‘I know the hearts of men. And that is why I am a director.’
Werner Herzog handles grim matters in his work as a whole with genuine love and familiarity, and the quote above is no flippant boast: he does fully identify with his subjects and their suffering. He is, however, rarely sympathetic, and instead reveals humanity in the materiality of being human. The honesty of the flesh, the absurdity of the sacred, the enduring equivalence of meaninglessness that all men share. Into the Abyss: a Tale of Death, a Tale of Life finds its foothold here. In this documentary about life on death row, Herzog does not linger on eviscerating questions of guilt versus innocence. Instead, the film is concerned with the banality of the immanence of death, the curious paradox of denial and commitment in the mind of the living-about-to-be-dead, and their strange hybrid communities where the families of criminals and their victims overlap to create an unwilling and unwanted extended family in mourning.
Herzog’s hallmark co-option of melodramatic sentiment also serves as an eccentric form of comedy, buoying his scrutiny of human ethics. In the film, he claims that as a German who survived the Second World War, and as a ‘guest’ in America, he has no position of moral authority from which to condemn the American judicial system. Even this statement contains a playful double meaning. Conversely, the state-mandated philosophy surrounding the execution of condemned men is curiously clumsy and archaic. There has seemingly been some attempt by unnamed governing bodies to address the praxis of execution, and the extent to which the prisoner is conscious of its ‘variables’ as relative factors in his own mortality - when, where, how. Of equal or greater concern, though, is the extent to which these devices are used to shield the executioners (known collectively in Texas as the Tie-Down Team) from the very terms of Herzog’s tongue-in-cheek allusion to state-sanctioned killing in Germany, as is the problematic role of a shared religious faith as a coping mechanism for victims of crime, criminals and representatives of the state apparatus.
There is currently an accompanying series of one-hour episodes airing on Channel 4 that deal with other death row inmates and their trajectories towards death. Herzog is quick to point out that he has spent no more than 60 minutes each with any participant in the film and the TV series - having measured time allocated to his interactions with people who have lost a loved one, either to crime or to prison, against the constraints of time allotted visitors of death row inmates as determined by state correctional facilities. The film is often cold, lacking the wild outbursts of violence and madness Herzog is known for, but it is also darkly funny in its peculiar earnestness. Its purest moments are those that show emotions clearly groomed for the camera, rehearsed and played out in their entirety. Oddly, it is in the most manufactured and rehearsed demonstrations for the camera that the visceral conflict of the situation reveals itself; in tears unshed – glimpsed or swallowed, rather than in the choreographic design of yet-unbaked cookies and dead bodies in a suburban American household.
Having impressed FrightFesters at last year’s festival, A Horrible Way to Die is now released on DVD and Blu-ray by Anchor Bay. An original take on the serial killer genre, it is seen mostly from the point of view of the former girlfriend of a murderer. After Garrick’s arrest, Sarah is trying to rebuild her life and address her problems, attending AA meetings, where she meets a sensitive young man. When Garrick is released, the film intercuts flashbacks of Sarah and Garrick’s lives together before she found out the truth about him with his journey down to the town Sarah now lives in, and her tentative new romance. Shot in an impressionistic, elliptical style, the film paints a nuanced picture, evoking the tenderness and love Sarah and Garrick shared, making her realisation of his betrayal all the more horrifying. A well-observed, evocative, heartbreaking story, it never feels sensational despite moments of violence, and develops slowly but compellingly, until all the pieces of the puzzle sickeningly fall into place.
Cast: Vanessa Redgrave, Oliver Reed, Dudley Sutton, Michael Gothard, Christopher Logue, Graham Armitage
109 mins (screening) / 107 mins (DVD)
Ken Russell’s 1971 film deliberately sets out to shock and does so with a verve and an integrity of purpose that few films can equal. The shock does not simply reside in its subject matter of religious hysteria, taken from the Aldous Huxley book The Devils of Loudun and a 1961 play by John Whiting, also based on the Huxley book, but arrives in a 360-degree arc. There is the disgusting body horror of the plague, the soundtrack by Peter Maxwell Davies, hell-bent on giving an aural rendering of Pandemonium, and the radically shifting tone of the film, which lurches from low comedy to high tragedy, often in the same shot.
