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Ken Russell at the BBC

Ken Russell in The Fall of the Louse of Usher

Everything here is in achingly beautiful and sharply restored black and white, everything is intelligent and witty, everything is deeply felt -- everything is Russell.

Ken Russell has a reputation for making scandalous movies about scandalous things, but the biggest scandal connected with him is that so much of this major artist's work remains unavailable on video. As long as that's the case, he will continue to be underrated and misunderstood. In September 2008 a chunk of his early TV work was suddenly dropped down our chimneys, a gift of that capricious stork known as the BBC.

Ken Russell at the BBC doesn't contain all his BBC films or the earliest ones, but the six films here are brilliant and essential. I notice that some raters at Amazon express disappointment that everything here isn't The Devils (another notoriously unavailable movie). No matter. Everything here is in achingly beautiful and sharply restored black and white, everything is intelligent and witty, everything is deeply felt. In fact, everything is Russell.

His career isn't (or shouldn't be) defined by excess, outrage and the loaded term "bad taste". It's defined by classical tastes, and I assert that in the face of his reputation for burlesquing or perverting his subjects and being historically inaccurate. Most of his output is solidly rooted in the past and its expressions of high culture, but he doesn't take an academic or drawing-room approach. He sees history and art as vital, in other words living things, in other words the stuff of people's lives.

His respect for the past is balanced by a modern sense of humor, and his respect for individual achievements is tempered not by a desire to mock them but to be literally unflattering -- to refuse to flatter or indulge in hagiography. He may subvert traditional approaches to the subject, but his aim isn't to explode or subvert the subject; it's rather to convey anew the excitement, strangeness or shock of what we've come to accept and take for granted. He doesn't want us to think "Oh yes, I'm watching a movie about a great man", but to realize that greatness is surprising.

It would be false (if tempting) to read these six productions in terms of "progress" from more restrained efforts to wilder, more personal ones. They're all personal and tailored carefully to their subjects. The book-end pieces are about Sir Edward Elgar and Frederick Delius, two deeply British, safely academic composers. They never did anything scandalous (at least nothing that made the papers, though we hear unsavory details about Delius that turn out to be important) and it would be pointless to approach them as radically as Russell presents Debussy or Isadora Duncan, or as he presents the strange, insular bohemianism or Henri Rousseau. What Elgar and Delius did was write strongly felt music, and Russell adopts a form that conveys it. What all these shows have in common is this: the art they showcase is in every case presented as evidence of how the artist's life was lived.

Admittedly, the one-hour Elgar (1962) seems the most traditional and low-key in approach, though it already represents an experimental compromise reached with Huw Wheldon, the producer of the BBC program Monitor (later Omnibus), who wrote and delivered the narration. He didn't believe documentaries should use actors for what we now call dramatic re-enactments, and he allowed Russell to do this on condition that the actors didn't speak and turn it into a drama. Thus everything illustrates Wheldon's narration, which presents life as a traditional string of turning points and setbacks.

With this proviso, Russell fashioned the film. Sometimes the camera looks at an exquisitely composed image, sometimes it uproots itself to chase down the stairs after Elgar or drive across hills in a motorcar. All these films are beautifully shot and edited, and the editing often follows an intuitive course, complete with cross-cutting and counterpointing. For example, the stirring “Pomp and Circumstance" is illustrated with WWI footage, leading to endless graves with crosses to make the point of how Elgar's initial excitement at his music's popularity soured when jingoistic lyrics ("Land of Hope and Glory") were added. That brings us to the third element in the film, on a par with the image track and far beyond the narration: the music, which Russell respects (nay, loves) enough to let stand, alone with image, for long stretches of running time.

The Debussy Film (1965) is a remarkable postmodern creation. Subtitled as "impressions of the French composer" who was called a musical impressionist (though not by him), the title is literal. It's a film about a film about Debussy. Oliver Reed plays Debussy but also supposedly himself, an actor who is being directed in the role. His on-screen director, however, isn't Russell but the heavily-accented Vladek Sheybal, a vulpine, effete figure who isn't only "directing" but also playing the role of Debussy's friend and patron Pierre Louys, "pornographer, novelist, photographer". Louys is presented as a decadent and voyeuristic puppetmaster -- much like a director, perhaps.

The levels of reality and acting flow seamlessly, as the actors themselves wonder if or why Debussy was such a sponging, womanizing, lazy bastard as presented. The film functions as an experimental documentary that intrigues us with how its subject both frittered away his genius, and how the works of this fritterer express that genius, until we sense that while life gets in the way of creation, the creation must be the product of the life.

The music-video sequence on "Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun" begins as a pastoral Chanel commercial and ends with disenchanted decadence. The Nocturne "Fêtes" is presented as a delirious film-within-film of a fantastic night-time parade on the beach. (At one scene, in the background, we hear a delicately jazzy flute rendition of Rodgers & Hammerstein's "It Might As Well Be Spring".) The humor throughout has an effect of puncturing greatness and seriousness only to remind us that seriously great things emerge anyway.

Particularly remarkable is the ending, and actually the endings of all six films are remarkable epiphanies. Debussy was working on an unfinished opera for Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher", a detail that appeals to Russell to the point of staging a dreamlike sequence with the composer as the tortured Roderick Usher confronted by his revivified sister-muse-lover.

Scene from Elgar

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