In collaboration with D-phi (the Denver Project for Humanistic Inquiry)
Join philosophers Adam Graves and Sean Morris as they discuss the moral and aesthetic dimensions of Lean’s masterpieces.
David Lean is perhaps best known for his larger-than-life cinematography. His widescreen Technicolor spectacles, such as The Bridge on the River Kwai, contain some of film’s most iconic images—images of such monumental proportion that they tend to dwarf the characters who appear almost imperceptibly in their all-encompassing frame. He once commissioned Panavision to manufacture a custom 482mm telephoto lens, aptly known as the “Lean lens,” just to capture a single scene: Omar Sharif’s character emerging from a mirage shimmering over the vast Jafr mudflats in Lawrence of Arabia.
And yet, when asked to comment on his own strengths as a director, Lean spoke of a different kind of lens and a different sort scale: “My distinguishing talent is the ability to put people under the microscope, perhaps to go one or two layers farther down than some other directors.” Lean’s true legacy lies in his ability to move seamlessly between the monumental and the microscopic, to use impossibly large canvasses to paint intimate portraits, and to explore the inner depths of complex characters through a sweeping visual style. In a Lean picture, these inner and outer worlds are neither disconnected, nor juxtaposed—they disclose themselves simultaneously, each through the other. And for this reason his films and characters, perhaps more than most, deserve to be encountered on the silver screen.
This series will include three of Lean’s most critically acclaimed films, each of which might be characterized as a twentieth-century tragedy. We begin with the lesser-known Brief Encounter, a relatively small picture produced in England a decade before Lean’s first Hollywood-backed epic. Celia Johnson plays a suburban housewife whose illicit affair with a stranger awakens exhilarating emotions as well as paralyzing guilt. This will be followed by Lean’s first major international success, The Bridge on the River Kwai, where Alec Guinness plays the dignified Colonel Nicholson, whose obsession with duty ultimately prevents him from recognizing his highest obligation. We conclude the series with Lawrence of Arabia, where Peter O’Toole delivers a breakout performance as an ambitious young man who, with remarkable hubris, tries to give a people something we know he cannot—namely, their freedom.
Each of these films tells a tale of profound unfulfillment: unconsummated love in Brief Encounter, unfulfilled duty in Kwai, and frustrated ambition in Lawrence. And each film provides a unique occasion to contemplate good and evil, virtue and vice, innocence and guilt, and to reflect upon the power of film to illuminate the nature of human existence.
Adam Graves is associate professor of philosophy at MSU Denver, specializing in phenomenology and hermeneutics (the theory of interpretation). He is currently teaching an Honors Seminar on the representation of evil in film.
Sean Morris is associate professor of philosophy at MSU Denver and works in logic, the foundations of mathematics and the history of analytic philosophy. From time to time he dabbles in questions relating to the good life as they arise in classic films.