It is 17th-century France and Cardinal Richelieu (Christopher Logue) conspires to have the battlements of various French towns torn down. When Baron De Laubardemont (played by Tinker from Lovejoy, Dudley Sutton) tries to carry out the orders in Loudun the charismatic but deeply flawed priest, Father Urbain Grandier (Oliver Reed), intervenes, having been given control of the town by the dying Governor. Unfortunately, Grandier has made a series of powerful enemies, including the Baron, a pair of conniving quack doctors and a noble, whose daughter Grandier has impregnated, and Grandier is set for a fall. This promptly happens, when rumours of his secret marriage to Madeleine (Gemma Jones in her debut) incense the local convent. Unwittingly, Grandier has become the object of the nuns’ repressed lust, and a specific dream object of Vanessa Redgrave’s hunchback Sister Jeanne. During a hysterical outburst, Sister Jeanne names Grandier as being party to a demonic possession of several of the sisterhood. The reenactment of the hysteria is itself hysterical, and of course Russell leaves himself open to the criticism that he ‘goes too far’. But thank god. His camera doesn’t just show an orgy of cavorting nuns, but leaps right in and takes part. With a disapproving priest masturbating under his cassock the camera starts a delirious zooming in and out, in and out, in and out until … oh… my.
Aside from the orgies and the enemas and the frolicking nuns and what not, Russell has great fun with the satire. One of the quacks, Adam (Brian Murphy, famous as George from George and Mildred), while assisting in the exorcism, comments, ‘nice day… bit chilly, but still…’ to Sister Jeanne. A disguised King Louis XIII (Graham Armitage) also assists and in the process exposes the whole thing as a sham, but rather than denounce the rock’ n’ roll exorcist (a fantastic performance by the tragically wasted Michael Gothard), he sees it as all part of the fun. After all, his monarchy is based on an empty box of sorts and he shows himself to be a keen fan of the theatre. ‘Enjoy yourself,’ he tells Sister Jeanne.
The tragedy comes with Grandier’s fall. Oliver Reed is magnificent. His Grandier is carelessly witty and licentious and yet convincingly heroic. In the shambolic comedy of the trial, he maintains a credible dignity and indeed begins to rise to grandeur. Only Reed could deliver the line ‘Go away, De Lauberdemont, you grow tedious’ while he is being tortured and make you at once laugh and feel crushing sorrow. His tormentors and Russell refuse him every consolation, and in a particularly horrific moment his illegitimate son is held up so the ‘lucky bastard can watch his father burn’. Of course, as the flames climb high it is no longer Grandier who burns, but all of Loudun and us as well.
The film looks wonderful - sets designed by Derek Jarman - and the healthy punkish nihilism, the anger, is as relevant today as it ever was. We could have a paean to what might have been, if Warners hadn’t so hated the film and if Oliver Reed and Russell had formed a collaborative partnership similar to Klaus Kinski and Werner Herzog that somehow balanced their crazy talents, but as one of the most outstanding 70s films to come out of Britain, I am simply thankful that it is at last (almost all) here.
The Devils is released on DVD by the BFI in its original UK X certificate version. BFI Southbank will screen the director’s cut of The Devils on March 19. For more details of the season, please go to Ken Russell Forever.
Cast: Dorothy Tutin, Scott Antony, Helen Mirren, Lindsay Kemp
After making The Devils, Russell felt exhausted, burned out. He turned to an adaptation of Sandy Shaw’s musical The Boy Friend, intending a light-hearted tribute to a childhood spent watching MGM musicals. The film proved nightmarish to make: ‘we had nervous breakdowns and near suicides among the company,’ Shirley Russell reported. Russell was once again near breaking point. Believing he had delivered a surefire hit, but finding that the sort of creative doors he wanted to open remained closed, Russell re-mortgaged his house to finance his next project, a personal film that took him away from art deco glamour and complex dance routines, and back to his days as a struggling still photographer living in West London.
Savage Messiah is the story of the French sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska (referred to as Henri Gaudier in the film) and his relationship with the unpublished author Sophie Brzeska, a Polish woman some 20 years his senior, whom he met in 1910 (and whose name he appended to his own). Russell had picked up a copy of H.S. Ede’s biography Savage Messiah (actually mostly just the couple’s correspondence, with explanatory gloss by Ede) while a young man, and something about Gaudier-Brzeska’s story profoundly affected him: the determination, the arrogance, the contrariness, the seemingly contradictory desire to transcend one’s drab, quotidian surroundings while at the same time resisting the pull of airy transcendentalism.
