It’s a very good week to be a Ken Russell fan in Los Angeles. By pure coincidence, the birthday double feature I chose for the New Beverly Cinema this past Wednesday and Thursday—a grand birthday present from owner Michael Torgan—was Sean Connery in You Only Live Twice (1967), my favorite Connery-era Bond picture, paired with another spy thriller from the same year, Billion Dollar Brain, the third in the Len Deighton-Harry Palmer series (after The Ipcress File and Funeral in Berlin), all three starring Michael Caine, but this one directed by Russell. It’s definitely the director’s odd man out— his breakthrough hit Women in Love was his next movie (the two share the services of D.P. Billy Williams) and he was just coming off his famous series of composer biographies for the BBC. A strange choice as director for hire, Russell has never much cared to talk about the film—one gets the impression he looks on it as hackwork, and the casual observer could easily see (especially paired with the Bond movie) the influence 007’s popularity had on the Palmer series and Russell’s approach, which matches the go-for-broke grandiosity of You Only Live Twice stroke for stroke.
Billion Dollar Brain is more modestly scaled, over all, but what it lacks in sheer scope Russell makes up for with his visual style. An early glimpse at the sloppy décor of Palmer’s detective agency office reveals a Berlioz album jacket, the first hint at the director’s sympathies. But soon after, for those familiar with Russell’s later movies, figures charting on the stark, snow-bound landscapes of Helsinki allow the director to play with the Panavision frame in ways that seem directly linkable to Women in Love, The Music Lovers and, naturally, The Devils. And for a movie apparently disdained by its director in 2010, the 1967-vintage Russell seems to be having a high old time with the increasingly silly extremities of Deighton’s reverse-polarity end of the world invasion plot, while Caine, co-star Karl Malden and the painfully lovely Francoise Dorleac have a quite bearable lightness of being that complements the escalating anxiety with good humor and just right dash of gravity. But it is Ed Begley, as the Texas military maniac Gen. Midwinter (think Gen. Jack D. Ripper with a serious drawl and ominous good-ol’-boy pretensions) who gets Russell’s complete approval to take the screen in his jowls and shake it for all it's worth. Begley is funny/scary in the all the right and usual ways, but Russell presses the then-nascent distrust for the military to new and perhaps occasionally too intimate heights by giving Begley a character-defining series of wide-screen close-ups in which to shade his already gargantuan portrait of evil. It’s a risky move—Do we really want this many opportunities to gaze up Begley’s nose?—but the picture is lively and has (thankfully) a few other tricks up its sleeve to keep our interest piqued. And Russell makes the most of the movie’s spectacular end sequence, in which a convoy of tanker vehicles under mad General Begley’s command carry a virus meant to destroy the Soviet Republic from within, make their way toward a full-scale invasion of the Eastern Bloc territory while dodging the missiles that could inadvertently unleash the disastrous viruses themselves. Billion Dollar Brain may be unlike anything Russell ever did, but that’s no reason for Russell fans, or Russell himself, to dismiss it. On its own terms it’s engrossing and fun and offers its own grimly funny take on Russian/U.S. relations , and the ways it hints at the flowering of Russell’s visual imagination to come offers plenty of intrigue to keep fans of the director occupied. (If you missed it at the New Beverly Cinema, the movie is available on MGM DVD.)
The New Beverly’s presentation of Billion Dollar Brain dovetails neatly into the American Cinematheque’s very own tribute to Russell, a somewhat shortened but still potent version of the program offered earlier this month by the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York City. The director himself will be on hand for each of the three scheduled double bills, which, if you were there for the AMPAS screening of the digitally restored presentation of Tommy this past May, is its own very special attraction. The “fun” starts tonight with two of Russell’s most controversial pictures—which, given his track record, is either saying a lot or nothing at all—in which the power of love is tested against the forces of religious tyranny and the extremities of unmapped biogenetic terrain. I’ve never been a huge fan of Altered States (1980), and I suppose that has everything to do with not relishing time spent with the insufferable academics at the center of Paddy Chayevsky’s scientific morality play. But Russell brings his usual energy to the party and fashioned a minor hit out of a scenario which starts out fascinating and gets increasingly silly. Not so The Devils (1971), tonight’s first feature, which starts out grim and just gets grimmer. (See attached feature article below for a more detailed account.) The Devils is perhaps Russell’s best film, and it doesn’t look like an official DVD release is due anytime soon, but even if there were it would be a mistake to trade that for a chance to see it on the Aero’s big screen. The show starts tonight at 7:30, and Ken Russell will appear in between films to discuss them… or not.
