January 24, 2012

Theresa Russell, in mustache

Even to non-opera buffs, the idea behind Aria must sound fascinating: The movie rounds up 10 distinctive directors, and lets each make a short film to accompany the operatic aria of his choice.

British producer Don Boyd gave the directors no constraints when it came to approach or subject matter. Which means that Aria is essentially an omnibus of high-brow music videos, and a chance for some top-flight filmmakers to flex their muscles. Predictably, what results is a very mixed bag.

There’s a framing story, about an opera singer (John Hurt) entering a theater and preparing for a role. This serves as a bridge between the individual pieces, the first of which is a witty narrative to the strains of Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera.

This is directed by Nicolas Roeg (Don’t Look Now), who tells the true story of an assassination attempt on Albania’s King Zog in 1931. Zog, who survived the attack, may be the only assassination target who ever saved himself by shooting back. Adding a ripple of perversity is Roeg’s casting, which puts his wife, Theresa Russell, in drag in the role of Zog.

This is a promising start, but the next piece, with music from Verdi’s La Forza del Destino, directed by Charles Sturridge, is uninspired and obtuse. Next is Jean-Luc Godard, who takes the veg-o-matic approach to Lully’s Armide, chopping up the music as he shows some bodybuilders ignoring the attractions of two women in the gym. It’s a typically Godardian workout, full of repetition, ambient noise, and a large knife.

It’s Verdi again—Rigoletto—for the film’s centerpiece, a 15-minute farce directed by Julian Temple. Temple mounts a comedy of adultery, as two marrieds (Buck Henry and Anita Morris) enjoy other partners at a motel with “theme” rooms (the Neanderthal Room, Heidi’s Hideaway).

This one’s amusing, but aside from a great moment when the aria is lip-synched by the motel’s Elvis impersonator, this entry isn’t significantly better than some of Temple’s long-form music videos (such as “Jazzin’ for Blue Jean,” with David Bowie).

Australian Bruce (Crimes of the Heart) Beresford brings his literalist approach to an aria from Korngold’s Die Tote Stadt—he simply has a couple sing to each other—and then Robert Altman checks in with a curious ode to the 18th-century habit of letting people from insane asylums attend the opera on Sunday afternoon. The music is from Rameau’s Les Boreades.

Next, Franc Roddam (The Bride) does a haunting update on Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, in which a young couple (James Mathers and Bridget Fonda—Peter’s daughter) go to Las Vegas, make passionate love, and commit suicide. Very nice.

You expect Ken Russell to bring the house down with this sort of thing, and Russell’s fantasia on Turandot by Puccini is one of the film’s weirdest turns. It’s a surreal glimpse of what appear to be the near-death thoughts of a woman who has just been in a car accident. She is played by England’s most famous stripper, Linzi Drew.

The film is rounded out by Derek Jarman’s impressionistic take on Charpentier’s Louise, and by the end of the framing story, which closes with Il Pagliacci, directed by Bill Bryden.

Well, I liked the three Rs—Roeg, Roddam, and Russell—and Godard’s thing. Even though it’s something of a disappointment overall, Aria is still an intriguing concept. Now, can we do the same thing with rock ‘n’ roll?

First published in the Herald, July 1988

Tilda Swinton was in the Jarman segment, one of her first screen roles. Some of this movie was pretty dull, as I recall, and not because of the opera, but because the filmmakers fell down.

The Rainbow

December 5, 2011

When director Ken Russell made a film of D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Love in 1969, the movie established him as a major world filmmaker, after a decade of fascinating TV work and undistinguished features.

Twenty years later, after having spent much of the last decade noodling at some peculiar projects, Russell has returned to the source. The Rainbow, another Lawrence adaptation, is his long-planned follow-up to Women in Love. It is actually something of a prequel, because it tells the story of the Brangwen sisters as girls, before they became women in love.

