Tuesday, March 19, 2013


Warning: some graphic descriptions

If a film director could ever have been called a madman, it's the late Englishman Ken Russell. A perusal of his resume reveals some of the most excessive bits of filmmaking in the history of the art form. I've yet to see THE DEVILS (1971), but its controversy has prevented, to this day, its original cut from gracing our shores. His biopics examining D.H Lawrence, Valentino, and Mahler are well known by cinephiles for their outrageousness, sometimes riddled with curious anachronisms. Later efforts like GOTHIC (1986), the Mary Shelley re-imagining, comes complete with winking female nipples. See also: WHORE, CRIMES OF PASSION. Even his Hollywood films (ALTERED STATES) are conservatively termed "off the wall."

In 1975, Russell's filmization of the Who rock opera Tommy gave fans and critics much to criticize and embrace. Fewer movie musicals featured such outrageous imagery as Ann-Margaret swimming in baked beans, churchgoers kissing the feet of a giant Eric Clapton statue, or Jack Nicholson singing. As outlandish as TOMMY was, it ain't nothing like LISZTOMANIA, released the same year. It's the sort of revisionist fantasy that compels folks to say that the artist "must be spinning in his grave."

Russell may or may not have disagreed,  and likely didn't care, nonetheless charging ahead with his usual naughty brio. He paints his subject, Franz Liszt, as a bona-fide hedonist, a womanizing figure whose audiences scream like girls did/would for the Beatles. Apparently, the director did not have to embelish too much. It's been written that young women would try to retrieve locks of the musician's hair, broken piano strings, and even discarded ash from Liszt's cigars. They rushed him onstage and fought over his gloves. LISZTOMANIA portrays these audiences like contemporary ones in that they fall silent for the more challenging compositions, then scream for more when he works in a little crowd-pleasing "Chopsticks".

This really irks Richard Wagner, who attends the shows. Later it is revealed that he is actually a vampire, who will, during the May Uprising, literally suck the genius from Liszt's veins, providing the skills for him to compose his famous German nationalist compositions. Madder and madder Wagner grows, forming a cult of children who sing of a new master race. Before it's all over, he will have created a monster in his own image, be resurrected after a piano duel to the death, and spray bullets at Jews from a guitar. But at least the finale takes place in Heaven.

Most infamous perhaps is a scene that will certainly be a litmus test for viewers who think they're tolerant of excess. Liszt is seduced by a Russian princess who offers to provide him with the ability to compose brilliant pieces again (domestic life back home has sapped his genius) in exchange for her complete domination of his life. The composer proceeds to have visions (hallucinations?) of himself swarmed by the women of the Princess' court. As he entices them with his music, his phallus engorges upwards of 10 feet long/high. Yes, Russell supplies us with this dandy visual, of a line of women riding an enormous penis. What could top this? Maybe that guillotine the women drag the um, member into at the end of the scene. It's an astonishing scene for many reasons, and it certainly gets some point across, but really it's just about Russell's audaciousness, how far he's willing to go.

And that unpredictable, randy showmanship of Ken Russell is mainly what keeps his movies afloat, suggesting that without the spectacle, they often may well be dreadfully boring. It's hard to imagine one of his films without at least one garish idea (with the exception of maybe THE RAINBOW), as they are the very nature of Russellness.

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