(Because I practice what I preach, I am publishing this four months after it was in any way relevant.)

In January, Lex Fridman – world leader in inspiring people to Google “who is Lex Fridman?” – revealed his 2023 reading list.

It triggered a loud – and largely negative – reaction. Why?

Are the books on the list bad? No. They’re good books.

“I read those books when I was twelve!” Good job, you read smarter books than Lex Fridman. Here’s your medal.

Yes, his “book a week” schedule seems both arbitary and divorced from certain realities about books (for example, that they differ in length). He’s assigning the same amount of time to The Little Prince (a 16,000 word children’s book) as he is to The Brothers Karazmazov (a 356,000 word Russian realist epic). But that’s his funeral.

And yes, it’s depressing to see a humble everyday pleasure like reading books get smeared in Silicon Valley thinkfluencer slime. “My videos will deliver key takeaways with itemized action points! Follow along as I synergize my mindspace and growth-hack my quantified self with the ultimate disruptive tech…books!”

…but none of those criticisms really connect with the larger issue.

This is a terrible way to read books.

Unweaving the Rainbow

When I was a teenager, I listened primarily to metal bands. Upon turning twenty, I decided I needed to educate myself in classic rock.

But I wanted to do it fast. The Rolling Stones have twenty-nine albums? Bugger off, I’m not listening to all that. Can’t I just pick a highlight or two? I wanted to speedrun classic rock!

I dutifully acquired/downloaded a dozen classic “ok, boomer” albums, as ranked by lists like Rolling Stone’s Top 500 albums, including:

  • Pink Floyd, The Dark Side of the Moon
  • The Clash, London Calling
  • Marvin Gaye, What’s Going On
  • Bob Dylan, Blonde on Blonde
  • The Beach Boys, Pet Sounds

Across one week, I listened to them all.

I got nothing out of it.

When an album finished, I could not recall a single note. These were classic, career-best albums, made by great artists (only some of whom are now suspected to have molested children)…yet they just bounced off my skull. I didn’t even dislike what I heard; I just instantly forgot about it. It was as though I’d created a dozen little black holes in my life, or induced a dozen bouts of waking amnesia.

I was obviously missing something very important. But what?

Eventually I realized that I hadn’t given myself any context to understand the music. I was basically trying to read an advanced foreign-language textbook, without taking the time to learn the language.

An album is not an album. It’s a record of the world the artist lived in. You can try to understand it on its own…but what if you took the time to understand the artist, and the things they were reacting to or pushing back against? You’re denying yourself part of the experience if you don’t.

If you stare at a painting long enough, you’ll eventually see the entire world bleeding through behind it.

The blue robes in Giovanni Battista Salvi da Sassoferrato’s Madonna and Child would have produced awed shock once. Blue pigment – or ultramarine – was the rarest of colors, worth more than its weight in gold. It was derived from the precious gemstone lapis lazuli, which could only be found in a single mine in remote Afghanistan. Cleopatra used powdered lapis for eyeshadow. Tutankhamun’s mask was made from it. During the Renaissance, merchants would haul it overland (a journey that took sevearl months) before shipping it to Venice. Its piercing color and immense price made it both highly sought after and freighted with mystic significance. Vermeer bankrupted his family buying it. Some artists cheated by using cheap azurite, and then applying a single thin layer lapis lazuli. To a Renaissance painter, ultramarine was the equivalent of bringing out the big guns. “Playtime’s over, fuckers. We’re using blue.

…all of that context vanishes when you try to speedrun your way to a cultural appreciation. You see a woman. You see a baby. You vaguely suspect it’s Jesus or something. Next.

Critical theorist Julia Kristeva said “any text is constructed as a mosaic of quotations; any text is the absorption and transformation of another”[1]Kristeva, Julia. (1986). Word, dialogue, and the novel. She was talking specifically about intertextuality, but I think this is true of any meaning we take from art. They’re fragments of the world, refracted through the prism of an artist’s eyes and then into ours. They are not self-contained monadic artifacts, and it makes little sense to treat them as such.

We Could All Be Pierrots

When I listened to David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars as part of my exercise, it produced no emotional response.

