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Uh, oh. Trouble is coming from all sides as Ken Russell takes British Film into the 1970’s. Despite on-going demand, Time Warner still refuses to allow us to take a full-on second look back. Britain’s most infamous film actually belongs to a United States based corporation. The Devils Ken Russell, 1971 Cinematography | David Watkin

When one thinks of 1960’s Film Art, the mind does not immediately jump to thoughts of British cinema. Most of us think of France’s La Nouvelle Vague, Germany’s Neuer Deutsche Film, Italy’s NeoRealism film movement, The Japanese New Wave or The Polish New Wave from which Britain did snatch Roman Polanski. Certainly there were groundbreaking British films that caught the spirit of London’s Swinging 60’s Era, but many of these films have aged rather poorly. Just think of Petulia, Morgan!, Darling, Billy Liar or Georgy Girl.  If honest, what really still works about these films is related to a time capsule interest. Many of these British films are quite valid (think A Taste of Honey, This Sporting Life, Room At The Top, A Hard Day’s Night, Seance on a Wet Afternoon, Performance ) but the majority have not held up as well as one might hope.

This is not true across the board. Stanley Kubrick’s British work has only gotten better with time and Michelangelo Antonioni’s visit into Swinging London culture of the time, Blow Up, remains a vital work. However, are these truly British films? It would seem that both of these filmmakers were in a sort of transitionary position. Antonioni was visiting England. Kubrick was still fairly new to British culture.

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The great Julie Christie is The Ideal Woman of 1965’s British satire of Swinging London, but the film barely registers beyond nostalgia now. Darling John Schlesinger, 1965 Cinematography | Kenneth Higgins

Most of the iconic British films of the 1960’s are simply limited to nostalgia. Guy Hamilton, Andy Milligan, Lindsay Anderson, Karel Reisz and Lindsay Shonteff are exceptions but much of what they were trying to convey would soon better estimated by the likes of Alan Parker and most especially Mike Leigh. Ken Loach would not truly find his voice until he entered his 50’s in the 1990’s. There was also a good share of attention to The Angry Young Man of the day. Tony Richardson had moments of brilliance but looking back he seemed to have been challenged by what style of film best suited his voice. Richard Lester certainly left a mark, but here again we are slipping into time capsule pop culture moments.

The British New Wave is also largely obscured by the mega-epics of David Lean’s heavily praised, Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago are considered to be a cinematic masterpieces. I’ve never been particularly impressed. To be honest, I’ve never made it through Lawrence of Arabia without falling asleep. Carol Reed’s adaptation of the stage musical, Oliver! was another huge British hit of the 1960’s that pushed pass the more reflexive films of the day.

There were two particularly strong and solitary British Film Artists who were finding new methods of cinematic language. Nicolas Roeg would soon move from the cinematographer chair to that of director and change the face of film editing as it was known. Ken Russell’s work for the BBC and his adaptation of Larry Kramer’s adaptation of DH Lawrence’s Women In Love all stand alone and unique in offering new ways of using film to express ideas and to tell stories. And he really stole the anticipated reigns of the film biography when The Music Lovers slammed onto movie screens across the world in 1970.

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Ken Russell welcomes us to the 1970’s via way of 16h Century France as “the wife” of a Priest makes her way past the destruction of the Roman-Catholic Church… Gemma Jones The Devils Ken Russell, 1971 Cinematography | David Watkin

As British Film headed into the 1970’s some firm and potent voices formed. Certainly Stanley Kubrick’s A Clock Work Orange is a British Film. All American cultural ideas have fallen off his cinematic map. John Schlesinger pretty much left England for America. Ken Russell defied all expectations with his searing and important 1971 film, The Devils. As it turns out Ken Russell, Nicolas Roeg and Stanley Kubrick were not alone. The thing is some of the new British voices got somehow lost in the mix. Barney Platts-Mills’ may have only made one film in the 1960’s, but it is a powerful entry into British Film History. Three other filmmakers also created work not only ahead of the cultural curve — they challenged it and ran their work close to the edge of the rails.

As we stumble forward toward the third decade of the 21st Century, The British Film Institute has gone deep within the corners of their storage closets to re-release a couple of seldom seen motion pictures that capture 1960’s London in whole new ways. Most of these titles were dusted off, restored, re-released within the UK and issued to DVD/Blu-Ray between 2009 and 2011.

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The British Film Festival pulled several legendary but almost forgotten films and re-issued them to DVD/Blu-Ray in 2010 and 2011. These “lost” films of Jack Bond, Jane Arden, Joseph Despins and William Dumaresq teach us that Ken Russell and Stanley Kubrick were not alone in finding new ways to capture stories and ideas for the British Screen.

Two of these four filmmakers were actually Canadian born. Even still, these two ex-pats of Canada artists show no signs of unfamiliarity with the setting of their two crucial films that BFI re-issued several years back for the first time in over 40 years. The other two filmmakers are most certainly British and have cinematic voices which come close to that of Ken Russell and Nicolas Roeg. Like Russell / Roeg, these two British Film Artists were well-versed but often Anti-Intellectual in the way they approached their work. They were far more focused on the visual and the use of film editing. Rebels all, but each were reeling out their rebellion from different core identities. Unlike Ken Russell and Nicolas Roegs’ work of the 1960’s, all four of the other Film Artists will not appeal to a number of people, but it is hard to imagine anyone disputing their importance.

I’m currently exploring the work of a number of British filmmakers who are new to me. I plan on writing more on the art and collaborations of Jane Arden and Jack Bond. The work these two created almost defies terminology, but I’m going to give it my best shot!