For the script, Russell turned to the poet Christopher Logue, who had previously acted for Russell, providing a superbly acid characterisation of Cardinal Richelieu in The Devils. And for the all-important set design (Gaudier-Brzeska: ‘I shall derive my emotions solely from the arrangement of surfaces, I shall present my emotions by the arrangement of my surfaces.’) he turned to another collaborator from The Devils, Derek Jarman.
But for such a grand, threatening title (actually a sobriquet given to Gaudier-Brzeska by Ezra Pound) and from a director with Russell’s reputation for controversy, Savage Messiah is actually a visually subtle, character-driven work, featuring little of what was to come; the gaudy comic-book primary colours of Tommy, or the giant phalluses of Lisztomania. The film sets the tone from the outset: a pencil scratching an image onto paper (with accompanying closely recorded sound effects) recalls past enthusiasms for a caméra-stylo approach to making films. At the time Russell felt paradoxically liberated by the external constraints on the film, but he later came to view the work as too talky, too static.
Although Logue’s script is indeed dialogue-heavy, Russell’s own analysis does not do justice to the film. It features a great variety of techniques; sometimes the pace is gradual and stately, sometimes the camera and editing are as restless as Gaudier himself. Scenes such as Gaudier’s impromptu rant outside the library seem to suddenly explode into life, banishing the passive, austere mood created by the previous sequence. These abrupt shifts in tone and mood seem calculated to infuriate Russell’s detractors, but they also reflect the fractious, volatile relationship between Henri and Sophie, the way in which tender moments between the two can suddenly flare up into arguments. Dorothy Tutin’s performance as Sophie is delivered sensitively. Though her character is tightly wound and prone to outbursts, she is somehow the perfect counterweight to Scott Antony’s testosterone-fuelled, posturing Gaudier, who wilfully changes his opinions and his plans by the day.
That Logue was the originator of Private Eye magazine’s Pseuds Corner column is visible in the characterisation of the art world’s glitterati, whom Henri and Sophie first meet at a dinner party at the house of Gaudier patron’s Corky (played with camp relish by Lindsay Kemp, perhaps best known to cinephiles for his role as the scrofulous landlord in The Wicker Man). What distinguishes Henri and Sophie from these shallow dabblers is that they are willing to take an idea to the end; Sophie’s novel is titled Truth: A Novel of the Spirit and Gaudier, when he tosses his famous female torso through an art dealer’s window in an act of rage, demands to be thrown in jail and insists that nobody pay his bail. It is principle, then, that underpins the value structure of this film, although Gaudier’s principles are sometimes clouded in contradiction (the idea that it’s only through paradox, oxymoron, that we can express what we really feel) such as when he tells the assembled dandies, ‘I like what everyone likes - and EVERYBODY likes war’. The real Gaudier-Brzeska heckled the poet and war enthusiast Filippo Marinetti during a lecture in London, but Logue’s script is not interested with presenting Gaudier as an earnest ideologue.
The character of Gosh Boyle is introduced as a counterpoint to Sophie. Gosh is a suffragette who impresses Gaudier with her disruptive demonstrations and her almost cartoonishly voluptuous figure. But when world war breaks out her imperialist background is too strong to resist and she joins the army (her father is a Major who commissions a bust from Gaudier). When Gaudier last sees her she is a crass, jingoistic parody, shorn of her previous feminist and bohemian tendencies. Some quarters may feel that as a character she is used to critique feminism (and with Russell’s prurient interest in her physical charms, such an interpretation is hardly surprising). In fact, she figures in the film’s commentary on commitment. Gosh is just another dilettante, like the luminaries of the art crowd that Gaudier is introduced to. Such characters soon reveal that their pretentions to artistic and political activity are motivated by social climbing rather than Gaudier’s relentless termite burrowing.