But I didn’t know who he was: I didn’t know about the kid growing up in post-War Britain. First a mod, then a hippie, then a gay man. Spinning through wardrobes and identities, learning that “authenticity” is a mug’s game, that you can make a career out of being a well-heeled fake.

I didn’t know what came next. Glam rock. Success. Moving to America. Cocaine. Paranoia. Creating Station to Station, and nearly dying in the process. Moving to Berlin. Making three of the most critically acclaimed albums of the 70s. Reinventing himself again in the 80s, experiencing massive commercial success, along with an incredible collapse in artistic quality. Decades spent in the wilderness, before finally managing an inspiring comeback (Blackstar) before he died.

The narrative I’ve told you is heavily bullshit: partly a media confabulation by Bowie himself, and partly my own imagination. It ignores significant parts of Bowie’s discography (where does Diamond Dogs fit in the picture? What about Outside?), and distorts others (two of the fabled “Berlin” albums were actually recorded in other cities). But I finally had a Rosetta Stone. I could finally speak the language.

David Bowie is now my favorite musician. It didn’t happen because I listened to his best music. It happened because I listened to his worst.

Lex and Violence

I worry that Lex Fridman is falling into the exact same trap I did at twenty.

He’s shoving 52 unrelated books into his brain as fast as he can, like an RPG player grinding their third alt to level 55 in time to raid Molten Core. He’s getting none of the context in which they were written. None of the writer’s personal history. He treats books as a fungible commodity. 1 book = 1 learnin’. 52 books = 52 learnin’s.

I truly don’t believe you can speed-run a cultural education in this way.

Imagine Donald Trump decides, in his infinite wisdom, to climb every famous mountain the world. Everest. Kilimanjaro. Annapurna. But he doesn’t want to go through all the trouble of climbing mountains, so he just uses a helicopter to fly him to the peak. Then he steps out, takes some photos for TruthGabSocialGettr or wherever he’s on, and then has his pilot fly him to the next mountain.

We’d consider that a poor substitute for mountain-climbing. In fact, we wouldn’t consider that mountain-climbing at all.

You can’t just experience a thing just by standing at the peak. There’s also a landscape to explore. If you want to climb a mountain, you have to actually climb.

To be fair to Lex, I don’t know in what spirit he’s reading these books. He claims he’s taking notes. He says some of them (possibly the Dostoyevsky?) are re-reads of past favorites. So there’s probably some effort there. But it also feels like he’s treating reading like an RPG stat that can be minmaxed.

What should Lex do instead?

Here’s what I’d do:

I’d go for a depth-first search rather than a breadth-first. Systematically explore one world, and then exhaust it before moving on to another.

You could carve literature into different domains in all sorts of ways. Maybe do it by time. First, read ancient literature. Then the Greek classics. Then Medieval literature. Build an understanding, and then build things on top of that. Assemble a mental picture of the world one fragment at a time.

Or break the world into distinct domains. Western literature. Eastern literature. Try not to let them cross – you wouldn’t hop from Siddhartha to The Plague until you were ready.

Or you could trace the movement of literature by influences and connection points, following it from node to node. One of my favorite literary movements is decadence. It’s a fascinating genre, but a hard one to get into.

First: read some books in romanticism: the 18th century forerunner of decadence. Absorb their vibes (intense emotions, along with a stultified and didactic sense of morality), and you’d get an idea of the soil decadence came from. It has the same sensory intensity of feeling, but makes it perverted and insane and corrupt.

What next? The poetry of Verlaine, Rimbaud, and Baudelaire. Joris-Karl Huysmans’ À Rebours, Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. Then you’d read some later exercises in sensual perversion that verge on surrealism, like Guillame Apollionaire’s erotic work, or Octave Mirbeau’s The Torture Garden.

“But that would take a lot of time!”

Yes, that’s the rub, isn’t it? Hobbies take time. The temptation to speed-run things is always there.

But if time is your chief constraint, why read the books at all? Why not just read their Wikipedia summaries of these books, and be done in an afternoon? I don’t know. I’m not the book police. Lex’s List is an improvement on not reading books at all.

