Ken Russell at the BBC

by Michael Barrett

21 January 2009

Ken Russell in The Fall of the Louse of Usher 

Scene from Song of Summer

The next piece is listed as Always on Sunday (1965), though the onscreen title is Henri Rousseau Sunday Painter. Among its connections with the Debussy film, it’s co-written by Melvyn Bragg and focuses on a French artist of the same period. Oliver Reed is the narrator. Starring as Henri Rousseau is James Lloyd, a primitive artist with some similarities to Rousseau and who had been the subject of another Russell TV film.

The rural, working-class Rousseau (calling himself Henry) is a serious and naive clod who comes to Paris in his 40s with the intention of showing himself a great realist painter, never mind that everyone laughs at the strange, brightly-colored, primitive originality of his pictures. His first friend is “the pataphysical midget” Alfred Jarry (played by a woman, Annette Robertson, who’d played one of Debussy’s mistresses), who romps through this portion of the film. Russell stages the riotous premier of Jarry’s Ubu Roi, a deliberate assault on its bourgeois audience, and Russell clearly relishes the confrontation and the sentiments behind it; look at a similar sequence in the next film, when Isadora Duncan harangues a hostile audience. For all its rowdy moments, this is possibly the gentlest film of the six and the wittiest, because of the qualities of Rousseau himself and his art.

Isadora Duncan was another self-taught primitive whose art was often regarded as a joke, and Isadora Duncan: The Biggest Dancer in the World gives the viewer ammunition to see her as a self-absorbed, hedonistic, loud and crass sham—except that she also clearly isn’t. As played by the brassy, unglamorous Vivian Pickles and with sympathetic narration by Sewell Stokes, who knew her, we understand Duncan as a courageous woman insisting on her freedom in a difficult life. It’s made partly difficult by her own excesses to be sure, for she’s at her most comfortable when kept by a married millionaire, but then we may ask: why must she keep a married millionaire happy in order to finance her dancing school and present her art to the masses? The answer: because life is hard when you don’t have a millionaire to keep happy.

The absurdity and stupidity of her famous death is graced with a shot as glorious and generous as you’ll see in any biopic, and a glimpse of how one can be validated by one’s vision.

Long unseen and overshadowed by Karel Reisz’ 1968 film Isadora with Vanessa Redgrave (written, ironically, by Bragg), this easily manages to be better at conveying how and why Isadora shocked people. It’s less how she lives so much as what she says. She’s confrontational to everyone: the French who allegedly adore her, the Soviets who allegedly invite her to open a school and get more than they bargained for, the alleged revolutionaries who “murdered the Czar to take his place”, the hostile crowds in her native USA whom she berates for not really being free. At her best, she’s a fierce, exhilarating beast, as naive as Rousseau and as irresponsible as Debussy (but far more hardworking). Russell is interested in how people like this become important. All these artists, including Elgar and Delius, are presented as crucially isolated figures that must depend on tearing something out of themselves.

As for the vulgarity conveyed by Pickles, critic Michael Brooke quotes from an interview in which Russell discusses her performance with John Baxter: “It’s strange that people can’t reconcile vulgarity and artistry. They’re the same thing to me. But don’t get vulgarity mixed up with commercialism. By vulgarity I mean an exuberant over-the-top larger-than-life slightly bad taste red-blooded thing. And if that’s not anything to do with Art, let’s have nothing to do with Art. Let’s have more of that.”  See (Isadora (1966) on BFI Screen )

The closing credits give Leni Riefenstahl credit for “Greek sequence”, which will doubly confuse the viewer. What is the Greek sequence, and was Riefenstahl really commissioned by the BBC? According to Ken Hanke, who has written a book on Russell and reviewed this box on his website Cranky Hanke’s Screening Room, Russell originally used footage from her Olympia, but it’s almost entirely removed from this edition, perhaps for copyright reasons. The flash-forwards to this footage wouldn’t have been unmotivated affectation. Duncan continually remarks that her ideal of freedom will live on in her children (the students) and their children. She couldn’t have known that one of her most prominent disciples would be Riefenstahl, who first came to notice as an interpretive dancer in the Duncan mode and whose own choreography was influenced by her.

Hanke knows so much about these films and Russell’s other BBC films which aren’t included that rather than regurgitate what I learned there, I urge readers to peruse that review as well: “Cranky Hanke’s Screening Room: Ken Russell at the BBC: Box Set” by Ken Hank (26 September 2008, Mountain

The characters in Dante’s Inferno (1967) seem less isolated and more of a group or movement of like-minded bohemians, which may be part of their problem. For Dante Gabriel Rossetti (Oliver Reed), his inferno is other people and how he treats them. The opening shots are heady: a grave-robbing shot from above like a silent horror film (a book of Rossetti’s poems had been interred with his late wife), and a youthful riot of vandalism as the pre-Raphaelites burn examples of academic painting with as much drunken intolerance as if they were young National Socialists clearing society of degenerate art, or God-fearing Americans of the ‘60s making bonfires because the Beatles were bigger than Jesus.

The rest of the film traces the web of envy and opportunism, as well as camaraderie, among such figures as Christina Rossetti (Dante’s sister), Millais, Ruskin (the great critic whose wife divorced him for Millais), Swinburne (whose predilections are expressed when he kisses a male statue), and Edward Burne-Jones (whose wife was Rossetti’s mistress). Their antics are absorbing, exuberant, melodramatic, and far more impressive than other movies about groups of clever and talented friends. Most poignantly, Rossetti appreciates his wife more after her death, perhaps because her memory serves as his own memento mori.

The Delius film, the beloved and moving Song of Summer (1968), is evidence of why these films can’t be read in terms of formal “progress” from the restrained to the extravagant. The Elgar film is a traditional documentary, and the Delius a traditional drama. One wants to call it a chamber drama, although it’s as big as all outdoors and wide as imagination. It’s basically set in one house and covers the last few years of the composer’s life, when he was paralyzed and blind. Isolating as these conditions are, he depended totally on others whom, in this film, he takes for granted. When he wants to experience a glorious moment of mountain sunset, he does, although it takes three people to lug him up there in the snow. He may seem a helpless old man, but he’s lost none of his power, creatively or autocratically to dominate the household.

His amanuensis is Eric Fenby (Christopher Gable), a young Englishman and devout Catholic (like Russell), somewhat naive and prim, who is an excellent lens through which Russell and the viewer may see and judge Delius (a riveting Max Adrian). He fairly worships the man’s musical genius, but when he’s confronted with salacious stories of years gone by, or with Mrs. Delius’ painful account of his sordid adulteries, Fenby states aloud the paradox of these films: how to reconcile character issues with the beauty of the artistic achievement.

There are two bonus segments, a ‘60s profile of the working director and a 2008 interview in which Russell discusses these films. He observes that the Delius film is “less kaleidoscopic” than the others because it’s based on a straightforward book with a beginning, a middle and an end and there was “no need to jazz it up”. Thus he confutes any tendency to read his TV projects as progressively more unrestrained; all reflect their subjects.

Mind you, his next one, Dance of the Seven Veils, was a biopic of Richard Strauss so controversial that after its 1970 telecast, the Strauss family quashed the music rights. There was some excitement and disappointment when it was originally announced for this set and failed to materialize. What we have, however, is more than enough to enthrall and illuminate the viewer, both in their own terms as films and for the light they cast upon the reputation of Britain’s bad boy of bad taste.

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