Gaudier-Brzeska enthusiasts are often critical of the film, not only for its compression of the artist’s biography, but because it reveals little of the complexity of Gaudier-Brzeska’s thought and of his participation in the thriving pre-war avant-garde (no mention of Gaudier-Brzeska’s friendship with figures such as T.E. Hulme and Ezra Pound.) The Vorticist movement as a whole is portrayed rather dismissively, as a group of style-over-substance dilettantes rather than the strident firebrands many of them were.
But here as in his biographies of famous composers, Russell is less interested in historical accuracy than in communicating the energy of the creative process. When Andrei Tarkovsky coined the phrase ‘sculpting in time’ he was in part trying to elevate cinema to a fine art, inspired by a divine muse and revered in a gallery. Russell uses the same medium as a figure for his aspirations: ‘The central image of our movie is the titanic struggle of the sculptor to release his genius from the intractable marble,’ Russell told Jarman, perhaps somewhat haughtily.
Unlike Tarkovsky, Russell was thinking less of the hallowed portals of high art and more of the sweat, exertion and chipping away that characterise the sculptor at work. It is instructive (and gratifyingly blasphemous) to compare the end of Savage Messiah with that of Tarkovsky’s own artist biopic, Andrei Rublev (1966). Both films end with a close look at their subjects’ artworks, but while Tarkovsky’s is hand-wringingly reverent, Russell’s approach is more ludic - he shows the sculptures in close-up, but he also shows them in a gallery, as passers-by consult their exhibition catalogues and seem mildly bemused. Two young women point and giggle at Gaudier’s now-celebrated head of an idiot - ‘art is alive; love it, laugh at it, but don’t worship it,’ as Gaudier bellows from atop a huge (and obviously not stone) Moai [near the film’s outset. The prim period dress of the gallery visitors seems utterly at odds with Gaudier’s vindication of primitive beauty.
The BBC’s recent documentary on Russell, attempting to cram a vast and prolific career into the sort of narrative that suits a 60-minute programme, ironed out many of Russell’s more quixotic moments. But to omit Savage Messiah, as the BBC did, seems surprising as it is one of Russell’s key films. Reducing the complexity of a film to the intentions/private obsessions of a single author can be reductive. But Gaudier-Brzeska can really be seen as an analogue for Russell; he loves life, hates the quotidian, often expresses his high ideals childishly or through paradox or provocation. Throughout, the film presents an individualistic philosophy, portraying the artistic community as a safety net of self-regard. Russell told his first biographer John Baxter: ‘Gaudier’s life was a good example to show that art, which is simply exploiting to the full one’s own natural gifts, is really bloody hard work, misery, momentary defeat and taking a lot of bloody stick - and giving it.’ A fitting epitaph for Russell himself.
Includes: Andrzej Wajda’s Innocent Sorcerers, Jerzy Kawalerowicz’s Night Train, Janusz Morgenstern’s Goodbye, See You Tomorrow and Andrzej Munk’s Eroica
Release date: 12 March 2012
Distributor: Second Run
Title: Night Train
Director: Jerzy Kawalerowicz
Writer: Jerzy Kawalerowicz, Jerzy Lutowski
Cast: Lucyna Winnicka, Leon Niemczyk
A man in sunglasses boards a train and insists on a sleeping compartment all to himself. A woman has already moved into his compartment and refuses to leave. Fellow passengers look on with curiosity, but this is just the beginning of their eventful overnight journey. Newspaper reports mention a wife killer on the lam: could one of the passengers in the sleeping carriage be the murderer?
Part of the Polish Cinema Classics box-set, the new Second Run DVD release of Night Train (1959) includes just one special feature, which doubles as a sneaky promotional clip for another upcoming release: My Seventeen Lives, a documentary about the director, Jerzy Kawalerowicz. While instructive, at just six and a half minutes this clip can only provide a minimum of information about Kawalerowicz, his film and its place in the Polish School of the 1950s.
Still, it’s hard to be disappointed in this DVD given the outstanding quality of the feature itself. Shot in lush black and white, striking compositions frame the actors’ expressive faces. Leon Niemczyk (who later starred in Roman Polanski’s Knife in the Water) plays the solitary passenger, Jerzy. In the documentary, Niemczyk explains that Kawalerowicz didn’t like his actors to memorise their lines: he wanted to capture thought and hesitation on their faces. This helps to create an air of reticence and mystery, while a languorous jazzy soundtrack enhances the film’s charged atmosphere. When Jerzy enters the sleeping carriage, the viewer is immersed alongside him in a microcosm where it is difficult to keep track of all the individuals and their personal stories: the film begs to be re-watched in order to understand them, but will always retain some ambiguity.
