Monday, November 28, 2011

We see them all the time, and we never notice them

I can't remember the last time the death of a film-maker felt as epoch-defining to me as that of Ken Russell, who has left us at the age of 84.

And I suspect future generations will look back at how little room we gave him to manoeuvre in the last decades of his professional life with some considerable bafflement. His was an infuriatingly erratic talent, impossible to contain or divert, and his work, even in his peak creative years, is an uncommonly extreme combination of peaks and troughs. But however deep the troughs, some of the heights were giddy indeed. That he ended his life making eccentric vanity productions with amateur casts, shot in his house on home video, unable to find any kind of financing in other ways, will seem an epic indictment of us.

You could never be sure what he would come up with - it could be a masterpiece or a dud or, most likely, some previously undiscovered simultaneous amalgam of the two - but it would always be interesting - more interesting than, and certainly quite, quite unlike - the work of any other British director.
Looking at his career chronologically it is, unquestionably a tragedy.
First, apprentice works of enormous sophistication and beauty on television, most notably his sublime portraits of classical composers for the BBC arts series Monitor. The increasingly cinematic ambition (not to say iconoclastic provocativeness) of these productions segued naturally into a feature film career of profuse energy and commitment. Incredibly, there was a time where big studios were willing to give him big budgets and big stars to make wild, kaleidoscopic, intensely personal films on commercially suicidal subjects. Thanks to the surprise critical and box-office success of Women In Love in 1969 (definitely not one of his best films, actually: he himself considered it his worst) he got to make The Music Lovers, The Boyfriend and The Devils: a redefinition of eclecticism, but all of it rooted centrally in the same set of basic artistic concerns.
Perhaps inevitably it was not a ride he was going to be allowed to play on forever. A trip to Hollywood led neither to work of value (Altered States and Crimes of Passion both have followers, but to me they just do not give the impression of being shaped by a free hand) nor to useful opportunities thereafter, and after one final burst of frivolous eccentricity back in Britain (Gothic, The Lair of the White Worm, Salome's Last Dance) he was reduced first to hack work, and then, when even that dried up, to tail-chasing video experimentalism.

The great thing about Russell was that there was nothing predictable about his iconoclasm. He had no social or ideological agenda. He cared nothing for social realism (once beautifully suggesting that the Free Cinema movement got its name because the directors associated with it "received free handouts from the British Film Institute"). He cared only for art. As he wrote in his autobiography A British Picture he was "somebody who doesn't, on the face of it, seem too political, too committed or press his working class background. I can't be fitted into any of those pigeonholes."
No artist spent so much of their own creativity examining the artistic processes of others. His key mode was biographical, but always filtered through his own imagination, and with a commitment to underlying meaning over objective, historical truth.
As he put it in his book Fire Over England: "My intention was never to produce a factual, day by day account of the composer's life - that's the stuff of newsreels, explaining nothing of the man's inner life. What I've always been after is the spirit of the composer as manifest in his music."
This leads to varying effects, from the sublime simplicity of Elgar (1962, which I have described elsewhere on this site as "in a sense... 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") all the way - via every intermediate gradation - to the self-engulfing excess of Lisztomania (1975), with Roger Daltrey as Liszt, reimagined as a pop star. "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," is how he later summed-up the film's disastrous reception in his book Directing Film.
("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," he wrote in the same book. "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.")

Russell always had trouble with critics, and in fairness he went out of his way to court it. He certainly enjoyed playing the enfant terrible. "I sometimes think I would fare better in the hands of British critics if I was called Russelini," he once wrote, and he had a point. His flamboyance and theatricality would have passed unremarked from one whose background had not been in the British documentary tradition.
At his worst, there is a banality to his excesses that negates their potential even as a shock tactic. As I wrote in an earlier post: "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... 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."

But enough - let the retrospectives begin.
Pick any three Russell films at random, especially from among those made before Altered States, and there will surely be enough surprises, enough energy, enough beauty and enough wild invention to justify his status as one of the most important film-makers Britain has ever produced.
My own personal retrospective would begin with Elgar, certainly, then progress through Song of Summer, his pioneering study of Delius, for the first time incorporating scripted episodes with actors rather than mere documentary reconstruction; then leap to the temporary apotheosis of Dance of the Seven Veils, his scabrous life of Richard Strauss that proved so outrageous it was disowned by the BBC after protests from the composer's estate. Viewed today, it seems a clear bridge between the television and cinematic work: elements of it recur not just in the composer movies but also in The Devils, and like The Devils, its (often surprising) excesses are plainly defensible in a way that is not always possible in Russell's work.
Of the cinema films, I would have to start with The Devils, for its awesome power and passion, though it is, to say the least, not an easy film to watch at times. But the points it makes are valid, and much of it is quite brilliant.
I would like to include The Boyfriend, its immediate follow-up, mainly because I love the fact that he opted to follow The Devils with a twenties musical. But as my friend and fellow Russellmaniac Anthony Blampied warned me, it is sadly a film that defiantly refuses to be as good as it looks: there's just too much in it, without variation, to hold the spectator's enthusiasm, and what seems effervescent at first has tired by at least the halfway point. Still, it is a thing of wonderful parts, and is perhaps best watched as a serial, one twenty minute chunk at a time.
My other certain choice would be one of his least-known films, but in my opinion his greatest of all. Savage Messiah (1973) is his fascinating and moving study of the sculptor Gaudier-Brzeska, and outshines even Song of Summer as his most perfect mixture of drama, documentary and analysis. Further, the final few minutes are unbelievably moving.
In Directing Film, Russell recalls that he double-mortgaged his London mansion to finance it, only to then see it close after five days in the West End. "I'm now living in a small cottage in the provinces," he writes. "The fact that the film is a masterpiece is ample compensation."
The last film in my retrospective would be A British Picture, an autobiographical film made for British television to tie-in with the book of the same name. Bursting with vindicating insight and observation, it is the ultimate statement of Russell's artistic credo, and a fascinating summation of his career. The tragedy is that it seemed valedictory even then.

I was fortunate enough to meet Ken a few years ago when he gave a talk at a literary festival in Cornwall.
He was in fine and frequently ribald form, at one point attempting to lead the audience in a singalong of 'The Good Ship Venus. But the thing he said that really stuck in my mind was in response to the inevitable question; what is your next film going to be?
He said it was going to be about trees - just film of trees, with beautiful music in the background.
"We see them all the time," he explained, "and we never notice them."