You have to decide for yourself. Is there value in reading books or not…and if there is, why not read them properly?


1 Kristeva, Julia. (1986). Word, dialogue, and the novel

Wow! What a book!

Prince Harry – whose prose can in no way be described as and “turgid” and “unreadable” – takes us on a journey through the ups and ups and more ups of royal life. To get any closer to the insides of the British royal family, you’d need to be a car windshield in the Pont de l’Alma underpass.

Why it’s called Spare? Well, it references a common saying in the British royal family.

“A hair and a spare.”

You see, the House of Windsor has an old – and odd – tradition. Due to a genetic quirk, the entire family is bald – and I mean disconcertingly, freakishly hairless, like sphinx cats – except for one family member per generation, who grows hair at an accelerated rate. This excess hair is harvested, and used to make wigs, extensions, false eyelashes, and merkins for the rest of the family.

In effect, the male line contains a “hair” (who proudly displays his locks in public), and a “spare” (who grows those locks behind the scenes).

On page 32, Harry describes the day he learned the awful reason for his birth.

“Father escorted me into the geranium-scented quietness of the Balmoral Conservatory. Once we were alone, he bade me come to his knee, his expression grave.

“Harry, it’s time you knew the truth. You are a hair donor.”


Father’s voice did not waver as he explained the history of our family. We possess a mutated CD572, or “anticapillus” gene. This allele is dominant: if you have one copy of it, your body will be hairless. But if you are homozygous (meaning, if both chromosomes have the corrupt CD572), a so-called “anti-overdominance” effect kicks in. With a double dose of the mutation, your follicle glands are hyperstimulated, and instead of being stunted, hair grows at fourfold the normal rate.

I didn’t understand most of this, but I wondered if it was the reason why I required such frequent haircuts. Or why I kept clogging shower drains. Or why I looked like I was smuggling six full-grown shi tzu’s inside my underwear. Or why, in Eton productions of A Winter’s Tale, I kept getting cast as the bear that chases Antigonus off the stage.

And could this be why my brother William’s body – which I’d frequently observed when we bathed together – was muskrat-bald? I had assumed that he was merely a pussy.

I gulped. My life was about to change forever.


The odds of homozygosity for a given allele is 1 in 4, so generally, the royal family will usually have one hair donor per generation. If no homozygotic offspring are born, the couple duly continue pumping out children until they have one. And it seems it was Harry’s unlikely fate to become this donor.

Harry spares no detail on the horrifying surgery required.

“But I don’t want to give my hair to William!” I wailed as the steel forceps gleamed, capturing my tearstruck face. “He sucks!”

“Your locks will grow back,” the kindly doctor assured me, as he injected another shot of local anesthetic into my scalp. “Try to relax, Your Highness. This is less painful than it was in the pliers-and-corgi-fat days, trust me.”

The surgeon began the procedure, which involved removing hair follicles from the donor area and placing them, dripping with blood, onto an embroidered royal napkin, ready for grafting onto my brother’s scalp.

“This won’t hurt a bit,” he crooned.

He lied. It hurt a lot.

Through a crystalline storm of unbelievable agony, I heard Grandma’s kindly voice.

“Please leave enough hair for my new merkin,” she told the surgeon.  “The breeze over the royal privates is dreadfully chilly, you know.”


He discloses further dynamite, such as the fact that the Royal Line is the last, degenerate strain of an ancient capillary-obsessed cult.

On the Isle of Man (where the royal line is believed to have started), folk believe in a mythical being called “Fenodyree” – a sort of hairy elf who helps humans with their chores (“Fenodyree” is a compound of the Gaelic words fynney, or ‘hair’, and oashyree, ‘stockings’).

The Manx brownie is called the fenodyree, and he is described as a hairy and apparently clumsy fellow, who would, for instance, thrash a whole barnful of corn in a single night for the people to whom he felt well disposed; and once on a time he undertook to bring down for the farmer his wethers from Snaefell.

Celtic Folklore, John Rhys, 1901

The Fenodyree is also mentioned by Milton under the name “Lubber fiend”.