Kawalerowicz says in the documentary that he wanted viewers to feel as though they were actually travelling on a train. A real train was too unstable a location for filming, so a sleeper carriage was set up in the studio, where a complex series of rear projections provided the scenery rushing past the windows. Skilful camerawork also contributes to the film’s lifelike impression, juxtaposing two spatial axes: up and down the train’s crowded corridors, and in and out of the cramped compartments. These two axes also represent the tenuous division between the public space of the corridor and the supposedly private space of the compartment.
There is a small-town feeling to passenger relationships on the train: the travellers just can’t resist invading each other’s privacy, offering unsolicited advice and flirting shamelessly. The film is understanding of human flaws, though, pointing to the traumas and disappointments that make individuals act the way they do. It is harder to excuse the characters for instantly turning on a fellow passenger who is suspected of murder: all previous companionship with the suspect counts for nothing, as they gossip about tell-tale signs of criminality. Similarly, rather than letting the police do their job when the murderer flees, the passengers join in the chase, forming a small but increasingly aggressive mob. Other people’s misfortunes become a spectator sport.
Night Train is only available as part of Second Run’s Polish Cinema Classics box-set.
The story of one of the most famous literary friendships in the world is almost too good to make a good film. There’s something preposterous about Percy Bysshe Shelley’s and Lord Byron’s meeting in Switzerland at the Villa Diodati in 1816, like one of those imaginary dinner parties where you get to choose the guests from history; like Fantasy Island. Add to that the delicious irony that the literary outcome of the ghost story writing competition that ensued should be won hands down not by either of the two poets, but by the overshadowed 18-year-old wife Mary Shelley, who wrote… oh come on really? and Byron’s doctor, whose Vampyre would directly inspire Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
Ken Russell doesn’t give a monkey’s about historical or biographical accuracy and is much more interested in the flamboyant silliness of the whole thing. Julian Sands is a Shelley who might have stepped out of a Blackadder episode: ‘There’s nothing intellectual about wandering about Italy in a big shirt and trying to get laid, Mrs Miggins. The vegetarian and abstemious poet becomes a laudanum addict and boozer, channelling Coleridge presumably. Gabriel Byrne looks perfect as a clomping Byron, who is first seen standing in front of an enormous portrait of himself. Natasha Richardson is a rather arch, prudish Mary, with a vague Scottish lilt, and Miriam Cyr is Claire Clairmont, Mary’s half-sister and Byron’s lover. Timothy Spall rounds off the cast as a suitably repellent Polidori.
There is a lot of dashing about and what Nicholas Cage has recently called ‘mega-acting’, a sense of dynamic improvisation, possibly to try and enliven what otherwise is a one-location film. In fact, the structure begins to resemble a kind of phantasmagoria, a punkish Dead of Night, as the collected fruitcakes try to outdo each other in lurid scenes of nightmarish fantasy, play hide-and-seek and shriek quite a lot. Taking the title as a starting point, the film crams in a lot of the furniture and paraphernalia of the Gothic: skulls, snakes, armoured men, rats, creepy-crawlies, incest, ghosts, tilted stairways, thunder and lightning, endless corridors. It never once stops to actually build any tension, and it isn’t transgressive in any way because in this universe there’s no normality to transgress from. In an opening section, we get a glimpse of the outside world in the form of a bunch of upper-class tourists leering through telescopes trying to catch a glimpse of the famous occupants of the Villa. Likewise, the servants are happy enough to participate or peer through the keyhole and get their jollies that way. The music by Thomas Dolby is noisily in keeping with the general tone of the film.
These are by no means criticisms. The film is not a horror film as such. Odd to say, Russell lacks the discipline for horror: he refuses to confine himself to its grammar even as he’s willing to adopt its vocabulary. What you get instead is a wonderfully enjoyable carnival of daftness rounded off in the concluding quarter of the film by a strangely moving and in fact terrifying few minutes. Mary is gifted with a vision of the future, and for once the film quietly and unexpectedly begins to take its characters seriously. We see Shelley’s drowning and the subsequent burning of the body; the death of Byron in Greece, bled to death by his doctors. The next day all is well, but an audacious jump-shot brings us to the present day and the leering tourists are back. All that life and creativity long dead. It is one of Ken Russell’s best tricks. In the midst of all that craziness, there is a moment of clarity.
