Back in May, I said I’d be doing a monthly series on the films of Ken Russell. Of course, I’m far too flaky to stay true to my word, and have difficulty adhering to self-imposed strictures. Perhaps bi-monthly? Whither and thither my attention may wander…
In that previous post on KR's classic The Devils (1970), user ‘Vic’ responded rather unfavorably to my effusions with the following: “Ken Russell is like all the other English decadent director satirists… One lazy lousy satiric layup after another.” It was certainly effective in momentarily checking my aesthetic tumescence, but in hindsight, I find myself puzzled at some of the language chosen. Mostly because I don’t consider Russell’s films to be primarily satiric—or perhaps only satiric in the Rabelaisian sense, where common stereotypes and codes of decorum are pushed to their breaking point, and one frequently loses sight of the object of satire in the nihilistic absurdity of events. (Russell once considered adapting Rabelais for the screen; truly a frightening prospect.) Satire in the more conventional sense of “parody,” “sarcasm,” “ridicule,” does not seem too prevalent in Russell’s work until the 1980s, beginning with Altered States—and this mostly because it is obvious that the director has no respect for his material, a typically padded script by Paddy Chayefsky. While one could call the director any number of epithets, “lazy” is not one that comes to mind; for even in these films of decline, Russell will still “pile on the virtuosity,” in Michael Dempsey’s phrase, for lack of anything better to do with his efforts. One cannot fault the Englishman his showmanship.
Yet, I would readily concede that of all Russell’s films made about classical composers, Lisztomania (1975) may indeed be the most pointless and the most cruelly parodic. A far cry from his tasteful if unconventional work on Elgar and Debussy for the British TV show Monitor (1959-1965), or even from the meticulously choreographed hysteria of Tchaikovsky in The Music Lovers (1970), Lisztomania is a film still reeling from the psychedelic excesses of Tommy (1975). Indeed, it is notorious for again featuring The Who’s Roger Daltrey in a leading role as Hungary’s original ladykiller. Anthology Film Archives is showing Lisztomania twice this week as part of their expansive “Anti-Biopics” series, once on Wednesday (July 14) and an encore on Saturday (July 17). You could perhaps see a much more respectable work by, say, Rossellini or Straub-Huillet, but make sure to catch Russell’s film if you like your haute cuisine tempered by Froot Loops. A Region 2 DVD is available, but from what I understand, the quality is rather poor; and, as it sells for $30+ on Amazon, one would be better off seeing Anthology’s 35 mm print for the modest cost of $9 per ticket.
Lisztomania makes no attempt to sketch in the details of the composer’s life from birth to death. Rather, like Tommy, it is a series of demented allegorical set pieces that track Liszt from his seduction of the Countess Marie d’Agoult to his posthumous defeat of Hitler in an angelic spacecraft constructed out of organ pipes. The reader will already note that this is an anachronistic film; Liszt’s first concert performance is rendered by Daltrey in a shimmering green-purple coat against a background of sparkling streamers and hundreds of screaming fans. His bed is made in the interior of an enormous grand piano, the room decorated with pianistic regalia like something out of ABC’s Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. Was Liszt actually the Jim Morrison of composers? What may at first seem like an overly cheeky title has its origin in an 1844 review by the poet Heine, who describes Liszt’s Berlin concerts of the season as prime hunting grounds for a Freud or Charcot, full of hysterical and fainting women that would go so far as to fight over the composer’s discarded gloves, handkerchiefs, even leftover cigars and coffee grounds. In his typically compressed and comic-strip mode of narration, Russell instantly communicates an image of Liszt as the first “rock star,” the symbol of a transition from the solitary artist to today’s narcissistic exhibitionist.
