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APAR's WORKING WEEKEND: Appreciating Epics at the Dawn of E-Pix

16 Mar, 2001 By: Bruce Apar

There are movies, and then there is Lawrence of Arabia. As pointed out in Columbia’s April 3 DVD collector’s edition of this 1962 winner of 10 Oscars, David Lean’s film is revered as a masterwork by no less a master of cinema than Steven Spielberg, who gushes over Lawrence as "a miracle" and "overwhelming." Once again, he’s right.

As it turns out, Spielberg has so much to say about the film that he is the subject of an entire interview on the DVD. It’s fitting that Lawrence inspired his career, as he explains. As with Sir David Lean, Spielberg’s movies invariably are gorgeously photographed and technically superlative. It’s those kinds of films some of us miss, especially on DVD.

It’s hard to argue with the success DVD has had on the shoulders of R-rated sensory assaults such as Men in Black and The Matrix. There is obviously a robust audience for celebrations of carnage. But it does a baby boomer good to welcome to the DVD era a 40-year-old example of filmmaking at its finest.

Lawrence will be joined on shelves April 3 by a Hollywood legend of a different sort, Cleopatra, with epic stalwarts Ben-Hur and The Greatest Story Ever Told currently in the marketplace.

Obviously, the Bible thumpers are timed for Easter and Passover consumption, but seasonality aside, all of these pieces serve to epitomize as well as anything yet released on the optical format just how hospitable the five-inch dynamo of a disc is to old-fashioned forms of moviemaking as well as the newer forms of eye-popping, ear-splitting entertainment.

Some moviegoers are less than enamored of the PC-based digital trickery famously effected in Ridley Scott’s Gladiator, a thoroughly enjoyable film that ranks as one of the year’s best.

While Gladiator is more fleet of foot in its pacing, it doesn’t quite match the storytelling sweep and visual grandeur that characterized epics from another era. It’s the old epics versus the new e-pix.

Watching Cleopatra and Ben-Hur, I was taken by a different sort of trickery that is more cinematic and magical -– elaborate matte paintings and miniatures standing in for Egypt and the Circus Maximus, respectively.

On the old epics new to DVD, the technical quality of the transfers is exquisite, and the extra materials are comprehensive and enjoyable, from the treasure trove offered on Lawrence to the superb documentary "The Film That Changed Hollywood" on Cleopatra.

The forced comparisons of Gladiator to these 40-year-old sword ‘n’ sandals films seem to be made by people fleetingly familiar with the originals. They should know that was a genre of majestic filmmaking we likely will never see anew, all the more reason seeing them resurrected on DVD is reason to rejoice.

As Peter O’Toole said in a special message videotaped recently for a Columbia TriStar press event for Lawrence of Arabia, the DVD format is "astounding."

Comments? Contact Bruce directly at:bapar@advanstar.com

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