Cast: Francesc Colomar, Roger Casamajor, Marina Comas, Nora Navas
A man is attacked in the Catalan woods, brutally murdered by a cloaked assailant; his son, in the back of their horse-drawn wagon, is driven over a cliff and left to die. Found by his friend Andreu (a terrific Francesc Colomer), the boy breathes out the name of a ghost in his final moments: Pitorliua.
It’s an incredibly dramatic opening to Agustí Villaronga’s 2010 award-winning adaptation of Emili Teixidor’s novel. Set in the years immediately following Franco’s crushing victory, Black Bread is not just another story, similar to Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), of the Spanish Civil War as seen through the eyes of an imaginative child. While history is important to the narrative, the director cleverly subverts the audience’s expectations, slowly revealing a much more nuanced and layered film, with a disturbing mystery at its core. It’s a gripping, richly textured work, and if the symbolism at times seems heavy-handed, that minor weakness is more than made up for by the twists that the plot takes.
As the film begins to unfold, the audience learns that Andreu’s father, Farriol (Roger Casamajor), and the murdered man were friends and fellow trade unionists, both on the losing side of the war. Was his death some sort of revenge, a score settling? Is Andreu’s father next? In the eyes of the police, the victors, Farriol must be guilty. His only hope is to flee over the mountains and into the relative safety of France, a route many men, lucky enough to escape the purge of the reds, have already taken. Andreu is sent away to live with his grandmother, who is a caretaker for a wealthy family headed by an overbearing matriarch, who will later hold the fates of Farriol and Andreu in her hands. Along with Andreu, his grandmother also shelters his family’s abandoned women and children, including the wild Nuria (Marina Comas), a cousin who lost a hand to a grenade. Although the adults pretend that her father also escaped to France, she knows the much more disturbing truth.
At night, Andreu and his cousins live in a shadowy world of superstitions and storytelling; there’s an air of menace in the dark and gloomy, claustrophobic farmhouse, perfectly captured by Antonio Riestra’s hand-held cinematography. The children, who are outcasts and misfits, paying the price for their parents’ socialism, see intrigue and adventure around every corner. And, in some ways, the children are right: conspiracies and cover-ups are everywhere. But the biggest mystery that Andreu has to solve is how the ghost of a man who is said to haunt the woods, cursed ever since the war, could be involved in the death of his young friend.
Complex questions about guilt and innocence aren’t neatly resolved; Farriol, who still professes devotion to his ideals, is not necessarily the victim he first appears to be when he’s persecuted for the murder by the fascist mayor (Sergi López), who once pursued Andreu’s mother (Nora Navas). And when the story spins in a completely unexpected direction, it’s not even clear that the vicious crime is directly related to the war at all. The truth is that a conflict of that horror and magnitude provides cover for a multitude of sins.
While the film isn’t a witch-hunt, it is unsparing in its criticism of the Church. The clergy, on the side of the fascists, sit in judgement on their parishioners, even controlling what they eat - allowing those unfortunates on the losing side only coarse, black bread as some kind of twisted punishment. It’s perhaps not entirely surprising that, in the end, a bitterly disillusioned Andreu chooses the path that he does.
Cast: William Hurt, Blair Brown, Bob Balaban, Charles Haid
Altered States is Ken Russell’s most Hollywood film in a career that for the most part eschewed conventional and commercial cinema. As such it is an interesting case, an indicator of what Russell could have done had he toed the line. In fact, Richard Bancroft in his review of Lisztomania sees the film as a kind of penance, paid as compensation for Ken Russelling everyone to death in his earlier film.
Based on a novel and screenplay by Paddy Chayefsky of Network fame, Russell got the directing job after Arthur Penn bailed on the project. Russell claimed later to have been the twenty-seventh-choice director. Of course, Russell had in the past turned his hand to more conventional fare, the Harry Palmer entry Billion Dollar Brain (1967) for instance, but on the surface at least the subject matter had a wackiness that must have been appealing.