Russell’s film, which lops off the first half of the novel, focuses on Ursula Brangwen (Sammi Davis), a young woman growing up on the family farm who chafes at the dullness of the life that lies ahead of her. Her search for something else leads her first into a lesbian dalliance with her swimming teacher (Amanda Donohoe), then into a teaching career at a brutish school in London (the schoolroom scenes, with their smoky oppression, are among the film’s best). Finally Ursula enters into a dark relationship with a soldier (Paul McCann).

Russell seems to care about the material, and that is a good sign; he has some soaring photography of the English countryside from cameraman Billy Williams. But the movie feels skeletal in comparison to Lawrence’s dark prose. It’s fine when dealing with the charmingly immature foot-stomping of its heroine, but on shakier ground when attempting to plumb the depths of her emotional awakening.

Russell displays little of the outrageousness that has so often placed him in hot water. Mirroring the then-daring nude wrestling scene between Alan Bates and Oliver Reed in Women in Love is a rather wan nude massage delivered to Ursula by her swim instructor. And Russell’s staging of an episode in which Ursula is startled by some horses seems dated in its sexual symbolism.

Sammi Davis, who played the sister in Hope and Glory and acted up a storm for Russell in the campy Lair of the White Worm, is a tough call as Ursula. Davis has the natural vivacity to suggest a restless spirit, but she doesn’t really have the complexity the role demands.

Elsewhere, Russell has two cast members from Women in Love, Christopher Gable and Glenda Jackson (who won an Oscar for Women in Love) as Ursula’s parents. This turns out to be more of a clever touch than anything else, although Gable contributes a winning warmth as Ursula’s rough-hewn father. Amanda Donohoe, who played the fang-sprouting villain of Lair of the White Worm, and David Hemmings, who plays Ursula’s dandyish uncle, are the performers most in tune with the material. Donohoe, who has steady, almond-shaped eyes, is wry and mysterious. She’s past girlishness, but what an intriguing Ursula she would have made.

First published in the Herald, June 8, 1989

I don’t think I could bring myself to watch this disappointment again—it felt like a miscast, under-funded fumble. I remember interviewing Sammi Davis at some point (was it possibly for this movie?), and at one point she mentioned another actress’s beauty, and described herself as having “a…a…monkey face!” So she was very appealing, but not for D.H. Lawrence.

The Lair of the White Worm

December 2, 2011

Putting a novel by the author of Dracula, Bram Stoker, into the hands of the aging enfant terrible of the movies, Ken Russell, is either an act of bravado or surrender. Especially so when the book bears the title The Lair of the White Worm.

Russell, of course, is going to make a rumpus out of whatever material is thrown his way, and White Worm is no exception. But this sort of project, as with his last couple of films, Gothic and Salome’s Last Dance, seems designed to cater to Russell’s most indulgent instincts, to the detriment of the films, I think.

Russell has set Stoker’s story in the present day. An archaeologist (Peter Capaldi) finds a large reptilian head in a back yard in Derbyshire. The sisters who live in the house (Sammi Davis, Catherine Oxenberg) introduced the scientist to Lord D’Ampton (Hugh Grant), a local descendant of the legendary figure who slew a giant white worm, or dragon, many centuries ago. Could the skull belong to the dragon?

Or, more tantalizingly, does the dragon still exist? This possibility begins to be more prominent, particularly when we meet Lady Sylvia Marsh (Amanda Donohoe), a kinky character who is very into snakes, occasionally sprouts fangs, and sometimes drains the blood of unsuspecting hitchhikers. When Lord D’Ampton visits, and they play Snakes and Ladders, he surveys her huge castle and asks, “Do you have children?” To which she replies, “Only when there are no men around.” This is not a nice person.

Russell mixes these characters into his usual delirium. For the first couple of scenes, it almost looks as though he might play it reasonably straight, but camp begins to creep in. Some of which, naturally, is giddy and outrageous; who can resist a finale in which a virgin is dangled over the pit of a giant white worm, while the scientist tries to stave off a bloodthirsty policeman by playing the bagpipes?