But for this post, I want to touch on two films. The first of these two was born out of the mixed theatre and social service ideals of the great Joan Littlewood. “The Mother of Modern Theatre” devoted the second half of her life working with the young people of East London who were lost, without purpose or supervision. These young people were in constant threat of falling prey to all manner of trouble. Her idea was to create a space where these teenagers could be allowed to hang out and “act” out their issues, challenges and ideas. Firmly grounded in the arts but against what she viewed as Elitism of The National Theatre. Her Theatre Royal Stratford East was free of pretension and open to everyone. It was here that Barney Platts-Mills was inspired to scrap together a bit of money to make an amazing little film called Bronco Bullfrog.

Non-actors, Anne Gooding & Del Walker, "play" fictionalized versions of themselves and contemplate their futures. Bronco Bullfrog Barney Platts-Mills, 1969 Cinematography | Adam Barker-Mill

Non-actors, Anne Gooding & Del Walker, “play” fictionalized versions of themselves and contemplate their futures.
Bronco Bullfrog
Barney Platts-Mills, 1969
Cinematography | Adam Barker-Mill

Bronco Bullfrog stars non-actors who had been working with each other under the loose guidance of Joan Littlewood. While the plot is deceptively simple, a great deal of information about the grimness of urban decay, lack of parenting and dystopian boredom come through loud and clear. Glam and style-free, this is a study of teenagers floating along without purpose, direction or hope. Interestingly, it is not all gloom and doom. The characters of Bronco Bullfrog start to find their way as the film heads to conclusion. This is a gem of a film that has never received the praise or attention it deserved. As good as this movie is, it can hardly stand-up when positioned next to Joseph Despins and William Dumaresqs’ ultra-strange and unforgettable twisted little movie, Duffer.

duffer_banner

A good 6 years before anyone had seen the dark surrealism and humor of David Lynch, this low-budget experimental film serves as welcome warning that the art of filmmaking is about to take an innovative, creative and altogether new turn. Kit Gleave as Duffer Joseph Despins & William Dumaresq, 1971 Cinematography | Jorge Guerra

Joseph Despins and William Dumaresq crafted this weird and entertaining movie on a budget so low it is probably best not to state it. The camera work is surprisingly solid. Actually the cinematography is far more than solid, it is artistically sound. Cinematographer, Jorge Guerra, may not have had the best equipment but he most certainly knew how to use it. The shots are often brilliant.

There is no sound. The narration and voices were recorded by a different cast. It only takes a few minutes before it is clear that the lack of sound was not going to be a deficit. In fact, the creative dubbing actually adds to this film in more ways than one. Comical and often horrifying, the dubbed dialogue serves exceptionally as an aide to the film’s surrealism, dark comedy, menace and horror.

"WoManAmal!!!" Duffer's junkie gay keeper heaps on the abuse and chronicles it all for underground porn.  William Dumaresq as "Louis-Jack" Duffer Joseph Despins & William Dumaresq, 1971 Cinematography | Jorge Guerra

“WoManAmal!!!” Duffer’s junkie gay keeper heaps on the abuse and chronicles it all for underground porn.
William Dumaresq as “Louis-Jack”
Duffer
Joseph Despins & William Dumaresq, 1971
Cinematography | Jorge Guerra

The dubbing actually heightens the discomfort as we watch a young man attempt to reconcile the emotional, physical and sexual abuse of his older junkie boyfriend by engaging in an affair with a female prostitute. Enduring the sort of sadistic torment one seldom sees addressed in film, Despins and Dumaresq were extremely clever in presenting it in very dark comical ways that disturb but never so much that one needs to run for cover. The kind but obviously more than a bit twisted herself, prossie called Your Gracie gives the lost teen some solace while fully utilizing him as a tool.

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Erna May as “Your Gracie” is using Kit Gleave’s “Duffer,” but he hopes she is saving his masculinity… Duffer Joseph Despins & William Dumaresq, 1971 Cinematography | Jorge Guerra

As the KINK/BDSM with his male keeper becomes more severe and his trysts with his female lover decrease — Duffer is pulled into his male lover’s Horse addiction and begins to suffer one of the most bizarre psychosomatic delusions I’ve ever seen. The poor kid’s delusions continue to morph into what appears to be a psychotic break. This twisted, funny, unsettling and fascinating experimental film deals with almost every aspect of human cruelty and horror imaginable. And just to amp up Duffer’s already potent cinematic stew, we gradually begin to suspect that our protagonist may not be the most reliable narrator.

Just a bi-sexual boy walking through 1970 Notting Hill either on his way from or toward abuse at the hands of older suitors.  Kit Gleave in his only film role... Duffer Joseph Despins & William Dumaresq, 1971 Cinematography | Jorge Guerra

Just a bi-sexual boy walking through 1970 Notting Hill either on his way from or toward abuse at the hands of older suitors.
Kit Gleave in his only film role…
Duffer
Joseph Despins & William Dumaresq, 1971
Cinematography | Jorge Guerra

As the film unspools more perversities and jaw-drop moments at break-neck speed, we are constantly given an exceptional examination of 1970’s Notting Hill. You may think you’ve seen urban decay and dystopian-like settings, but Duffer presents an England few of us have seen. Filmed on location and on the very cheap, this is perplexing and truly extraordinary view of the state of things circa 1969-1970. I realize that some of you will be annoyed that I’m grouping this film into the 1960’s British New Wave, but Duffer is clearly set in the 1960’s. This is not the 1970’s.