Saturday night finds Russell at the Egyptian Theater for another screening of the spectacular digital restoration of Tommy (1975), complete with Quintophonic Sound. If you’re a fan of Russell and the movie and missed it in May when it screened at the beautiful AMPAS auditorium in Beverly Hills, I seriously recommend you take the opportunity to see it here Saturday night. To some the phrase “Quintophonic Sound” seems shorthand for some sort of joke on the particular excesses of the ‘70s, but once you hear what’s in store for you at the Egyptian you’ll realize, as I did, that as many times as I’d seen Tommy, on big screens and small, I’d never really properly heard it before. Quintophonic Sound is most accurately described as a precursor to the familiar Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround setup familiar to most home theater connoisseurs, and applied to the soundtrack of this wildly sensate, excessive (yes!) and polarizing “rock opera” it is enveloping in the best sense, as well as downright revelatory. The delirious sound, married to Russell’s pummeling, yet seductive visual assault, altogether makes up for the downturn inherent in Pete Townshend’s original narrative, keeping the audience engaged even when the opera’s religious imperatives begin to get muddled. (And I have to say, I’ve always preferred Townshend’s arrangements and the entirety of the soundtrack of this movie to the Who’s spare, often uninspired original album—Oliver Reed is “singing” in character, folks, and his performance is a booze-soaked, swarthy bit of glory.) Tommy is getting the Blu-ray treatment next month, but again, as great as that disc surely will be, seeing the same digital transfer on the big screen here is just something that should not be missed.
Coupled with Tommy is a rare opportunity to see Russell’s notorious follow-up, Lisztomania (1975) in all its maniacal, allusive glory on the Egyptian screen. Stephen Farber, in the November/December 1975 issue of Film Comment, contributed what is probably the most serious consideration of the film ever written. It’s a fascinating piece that considers the director’s output up through the release of his musical fantasia, which considers the apparent reality that Liszt was, in fact, the first true pop music star, and serves up an anachronistic visual feast on the theme that was clearly too much even for the audiences that eagerly gorged on the previous film. Perhaps the difference was Townshend vs. Rick Wakeman’s interpretations of Liszt and Wagner, but I think it had even more to do with Russell’s disorienting, free-associative, sexually unleashed imagery and his insistence on approaching a subject as ripe and provocative as the roots of Germanic military and psychological dominance through a baroque, primarily comic prism. What’s great about Farber’s piece is that it takes the movie seriously enough to report on the many things the movie does well (none of which were much recognized by the general press when it was released) as well as where the movie wobbles under the weight of its own themes and excesses:
“Despite all these stylistic flourishes, Lisztomania has something on its mind; the collage of wild comic images builds to a climax of unexpected intensity. This is a much more adventurous, imaginative film than Tommy, but the critics who loved Tommy are howling in outrage at Russell’s venomous treatment of Liszt and Wagner. The comic-book style is used to attack the crass commercialism of both composers, their obeisance to the popular culture of their time; according to Russell, their lives played like a bad Hollywood movie. As is usually the case in Russell’s biographical films, most of the episodes have their basis in fact, but Russell bends facts when he needs to, takes liberties with chronology, and rewrites history for his own subversive purposes. The jokes and anachronisms—like the Giotto-type paintings of contemporary rock stars that line the walls of Princess Carolyn’s palace—multiply until it isn’t always clear what is being satirized… The major problem with Lisztomania is formal. The pop-art style is effective for dealing with Liszt’s vulgar showmanship, but it limits the scope of the film. Elements of Liszt’s life that do not fit the cartoon pageant—his long-term relationship with the Russian Princess Carolyn, or his decision to enter the priesthood—must be rushed over. Toward the end of the film, Russell seems to want to portray Liszt more sympathetically, but his style is not flexible enough to reflect this shift in attitude, and Roger Daltrey is too inexperienced and vacant an actor to create a character with any complexity.”