Basks at the fire his hairy strength,

And crop-full out of doors he flings,

Ere the first cock his matin rings.

L’Allegro, John Milton, 1631

This odd hairy servant appears to be a mythical refiguring of the CD572 homozygote carrier, who has clearly existed for centuries in the royal line. There’s a clear level of symbolism here. The Fenodyree doesn’t just help with any chore. It serves humans by mowing and cutting things.

The Fenoderee went to the meadow,
To lift the dew at the grey dawn,
The maiden- hair and the cattle- herb,
He was stamping under both his feet.
He was stretching out on the ground* ofthe meadow ;
He threw the grass on the left hand,
He caused us to wonder last year,
And this year he is far better.
He was stretching out on the ground of the meadow,
Cutting the herbs in bloom,
The bog- bean in the rushy curragh,
As he went it was all shaking.
The scythe he had was cutting everything,
Skinning the meadow to the sods,
And, if a wisp were left standing,
He stamped it with his heel.

Manx Ballads & Music, Moore, Arthur William (1896)

Again and again, hair-obsession crops up in British history. Chaucer makes ribald references to beards and pubic hair. Lady Godiva rode naked through town, shielded only by her long hair. Henry VIII introduced a “beard tax” in 1535, meaning your tax burden increased in line with the length of your beard, ensuring it would become a status symbol. Indeed, St Edward’s Crown itself is a symbolic, Freudian substitute for a brilliant mane of hair. The nation is gripped by follicular-philia.

It would embarrass the nation if the King was known to be bald. And it was Harry’s fate to ensure that this never happened.

Yikes! You can see why Harry’s relationship with the crown is strained, with that kind of skeleton in their closet! Unfortunately, the House of Windsor has many claimants for hair, and their excessive demands would leave even Harry’s robust follicular system on the verge of deforestation.

We also learn the true reason for Prince Harry’s sudden 2008 recall from active commission in Afghanistan. We were told that his identity had been leaked by an Australian women’s magazine, and the Ministry of Defense feared he would become a target for kidnap or assassination.

What we didn’t know was that his all-important hair was at risk, too. As soon as Taliban uncovered his identity, they saw a chance to eliminate the British royalty at the root (literally), and began deploying illegal anti-follicle chemical weapons.

Rockets screamed over Forward Operating Base Delhi in Helmand Province. We were taking heavy fire.

As parallel lines of smoke arced toward us, I assumed they were were crude fertilizer bombs. But when they slammed into the cracked dirt, there were no fiery explosions. Instead, I saw little canisters bouncing on the ground, releasing clouds of sulphur-yellow mist.

As the clouds billowed out over nearby soldiers, I saw something that chilled my marrow. Their hair was falling out! Captain Murphy’s black tresses were coming out in twists and clumps. Squadron Leader Hopkin’s handlebar mustache was streaming away from his nose like so much liquified brown snot.

Horrified understanding dawned on me. The Taliban was using hair-dissolving chemicals against us! Against me! In clear breach of the Geneva Convention!

I staggered through the carnage, dodging flying canisters. I had to get out of here. If my hair was collateral-damaged, all was lost. The family was counting on me!

I dashed toward FOB Delhi, weaving around snaking trails of smoke. At the last moment, I tripped and fell, and the wind blew smoke over my left ankle. Fortunately, it was deflected by my battle dress. And though the hair over that area is now thinner, the rest of my body is unscathed.

“Close shave,” a NCO said back at HQ.

“That is not fucking funny!”


But most disturbingly of all, he discusses macabre rumors which have long swirled about Diana’s death.

We all know what happened in that tragic night. MI6 operates whisked the Princess away, and embalmed her so hastily it nearly caused an international scandal. The rumor at the time was that they wanted to hide evidence of a pregnancy. In fact, this rumor was started by the MI6 itself.

Here’s the truth: they wanted her hair.

Upon her head, painstakingly extracted from mine, were over 100,000 individual follicles of hair, feathered and sprayed and colored straw-blonde. You think the “Princess Di” refers to her birth name? Guess again. It’s actually Princess Dye.