William Hurt, in his motion picture debut, plays Eddie Jessup, a scientist researching the links between schizophrenia and religious experience. A wild-eyed visionary and, like other Russell heroes such as Father Grandier and Tchaikovsky, a devotee to unconventional truth, Jessup answers a post-coital ‘What are you thinking?’ with the ludicrous ‘God … Jesus … crucifixions’. ‘I feel like I’m being harpooned by a monk,’ his lover Emily (Blair Brown) understandably complains. As part of his research, Jessup uses an isolation tank to try and regress to a more primal state of being. With the collaboration of his colleague Arthur (Bob Balaban) and against the opposition of Mason (Charles Haid, famous later for Hill Street Blues), Jessup begins experimenting with drugs to intensify the experience, but with increasingly dangerous consequences, especially when he begins to physically change under the influence of the altered state of his mind.
For the most part the film is conventionally shot by Jordan Cronenweth, who would go on to film Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. Russell gets to have some fun with the hallucinations, taking advantage of the lingering influence of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) to produce suitably ‘mind-bending’ visuals, multicoloured blobbing paint stuff, along with Cecil B. DeMille-like scenes of Hell (actually taken from Harry Lachman’s 1935 film Dante’s Inferno) and a whiff of religious controversy. The appalling pretentiousness of the whole film and the mumbo jumbo of the dialogue, taken verbatim from Chayesky’s book - he has to be one of the few screenwriters who took his name off a project because they kept his dialogue intact - is weirdly made into something almost clever by the way the performers rush headlong through it without any winking and Russell holds his camp in check, perhaps with the exception of a ludicrous monkey man escape/dog chase/zoo invasion section. When Jessup finally goes too far with his experiment and basically becomes a whirlpool, it is tempting to think that Russell is presenting us with a visual metaphor of the film disappearing literally up its own hole. With Jessup saved from being a Mugwump for life via the love of a good woman and a sequence that would go on to inspire an A-ha video, the film ends with the kind of conventional sentiment (love conquers all) that seems so clichéd and ridiculous that it might actually be true.
Filmbar 70 will screen Altered States on March 13 at the Roxy Bar and Screen as part of Ken Russell Forever.
Cast: Roger Daltrey, Nell Campbell, Sara Kestelman, Paul Nicholas
Even Ken Russell fans tend to shy away from Lisztomania (1975). It is seen as the point where Russell goes ‘too far’ and collapses into self-parody. Audiences seem uncomfortable with many aspects of the film, perhaps most of all with the idea that he takes the classic Russell subject - the life of a great composer - but films it in the rock opera style of Tommy (1975), his previous and most financially successful film.
Being a Ken Russell fan has tended to mean being a Ken Russell apologist. That the director of sensitive films like Song of Summer: Frederick Delius (1968) and Women in Love (1969) later made a movie in which Roger Daltrey rides around on a giant penis while singing, is seen as the degeneration of a once promising talent. Lisztomania comes almost at the end of Russell’s run of fairly big-budget, successful 1970s movies - The Music Lovers (1970), The Devils (1971), The Boy Friend (1971), Tommy - and the critical savaging it received might explain why Russell made very few interesting films thereafter. Like some gaudy, camp Icarus, he flew too close to the sun and got so badly burnt that he was forced to go to Hollywood and make Altered States (1980).
In the popular imagination, Russsell’s films are full of bizarre fantasy sequences featuring religious imagery, over-literal visual metaphors and copious nudity. Lisztomania certainly delivers on those fronts. As a young ‘cult cinema’ enthusiast, I found it easy to fall in love with the film, while at the same time realising how very silly it was. The problem is that, because Lisztomania is intentionally absurd, it gives plenty of ammunition to those who tar the rest of Russell’s films with the same brush. Russell’s reputation has plummeted in recent years, and the mainstream critical view suggests that it was all downhill after Women in Love. Important films were only made available on DVD many years into the format’s lifespan (Lisztomania, 2009; The Music Lovers, 2011; The Devils, 2012), and there is no legal way of viewing his 1960s BBC work apart from one overpriced region 1 box-set.