The film begins with Duffer sitting alone by the water. A pretty young woman pauses as she crosses a bridge far above the handsome boy. As the film whirls to conclusion we find him once again in the same place. It is impossible to not ponder where the film’s reality begins or ends. In fact, there is a distinct possibility that none of it is real. However there are just as many clues that all of what see presented has happened in reality. I’m not dropping a spoiler here, the viewer begins to distrust poor Duffer almost immediately. This is a narrator we are unable to trust. But the most jarring aspect of this film is that it presents itself solidly within the Surrealist Context.

All alone in his thoughts... Duffer Joseph Despins & William Dumaresq, 1971 Cinematography | Jorge Guerra

All alone in his thoughts…
Duffer
Joseph Despins & William Dumaresq, 1971
Cinematography | Jorge Guerra

It is important to note that as much as I praise Duffer, it is not for all tastes. While never truly graphic, it is most definitely profane and very perverse. The humor is so dark that many will feel guilty laughing. This is one demented movie. It also features a deeply strange musical score from the composer who gave the world the 1960’s Broadway smash, Hair. Galt McDermot’s score plays like something you would hear in an alternate universe Tin Pan Alley. Just when you think you will only be hearing a piano — a quickly use of electronics starts to grind forward.

"Mind how you go..." No where in Notting Hill is safe! Duffer Joseph Despins & William Dumaresq, 1971 Cinematography | Jorge Guerra

“Mind how you go…” No where in Notting Hill is safe!
Duffer
Joseph Despins & William Dumaresq, 1971
Cinematography | Jorge Guerra

Duffer screams out for repeated viewings to understand, to ensure that what you think you’ve just seen was actually shown and for the simple fact that this movie is endlessly entertaining. And trust me, this movie gets under your skin. Once it slips under, it stays there. In addition, something about Duffer seems to be signaling the audience to watch out for David Lynch. Were it not so very British, it could easily be mistaken for something a young David Lynch might have created. Unique, innovative, disturbing, haunting, funny and altogether original, Duffer is a must see lost British Cinematic Treasure.

Well there is nothing quite like watching your lover's home movies abusing you... Kit Gleave watches what we can only guess hurt a great deal. Duffer Joseph Despins & William Dumaresq, 1971 Cinematography | Jorge Guerra

Well there is nothing quite like watching your lover’s home movies abusing you…
Kit Gleave watches what we can only guess hurt a great deal.
Duffer
Joseph Despins & William Dumaresq, 1971
Cinematography | Jorge Guerra

 

I honestly found no flaw in Duffer.

Just pulled back into darkness after being "fixed" for activities best kept there... Duffer Joseph Despins & William Dumaresq, 1971 Cinematography | Jorge Guerra

Just pulled back into darkness after being “fixed” for activities best kept there…
Duffer
Joseph Despins & William Dumaresq, 1971
Cinematography | Jorge Guerra

I loved this film, but the work of both Jane Arden and Jack Bond really blew me away. Blown out the window and lying on the pavement outside our San Francisco home, the collaborations of Arden and Bond require more than a little thought and meditation. I’m still letting their three films digest, but I’ll be writing about them soon.

Pushing Feminist Agenda, Drug Experimentation, Examination and Destruction of an identity born of societal and cultural domination, Jane Arden & Jack Bond pull us into the dangerous threat of absolute madness... The Other Side of the Underneath Jane Arden, 1972 Cinematography | Jack Bond & Aubrey Dewar

Pushing Feminist Agenda, Drug Experimentation, Examination and Destruction of an identity born of societal and cultural domination, Jane Arden & Jack Bond pull us into the dangerous threat of absolute madness…
The Other Side of the Underneath
Jane Arden, 1972
Cinematography | Jack Bond & Aubrey Dewar

Matty Stanfield, 12.23.2015

 

There are so many films out there that have been forgotten and or lost.

Carnal Knowledge Mike Nichols, 1971

Carnal Knowledge
Mike Nichols, 1971

As we enter the 21st Century, the choices applied by major studios and various production companies often appears to have no grounding in logic.

For instance, Mill Creek Entertainment has US/Canada home distribution rights for such major players as Sony, Universal, Warner Brothers and Buena Vista. These studios and major distributors have historic catalogs of cinema. Yet, Mill Creek is more interested in re-mastering such films as Barnet Kellman’s painful 1992 Straight Talking in which Dolly Parton is romanced by James Woods!

Miami Rhapsody  David Frankel, 1995

Miami Rhapsody
David Frankel, 1995

They also were very quick to get such “cinematic classics” as Another Stakeout, The Legend of Billie Jean, Old Gringo, Playing God, Color of Night and Miami Rhapsody.

Cruising William Friedkin, 1980

Cruising
William Friedkin, 1980

This isn’t some little “deal” that Mill Creek Entertainment has established, it is major. This company works with Sony and Warner Brothers who tend to be the cheapest and most difficult of the major studios when it comes to their respective back catalog. However, Mill Creek has never shown any sort of interest in distributing the films that many would like to see remastered and available.

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Mike Nichols, 1966

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Mike Nichols, 1966

Were it not for smaller film distribution labels like Olive Films, Twilight Entertainment, Shout Factory and most importantly The Criterion Collection many an iconic film would still be sitting fading away in the shelf of some disorganized storage area.

Girlfriends Claudia Weill, 1978

Girlfriends
Claudia Weill, 1978

As it is, Twilight Entertainment has managed to get a foot in by agreeing to a limited printing. This means that less popular, but far more artistically valid films that Sony and Warners have denied other offers find a way to a limited restoration and release.

But when Twilight is limited to only 3,000 pressings, the cost jumps up to $30 retail.