Her body was worthless to the Crown, but her hair was worth its weight in gold, as large numbers of bald family members were demanding my hair, and my body was about to enter septic shock from repeated rounds of surgery.

As far as I know, part of “Diana’s” hair (meaning, mine) was fashioned into the ring Father now wears on his finger, and another section was used to stuff a throw-pillow that is now in the possession of Andrew.

When I discovered this, it was the final straw. I would no longer be a hair donor for these evil, bald bastards.


Damn! Talk about spilling the tea!

Harry’s decision would have far-reaching consequences. His family members were denied fresh hair implants, and soon, the paparazzi were noting that the royal hair was taking on a thin, careworn look. It seemed to be crumbling before our eyes, like old Christmas tinsel. Several members – most notably his brother – went almost entirely bald. Britain, it seems, no longer rules the waves.

The death of the Queen in 2022 was a short-lived reprieve, as they were able to regain her hair and stave off the ravages of time. But the clock is still ticking. So far, no new double-CD572 homozygotes have been born. None of Duchess Sophie’s issue has the double-mutation, and neither do Princess Beatrice’s, Princess Eugenie’s, or Princess Alexandra’s. Windsor has to win Harry back, or they’ll disgrace Britain forever with baldness.

…unless they can somehow gain access to little Archibald Mountbatten-Windsor. Who is ironically named indeed, because the little tyke is rumored to possess a double dose of the mutation.

Megan claimed in her bombshell Oprah Winfrey interview that a “senior member” had asked her questions about her baby’s skin color. But it seems she misunderstood the line of questioning. They were trying assess if Megan has any history of CD572 in her family line.

So you’ll learn more than you’ll ever wanted to know about how the British royal family works in this biography. Get ready to have your understanding about the house of Windsor flip-turned upside down. Let’s not split hairs, Harry’s autobiography is a cut above the rest. No matter where you stand on the royalty and their place in contemporary life, you’ll find this book to be a breath of fresh hair.


Lawrence of Arabia depicts what was nearly the birth of the modern Arab state, but it’s shot like the end of history. The movie is apocalypse-sized; as if it expects to the last one ever filmed. Everything is huge and grand and excessive – the setting, costuming, score, running time, everything. It thunders over the senses like a train.

It’s an epic about TE Lawrence, as interpreted by Peter O’Toole and largely derived from Lawrence’s own prolific writings. It paints a picture of a freak, a misfit, a uniquely-shaped gear who fell into the engine box of history and miraculously slotted into place, allowing world events to turn. I don’t have much interest in its factual accuracy. Movies aren’t Wikipedia articles.

Lawrence of Arabia starts at the end: with Lawrence’s death in 1935. We see a media frenzy around the dead man, a jostling clash of claim and counterclaim. A great hero? An exhibitionist? Everyone’s comparing puzzle pieces of the deceased man, but none of them match. We sense that Lawrence hasn’t left much of himself behind.

Then the film cuts back in time to 1916, with Lawrence a young army lieutenant in the Arab Bureau intelligence unit. He backtalks his superiors, and comes off as pretentious and arrogant. He paints, knows his classics, and deports himself with a certain effeteness. The film can’t explicitly depict him as gay, but the subtext is a brick to the face.

But when he’s dispatched to Arabia (to shadow Prince Faisal, a putative ally of the British in the revolt against the Turks), his alienness becomes an asset. He establishes a rapport with the tribes, and comes up with daring, impossible plans: crossing a desert that can’t be crossed, storming a city that can’t be taken. He stands out – both with his white complexion, and inability to play the game the normal way – and is soon at the center of regional politics.

His handsome face becomes a generic slate onto which various characters project their desires – Prince Faisal’s wish for Arabic independence, Sherif Ali’s personal ambition, Auda Abu Tayi’s lust for plunder, General Edmund Allenby’s desire to entrench Britain’s tactical position against the Ottomans. Like all messiahs, Lawrence is who you need him to be, and like all messiahs, he is disposable.