At befits a director of his notoriety, Russell has attracted some of the top young actors in Britain. They’re fun to watch: Donohoe is unrecognizable here from the island inhabitant she played in Castaway, Grant was the friend in Maurice, Capaldi was the young Scotsman in Local Hero, and Sammi Davis the sister in Hope and Glory. They fall as much into sync with Russell as they can.

Perhaps Ken Russell may heave himself out of his current, frivolous vein with his next scheduled project, The Rainbow. It will be his second adaptation of a D.H. Lawrence novel; the first, Women in Love, was the film that brought Russell to international attention in 1970 (Donohoe and Davis will star). If Ken Russell ever has a worthy excuse to behave himself, that might be it.

First published in the Herald, November 10, 1988

My review of The Rainbow will be shortly upon us. This movie deserves its cult reputation, even if I recall it not being quite as much fun as it should have been. I’ll bet it wears well, though.

Salome’s Last Dance

November 30, 2011

In Salome’s Last Dance, famed bad-boy filmmaker Ken Russell has chosen to take a cameo role for himself, that of a still photographer recording a performance of Oscar Wilde’s play Salome given for the benefit of Wilde himself. Wilde looks at the photographer and declares, “If your acting is as grossly indecent as your photographic studies, we are in for an outrrrageous evening!”

Russell uncorks this bit of self-lampoonery knowing full well that most critics consider the director of Tommy and Altered States as “grossly indecent” a moviemaker as exists on the planet. But the dialogue certainly gets it right: Salome’s Last Dance is another cyclonic phantasmagoria from Russell’s feverish brain—an outrageous evening, indeed. I think it’s a minor film, when all is said and done, but it is at least mounted with high style and good humor (Russell’s previous movie, Gothic, seemed sour and hopeless).

The Salome performance is given in a brothel on a November night in 1892. Wilde (played in a marvelously florid turn by Nickolas Grace) sits on a bower of pillows and watches his play unfold, and occasionally gets in on the peripheral action.

When Russell visited the recent screening of Salome’s Last Dance at the Seattle International Film Festival, he claimed that staging Wilde’s Salome in this manner was the only way to film the play without building elaborate, expensive sets. True, but there’s another, better reason. When Wilde watches his play staged, we see the way it reflects on his own life; he identifies himself as the play’s John the Baptist, and predicts himself betrayed by his homosexual lover just as John is betrayed by Salome.

In the play, John the Baptist is played by Douglas Hodge; Herod by Stratford Johns; Queen Herodias by Glenda Jackson. The actors are ripe, as befits Russell’s scheme, and none is riper than Imogen Millais-Scott, the petite newcomer who plays Salome. Her lilting, breathy delivery is strange and haunting, and her amber eyes flicker with lust, particularly in the ornate temptations she offers the Baptist. What an exuberantly odd performance!

Salome’s Last Dance might well have been a trashy, glitzy exercise in camp were it not for the tragic layer of Wilde’s own life, as suggested in sharp strokes by Russell. The movie may be crammed with gold-painted bodies, bare-breasted servant girls, dancing dwarfs, and a murderous banana peel, but with all of that, as is true of Russell’s best films, there’s more here than meets the eye.

First published in the Herald, June 1988

A maniac of the movies, Ken Russell died a couple of days ago. The man unleashed a few turkeys, but I can testify to the power of seeing Women in Love as a teenager, already aware of the film’s reputation as an Important Art Movie containing a certain raciness. The Eighties were not a great time for his films, although I am an Altered States fan, but this is a mad little item I somehow saw twice in its Seattle Film Festival and regular-run appearances. Between viewings someone told me that leading lady Imogen Millais-Scott was blind, which certainly gives an unusual dimension to watching the movie. But then all the actors are pitched in a slightly crazed, unreal mode, which seemed to suit Russell just fine. I also like Nickolas Grace; he played Anthony Blanche in the ’81 Brideshead Revisited miniseries, and he nailed the defining-devastating moment when he turns to old friend Charles Ryder to accurately confide that Ryder’s paintings are “tewwible twipe,” despite the fawning of art patrons.