Andy Warhol's Dracula  AKA Young Dracula or Blood for Dracula Paul Morrissey, 1974

Andy Warhol’s Dracula
AKA Young Dracula or Blood for Dracula
Paul Morrissey, 1974

And films like Woody Allen’s Love and Death, Purple Rose of Cairo and Crimes and Misdemeanors immediately push close to selling out. Same goes for Steel Magnolias or François Truffaut’s The Bride Wore Black or the iconic Sidney Pollack teaming of Streisand and Redford in The Way We Were. These films are sold for $30 for a few weeks before they start going for as high as $60 or more on Amazon from other sellers. Amazon does not sell Twilight directly.

Pink Floyd The Wall Alan Parker, 1982

Pink Floyd The Wall
Alan Parker, 1982

So, why does Mill Creek Entertainment prefer Mike Binder’s Holy Matrimony to The Bride Wore Black or The Way We Were? The knee-jerk answer is that Mill Creek can crank out 500,000 pressings of mediocre comedies to sell via Walmart, BestBuy or Amazon for as low as $5 to $10 a pop.

Apparently, when shoppers see a Blu-Ray featuring any movie star they recognize, they will pay $8 without a second thought. Easy profits. But that is not always the case.

Blowup Michelangelo Antonioni, 1966

Blowup
Michelangelo Antonioni, 1966d

Reasons can range from obscure licensing challenges for piece of music that Warners or Sony is not willing to negotiate and that Mill Creek doesn’t want to have to pay. Or, from time to time, there is often a more sinister element going on: Woody Allen, Robert Redford, Warren Beatty, Barbra Streisand and Jane Fondas’ movies will be even more profitable after each’s respective death.

And sometimes it amounts to insecurities about stirring up old wounds of the filmmakers themselves. These wounds can be gushing blood after decades or can be so minor it can be puzzling.

Shampoo Hal Ashby, 1975

Shampoo
Hal Ashby, 1975

But more often than not, the reason that films are forgotten or lost is because no one in positions of power ever think of them.

In recent years Warner Brothers has started their DVD-R printings of more obscure movies under their Warner Archive. This is cool, but limited. A vast number of Warner Brothers films remain unavailable — and many of the ones that are available by order are poorly re-mastered.

Nasty Habits Michael Lindsay-Hogg, 1977

Nasty Habits
Michael Lindsay-Hogg, 1977

Anyone curious to see the infamously failed film version of Portnoy’s Complaint will discover a muddy pint in which everything within the image has been stretched up/down so that Karen Black and Richard Benjamin are cartoon thin. The entire raunchy movie is there, but presented in a manner reminiscent of pre-cable late night shows when no one knew how to translate big screen films to fit onto TV screens. When Warners does take the time to press a few buttons and get the film to an acceptable aspect ratio, they do not bother to remaster.

Up The Sandbox Irvin Kershner, 1972

Up The Sandbox
Irvin Kershner, 1972

A classic example of Warner Brothers Archive Collection logic is found in the recent release of Tony Scott’s iconic and Cult Film Classic, The Hunger. A movie that features the likes of David Bowie, Catherine Deneuve and Susan Sarandon as well as sleekly applied style and some great music from Bauhaus and Iggy Pop has been transferred to Blu-Ray using an even lesser quality transfer than MGM used for the initial DVD release.

Lisztomania Ken Russell, 1975

Lisztomania
Ken Russell, 1975

Don’t be fooled, Warner Archive did not bother to get the aspect ratio correct. You are not seeing the full picture. And I’m not certain, but I don’t think there has even been a 2K restoration here. The picture quality is not bad, but it is far from great. Worse yet, the audio is lousy. The old MGM DVD sounded better. Of course my DVD died several years back. I was stuck with the Warner released DVD which was actually a bit better than their new Blu-Ray.

They did a similar job with Nicolas Roeg’s co-directing debut, Performance. Yet, for reasons unknown they did actually bother to do a 2K restore for John Schlesinger’s Far From The Madding Crowd to Blu-Ray. It has yet to sell as well as either Performance or The Hunger. 

Women In Love Ken Russell, 1969

Women In Love
Ken Russell, 1969

Despite all sorts of grass-roots pushes and a an uncountable number of Film Historians, Film Production/Distribution companies and the request of an entire nation — Yes, Great Britain and the highly valued and respected British Film Institute reached out — Warner Brothers continues to refuse the release of Ken Russell’s original cut of The Devils.

No reason has ever been given.

Britain and the BFI fared best, however they were presented with an inferior quality and edited version of the film which they were only allowed to release in a UK region restricted limited pressing. While Warners did give BFI the choice to issue to Blu-Ray, BFI declined and limited the release to DVD as the quality of what Warner Brothers gave them was too poor to merit the Blu-Ray treatment.

The Devils Ken Russell, 1971

The Devils
Ken Russell, 1971

As The Devils is an historic part of British Film History and an important work of art, BFI wanted to have a full copy of the film secured in their registry.

However, the print that Warners gave had to be returned.

So BFI now has a restored copy of a copy of an edited version of The Devils.

"Birdshit!" Brewster McCloud Robert Altman, 1970

“Birdshit!”
Brewster McCloud
Robert Altman, 1970

In the upcoming several months a number of films are being re-evaluated for restoration and re-distribution. Who knows if any of this which is largely connected to the Film Festival Circuit will have any impact. However if one of these film matters to you, the best thing to do is review the film on Rotten Tomatoes or IMDB.

Oddly, sales from the Warner Archive do not seem to have much if any bearing on whether or not a movie will be restored. But folks who sign up for Amazon.com wait lists have initiated restorations. This was how Warner Brothers came to issue The Hunger to Blu-Ray and the two factors that have made Twilight Time embark on films like The Way We Were and Yentl.

