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A Difficult Journey: Why I Flew Across the Country to See Lawrence of Arabia

It seemed like a good idea at the time.

I started seeing 70mm film festivals pop up all over the country this summer. The Somerville Theatre near Boston had its 70mm and widescreen festival in June. While that was happening, the Music Box Theatre’s 70mm fest went on in Chicago. Last month, the American Cinematheque in Los Angeles had a month-long, Ultra Cinematheque 70 Fest series at the Aero Theatre. And New York’s Museum of the Moving Image currently has a 70mm program underway. 

I was starting to feel a bit envious that these cities had a festival where they could unspool one 70mm print after another. I live in Houston, and even though we have IMAX theaters that play 70mm films digitally, there is one multiplex in town that has an old-school, 70mm projector—and that place hasn’t played a film in 70mm since Christopher Nolan used his muscle to get Warner Bros. to briefly re-release a 70mm print of “2001: A Space Odyssey” in theaters in 2018. 

Two of the festivals (Chicago and LA) played a movie that I’ve always wanted to see in 70mm: David Lean’s 1962 Oscar winner “Lawrence of Arabia.” I missed a chance to see it in that format when a newly restored, director’s cut print was rolling around theaters in 1989, back in my middle-school years. The year before, I saw “Die Hard” in 70mm, six-track Dolby Stereo and THX—and I rank that as one of the most transformative, moviegoing experiences of my life. That movie literally exploded all around me. I caught every snap, crackle and pop, aurally and visually. The movie was already exciting and entertaining on its own, but seeing and hearing it that way just took it to a whole ‘notha level. 

I thought I could get another hit of that with “Lawrence,” but I didn’t think I could convince my mother to take me to a damn-near-four-hour movie from the ‘60s about a white boy (Peter O’Toole) serving as a savior to some darker-skinned people. So, I never got to see it in my younger days. As the years went on, I didn’t see it in any format, even in the comfort of my own home. But, this year, maybe because this year marks its 60th anniversary, I felt it was essential to see it not just on the big screen, but in 70mm!

I thought my chances to see the film in that format were gone (this year, at least) since the Chicago and L.A. fests were also done. But I learned that the American Cinematheque was going to have an encore, Saturday-night screening of “Lawrence of Arabia.” That’s when I decided to get a plane ticket to Los Angeles to finally scratch something off my bucket list. (Full disclosure: I don’t have a real bucket list.) I went on Expedia and officially got a cheap-ass, round-trip ticket. After I did that, I was hit with one thought: what the hell have I done?

I hadn’t been to L.A. in over a decade; I hadn’t been on a plane in five years. Between the pandemic, my own anxiety & depression and living in Houston (let’s just say it’s a town that makes you wanna stay inside), I’ve basically lost the ability to be sociable. The thought of being in another part of the country, being forced to communicate with people I don’t know—FOR THREE DAYS!—filled me with such dread. I got so psyched to go to LA to see a movie, I forgot that other people are gonna be there too.

As someone who has stayed in his bedroom for the past couple of years, hanging out in sunny la-la land started to freak me the hell out. Until I got on the plane, I didn’t think I’d be going. I thought I would have to cancel because I didn’t have enough money to go. (I was still waiting for a big payday from an outlet I write for to hit my bank account, which showed up the day before.) But, eventually, I hopped on my Spirit flight (apart from the paying for food and Internet, it’s not a bad airline) and headed to the City of Angels. 

Once I got there, it was a trip that was mostly smooth, but had some bumps along the way. It took me two hours to get a rental car (a long story). But after I got one, I headed over to Roscoe’s Chicken & Waffles (where, apparently, you can smoke weed very freely in the parking lot) in Inglewood for a late lunch. After that, I drove to Sherman Oaks to the place where I’d be staying—the guest room of a home owned by a novelist friend of mine and her husband.

I had 24 hours before the movie, so I spent it doing several L.A. things: eating at a Fatburger; buying a dozen doughnuts at Winchell’s and giving it to the people at the Artform Studio, a record store/salon ran by musician/film composer Adrian Younge and his wife (another check on my nonexistent bucket list); hanging out at Amoeba Records (again), this time with a former film writer who now does subtitle work for movies and TV.