Virtually no part of this movie could be made now. There are no speaking roles for women. The set of Aqaba was built by Franco’s fascist regime. The idea of British intelligence running the show in Arabia is portrayed as morally neutral or positive. Most of the actors (Omar Sharif excepted) are not Arabic but British or Americans in brownface. Anthony Quinn, who plays Auda Abu Tayi, has a Brooklyn accent and a silly fake nose.

I’m sure most kids now watch this movie for a school report, and write about how it’s a racist old film about how unenlightened Arabs just need a smart British person to whip them into line.

But the point of Lawrence’s character is that he isn’t British, except in a nominal sense. He has no loyalty to his homeland. When he’s praised for his achievements by Allenby and Dryden, their words sound hollow and false. Lawrence never conquers Aqaba out of some “Rule, Britannia!” patriotic impulse. It’s something darker, less explicable, less controllable. In any case, the sympathies he develops for the Arabs soon cause Allenby to suspect he’s gone native.

But what does Lawrence really want? I kept asking this of the film, but director David Lean leaves it unclear. Lawrence is a confusing person: outwardly flashy and flamboyant, but inwardly hollow. He’s more defined by what he doesn’t have than by what he does.

We see a streak of kindness in Lawrence (as well as an unwillingness to get his hands dirty), but also a vanity that almost gets him killed. While spying undercover in an enemy city, he is captured and mocked by a Turkish bey. A real politician would not have risen to the bait, but Lawrence lashes out, and earns himself a beating. Soon it becomes clear that the British will betray the deal they brokered with Faisal, shattering the last of Lawrence’s confidence in himself.

His stated motives for his actions (“I just want my ration of common humanity!”) sound curiously unspecific. It shows the danger of not having a moral center: you get sculpted and distorted by whatever your environment is. He ends up as an existential ghost, haunting the desert like a Dybbuk, detached from the world he thinks he controls. Lawrence reshapes the politics of the Middle East to suit himself, but he’s reshaped by it in turn. Soon this nightmare becomes apparent in his eyes. He’s nothing, and knows it.

Lawrence: I killed two people, I mean two Arabs. One was a boy. That was yesterday. I led him into a quicksand. The other was a man. That was before Aqaba anyway. I had to execute him with my pistol. There was something about it I didn’t like.
Allenby: Well, naturally.
Lawrence: No, something else.
Allenby: I see. Well that’s all right. Let it be a warning.
Lawrence: No, something else.
Allenby: What then?
Lawrence: I enjoyed it.

Is this an accurate depiction of Lawrence? I’m doubtful. It occurs to me that most “weirdos” are not actually that weird – they’re non-freakish people who can play the role of oddball on command but are actually fairly normal. David Bowie (who likely took fashion notes from Peter O’Toole in this movie) is a good example.

Imagine if Forbes Magazine ran a “most inspiring poor person” contest – most of the entrants would be crustfunders or fakers or LARPers. Genuine poor people don’t read Forbes Magazine and would never hear about the contest. It takes lots of social cleverness to become famous: a misfit celebrity is something of a contradiction in terms. Genuine freaks are either ignored, or are put in cages to be gawked at. Freakishness is as prone to gentrification as anything.

But even if Lawrence wasn’t like this, the depiction still rings true in a game theory sense. Sometimes it does pay to be an alien dropped out of the sky. Lawrence has no reason to prefer one tribe of Arab over another. He is blind to doctrinal differences, doesn’t care about interpretations of Wahhabism vs Hanafalism. This is his strength. It’s often worse to be a little different than vastly different (other players “neargroup vs fargroup”). Think of how Genghis Khan is popularly regarded in society, vs Hitler. Or how the Tlaxcalans of Mexico allied with the fargroup Spanish agains the neargroup Aztecs.

Lawrence is Genghis Khan to the Arabs. In his first few days in Arabia, he learns a harsh lesson. Upon landing in Arabia, he journeys with a Bedouin guide. The guide drinks from a well owned by Sherif Ali without permission, and is killed by Ali. Lawrence drank too, but is spared. In this land, being a foreigner is like protective armor. He doesn’t yet know about the Islamic principle of amān (safeguard) which likely just saved his life.