Petulia  Richard Lester, 1968

Petulia
Richard Lester, 1968

A not so great transfer of Roeg’s odd cult film, Track 29 staring a young Gary Oldman, sold very well. This has caused a current “re-visit” of this infamous cinematic error as a possible film for restoration. Yet, the inferior region-free DVD’s of Ken Russell’s The Devils constantly sell out. Warner Brothers does not budge.

Another mystery with Warner Brothers is the poor quality and refusal to restore and re-distribute KLUTE. A film that has a large following, remains valid and of interest. Something similar was going down with Blowup, but that issue might have finally been resolved. Fingers-crossed. Another very popular film which is in theory no longer in print would be Richard Lester’s Petulia. As well as John Schlesinger’s Darling which shot Julie Christie to fame.

Both remain unrestored.

Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon Otto Preminger, 1970

Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon
Otto Preminger, 1970

And, then there is the interest in Otto Preminger’s ill-advised 1970’s Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon which features a young Liza Minnelli facing deformity and trying to find a place among those whom society has labeled misfits. The film is flawed, but there are many a film fan who wants to own this odd cult film. Yet, no restoration or distribution is in sight. But Preminger’s far worse movie, Skidoo, was restored and issued to Blu-Ray. So who knows?

Track 29  Nicolas Roeg, 1988

Track 29
Nicolas Roeg, 1988

But it would appear the most valued currency for film consensus may be moving over to Letterboxd. Register. Review and “Like” reviews of the film or films you want to see restored. Register and make comments on The Criterion Forum.

The Criterion Forum Org

Believe it or not, this information is monitored. All of this might seem futile, but it isn’t.

Welcome To L.A. Alan Rudolph, 1976

Welcome To L.A.
Alan Rudolph, 1976

Alan Rudolph’s early work is being “re-visited.”

This is how we got Rosemary’s Baby, Moonrise Kingdom, The American Dreamer, Cat People, The Werner Herzog Collection, Safe, Black Moon, The Night Porter, Pillow Book, Audition, The Telephone Book, Seconds, Dressed To Kill, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, Two-Lane Blacktop, Harold & Maud, The Rose and All That Jazz restored and re-distributed to Blu-Ray and HD.

Often Paramount and Fox are easier for boutique labels to secure deals because the licensing with these studios tends to be a bit less restrictive. A great number of their films were actually independent films that were picked up for distribution. As an example, Paramount had the rights for distribution for Rosemary’s Baby, but it was limited. The film technically belongs to Robert Evans and Roman Polanski.

KLUTE Alan J. Pakula, 1971

KLUTE
Alan J. Pakula, 1971

And of course there is the very much available for restoration and re-distribution film of legend, BOOM!, just waiting for Shout Factory or Vinegar Syndrome.

Keep the faith.

Matty Stanfield, 9.22.15

Ken Russell  1927 - 2011 Photograph | 1988 ©Vestron Pictures / courtesy Everett Collection

Ken Russell
1927 – 2011
Photograph | 1988 ©Vestron Pictures / courtesy Everett Collection

When I think of British film director, Ken Russell, a number of words immediately come into my mind. The words or phrases I associate with Ken Russell are as follows:

Brilliant, British, Pushing The Envelope, Anti-Repression, Classical Music, Eccentric Artists, Obsessive, Auteur, Bombastic, Surreal, Genius, Avant Garde, Anger, Anti-Religion, Dark Eroticism, Carnal , Crass, Experimental Artist, Cultural Critic, Sardonic, Brutal, Human Lust, Lavish, Cinematography, Creative, Imaginative, Drug Culture, Transgressive Artist, Controversial, Intellectual, Form, Style, Orchestrated Chaos, Excessive, Angry, Provocative, Shock-Master, Sexually-charged, Kicking Against The Pricks, Unhinged Cinematic Master and An Original – in every sense of the word.

Ken Russell's GOTHIC, 1986

Ken Russell’s GOTHIC, 1986

Perhaps the greatest tragedy of Ken Russell’s artistic career is the fact that all of these aspects of the artist seldom blended to create that special alchemy that can form a masterful film. It seems as if these aspects that formed The Great Ken Russell also hindered him from being remembered as the Cinematic Genius he was. With the possible exception of only a few films, one has only to watch one of his films to see his genius at work. And with the exception of only a few, one only has to view one of his films to see how he most often undermined his own work.

There can be no question of the magic and inspired work found in such films as WOMEN IN LOVE, THE DEVILS and TOMMY. All three of these films capture almost every word or phrase that came to my mind, but all three of these film work beautifully on almost all levels.

WOMEN IN LOVE, 1969

WOMEN IN LOVE, 1969

Women In Love will always remain Ken Russell’s most accessible and commercial film.

The cast of WOMEN IN LOVE, 1969

The cast of WOMEN IN LOVE, 1969

A brilliant adaptation of the infamous novel by Larry Kramer, Ken Russell conjured a stunning cinematic experience.

The erotic eating of a fig. Alan Bates as Rupert in WOMEN IN LOVE, 1969

The erotic eating of a fig. Alan Bates as Rupert in WOMEN IN LOVE, 1969

Glenda Jackson and Alan Bates were never better or more sensually attractive as they are in this movie. And the mix of Billy Williams’ cinematography, the music of Georges Delerue, the fine performances, sensual eroticism and Ken Russell’s obsessive care form a brilliant cinematic experience which fully captures D.H. Lawrence.