After all of that, I made my way to the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica to see “Lawrence.” But, before I headed in, I went to a restaurant across the street and briefly shot the shit with an old friend of mine. Once we parted ways, I went over to the Aero and saw mask-wearing employees out front doing something that made my heart sink: They were checking for vaccination cards. I’ve been vaccinated, but my card was back in my apartment. You see, I live in Texas, where people don’t care if you’ve been vaccinated or not. In California, people really do care. I had nothing in my iPhone that showed I’d been vaxxed. The messed-up part is that, before I got to L.A., I read that the theater was checking people for vaccination info—and I forgot about that because I’m a Texas Boy! 

I frantically went through my phone to see if there was something—anything—that shows I’ve been vaccinated. As people were heading into the theater, I was outside wondering if the photos I took of getting the shots would suffice. As I was looking, I was thinking how apropos it would be for my continually unlucky ass to fly all the way to L.A. to see a movie I’d get turned away from because I forgot something as simple as a vaccination card.

As I was alone on the sidewalk, still looking on my phone, a masked guy who worked at the theater walked out. He saw that I was looking for something. “Can’t find your card?” he asked. I said yes, following it up with I flew all the way to Houston for this. The guy took mercy on me and said I could come in—but next time, he said, don’t forget to bring your card. (Later in the evening, I bought a commemorative T-shirt from him.)

I walked into the theater, which was packed as hell, and found a foldout chair in the back right when the overture was about to end. The minute I sat down, the Annette Bening-looking Columbia lady popped up onscreen and the movie began. 

You literally get everything and then some when you’re watching a film in 70mm. I immediately took in how clean the film looked. The Cinematheque’s exclusive print (which is housed at the Academy Film Archive) was blemish-free, making this decades-old epic look like it came out last weekend. At 216 minutes, “Lawrence of Arabia”  is a lengthy journey—I do not recommend watching this on a foldout chair. 

I was quite impressed with how Lean assembled all those extras out there in the desert for scenes that would most likely be assembled via CGI technology today. (Yeah, “Avengers: Endgame” had a triumphant climax, but you knew damn well all those people weren’t there in the same scene.) If anything, watching “Lawrence” in 70mm reminds you how realistic the filmmaking was back in the day. You can tell there are people all over the action set pieces.

The (mostly middle-aged) audience was quite respectful throughout the whole thing—no talking, no loud eating, no cellphone-related nonsense. They all had their full attention on the screen, laughing during the funny moments and quiet during the suspenseful moments. They applauded twice—when the movie ended and when the mid-movie intermission started. (During that intermission, as people were stretching their legs/getting more snacks/heading to the bathroom, I sat in my seat as two fortysomething, white guys were behind me talking about all the concerts they’ve been to recently. They sounded like they were trying to outhip each other.) 

All through the movie, I kept wondering how younger, more woke audiences would respond to this film. After all, even though it’s a film about a British Army lieutenant who damn near thinks he’s Jesus, there’s not a superhero in sight. Not to mention that some of the Arab cast members aren’t played by people of Arabian descent. (Alec Guinness and Anthony Quinn did crush their performances though.) Would they roll with it, or would they find it too problematic? Would they be bored?

It’s been a couple weeks since my L.A. trip and, as bizarre as this sounds, I’m still wondering if it was all worth it. Truth be told, I couldn’t get myself to fully relax and enjoy everything for most of the weekend. Even while watching “Lawrence,” I was still mentally kicking myself for not having my vaccination card. I was even more upset at myself the following day, when I tried to see a 35mm screening of Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Man Who Knew Too Much” (the 1956 version with Jimmy Stewart, BTW) at the Academy Museum and I couldn’t get in because of my lack of vaccination credentials. At that point, I just wanted to get out of L.A. After that, I holed myself up in the guest room, writing another piece until I could doze off and wake up the next morning to hop back on a plane back home. Before I left, I apologized to my understanding host for not being more open and outgoing. “I’m sorry,” I told her, “but these past few years have destroyed me.” 

It does seem that the older I get, the more difficult it is to enjoy stuff. (The week before I took off to L.A., I quietly celebrated a birthday.) The first time I went to L.A. so many years ago, I was very enthusiastic about it, seeing a bunch of places and hanging out with people I’ve always wanted to hang out with. Now that I’m a bitter, semi-sober old man, getting excited about things is a rarity.

I will say if you are a cinephile who hasn’t been damaged into preferring solitude over the last few years, and fortunate enough to live in a part of the world where there’s a 70mm “Lawrence of Arabia” screening playing, go see it! Even if you don’t dig it, at least you can tell people you saw this epic film the way God intended it. And now I have too.

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