Farber digs in where most writers have never cared to travel into the ideas at the foundation of Lisztomania. He suggests, as many have noted, that Russell’s view of the composer is one in which Liszt emerges as “an artist of genuine talent whose music will survive the vulgarity of his life.” But where the film, and Farber’s analysis, gets really interesting is in the latter part of the film, in which Russell uses an onslaught of wildly overstated imagery to suggest the corruption of the German national character of the time, including imagery spindled and stitched together from sources as disparate as Tod Browning, Charlie Chaplin, James Whale, the Beatles and the vaults of DC and Marvel Comics, as well as the emergence of Wagner as the inspiration for a viral evil spelled Nazism. Regarding the German composer, Farber writes that “Russell seems to have made this film mainly to have a chance to get at Wagner (who was in reality Liszt’s son-in-law)” and describes the composer appearance in the film as morphing from that of an innocent boy in a sailor suit who reveals himself to be a vampire of a both metaphoric and literal nature, and eventually leader of an orgiastic pagan cult in which he oversees dressed in Superman tights and cape who creates his own monster, “a retarded Siegfried (who) crackles to life to do his master’s bidding.” Finally, the Wagnerian vampire reappears from the composer’s grave fashioned as a Frankenstein monster crossed up with Adolf Hitler who roams the cobblestone streets armed with an electric guitar which he uses to mow down the Jews in machine-gun fashion. Farber notes the obvious “grotesque oversimplification of history” going on here, but also notes that the shards of truth embedded in even such a ridiculous fantasia such as this before noting:
“(I)t is not really fair to ask a non-documentary film to serve the same function as a careful piece of historical scholarship. Through distortion and exaggeration an artist can provide a flash of insight that might well be obscured by a more dispassionate historical theory. Russell’s vision is like a half-mad nightmare with a core of truth that cannot be discounted. He refuses to absolve the artist of responsibility for social evils, and this is the heresy that music lovers cannot tolerate. Whatever one’s reservations about Russell’s peculiar approach to German history, the climactic scenes of Lisztomania are among the best that he has ever done—blasphemous, audaciously witty, harrowing, and exhilarating.”
Tommy and Lisztomania screen Saturday night, August 21, at the Egyptian Theater beginning at 7:30, and again in the presence of director Ken Russell.
Finally, Russell returns, in person and on film, to the Aero Sunday night for Women in Love (1969), featuring Glenda Jackson’s Oscar-winning performance (and that infamous nude wrestling match between Oliver reed and Alan Bates), coupled with Russell’s follow-up, his first big-screen musical biography, The Music Lovers (1970), starring Richard Chamberlain as Tchaikovsky and Glenda Jackson again as his doomed love. (The Music Lovers replaces Mahler 91974), which was the film originally to appear at the Aero on Sunday night.)
As I said before, this is a prime opportunity for Los Angeles filmgoers to reacquaint themselves with Ken Russell’s films. (I also highly recommend Farber’s article not only for its consideration of Lisztomania but for all of Russell’s films up to that point, especially Mahler.) And in case you need any more encouragement, I offer up my own in the form of a piece originally written after seeing The Devils during the summer of 2007, my second encounter with the film on the big screen. Hard to say if Russell will achieve any kind of critical reassessment as a result of these late-career appearances, but on the strength of the diverse pictures screened at the Lincoln Center and here this weekend it seems such activity is more than warranted, if only to stir up discussion of one of the movie’s most satisfyingly iconoclastic talents.
