Great Expectations | David Lean | 1946
I’ve long been inoculated with inadvertent propaganda – tiptoe conditioning – an accumulation of phony polemics and forced positioning and graph paper systematization. The subject, as always, is movies. Dichotomies rule in film discourse – auteurs vs. hired hacks, Hollywood vs. the arthouse, White Elephant vs. Termite Art (Farber, if ye only knew how legions of shortcut intellects would blunt the edge of your once seminal essay, now as hollow as a gutted pumpkin, as desiccated as Ezekiel’s Valley of Dry Bones), The Tradition of Quality vs …. y’know, the one that’s supposed to be good. Cinephiles are born secretaries whose viewing histories are filing cabinets, everything neatly ordered and numerically assigned to its appropriate compartment.
David Lean’s Great Expectations is smothered in such checkbox calculus before you even sit down to view it. To condense the red flags as best I can: Dickens isn’t cool. British cinema isn’t cool. ‘Canonized Classics’ that only get a shoutout from Roger Ebert but none of the cooler cats in online film crit aren’t cool. The jury is still out on whether David Lean is cool…somehow. So, you know, it’s not a cool movie, and Tradition of Quality looms large before you’ve gotten past the title. It’s apparently not as fun as gazing into the abyss of self-delusion to alchemize Chaplin’s King in New York from garbage into gold, or to acquire the Letterboxd merit badge of proudly advocating for the work of Paul W.S. Anderson.
So yeah, I’ll admit it, I de-prioritized this. And now having seen it, I’m not proud of that fact! As it’s a fleet-footed masterpiece that, with cartographic diligence, gerrymanders the source text so as to carve out those slivers of novelistic real estate most primed for cinematic treatment. But it also makes a great deal of those minor-key scenes which most readily suggest or imply the sections of the novel unfit to be explicitly rendered – or, to put it another way, it makes purchase of those summits that at least afford a view of the proverbial woods outside the screenwriter’s limited price range (I’m thinking of the one incursion into Wemmick’s home, for starters). Alas, so many images in that novel, lovely for what they are, but quickly lost on me as I read ahead. I was in it to ascend the bildungsroman staircase, not to stop and admire the furnishings. The film does not skimp on the novel’s steady momentum – on the contrary! – but, equipped as it is to carry you onward so that ye may rest your weary feet, it then allows you to turn your head, look out the passenger window and really absorb the novel’s imagery as it was meant to be absorbed! The environs are less constructed than archaeologically unearthed and meticulously restored. Pictorial details, fleeting in Dickens, are magnified. The chiaroscuro marshlands, the gothic vertices of the Havisham mansion, the daily grind of 19th century London that sees Pip’s comings and goings as but a strand of a larger web of urban activity – this is, as they say, the good stuff.
No scene is insisted upon – each encounter or conversation or confrontation is a narrative parabola in miniature, and once the momentum sputters for even an instant, it’s on to the next episode. Similarly, no bout of voice-over exposition, employed like everything else in service of narrative velocity, breaches the terms of its contract. Cinematic time – that hifalutin Deleuzean construct that clings like a barnacle to discussions of Akerman or Resnais – is applicable here. This is a 2-hour movie that seems at once half and double its length. It races by without at all compromising its uncanny conveyance of the novel’s elongated scope, of Pip’s having come as far as he has by closing time. It’s a seaworthy vessel, not unlike that which plays such an electrifying part in the film’s climax – a dense, hulking leviathan that, once set in motion upon the water, sails along with swiftness and with grace. Cinema, I submit for just this occasion, is a form of imaginative seafaring! And Captain Lean, I applaud the work of you and your crew!