Thursday, 1 December 2011
Ken's last dance
I've been trying to put together a coherent picture in my head of what I really think about Ken Russell's films since news of his death broke earlier this week. And the light went on when someone said his music-and-image sequences were the forerunners of the best-made pop videos. Those are the elements which will stick in the mind for the right reasons.
By and large, though, he tended to reduce distinguished actors to the level of self-indulgent amateurs (I tried to watch Women in Love recently, and gave up after the first 20 minutes which reminded me of nothing less than Monty Python's spoof of Salad Days; one expected a croquet mallet through the heart and spurting comedy blood at any minute). One exception to that rule was an astonishing debut by young actress Imogen Millais-Scott in Salome's Last Dance (pictured above), the only one of his later films I've seen all the way through. Heavenly Imogen spoke Wilde's verse so musically (as you can hear as well as see in the YouTube excerpt below); imagine my surprise when she turned up some years later reading a lesson, very beautifully, at two friends' wedding in the depths of the Oxfordshire countryside. Anyway, all the stuff in the film about the performance in a male brothel wasn't as irrelevant as that sort of thing could be in Ken's films.
Otherwise, kudos to him for his bold fantasy-riffs on Mahler - there's a very haunting early wood-with-white-horse scene set to music from the Third Symphony - and Tchaikovsky in The Music Lovers, again hit-and-miss but with some very telling music-and-vision sequences (I dimly remember a nice fit with something, quite unexpectedly, from another Third Symphony, the 'Polish').
Maybe those early Monitor films were striking at the time, too, but I didn't quite see what all the fuss was about over the Elgar rhapsody when I caught up with it many years later. I remember laughing for all the wrong reasons over his much later Vaughan Williams documentary - a scene for each of the symphonies, wasn't it, in one of which poor Ursula wandered in front of an army of tanks. Though there was a rather imaginative matching in some other doc - sorry to be so vague - of a steam train chugging through the English countryside to Elgar's Introduction and Allegro for strings (seemed silly to start with, but the central fugue made sense.
Yes, there was a decline. I timidly abstained from going to see the reported dog's dinner that was his ENO Princess Ida (love the piece too much, perhaps, though I don't see how it could ever be staged these days), and he wrote some truly dreadful though fitfully amusing opera criticism (many a time was I seated near His Flamboyant Noisiness).
What's most regrettable, though, is how not enough of his work is available on DVD; hence my approximate memories above. So praise be to YouTube for filling in the gaps: here's Salome's failed seduction of John the Baptist, the word-music backed up by threefold reprises of 'The Young Prince and Princess' from Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade (and a bit of The Golden Cockerel for good measure).
Maybe that official-reissue dearth will be remedied now Ken's gone. After all, the sheer eclecticism is something (who else would film both Sandy Wilson's The Boy Friend AND rock opera Tommy?) And I have yet to see The Devils, with those incredible-looking sets by Derek Jarman, another British original who died, unlike Russell, far too young.