Is it some kind of heresy, or blasphemy, or out-and-out idiocy to admit that sometimes I miss the dark ages before instant gratification became an expectation, an entitlement in the long shadow of VHS, DVD, Blu-ray and whatever configuration is next up on the horizon to make whatever format you’re backing obsolete? Remember those headless pre-VCR days when you’d go to see a movie in a theater—didn’t matter if it was The Searchers, or The Harrad Experiment, or Mildred Pierce, or Circus World, or The Taking of Pelham One, Two, Three-- and have no idea if or when you’d ever get a chance to see it again? Of course, it mattered more to think this if you liked the movie—honestly, there weren’t too many of us who saw S*P*Y*S or Saturn 3 on their original releases who much cared whether we ever crossed paths with those mongrels ever again.
But when you came floating out of a screening of Lawrence of Arabia, or Fiddler on the Roof, or Straw Dogs (did anyone ever float out of a screening of Straw Dogs?), there might have been a pang of regret upon imagining that was the last time you’d probably ever see the movie on the big screen. (Almost worse was imagining re-encountering a bloodied and mangled version of a favorite film after the surgeons at the ABC Sunday Night Movie got through with it.) One way I used to deal with this problem, being a resident of a small town in the Eastern Oregon desert who felt lucky whenever our local theater played anything unusually good, was to load up on screenings the week the movie played. When movies like Dirty Harry, The Poseidon Adventure, American Graffiti, The Seven-Ups, The Groove Tube, Car Wash, Escape from New York, Tron, The Stunt Man, The Fury, Blazing Saddles and Kelly’s Heroes played their Wednesday through Sunday engagements, I and my friends ponied up for at least three shows each, sometimes more if we could. We had no idea we were living in the dark ages, and that in 10 years or less we would find ourselves taking for granted the kind of decadence that would allow you to cough up $1,500 for a 95-pound slab of whirring, wheezing machinery called a Betamax that would play back a limited selection of prerecorded movies, or movies cut and mixed with commercial breaks that you could tape off of TV yourself (with a blank cassette that only cost about $20.)
In the mid ‘70s we movie geeks certainly never expected we’d get to a point where we would have if not the whole, then at least a goodly chunk of film history at our disposal whenever we wanted to see it. And if you think about it, neither did the people who made the movies themselves. As screenwriter Lem Dobbs observes in an upcoming documentary on the early films of John Ford, none of these filmmakers ever imagined a life for their work beyond the initial theatrical run, which makes the lasting poetics of someone like Ford, or the diamond-sharp wit of a Hawks or a Wilder, or the roguish splendor of a Walsh even more notable in how it stood out from the chaff of the day. Sure, even up through the ‘70s every once in a while a popular hit might get reissued—that’s how many of us got the opportunity to see big MGM blockbusters like Gone With the Wind, Doctor Zhivago, Ryan’s Daughter and, yes, even 2001: A Space Odyssey on the big screen for the first time. But more often than not, studio product was treated like studio product, and unless a movie ended up on the bottom half of a smelly double bill somewhere down the line, one didn’t have many chances to see it before some new picture (and they made a whole lot more of ‘em 40 and 60 and 80 years ago than they do now) came along and took its place.
Conversely, in an age where digital technology is often the tail that wags the dog, some filmmakers may even be making and editing films thinking less about the big-screen experience and more pointedly on how the film plays on home theater wide-screen TVs. In a recent post on the shaky-cam verisimilitude of the Bourne films, particularly the last two directed by Paul Greengrass, Jim Emerson had an illuminating thought:
“In the middle of the movie, when I should have been into the movie, I found the pile-on style so abstract and distancing/alienating (a Brechtian espionage thriller?) that I began to wonder if Greengrass had actually shot the movie with an eye for the small(er) screen rather than the big one. Perhaps on a reduced scale, even on a large HDTV set, the illusion would be less distracting and more involving. Disorientation can only be pushed so far before it all becomes a blur, like taking a hand-held video camera on a roller coaster.”
