Archive for Ken Russell

Enigma Variations

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Mythology, Science, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on July 3, 2015 by dcairns

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TV plays always seemed a bit joyless to me as a kid — they were clearly for adults, but lots of adult stuff was fun. The Wednesday Play and Play for Today were never fun.

Maybe the form is at fault. You have something the length of a film, or a B-movie anyway, but made at a fraction of the cost. While B-movies got around the low-budget problem with simple, expressive lighting, cheap actors and stock sets, BBC plays did all of the above and threw in static filming and talkie scenes.

But the problem is that on top of that, they were drama, which meant they mustn’t be funny. Dennis Potter managed to smuggle in a few titters, but he saved the real comedy for his long-running shows. (A conversation I overheard when The Singing Detective first aired is like dialogue from a play: one girl trying to explain to another this incomprehensible but amazing thing she’d seen. “It was just this guy in a hospital bed with a really bad skin disease.” “Eurgh. Poor thing.” “No, but he kept saying stuff, it was the things he said, it was really good.”)

Maybe my avoidance was simply down to the fact that, inconceivably for us now, these plays made no attempt to be ingratiating or accessible, they were starkly concentrated on the job of alienating anybody who wouldn’t want to follow them where they were headed. Children were not welcome. I suppose some kids would have seen this as forbidden fruit and would be all the more interested, but as I viewed the adult world with a certain amount of terror anyway, I don’t think I was keen on anything that would open a door into it for me.

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Still, The Imitation Game, written by Ian McEwen and directed by Richard Eyre, is really good. It does have points of connection with the recent film of the same name. McEwen started out wanting to do the life of Alan Turing but got sidetracked by his researches into the women at Bletchley Park, and the role of women in Britain’s war generally. Harriet Walter, with her long bone china face and hushed, trepidatious voice, plays a young woman determined to play her part in the war, but despite her skills she is steadily demoted instead of promoted, due to her very eagerness to do work at the level she’s qualified for.

Rather appallingly, Turing, here called Turner, is used as a villain, the penultimate in a long line of men who patronize or exploit or betray Walter’s character. McEwen found a great subject when he focused on this aspect of the “war effort” (curious phrase), but it seems a shame he had to further traduce a national hero who’d already been roundly trashed by the establishment. For all the recent dramatic attention Turing has received, the one great drama capturing the totality of his tragedy seems elusive.

Eyre achieves some very nice shots, most of them admittedly static — an austere style in keeping with the period. Locked-off frame after locked-off frame, and the only way out is a cut. This kind of feminist drama, where the men are all bastards of one stripe or another, and each sequence is another mask dropping to reveal this, is out of style now, and it does have a sad, predictable quality, perhaps because drama tied to an ideology tends that way, but it’s at least gutsier than girl power.

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Penda’s Fen, written by David Rudkin and directed by Alan Clarke, the most celebrated of the TV play directors, is altogether more cinematic. It sets out its stall with an intro by the author invoking the landscape of “Visionary England.” A teenage boy experiences his homosexual awakening at public school, has mystical visions including angels, demons, and a conversation with Sir Edward Elgar in an abandoned cow shed. Imagery evokes Ken Russell and Lindsay Anderson.

Rudkin seems determined to throw every idea in his head at the page/screen, even creating a TV playwright character who can pontificate on his behalf. Given the play’s urgency to communicate, its baffling detours and mysticism, and the lack of anything else quite like it, I rather assumed he was a frustrated genius who rarely got to write anything that got made, but he was quite busy until the end of the eighties. His science fiction mindfuck …Artemis..8..1…. (you have to get the number of dots right) is fondly remembered, with a bit of head-scratching.

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The whole thing’s on YouTube.

Whoever Speaks the Truth Must Die

Posted in FILM, Mythology, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on January 16, 2015 by dcairns

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GIORDANO BRUNO (1973) is by Giuliano Montaldo, whose CLOSED CIRCUIT I enjoyed, and wrote about for Sight & Sound (possibly the only article in that organ’s history to be written in the form of a police interrogation). I then ran GRAND SLAM, his 1967 Rio heist flick, which totally lacked the elaborate, hypnotic choreography of cast and camera which entranced me in the TV movie (about a spaghetti western that kills audience members!). Most of the filmmakers effort seemed to have gone on unconvincing special effects to convince us that ailing star Edward G. Robinson was on location.

But GB sees the return of the elaborate camera blocking, and a fantastic set of collaborators in DoP Vittorio Storaro, composer Ennio Morricone, and star Gian Maria Volonte as the lapsed priest persecuted by the Inquisition for preaching “heresy” (such as stating that the earth orbits the sun and that there are other worlds which may be inhabited.

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I get the strong impression that Montaldo and Storaro had seen THE DEVILS and been impressed, though their approach is less hysterical than Ken Russell’s, leaving out the camp and staying pretty sombre even during the hero’s debauches. Just as with Ollie Reed, though, Volonte undergoes a sharp transition from unsympathetic hedonist to Christ-like martyr at the hands of politicians and the church. Storaro even borrows lighting cameraman David Watkin’s trick of using out of focus and over exposed backgrounds where the light actually eats into characters’ profiles, an eye-catching effect indeed, turning people into frayed cut-outs.

