July 30-August 5 at The Film Society of Lincoln Center
Ken Russell has his defenders, though I’ve only personally met a couple. He makes movies about composers, sculptors, writers, and lovers, and no one would deny that he feels something, and feels it passionately, for his subjects. It’s only the matter of his outrageous, appalling style that calls into question everything about his motivations for exploring lives in the way that he has. Russell’s visions are true to an idea—his own—of art, artists, and life, and the only question is if the idea is worth a damn. If the entire filmography was for some reason flushed, it’d be the loss of a very often irritating and unsatisfying bundle, but one that even his grouchiest detractors admit is original and mark-making, and thus necessarily addressed, for now.
With its nine-film retrospective from Russell’s greatest period of productivity and infamy (1969-1977), Lincoln Center does its part to calcify Russell’s reputation as an artist worthy of consideration. The series is well named; “Russellmania” both puns the pro wrestling event and hints at what may have been the primary driving force behind the director’s feverish output and vision.
The typical line on Russell is that he blew open a stagnating British film industry with iconoclastic blasts of bad taste and a virtuoso style that rubbished the rulebook. It is true that the industry there was not flourishing as the 60s became the 70s, though Ken Loach’s Kes, a beautiful movie with a sensitivity galaxies removed from Russell’s self-indulgence, came out in 1969. Joseph Losey and Kubrick were flourishing in England. Peckinpah made Straw Dogs in ’71, Hitchcock Frenzy in ’72. But American funding was drying up along with fresh ideas and methods, and George Lazenby was James Bond, so the time was right for a Brit enfant terrible like Russell. With years of work as a photographer and maker of arts documentaries for the BBC, he had just the right mixture of technical adequacy, industry pull, personalized vision, and a trendy beatnik streak to echo, in his own way, the exciting things that were starting to happen in American moviemaking.
This retrospective’s press notes call the resulting work “an unmatched nine-film winning streak,” though how that can be gauged is unclear. Russell, a classical music obsessive, made bio-docs about Elgar, Debussy, and Strauss for the BBC, and he continued the trend with intensely untraditional feature film impressions of Tchaikovsky (The Music Lovers), Mahler, and Franz Liszt (Lisztomania). Anthology Film Archives included the latter in its ongoing “Anti-Biopics” series, though Russell seems less concerned with questioning the form than using his near-arbitrarily chosen composers as waste stations for his loud stylistic tricks and excited schoolboy perceptions of tortured artistry that dies young. Spicy scandal, sex, and tragedy dictate these movies’ momentums. They are not windows into the lives of the artists, but merely illustrations of whatever kinky obsession was raising Russell’s temperature during conception and creation.
Reverence is naturally out of the question in all three composer movies, but only Mahler makes an attempt at resemblance. Only here does Russell make an emotional connection between the music and the lives lived (the Austrian composer and his great love Alma, played by Georgina Hale). Robert Powell turns in a clenched, internalized performance as Mahler, so it’s a pity when he’s put through the Russell ringer, jumping through flaming hoops and biting into pig snout under the whipping orders of a Nazi she-beast after he decides to convert from Judaism to Catholicism (it was a career move). Lisztomania abandons all pretenses to factual fidelity. It stars Roger Daltrey as the Hungarian composer-pianist, and commits itself to the idea, based on flimsy evidence, of Liszt as the first pop star. Daltrey does an elf-kick dance on his piano in front of a gold mylar curtain as female fans scream for “Chopsticks,” rides a giant phallus into a guillotine, and delivers lines like, “Piss off, Brahms.” Russell, childishly obsessed with Liszt associate Richard Wagner’s ties to Nazi Superman ideology, morphs the latter from a bearded idealist to bloodsucking vampire, and finally to a laser-shooting Nazi Frankenstein. It’s as vapid and unfunny as the ironic score by Yes’s Rick Wakeman.