The key to rediscovering that Lisztomania has merits beyond knockabout comedy is in comparing it to Russell’s long-banned film about Richard Strauss, Dance of the Seven Veils (1970). Like Lisztomania, it marks the end of a phase in Russell’s career (it was his last work for the BBC for more than 20 years); like Lisztomania, it equates classical music with Nazism; and like Lisztomania, it has no realistic scenes whatsoever.
The Strauss film is described as ‘A comic strip in seven episodes on the life of Richard Strauss’ and gives seven different versions of Strauss - the lover, the family man, the fawning Nazi collaborator, etc. It was the Nazi sequences that were most controversial, and led to Strauss’s family banning the film. The most disturbing sequence shows a Jewish couple being brutalised by Nazi thugs while Strauss plays his music louder and louder to drown out the screams. It is fairly sexually explicit for 1970 television and features a sequence where Strauss appears as a silent film star, Erich von Stroheim. It is also completely unrealistic - there is minimal dialogue, and it is as much ballet as straight drama. Strauss is played by dancer Christopher Gable, a Russell regular.
In this context, Lisztomania makes a lot more sense. While The Music Lovers or The Devils have unrestrained fantasy sequences, they are still coherent narratives with beginnings, middles and endings. Lisztomania is not. It is, in effect, a comic strip in nine or ten episodes on the life of Franz Liszt: the lover, the family man, the pop star, etc. Liszt appears as a silent film star (Chaplin), and the film is full of the kind of nudity that the BBC would never have been able to get away with. Just as in Seven Veils, the episodes are cartoony caricatures rather than realistic portrayals of episodes of Liszt’s life (something reflected in Lisztomania‘s most famous promotional poster). Laughing at Lisztomania for being unrealistic misses the point. The dialogue scenes are intended to seem just as unlikely as the scenes with singing Nazi children or giant penises.
Like in Seven Veils, the most contentious sequence links classical music and Nazism. Wagner - a musical vampire who drains inspiration from Liszt - is reborn as a Frankenstein Monster Hitler who murders Jews with a machine-gun guitar. Unlike the Strauss film, though, Litsztomania does not appear to make a serious point about Nazism and its relation to music. Wagner’s followers are portrayed as children, and Russell has found a similarity between Nazism’s fetishised hand gestures and those of pop music’s various dance crazes. But it feels more than a little adolescent, and Ken Russell was obviously far too intelligent to really believe that Wagner caused the Holocaust.
The main problems with Lisztomania are that it is badly paced (the early concert scene is close to interminable); and that, as Russell admits in the DVD commentary, it requires quite a lot of knowledge of Liszt and Wagner in order to ‘get’ the references. The target audience was probably the same people who had gone to see Tommy, not the best audience to appreciate jokes about Wagner sucking Liszt’s blood. This results in a film that feels like it was made for two separate audiences, neither of whom will fully appreciate it. And although it is easier to forgive clumsy dialogue scenes when you accept that they are probably intentionally clumsy, it does not make them any easier to sit through.
Perhaps Russell was a victim of his own excess. In his autobiography he claimed that the Rick Wakeman soundtrack was foisted on him by producer David Puttnam, who perhaps took it upon himself to nudge Russell into making a more archetypally ‘Ken Russell’ film than he had intended. Perhaps his great financial success with Tommy gave him a bit too much license to go over the top. In returning to the completely stylised filmmaking of Dance of the Seven Veils, but with fewer restraints on what he could show, Russell probably overdid it. A fantasy sequence loses its impact if there are no ‘straight’ sequences to compare it to.
Lisztomania is still extremely entertaining and does not ask to be taken too seriously. It feels unfair to dismiss it as the point Ken Russell degenerated into silliness. It perhaps marks the point where he had done everything he could with a certain style of film, just as Dance of the Seven Veils was the culmination of his BBC work. Lisztomania is a similar bridge-burning effort, after which Russell would be forced to find something new. That it was followed by a frustrating period in Hollywood and then a long, slow decline is sad, but it is commendable that he struck off in other directions, rather than just making Tommy clones for the next ten years.
Lisztomania will probably never rank among the best Ken Russell films; the pace is too uneven and the comedy a bit too ridiculous. But it has some merits beyond just being the funny one with the giant penis, the Wagner Nazis and Ringo Starr.
London Short Film Festival will screen Lisztomania on March 17 at the Gate Picturehouse, Notting Hill, as part of Ken Russell Forever.
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