Glenda Jackson and Oliver Reed, WOMEN IN LOVE

Glenda Jackson and Oliver Reed, WOMEN IN LOVE

Eleanor Bron, WOMEN IN LOVE, 1969

Eleanor Bron, WOMEN IN LOVE, 1969

Oliver Reed and Alan Bates' infamous nude wrestle.

Oliver Reed and Alan Bates’ infamous nude wrestle.

women_in_love_1_2

However, THE DEVILS may be a bit too brutal, angry, avant-garde and shocking to suit the tastes of many.

Vanessa Redgrave, THE DEVILS, 1971

Vanessa Redgrave, THE DEVILS, 1971

THE DEVILS retains a major place in Film History and Film Theory. It also features the very early genius of Derek Jarman who served as Set Designer and contains one of Vanessa Redgrave’s finest performances. It is also impossible to see this film as Ken Russell intended. Though, there is a bootleg DVD out there that comes close. This film caused such controversy in it’s depiction of an actual historic event that it remains condemned by The Vatican. The infamous Rape of Christ sequence earned the film an X rating and outraged many. However, this motion picture remains a powerful – albeit convulsive, view of Vatican hypocrisy and the culture dangers of State and Church merging. THE DEVILS is a raging, bold, theatrical, surreal, repulsive, operatic and intentionally blasphemous indictment against not only The Catholic Church but organized religion.

Vanessa Redgrave's Sister Jeanne love for Christ goes far beyond the appropriate scope. THE DEVILS, 1971

Vanessa Redgrave’s Sister Jeanne love for Christ goes far beyond the appropriate scope. THE DEVILS, 1971

And, then Russell’s most commercially successful motion picture, TOMMY.

Your senses will never be the same. Ken Russell's TOMMY, 1975

Your senses will never be the same. Ken Russell’s TOMMY, 1975

Though this film is very much a sort of 1970’s Glam Rock Time Capsule moment — it is a brilliant cinematic rock opera. Far ahead of the cinematic curve, it is hard to imagine the concept of the pop music video or the existence of MTV without Ken Russell’s TOMMY. The film was the perfect storm for a mid-1970’s hit.

Tina Turner as The Acid Queen about to rip his soul apart. TOMMY, 1975

Tina Turner as The Acid Queen about to rip his soul apart. TOMMY, 1975

Tina Turner is The Acid Queen about to apply the first of many injections. TOMMY, 1975

Tina Turner is The Acid Queen about to apply the first of many injections. TOMMY, 1975

Acast filled with the coolest and most talented pool of rock musicians along with the Sex Kitten purr/roar of Ann-Margret.

Ann-Margret is The Mother. TOMMY, 1975

Ann-Margret is The Mother.
TOMMY, 1975

In addition, TOMMY captures a great deal of the time in which it was filmed: cult religion, rebellion, sexual freedom, a growing understanding of the impact of trauma on children, the power of drugs for insight, the sexual revolution and the general unrest and anger seething in Wester Culture as the 1970’s moved to the mid-point.

Elton John is The Pinball Wizard. TOMMY, 1975

Elton John is The Pinball Wizard.
TOMMY, 1975

That blind, deaf, dumb boy sure plays a mean pinball. Elton John, TOMMY, 1975

That blind, deaf, dumb boy sure plays a mean pinball. Elton John, TOMMY, 1975

The story of The Who’s Tommy is given a whole new perspective from the 1960’s concept album. Ken Russell’s love of opera and all of eccentricities of his imagination were the perfect match for a rock opera. And, Ann-Margret was the perfect leading lady for him. Ann-Margret has always been a talented beauty, tommy6

but has also also always come on a little oddly strong and theatrical. Her tempo and seething eroticism matched every turn of Russell’s camera. Her delivery resulted in an Oscar nomination for Best Actress in a leading role. A nomination that shocked as many as it pleased. In my opinion, TOMMY was Ken Russell’s finest hour as a filmmaker. It adheres to his aesthetic / style and offers him a chance to be commercial to the mass public. TOMMY was the perfect “trip” for the mid-1970’s.

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And, while it is now a bit dated, there is no way one can watch it without feeling the power of the film itself and note the ways in which it has been copied over the years.  And, it is also impossible not to note that Ken Russell was inspired and enchanted by the physical / erotic presence and glam rock star look of Roger Daltrey.

Roger Daltrey is Tommy and a new muse for Ken Russell. Iconic and Erotic. TOMMY, 1975

Roger Daltrey is Tommy and a new muse for Ken Russell. Iconic and Erotic. TOMMY, 1975

One can’t help but suspect that it was his interest in Daltrey’s charisma and pop star status that moved him to make one of the most curious, strange and truly bizarre major Hollywood productions to ever find itself not only “green-lighted” but released to a world of mainstream movie screens…