All through the story, Volonte in his cell is associated with light (Storaro does love his symbolic effects), blasting in from narrow windows and given a sculptural shape by subtle application of smoke, whereas his papal persecutors inhabit realms of wealth and opulence and formal symmetry. Venice street scenes get a handheld, loose treatment to contract with the elegance of the wealthy.

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Morricone seems capable of far more nuanced work when the film is in Italian, and his score here is, of course, beautiful, but also cunning. Divine music accompanies the pontiff’s crisis on conscience as he ponders whether the man he’s having stretched on the rack may have more in common with the apostles than with common criminals. He seems a sincere, thoughtful and worried man, anxious to hold onto the reins of power but with the intention of using them to do good. But the church is, in fact, a power structure, and self-preservation is its only priority, and this essentially weak man must either ride this juggernaut the way it wants to go or be crushed by it. And so the apparently decent, cautious pope becomes quite easily the film’s biggest villain, and Morricone’s sacred accompaniment is revealed as an elaborate bluff and a black joke.

Volonte is a fascinating choice here as he’s rarely a very sympathetic actor, often cast as heavies by Leone, Petri, Lizzani, and the late Francesco Rosi. His vaguely disagreeable features and unsentimental scripting help stop Bruno becoming a plaster saint, so that by the end, when all vanity has fallen away and he has, in best Howard Beale fashion, “run out of bullshit,” he can attain a kind of secular sainthood by standing up to a vast power which can destroy him without the slightest trouble. An affecting portrait of intellectual heroism, particularly pertinent in the light of recent events (ALL this week’s posts seem pertinent in the light of recent events).

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Oh, and we also get a little role for my favourite floundering detective, Renato Scarpa, the sickly chubster from DON’T LOOK NOW… And a couple of sequences of Charlotte Rampling, including one weird one where she becomes sexually aroused by GB’s philosophy. Is there a perversion, known or unknown to human practice, that Rampling hasn’t yet ably embodied? I’m not sure this one even has a name.

Farce Among Equals

Posted in FILM, Television with tags , , , , , , , , on August 8, 2014 by dcairns

lester ritz from David Cairns on Vimeo.

The penultimate outtake from my second video essay on Richard Lester. Someone complained that THE RITZ always gets left out, which is true. It’s not that it isn’t good — Rita Moreno as Googie Gomez makes it a near-classic — but it doesn’t fit the overarching narrative of the second phase of Lester’s career — the period movies and explorations of heroism. I wonder if, having been part of the Beatles’ public image machine gave Lester his fondness for peeping behind the curtain and exposing the feet of clay or whatever mucky body parts are involved. Or possibly his work in advertising — if you spend a lot of time erecting a pristine edifice, there’s probably pleasure to be had in iconoclasm. Here’s a bit of a 1969 interview I found in a book called Directors in Action (bought in Toronto) —

“But I’m quite proud of some of those early commercials. The After-Eights Chocolates, for instance. I did all of them from the beginning and I was faced with a new project and an image which needed to be put over. This is what pleases me–when a problem is present and solved.

In the After-Eights the problem was: these things are going to cost four shillings a packet and are bloody expensive! How are we going to sell it? In terms of making a film image, we decided to go for the fake classy stuff–dinner jackets among the pseudo-luxury. It was half a dream world, and half what people had no money imagined luxury to be. It was a callous attempt–and it worked. They sold out after the first commercial!”

I have no idea if this is one of Lester’s After-Eights ads but it fits the pattern — and the feather boa matches the one’s worn by Julie Christie in PETULIA and Shirley Knight in JUGGERNAUT… (This sort of thing is why Ken Russell found he couldn’t work in ads. He did one for a new washing powder where the advantage was supposed to be that the suds drained faster from the old-fashioned washing machine. But they didn’t — they just clogged the bottom up completely. Ken suggested starting with a clean, empty machine and then pumping a lot of suds in, then running the film in reverse. Everyone was delighted with this solution, and Ken was guilt-stricken and stayed out of ads from then on. There’s an echo of this in  when Ann-Margret is bathed in the products of various commercials as they spew from her TV set.) Rita Moreno and Treat Williams in The Ritz, 1976.

Anyhow, THE RITZ — Lester here talks about the difficulties of filming farce, which I think are a more intense version of those involved in filming any play — you are faced with a bunch of limitations, usually, which are essential to the theatre and irrelevant to movies. Do you cling to them, or explode them, or what? Farce as a form can be highly successful in cinema, but it’s notable that Renoir’s THE RULES OF THE GAME, which has many aspects of farce, was an original work for the cinema and indeed could hardly be more cinematic, using a different set of limitations — the limits of what the camera can see of a bunch of complicated simultaneous events. Fun fact: Renoir was a big fan of Lester’s HELP! Buy: The Ritz Rules of the Game

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