Thursday, May 14, 2009

Would I like Lisztomania?

It is, I would have thought, impossible to dislike Ken Russell.
He (and the equally taken for granted Michael Winner) are Britain's only flamboyant, old-style autocrat film directors. The other greats of British cinema - the Leans and the Reeds; even Powell - were shirt-sleeves-rolled-up men, who went to work with a pencil behind their ears and a job to do, whereas Winner consciously apes the strutting despotism of a DeMille ("a team effort is lots of people all doing what I say"), and Russell, perhaps, is our von Sternberg, even our von Stroheim.
He is clearly a man of vision and passion. (And how can you not hold a corner in your heart for anyone who includes Michelle and Romy's High School Reunion alongside Citizen Kane and Metropolis in their list of the ten best films ever made?)
And yet, when I look through his filmography I am surprised at how few films I love without reservation. Even The Devils (1971), once one of my favourites of anybody's films, now seems to me overblown in its hysteria.
His most interesting works, for me at least, are the biographical ones, specifically those concerned with great composers and the creative process. But even here, his tendency toward push-button iconoclasm leaves many of them seeming quaintly dated in their excesses, whereas the more sober efforts, such as the tv films Elgar (1962) and Song of Summer, his film about Delius (1968, below), are timeless in their perfection.
These two, in fact, are unquestionably my favourites of all Russell's works, they are simple and beautiful, magnificently photographed in black and white, and the restraint that is presumably imposed on Russell from above has the paradoxical effect of liberating his imagination, denied as it is the easy recourse to sensationalism and deliberate anachronism.
The trouble I have with Russell when he goes crazy is that the wildness of his imagination is not matched by any comparable liberation in technique. Everything is shot in the same unimaginative and prosaic manner, so the end result is bathos; it just looks silly.
He is capable of poetry, most certainly, but it most reliably comes forth in the service of conventional narrative points, as in Elgar, which is an endless stream of telling images, conveying yards of meaning in simple, unpretentiously beautiful pictures.
Others strongly disagree, I do know. There is a school that dismisses the chocolate box pictorialism of Elgar et al most vehemently. (With this I have no truck.)
But it is a strange feature of his work that a lot of it is generally judged too tasteless, the rest too tasteful. Rarely is he deemed to have set his tasteometer just right. Only Women In Love (1969), I suppose, and even that was tasteless to many at the time, and too tasteful for many now. It is certainly hard to believe that Elgar and, say, Crimes of Passion (1984) are the work of the same man. There are two Russells (at least): one who loves being outrageous - and really naff erotica - and one whose experimentalism and occasional sensationalism are underpinned by a deep and sensitive commitment to high culture.
Mahler (1974) in particular shows these two Russells at war: much of the film is straightforward and fine, then Russell the iconoclast bursts forth, and the effect is lost in the service of non-shocking shocks, non-frenzied frenzy, down to earth insanity.
(His own take on biographical dramas in his book Directing Film is telling: "how I wince when I see the words 'Based on a True Story' flash on the screen, because you can bet your bottom dollar it's going to be harrowing, horrible and banal. And so you are blackmailed into enduring the most awful claptrap on the grounds that the subject matter is worthy. Frequently they're about saints, disabled people or repentant rapists.")
In a sense, Elgar is his most truly rebellious film: in its pastoralism, its sobriety and its unabashed admiration for a key icon of unfashionable Empire Britain, it went against the emerging anti-establishment and London-centric mood of sixties Britain.
............................... .....The Ken and I, 2007
That said, there has never been a Russell film I have not found interesting on some level, and some of those I haven't seen I remain desperately keen to, notably The Boyfriend (1971, left) and Savage Messiah (1972).
At one time, Lisztomania (1975) belonged in this company - now, at last, it has been given a UK DVD release, and is mine for the asking.
This is probably, after The Devils, Russell's most notorious work: (apparently) the life of Liszt reimagined as if he were a rock star, with Roger Daltrey in the lead. Made after the success of Tommy, the director's biggest hit since Women In Love, it was a conscious attempt to marry the series of films in which, to paraphrase one critic, he systematically digs up dead composers and throws rocks at them, with his new found credibility as director of rock opera. The mix, predictably, failed to satisfy either camp, though I think it's fair to say that it was the classical music enthusiasts who came away most outraged.
God alone knows if I would enjoy this film or not. All I know is that part of me is excited beyond measure - here at last is the lost Ken Russell monstrosity of musical biography, the cinema partner to his other great (deliberately) lost work, the tv film Dance of the Seven Veils (1970) - while my saner half remains reticent.
My buying hand is stalled, too, by ignorance: when all the reviewers say that it is Liszt reimagined as a pop star, do they mean that the music itself is performed on electronic instruments, or merely that the iconography and settings are modern, the better to counterpoint the original music? I don't know. Are the excesses reigned into discrete fantasy sequences à la Mahler, or are they of the very fabric? Then there's Ringo Starr as the Pope. Hmmm...
Of course, Russell is not being pointlessly iconoclastic. I do get the point. Liszt was the first pop star in an important and literal sense, whose recitals were accompanied, as Harold C. Schonberg writes, by "scenes of actual frenzy in which impressionable ladies fainted or would fight over the gloves he negligently tossed on the stage."
He would have to make his way through adoring crowds of devotees as he entered and left each venue, and his wildly exuberant playing style would often result in permanent damage to his piano; during one concert a replacement instrument had to be fetched twice.
His sell-out European tours, scandalous affairs and promiscuity all anticipate the hedonism of late-twentieth century popular music.
Siegfried, son of Richard and Cosima Wagner, seemed almost to be calling for Russell when he wrote: "A man who is a musician and nothing but a musician can establish no relationship to Liszt's works; one has to bring to them a certain poetic empathy." So, for that matter, did Liszt himself when he told his first biographer Lina Ramann: "Do not confuse yourself with too many details; the story of my life is far more a matter of invention than of documentation."
All of this, you might think, makes Russell's take on the composer not merely legitimate but verging on reasonable. Still, there are depths of poignancy as well as hubris in Liszt; I am moved by his story, particularly in its latter years, and, with all due offence, I'm not sure Roger Daltrey is the man for the job.
Here, finally, is Russell's own take on the film in his 2001 book Directing Film: "The fact that the treatment of the subject matter was symbolically and intellectually above the heads of the Daltrey fans was unfortunate, for the film was pure magic."
So tell me: has anyone out there seen the film? Would I like it? Should I get it?