Uh, oh. Roger Daltrey is Franz Liszt. Ken Russell's LISZTOMANIA, 1975

Uh, oh. Roger Daltrey is Franz Liszt. Ken Russell’s LISZTOMANIA, 1975

There was already a very positive buzz surrounding Russell’s production of TOMMY.  In the US, Columbia Pictures was already certain it had a massive hit coming their way. For the first time in his career, Ken Russell was truly being evaluated as a major player in the film business. Before he even finished filming TOMMY he knew he wanted to return to one of his favorite subject matters – the challenges and obsessions of the great classical composers. It has also been rumored that his perception of creating film had greatly been altered by his experience of working with The Who and interacting with the superstardom surrounding the band and the other rock musicians he had been able to cast in the movie. It is not surprising that he came up with the idea of what would become LISZTOMANIA. However, what is surprising is that Warner Bros. was so eager to get the movie made. What would have made the Big Warner Bros. “Suits” think that Russell’s script could ever be anything but a confusing mess is a cultural-head-scratcher. This is especially true when one thinks about the woes that their previous funding of Ken Russell’s THE DEVILS had caused them. True, that film was highly praised by some — but it is also true that it spurred equal amounts of anger. Audiences either loved THE DEVILS or hated it. One can argue that a work that can cause such extreme reactions is most likely a very valid work of art. But, this does not usually spell “blockbuster” — and, as with THE DEVILS, it resulted in being banned all over the world. But whether it was some sort of frenzy over the fact that TOMMY was destined to be a huge hit, or the drug-out culture pervading Hollywood at the time or just the simple idea that “the kids” will pay good money to see anything with the lead singer of The Who, rock music and the “weirdness” of TOMMY — Ken Russell’s next infamous feature was approved and set quickly into production. It is perhaps the biggest budgeted example of Experimental or Surrealism ever made by a major Hollywood studio.

Roger Daltrey is Franz Liszt and he is enjoying one of his groupies.  LISZTOMANIA, 1975

Roger Daltrey is Franz Liszt and he is enjoying one of his groupies.
LISZTOMANIA, 1975

Ken Russell’s concept for the movie is not a bad one. Combined with his love of classical musical history, the creation of art, the cultural rebel and his new found interest in 1970’s Glam Rock Pop Culture — the basic idea of LISZTOMANIA is a seemingly valid and interesting cinematic idea. Anyone familiar with classical music history knows that Franz Liszt enjoyed a whole new sort of popularity during his lifetime. In the classical music “scene” of last quarter of  18th Century Europe, classical composers / musicians normally performed before a hushed audience who were there to take in the pleasure, power and essence of the music and “to be seen” — but Franz Liszt was inspiring something totally new in the world of performing arts. He didn’t just appeal to the wealthy. He appealed to almost everyone — particularly women. Reports of young women following him just to steal a tossed cigar or to catch a glimpse of their favorite composer.

Roger Daltrey in the prime of his Erotic Superstardom as Franz Liszt. LISZTOMANIA, 1975

Roger Daltrey in the prime of his Erotic Superstardom as Franz Liszt. LISZTOMANIA, 1975

And, many reports on record state that patrons often had a hard time concentrating on Liszt’s music due to the noise of the young women who would scream and push forward to the stage. Though, the word did not yet exist — Franz Liszt had a loyal fan following. And these fanatic “fans” would swoon and be totally swept away by his playing as much as his mere presence.

Heinrich Heine first coined the term, “Lisztomania” in 1844. Heine saw the reaction of Liszt’s following as becoming hysterical and falling into a “Liszt Fever” — audiences literally going crazy as he took to the stage. Swooning, dazed and applauding throughout his performances. Franz Liszt had “groupies” and apparently enjoyed the pleasure of their company.

LISZTOMANIA, 1975

LISZTOMANIA, 1975

Though, modern scholars would most likely warn that this was nothing like Western culture experienced in the early 1960’s with The Beatles. But, a valid argument can still be made that Franz Liszt may have been the first “Pop Star” — with one of compositions we now refer to as “Chop Sticks” being a signature piece he would perform to the delight of the young women.

Princess Carolyn rests on a somewhat oddly yonic bed while enjoying a joint as Franz serenades her with his magical music…  LISZTOMANIA, 1975

Princess Carolyn rests on a somewhat oddly yonic bed while enjoying a joint as Franz serenades her with his magical music…
LISZTOMANIA, 1975

No doubt, Ken Russell saw the correlation between what is known about Franz Liszt and the 1970’s rock star. A rock star like Roger Daltrey. And, Ken Russell appears to take great joy in the meshing of costume with 1970’s Glam Rock fashion.

Franz Liszt about to leave the wife behind as he heads on to another lengthy tour. LISZTOMANIA, 1975

Franz Liszt about to leave the wife behind as he heads on to another lengthy tour. LISZTOMANIA, 1975

LISZTOMANIA movie promotion, UK. 1975

LISZTOMANIA movie promotion, UK. 1975

Unfortunately, Ken Russell didn’t stop with the Rock Superstar metaphor / allegory. After the creative energy and sheer delight of creating outrageous set pieces for TOMMY, he wanted to push his idea even further. Suddenly, the story of Franz Liszt was an opportunity to illustrate the hipocracy of The Vatican and the vile politics of The Pope.  Here, Ken Russell had the “inspired” idea to cast Ringo Starr as The Pope. Religious icons were replaced with Pop Culture Icons such as modern rock and movie stars.

Ringo Starr is The Pope. LISZTOMANIA, 1975

Ringo Starr is The Pope. LISZTOMANIA, 1975

And to examine the evil of humanity that would spawn Fascism and The Third Reich.  Oddly, there is a valid connection here to the story of Franz Liszt. His daughter, Cosima, would go on to marry Richard Wagner – both were vehement anti-Semites and were part of an idea that would eventually lead to the creation of The Third Reich. An idea that would corrupt German culture and plant a seed that would grow into The Nazi. All of this historical information fueled Russell’s imagination and pulsated into a comic book re-telling of the horror of The Holocaust — featuring Richard Wagner as the Ultimate Evil Villain vs. Franz Liszt as The Ultimate Super Hero to fight and beat down the Oppressive Nazi “Superman”.

The Creation of Wagner's Evil Nazi. LISZTOMANIA, 1975

The Creation of Wagner’s Evil Nazi. LISZTOMANIA, 1975

On top of all of these strained conceptual ideas, Ken Russell wanted to create a world of cinematic pop culture. A Surrealist take on both history and the creation of art. And, of course, where their is a pop star there will be sex. Ken Russell’s LISZTOMANIA Is obsessed with sex and the erotic. It is also obsessed with cartoonish takes on phallus symbology. One can hardly keep up with the number of penis substitutes in the set and costume designs.

