Archive for Ken Russell

Hellraiser

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on August 19, 2016 by dcairns

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Enjoyed Raising Hell: Ken Russell and the Unmaking of The Devils.

Richard Crouse has done a fine job putting together research materials and interviews, some of them original, to tell the story of Ken Russell’s masterpiece. I have only three issues with it.

  1. There are some awful, contorted sentences. Not necessarily incomprehensible or grammatically wrong, but ugly: “Just as the beautiful design of that film is an abstraction of German society and urban condition, Jarman’s designs for The Devils would be both a reflection of French society and an abstraction.”
  2. There’s a chapter on “context,” which is basically capsule reviews of other films that opened in 1971.
  3. Very oddly, there seems to be no mention of the film’s brilliant cinematographer, David Watkin.

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Production designer Derek Jarman had some issues with Watkin — but when Watkin learned how unhappy Jarman had been, decades later, he contacted him to apologise. And the creative clash is quite illuminating.

Jarman had offered to show Watkin the model of the set under construction, to give him a chance to plan his lighting. “I don’t need to see any model,” said Watkin, perhaps rather brusquely. Watkin always had strict limits as to what he would or wouldn’t do, and seemingly looking at models wasn’t in his repertoire. Saying that he could light the set no matter what it looked like, he declined the sneak preview and turned up on day one of shooting to find a city of white brick.

“I can’t light this. It’s white.”

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White tends to photograph as an unpleasant, featureless glare. The whole set had to be repainted with a faint greyish tone so it would photograph AS white, but with visible detail.

Another bit of trivia: Watkin took the job after Douglas Slocombe, who shot THE MUSIC LOVERS for Ken, turned it down.

In the nineties, Slocombe shot a Kwik-Fit garage commercial in Scotland (I know, I know) and a friend worked on it and spoke to him. Slocombe described being offered a lot of money to do THE DEVILS. He sat down in his garden on a summer’s day to read the script. After just a few pages he threw it away in disgust. His wife picked it up, gently reminded him of the whacking fee involved, and got him to read on. A few pages later he threw the script away again, and this time didn’t resume reading.

(Slocombe had balked at shooting Glenda Jackson’s naked lower abdomen in THE MUSIC LOVERS, telling Russell, “You need to get someone to photograph this who can stand looking at it. Russell operated the camera himself for that shot.)

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Returning to David Watkin, he and Russell evidently got on well enough for him to be asked back for THE BOY FRIEND. Jarman would return, separately, for SAVAGE MESSIAH. Watkin’s stunning work in THE DEVILS — in an interview appendix, Guillermo Del Toro notes that those fantastic sets couldn’t have been easy to shoot — includes probably the most camera movement of any Russell film, and those artful shots where out-of-focus background characters have their outlines eaten into by the glaring light, a technique used to strongest effect in Watkins’ work on MARAT/SADE in 1967.

Though in his book, Crouse suggests that Derek Jarman’s sets make him the film’s co-auteur, I would like to include Watkin, composer Peter Maxwell-Davies and costume designer Shirley Russell as equally significant contributors.

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Crouse includes some good stuff on Oliver Reed, of course, but not too much — it must be hard to know when to stop. I recall a bit of behind-the-scenes footage that struck me as revealing. Reed, on trial for witchcraft, denounces the prosecution’s use of love letters to smear his character, calling them “things put aside for a day when he would need to be reminded that he was once loved.” In the film, Reed yells the first part of the line, reaching the whole court, but drops to a whisper for the last five words. Stunningly effective — and a typical Reed trick. Richard Lester used to kid Reed: “I know what you’re going to do: you’re going to whisper two lines and shout the third.”

But in this outtake, Reed yells the whole speech. I think because the camera is far away.

Reed has calculated: to hell with continuity. They’re either going to use the wide shot, in which shouting to be heard is the only thing that makes sense, or they’ll use a closer view, and I can whisper for that.

I mentioned this as an example of Reed varying his performance, and Lester said, “Yes, Ken could get him to do that. He had a special rapport with Ken, because… they were the same, in a way.”

Despite some disagreements with Crouse’s book, I’ll always be grateful to it for reproducing a passage from a Time magazine article ~

“One long-suffering colleague, when asked what kind of childhood Russell had, rolled his eyes to the ceiling and said, ‘He’s having it now.'”

By the Greyest of Seas

Posted in FILM with tags , , on October 8, 2015 by dcairns

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Ken Russell’s first cinema feature, FRENCH DRESSING, is an underrated oddity and a film which stands comparison with Boorman’s similarly chill and windswept CATCH US IF YOU CAN. The sub-genre of muted romp is initiated.

More discussion of the Russell over at The Notebook, in this fortnight’s installment of The Forgotten.

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.