But I digress. (Boy, how I digress!) My original thought, about a kind of longing for the days before the glories of VCRS and DVD and the home theater revolution, probably wouldn’t have been jogged out into the open had it not been for a couple of screenings I had the pleasure of attending this past summer courtesy of the American Cinematheque in Hollywood. Both films were hotbeds of controversy when they were released, in 1971 and 1975, respectively, neither had I seen, on big screen or small, in close to 20 years, and after seeing them again in 2007 they both made my personal Top 100 List. And in the aftermath of compiling that 100, I decided I would pop in at random points on the list and take a closer look at each title, with whatever attendant thoughts may be inspired by it. I am looking forward to writing about the far more disreputable of the two, Richard Fleischer’s Mandingo very soon. (In fact, I did)
However, the experience that got me ruminating about the dark ages when our movie-going and consuming habits were so much different came about when the Cinematheque screened Ken Russell’s hysterical, perhaps blasphemous and inescapably brilliant The Devils for one night only about a month ago. When this film made its bowdlerized way across American screens during the summer of 1971 I was seven years too young (legally) to see it—it had been rated X by the MPAA, even sans the notorious “Rape of Christ” sequence. Consequently, it became one of those holy grails for me—a film I was just a few years too late to see, a film not well-championed by critics here, and one rarely revived. Though I had seen Warner Bros.' VHS (!) release first, sometime during the mid ‘80s, it wasn’t until 1987 that I actually saw The Devils on a wide theatrical screen. Twenty years later, I saw it again. And in those 20 years the movie had expanded in my head into a unique masterpiece I was almost afraid to see again, for fear the actual thing would not live up to my vivid, horrible memories of it.
From the first appearance of the hyper-clear Panavision images shot by David Watkin (The Boy Friend, Chariots of Fire, Out of Africa), even when attended by the slight dust and speckle of the print, I felt a sensation, a frisson, if you will (and if I must), that seemed connected directly to the fact that seeing this movie was a special event, something that doesn’t happen every day, that couldn’t happen (for the time being, anyway) courtesy of Netflix or (ha!) Blockbuster.
The very Russell-esque pageant of twisted, intermingled sexuality, politics and religion that opens The Devils was itself a tonic-- an impatient Cardinal Richelieu awaits an audience with King Louis XIII, with whom he hopes to discuss the impending campaign to bring down the walls of the fortified city of Loudon, a self-sufficient city led by the theologically and sexually liberal Father Grandier (Oliver Reed), whose sway over the citizenry (and the libidos of a demented sect of nuns) threatens to swing the city even further away from the harsh influence of the Catholic Church. The event that keeps Richelieu waiting, rolling his eyes and pinching himself to stay awake, is a grotesque performance in which King Louis XIII unveils himself as the lead in a musical staging of Boticelli’s The Birth of Venus. The sequence is deliciously unsettling and sets an approrpiately cross-wired tableau for the conspiracy of these perverse fanatics over setting upon Loudon a militaristic religious assault bent on destroying the priest’s influence, and perhaps even the city itself. This initial sequence has an almost jolly formalism (which Russell would expand into a feature-length exploration of the musical form in his next film, The Boy Friend) compared to the relentless hysteria with which the rest of the film is infused. Russell’s movie, based on Aldous Huxley’s The Devils of Loudon, is all about the degree to which power corrupts, to which power is corrupted, and the lengths to which those in power will go, with motivations both religious and secular that are equally rooted in the tangled logic of madness, to preserve the belief systems to which they’ve staked their reputations and their souls.
Russell, of course, sides squarely with the sexually ambiguous spiritualism of Father Grandier, even though he makes clear there’s more than a whiff of megalomania about how Grandier conducts himself within the city walls, both rejecting and basking in his increasing role as spokesperson—and martyr candidate—for the doomed citizenry. But Grandier’s hypocrisies and denials are no match for the force of corruption set against his own brand of moral lassitude. The dogs of Richelieu’s religious forces are unleashed—first in the person of a sneering, silver-tongued Baron De Laubardemont (Dudley Sutton), an officer in the royal army, and eventually that of the fairly rabid Father Barre (Michael Gothard), an exorcist whose hysteria for the Host of Hosts frequently crosses the line into wanton, animalistic fury. (As does Gothard’s performance; a friend who saw the movie with me suggested that Gothard, with his slender build, long hair and granny glasses, was Russell’s tip of the cap to the younger generation that was, at the time the movie was released, fueling a resurgence in movie attendance, especially for risky ventures like this one. And it’s true—Gothard comes across like the necessarily unholy offspring of Ray Manzarek and Warren Zevon.)
