite curious to see it. Likewise the 1982 Broadway adaptation with James Earl Jones as Othello and Christopher Plummer as Iago must have been fascinating, and the 2007 with Chiwetel Eijofor as Othello and Ewan McGregor opposite him.

MV5BNWRlYmU1ZGMtMjEwYy00NjVhLTk3MmYtN2UxM2JmOTMyZjkyXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNjAwODA4Mw@@._V1_Here the foil for Fishburne's Othello is Kenneth Branaugh as Iago, at the height of his Branaugh-ness. He oozes marvelously across the screen, and his manipulations and asides to the audience are consummately done. You don't quite get the sense of the hatred Iago bears for Othello, an odd misstep for the acknowledged King of Shakespeare, but as always he does a terrific job of translating the sometimes-cumbersome language in a manner that helps even the uninitiated drawn into the story.

The internet record shows that this variation of Othello came about during the O.J. Simpson trial, which may have impacted audience reaction. If so, it didn't help: the movie bombed at the box office and while Branaugh and Fishburne received accolades for their performances, it's largely been forgotten among the major Shakespeare adaptations.

That might be that for all its intense personal drama, Othello is a very talky play. There are a few swordfights and the inevitable stabbity-ness that are required in just about any Shakespeare, but most of the play is conniving people talking to each other and passing handkerchiefs about. First-time director Oliver Parker made a spare play a bit more lush with cinematography and stagecraft that keeps the eye entertained, but there are lulls where we have had seven scenes of people talking at each other. 

There's also the trouble of Desdemona. Irene Jacob is there to look pretty and dismayed by turns throughout the film, and not much else. Of course, there's not much you can do with a script that portrays one of Shakespeare's more passive heroines, but Parker really doesn't try. She's merely a cipher for Iago to manipulate around his chessboard and an object for Othello to possess and, if he chooses, destroy. It's difficult to interpret a 500-year-old play through modern eyes, but Othello's murderous jealousy plays so much of toxic possessiveness and domestic abuse that we find ourselves wondering whether they really would have had such a happy marriage, even without Iago's machinations.

It's a compelling film, deserving of a higher grade on Rotten Tomatoes and certainly doesn't deserve its status as a bomb. I'm not sure it was worth six years and $543 paid to Netflix - Laurence of Arabia wouldn't be worth that - but it was an engaging, compelling film and I am sorry that I must, finally, send it back. 

Elizabeth Donald is a freelance journalist, editor, author, photographer, grad student and instructor, as well as the editor of CultureGeek. In her spare time, she has no spare time. Find out more at donaldmedia.com.


The $543 DVD

Tonight my husband and I will watch a DVD that cost us $543.

Then we will return it, but we won't get the money back.

This is probably the dumbest thing we have collectively done in the nine years that we have been a couple. I can't say it was the dumbest thing we've done in our lives, because there were some truly questionable personal choices back in the nineties that don't bear close examination. 

But Othello is probably in the top ten list.

I was a Netflix early adopter, back in the days before it was an app on the Apple TV that popped up and fed me entertainment at the press of a teeny tiny button on a teeny tiny remote we keep losing in the couch cushions. I signed on back in the days when you ordered discs by mail and everyone knew that wasn't going to last when you could drive over to Blockbuster and get your movie right away. Who waits for mail?

Note to self: Don't attempt to play the stock market. It's not going to work out well for you.

When Netflix launched streaming, I hopped on board, and eventually settled into one of the dual plans: $7.99 a month for the single-disc DVD service and $7.99 for the one-screen-at-a-time streaming which is now $8.99 and thank goodness we only have one TV. Yes, even at CultureGeek Manor where we watch waaaaaaay too many shows, one television set is sufficient.

It was Christmas 2013, and I had a hankering for some Shakespeare. The DVD queue had grown to at least 70 movies, and so I scanned through and picked the 1995 Laurence Fishburne Othello. All I knew about it was that its poster used to hang in my college newsroom, and that it costarred Kenneth Branaugh (at the height of his popularity) as Iago. Directed by Oliver Parker, it seemed like a fun way to spend a holiday evening. It arrived on New Year's Eve, 2013.

We still have it.

I don't know what happened that New Year's Eve, or how we forgot about Othello. It got shoved in a drawer in the entertainment center, and every once in a while one of us would say, "Hey, we need to watch that so we can send it back." Months passed, and I often noted that we were paying the monthly fee for our Netflix DVD service and not using it. 

"This is dumb," I declared on more than one occasion. "Let's just send it back and get another movie." 

But wait. Othello still looks like a good movie. We've held onto it this long, isn't it silly not to at least watch it before we send it back?

Just one more month...

Next week begins the semester for our collegiate family. If you follow us on social media, you know that my husband, my son and I are all in college together for various purposes. This is, at long last, my husband's second-to-last semester as an undergrad, and I am beginning my last year working toward my masters degree. When we embarked on this crazy adventure, we had to do a serious budget cut, and the Netflix DVD plan almost got axed.

Almost. Because... isn't it cheaper to use the DVD mailing service than to go to the movies? Sure, if we actually sent back Othello. The best of intentions...

This fall, my husband is taking a class on philosophy and film. The syllabus lists approximately 25 films that he will be required to watch out of class. Some of them are excellent films, like Lawrence of Arabia and The Exorcist (though I cringe that his first viewing of Lawrence will be on our little TV instead of the big screen where it firmly belongs). Some of them give me hives, like The Big Lebowski and This is Spinal Tap (see, I just lost about 40 percent of my readers, didn't I? The Dude does not abide.)

No, they're not studying Othello, but that would be hilarious.

This class is problematic for us, because of the 25 films, we only own about five of them. (Like I wouldn't have Alien. Sheesh.) A few are available through the Kanopy system at the university, and a grand total of one each on Netflix streaming and Amazon Prime. I sent a missive to the Film Professor, but sadly he has been downsizing his formerly insane collection and does not have any of them.

I examined our local library, and found a good number of them are available and most of the rest  through interlibrary loan. We have been tracking which ones we can acquire through various means, and which will have to be rented. 

"I can't believe how few of these are on Netflix," I griped. Bad enough that we'd have to spend money on nonsense like Spinal Tap, but Re-AnimatorEvil Dead 2? I'm not objecting to Vertigo, mind you, but Zulu? I have to pay money for this while I'm paying perfectly good cash to three (3) streaming services....

My son piped up, "What about the Netflix DVDs?"

Crickets. Staring. 

"I'm an idiot," I declared.

Yes, we were still paying $7.99 a month for the DVD rental service. I looked up our queue and found Othello listed at the top, on rent since December 30, 2013. Just to make myself cringe, I calculated how much we have spent on the DVD rental service while Othello has slept in his drawer, and it came to $543.32.

Both of us will be studying film this year: he's got the philosophy class, and I'll be beginning work on my thesis, which will involve watching approximately every film about journalism since time began. The Netflix DVDs will finally get some use, and save us the trouble of renting all those bloody movies.

But we'll have to watch Othello first. I mean, we've had it this long. It's only right.

 

Elizabeth Donald is a freelance journalist, editor, author, photographer, grad student and instructor, as well as the editor of CultureGeek. In her spare time, she has no spare time. Find out more at donaldmedia.com.

Cross-posted to other sites.