Aside from Liszt’s romantic escapades with d’Agoult (Fiona Lewis) and the Polish-born, Kiev-based Princess Carolyne zu Sayn-Wittgenstein (Sara Kestelman), the film’s principal drama is centered around the composer’s rivalry with Richard Wagner—raised here by Russell into mythic proportions as nothing less than the struggle between the light of classical European aesthetics and the Dionysian, neo-primitive nationalism promoted by Wagner’s music. Why exactly the latter (played by a leering Paul Nicholas) is first seen running around in a dainty little sailor's outfit is beyond me; the symbolism behind Wagner’s transformation into a vampire feasting on the neck of Liszt, one of the first to perform Wagner’s music in public, is a bit more transparent. After his days of youthful socialism and exile in Zurich, the diabolic maestro has returned not only to wed Liszt’s daughter Cosima but to turn the world of European gentility on its head through his proto-Nazi operas. This is not a subtle film. And, yes, giant phalluses abound, as Russell’s conception of Liszt’s genius is intimately bound up with his libido—a thirst for sex that not even a conversion to the Franciscan order could apparently quench. Ringo Starr also appears briefly as the Pope, bringing with him echoes of another classic “mania.”
Those expecting to enjoy Liszt’s music against a colorful delineation of biographical events will be disappointed. Lisztomania can be almost exasperating to watch as a nude Daltrey leaps around in a makeshift loincloth, or mounted anuses on the walls of Princess Carolyne’s waiting room fumigate newcomers with the scent of cigar smoke. Spiralling cameras and candle-lit orgies only reinforce the idea that this is Russell on autopilot. I found myself thinking that the score was more ELP than Romantic, a feeling that was justified when credits revealed Rick Wakeman to be the mastermind behind these awful synthesizer renditions of Liszt’s oeuvre. (Wakeman also makes a hilarious cameo, in the likeness of Thor, as Wagner’s Siegfried.) While Russell embraced a dying counter-culture with Tommy, it seems out of character for him to alter the work of a composer he so much admires. An anecdote from his 1989 autobiography, Altered States (known in the UK as A British Picture) goes a long way in explaining the film’s major defects. After pitching the screenplay to English producer David Puttnam of the intermittently-productive Goldcrest Films, a series of gradual but irrevocable changes were made to Russell’s vision:
I signed a contract with his [Puttnam’s] company to write and direct five more musical biopics with one script thrown in gratis. In the event I only wrote two scripts and made one film. I gave Puttnam a choice—The Gershwin Dream or Lisztomania. He went for Liszt, probably because Roger Daltrey, fresh from his success in my rock movie Tommy, was keen to play the randy Hungarian… But his womanising was only part of the story. What really intrigued me was his strange relationship with Richard Wagner. However, that had little appeal to Puttnam, who was more at home at a pop concert than in the concert hall. He threw out my first script for being too straight and urged me to write another emphasising the pop element… we had little in common but out enthusiasm for movies and music… I’d enthuse about Scriabin and Sibelius, he’d rave on about Keith Emerson and Rick Wakeman. I don’t know who was the more receptive; I just know that the script became less and less classical—and more and more pop-orientated until it was to Puttnam’s satisfaction.
It never dawned on me until it was too late that I was playing Trilby to his Svengali—though Puttnam could have given that master a few tips when it came to hypnotising his victim… Rick Wakeman was also cast in a bit part which was to grow imperceptibly into a major role—that of composer of the sound track. The “takeover” was insidious. The casual suggestion that Wakeman should orchestrate one of Liszt’s piano pieces was the thin edge of the wedge that eventually turned the film into a Panavision pop video.
It seems of little import to slag a film already so well-critiqued by its author. We can appreciate Lisztomania for the primal satisfaction it gives in seeing things that have never been seen before, the masturbatory fantasies that naturally accrue when an artist loses faith in his own message—10 ft. cocks and all. The ultimate prestidigitator, Russell always gives the audience something to look at. Whether it be in delight or disgust is often beyond his purview.
Lisztomania is playing on July 14 at 7:00 PM and on July 17 at 9:00 PM at Anthology Film Archives, corner of 2nd and 2nd, NY, NY. This article partially coincides with Ken Russell’s Lifetime Achievement Award granted by this year’s Fantasia International Film Festival, Montreal, July 8-28.