But Grandier is beset from within Loudon’s walls as well, most relentlessly by the pathological attentions of Sister Jeanne (Vanessa Redgrave), whose own sexual obsession with Grandier will set into motion the political and religious forces that will bring him down. Redgrave’s performance is much more of a piece with the more outré, baroque stylistic indulgences that Russell brings to the table—Reed, as Grandier, is comparatively quiet and introspective, especially for Reed, and quite powerful. His ace in the hole is the simmering anger underneath his posture of theological rectitude, which eventually comes bursting through in the film’s fiery conclusion, when Grandier must finally address the twisted hypocrisy that the Church brandishes as “truth,” a truth by which, if confesses, he will condemn himself in a bed of satanic lies. “If the Devil's evidence is to be accepted,” he rages to his persecutors, “the most virtuous people are in the greatest of danger, for it is against these that Satan rages most violently. I had never set eyes on Sister Jeanne of the Angels until the day of my arrest, but the Devil has spoken, and to doubt his word is sacrilege.”
Redgrave is as riveting as she is repulsive here. Her hunchbacked Sister Jeanne has become so debased by her own delusions, and her own twisted entanglement of religious servitude and sexual passion, that she has transmitted her own madness into the fragile minds of her convent mates, until they all serve themselves up, heaving and screaming and wretching, on the altar of carnal desire for Grandier. From her first moments, gliding toward the camera through the halls of the convent, which recall the dank catacombs of Marat-Sade (the film’s sets were designed by Derek Jarman), she punctuates her fervent tones of prayer with an incongruous cackle that makes you laugh and sends chills through your sternum, and from that moment on the movie belongs as much to her wide, hallucinatory eyes as it does to her director’s all-encompassing vision of hell on earth.
Surely, The Devils is not for the faint of heart, nor for anyone who isn’t already predisposed to see the Catholic Church as a somewhat less than effective (or sincere) vessel for the Gospel of Christ. But it is undeniably powerful, in its excesses and sometimes despite them. In its insistent renderings of nuns masturbating to the memory of would-be lovers recently burned at the stake, the full-on hysteria of those possessed not by demons, or even sundry madness and plague, but by the intoxicating delusions of religious mania, and the mechanics of medieval torture, The Devils remains, 36 years after its release, horribly potent. It is one of the view movies, especially (I would imagine) seen in the uncensored British cut featuring that sensational “Rape of Christ” sequence in which Sister Jeanne and friends have their way with Christ on the cross, that would just as easily warrant and receive an NC-17 rating today as it did an X in 1971. As Danny Peary noted in his 1986 book Guide for the Film Fanatic, the movie’s “repulsive imagery [may be] overwhelming at times, but for once Russell’s seemingly out-of-control, hallucinogenic style is appropriate for his subject matter.” Or, as Sister Jeanne more than aptly puts it, “Satan is ever ready to seduce us with sensual delights.” As one who has perhaps more of a taste for Russell’s indulgences than does Peary (and surely many more than just him), I would still agree that Russell is at the height of his powers in The Devils, a movie as deeply rooted in pictorial classicism and movement as it is in heightening its pitch and tone to match the hollow screaming and heaving madness of its midsection. It is a brilliant consideration of the ghastly potency of extremity, particularly when that extremity betrays strains both political and religious, a brutal, searing, splendidly expressionistic specimen of filmmaking that takes full advantage of the scale and power of the wide screen to present a story that no studio would ever have the fortitude to release today. I almost wish it would never find its way to DVD, so powerful is it as a movie that can exist only in the forever affected memories of those who have seen it, a testament to what it was like to experience movies before the rise of the digital realm.