Again, Lawrence of Arabia is better off watched as a fantasy film, not as commentary on the geopolitical ramifications of the Sykes-Picot treaty or whatever. Beethoven once said “To play a wrong note is insignificant; to play without passion is inexcusable.” Real life contains a lot of smallness and silliness and incidence that cannot be used as fodder for a story. Epics, almost by definition, have many wrong notes.

The depictions of Arabs as squabbling idiots who can’t even keep the power on without British help (that’s literally a scene at the end) may come off as racist. But it may have a grain of truth. Certainly, Saudi Arabia was late to the modernisation game. Here’s an interesting anecdote I read on Matt Lakeman’s blog (for which he tragically does not provide a source)

Wahhabis oppose innovation. This is not just an accusation flung from the moral high horse of my modern liberalism, this is how Wahhabis describe themselves. They believe in a strict literalist reading of Islamic texts, hence innovation is deviation from the texts. This mindset expands beyond esoteric theological theory into everyday life. The founder of modern Saudi Arabia, King Abdulaziz al Saud, publicly smashed a telegraph to appease his clerics who worried he was using too much modern technology.

That aside, some scenes do overplay their hand, and come off as goofy. The action was as good as it got in 61, but it’s not as visceral and bloody. It’s very “stagey” – punches that clearly miss, men who don’t duck when fired upon, but stand up, so the cheap seats can see them. There’s the obligatory scene where a man gets sucked to his doom by quicksand: it’s supposed to be shocking and horrible, but the fact that it’s quicksand gives it a Roger Corman quality.

We’re meant to watch it on a huge screen (and on 70mm stock) and some scenes don’t really work on a small one. As Lawrence’s men cross the terrible Al-Nafud Desert, the warrior Gasim falls from his camel, and is left behind. When Lawrence discovers this, he goes back to rescue him. It’s an important scene, setting off an IOU that pays off later in the movie…but if you watch it on an 640×480 DVD rip acquired in an extremely legal fashion some shots (such as a distant man walking across the dunes, like a crack piercing the sky) become impossible to understand. The human figures are too small to see. Can you see the man in the picture below? Look closer.

The film has some of the best desert footage ever shot. Lean has a sense of depth and space, and how to make it resound off the screen like an echoing scream. This movie made me feel gravity. At times, I felt vertigo swirling out, as if I might fall forward into the celluloid.

It diminishes the human side of the conflict. Imposes a sense that none of it truly matters much. Whoever prevails in the Arab Revolt, the only winner will be the desert.

Everyone seems tiny in this ocean of sand. The British, the Hashemites, the Bedouins, the Ottomans – are just ants floating in an ocean of sand, slowly dying in a light more blinding than any darkness, hunched double with their thawbs and keffiyehs flapping against blasting wind, hoping that the oasis in front of them actually exists. They might be princelings, warriors, or statesmen, but the desert equalizes them, crushing them all down to nothing. The film achieves an odd effect: the mythic figures look so powerless that they actually become human again.

The film brilliantly portrays the main character’s psychological collapse. Reportedly, Lean’s cameras kept malfunctioning, because they were choked up with sand. Lawrence eventually reaches the same point. He is humiliated, damages, and begins descending into the kind of honor-feud vindictiveness. He learns of the British plot to betray Arab interests, and begins to wonder what it was all ultimately for. A sense of setting sun hangs over everything: the end of history. It’s one of Hollywood’s final great epics.

According to Hollywood lore, the cheapest special effects are bare breasts and dwarves. Lawrence of Arabia has none, but it finds another one: deserts. But the desert’s so big and empty that it projects futility. What can one man ultimately do out here, except lose?

The final time Lawrence meets Auda Abu Tayi, he says “I pray that I may never see the desert again.” To which Abu Tayi says “there is only the desert for you.”

The final shot argues that this is true. He is driving out of Arabia. “‘home, sah!” his driver says. But we see dry dust twisting up into the air behind the car, and it tells another story. The hot, soul-chilling desert is coming out with him, like a shadow that will never leave. He can’t run from who he isn’t. Wherever Lawrence goes, he will find the lone and level sands waiting for him.

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