Are those columns or is she just happy to see Franz. LISZTOMANIA, 1975

Are those columns or is she just happy to see Franz. LISZTOMANIA, 1975

The movie is also quite intent on pursuing yonic symbols. From simple heart shapes to a literal giant vagina that sucks Franz Liszt in to a swooping ride.

Franz about to be sucked into the tunnel of wet love. LISZTOMANIA, 1975

Franz about to be sucked into the tunnel of wet love. LISZTOMANIA, 1975

And, one of the strangest musical numbers involving the invoking of “Liszt True Muse” — his penis. …And, then chopping it off to free him of his ties to the carnal.

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Uh, oh. Franz is getting turned on… LISZTOMANIA, 1975

Uh, oh. Franz is getting turned on… LISZTOMANIA, 1975

The historical figures / groupies are seeing Franz's "genius" grow...

The historical figures / groupies are seeing Franz’s “genius” grow…

Taking a ride on the "genius" of Liszt… LISZTOMANIA, 1975

Taking a ride on the “genius” of Liszt… LISZTOMANIA, 1975

The musical boner...

The musical boner…

Oh no! Time to chop it off!

Oh no! Time to chop it off!

In the end, once we come to the conclusion of Ken Russell’s film, Franz Liszt must die. And, only in death can he truly beat The Evil Wagner Monster. Surrounded by his lovers, muses and even Cosima — he leads his ladies in a rock ballad and then they all zoom off in a rocket back to earth to defeat Wagner’s Nazi Demon and rid the world of Evil.

In Heaven, Franz leads his lovers in a rock ballad...

In Heaven, Franz leads his lovers in a rock ballad…

Before heading in a rather phallic "Organ" "Rocket" to kill the Evil Wagner Nazi! LISZTOMANIA, 1975

Before heading in a rather phallic “Organ” “Rocket” to kill the Evil Wagner Nazi! LISZTOMANIA, 1975

The camp factor is notched up to “13” by the time Ken Russell’s film comes to a close.

One of the few truly inspired ideas of Russell’s in this movie is the musical score. Rick Wakeman brings his electronica conceptual musicianship to the film and “reconstructs” Liszt compositions into the form of mid-1970’s rock. While not always creating radio-friendly tunes — the idea is inspired and well worth a listen. However, no amount of promotion could push this soundtrack into a hit recording. The soundtrack, along with the movie, has developed a hardcore fan base.

The Rick Wakeman / Roger Daltrey soundtrack album.

The Rick Wakeman / Roger Daltrey soundtrack album.

The soundtrack itself has an interesting back story. Worried that the music Wakeman and Daltrey had created would never sell, Warners sold the rights to A&M Records who quickly pushed Wakeman to tone down the music actually used in the film in hopes of making it more “commercial” — the result is an uncomfortable mix of classical music and middle of the road rock.

Close to thirty years later, Rick Wakeman, issued a more proper soundtrack of the film via digital version.

Rick Wakeman: The Real LISZTOMANIA soundtrack recording, 2003

Rick Wakeman: The Real LISZTOMANIA soundtrack recording, 2003

This version preserves the more intense and insane concept of the musical score.

Erotic Exotic Fantastic - It out Tommy's Tommy.  LISZTOMANIA promotion, Restricted, 1975

Erotic Exotic Fantastic – It out Tommy’s Tommy.
LISZTOMANIA promotion, Restricted, 1975

The really odd thing about this horrible film is that it is actually so bad it is entertaining. A jaw-dropping cinematic experience if ever there was one, Ken Russell’s totally unhinged and unhindered vision results in a true cinematic curiosity that can only be considered a massive cinematic error. However, the off-kilter balance of Yuk-Yuk Vaudville jokes, music, Avant-Garde sets and waked-out visuals are truly mind-boggeling. It is hard to not enjoy this film and it does enjoy a strong cult following. A couple of years ago a pristine DVD was issued in the UK featuring a commentary from Mr. Russell himself recorded about a year before his death. Sadly, while his sense of humor is strong — his memory seems to have faded and he offers very little insight into what was going on in his head when he crafted this film. Sadly, the DVD was only released in the UK. However, Warner Brothers Archive had made a remastered and letter-boxed DVD version available on its website. They print it by order — as they do with several Ken Russell titles. Tragically, Warners still refuses to officially re-issue any version of THE DEVILS. That film was released to VHS briefly in a severely censored version in the early 1980’s.

I can’t help but feel a great deal of love for this misguided movie. I am filled with wonder and inspired by the simple fact that a mainstream Hollywood studio not only financed this movie but pushed it forward with a great deal of fanfare. If you get a chance, you might just find yourself enjoying the absolute insanity of Ken Russell’s LISZTOMANIA.

As a side note, while he did promote it at the time of its release, Roger Daltrey has refused to ever publicly discuss LISZTOMANIA since a week after it’s initial release. I find that odd, but then again — not as odd as the movie itself.

It's a wrap! And, Roger Daltrey is proudly carrying off a prop which was missing until a fan of Ken Russell met the director and confessed that he had the giant cock in his backyard. He would not tell Mr. Russell how he came to have it.

It’s a wrap! And, Roger Daltrey is proudly carrying off a prop which was missing until a fan of Ken Russell met the director and confessed that he had the giant cock in his backyard. He would not tell Mr. Russell how he came to have it.

And, who knew Franz Liszt spoke with a Cockney accent?!?!!?