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Submitted by Roger Mellor

The Lion Roars: Ken Russell on Film
A Book Review by David Thomson

In 1948 Michael Powell and his partner Emerich Pressburger showed "The Red Shoes" to the people who had paid for it: the brass of the J. Arthur Rank Organization. The picture had cost £570,000, and it was Powell-Pressburger's masterwork: the most rapturous meltdown of music, dance, color, design, of movie, there on the screen. At the same time it was their defiant assertion that nothing mattered (or redeemed death and postwar austerity) more than art.

The brass were gloomy. The film seemed excessive, a little embarrassing even in its frenzy for its own medium. There was no one in its story who was sensible or businesslike. The whole thing felt as dangerous as Puck celebrating wicked boyhood. "The film will not take in a penny in America," said one dour boss. He was wrong. The Red Shoes made a fortune eventually in America; and its magic still works on screen no matter that the show folded recently on Broadway. But that reference to America was stinging in 1948. There was no plainer proof for Brits of their country's decline than the trashy empire of Hollywood. Homegrown movies were always measured against that daft sunshine. It was Hollywood that spoke (wretched) English to the world; and it was often American actors who played English heroes. To be a filmmaker in Britain has been to fight a fever of love and loathing for Americans.

Thus the British lament - and it is as close as we will get to theme or purpose in Ken Russell's lazy, bored and often funny book - that it is uncommonly and unfairly hard for Brits to make movies; that there is no money or stomach for such a crazy business in Britain; and that filmmakers are not properly appreciated in the United Kingdom. So the poor devils have to slink off to Hollywood, forsaking cricket, draught beer, the club of good losers and the rain-soaked irony that takes nothing seriously. It is daunting for Brits in Hollywood that the Americans can be so determined about themselves. Give a man $10 million, a mansion in the hills and a new young wife, and he will grow solemn and bitter.

This is a cunning scenario, made of humbug, self-pity and flim- flam. The "British movie" has never been more popular or influential. It is made all over the world now just as Westerns once were produced in Italy, Japan and South America. Look at the recent Oscar nominations: for best picture, The Remains of the Day and In the Name of the Father are set in Britain and fascinated by the po-faced hypocrisy of the class system; The Piano is a story of British emigrants to New Zealand who have sailed with piano and Bronte-esque yearnings about their own literary significance; and Schindler's List relies upon British actors. (Ask yourself why it should be Liam Neeson, Ralph Fiennes and Ben Kingsley instead of, say, Gene Hackman, Sean Penn and Dustin Hoffmann, and you begin to grasp the American superstition about "eloquence," "depth" or "moral seriousness" in British acting. Or do I mean acting British?)

These movies may have reached the screen only thanks to American funding; and I am taking for granted that actors and directors born in Ireland count as British. Of this year's twenty nominations for acting, seven went to Brits. In the last few years Oscars have been won by Daniel Day-Lewis, Jeremy Irons, Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson, and for the next several years - as Hollywood reckons grudgingly - those players are favorite candidates for more. The British have always taken advantage of the shared language. In the history of Oscar, the best actor and actress awards have gone to Brits twenty-eight times. And this year there was even a Welsh film, Hedd Wynn, up for the best foreign language picture.

Russell, who was nominated as best director for Women in Love in 1970, might claim that many of those Oscars went to Brits who had settled for American citizenship and salaries (people like Elizabeth Taylor and Ronald Colman). But Russell had his years working out of Los Angeles, too, just like Alfred Hitchcock, Billy Wilder, Otto Preminger, Jean Renoir, Fritz Lang, Ernst Lubitsch, David Lean, Fred Zinnemann, William Wyler, Tony Richardson, John Schlesinger, Costa-Gavras, Roman Polanski, Milos Forman, Peter Weir and Ridley Scott, all of whom were born in other countries. You can even make a case for British directors who have grasped America better than natives ever managed - think of Schlesinger's Midnight Cowboy; John Boorman's Point Blank and Deliverance; Ridley Scott's Blade Runner; not to mention Psycho, Vertigo or Shadow of a Doubt.

Russell might complain that there was too little that was "purely" British: made by Brits, with local money and exclusively British material. And yet it was possible in 1993 in America to see Sally Porter's tranquilly eccentric and literary Orlando; Stephen Frears's "Irish" film The Snapper (a happy return to form for Frears after the awkward Hollywood biggie Hero); and Mike Leigh's remorseless Naked. In more limited venues one could find the last two films by the late, lamented Derek Jarman - Wittgenstein and Blue; and even the beautiful and desperate works of a television director, Alan Clarke (Road, Elephant, The Firm, Made in Britain), which might make American televisions pop with disbelief. Best of all, maybe, was The Long Day Closes, Terence Davies's rhapsody to a Liverpool childhood at the movies (and often American movies).

To watch public television in this country is to regret the near absence of contemporary and domestic dramatic material; and the shortage will be greater still now that PBS is losing "American Playhouse" to a movie company. Yet PBS has rejoiced this last year in Ian Richardson's Iago-like prime minister, F-U, and Helen Mirren's resolute lady cop from "Prime Suspect." "Masterpiece Theater," to take the series at its own pious estimate, has assumed that British television is not just unequaled, but beyond the reach of American competition. (And will an American ever again be fit to edit "Tina Brown's New Yorker"?) And so, over the years, we have had the chance to see the work of artists in television, like Dennis Potter (The Singing Detective, Pennies from Heaven) and Alan Bennett (Talking Heads, A Question of Attribution), as well as shelf-loads of leather-bound literary adaptations. That steady supply has surely built the audience for Merchant-Ivory films, and it must have encouraged Martin Scorsese to come in off his mean streets to the decor and the hushed epigrams of Edith Wharton and The Age of Innocence (with a Brit actor for his New Yorker).

Russell is 67, and he picks up work where he can, often for television. (He recently did an adaptation of Lady Chatterley's Lover, with Joely Richardson, which has not yet made it to "Masterpiece Theater.") I don't know why he wrote this book, unless it arose, as irresistible as a dare, late in a bibulous lunch. You'll read it in half a day, and I can't believe it occupied Russell more than a month. It's chatty and meandering, feeble stuff next to the burning testaments from Powell and Jarman. The tone is flippant or weary, as if Russell felt like a dowdy and former enfant terrible now pushing 70.

But Russell's mood lifts whenever he's talking about his boyhood, music on film or Powell. There's a nice chapter on the teenage Russell biking around Southampton to see how many cinemas remain after German bombing raids. As for music, it was originally Russell's inspiration: in the late '50s and '60s he made a series of increasingly melodramatic documentaries for the bbc on Debussy, Bartok, Elgar, Delius and Richard Strauss. They are still the best things that he has done. And then there's Powell, that Merlin of British film.

Russell loves Powell - from I Know Where I'm Going through The Red Shoes to Peeping Tom. Indeed, he rises to true insight when he says of that film, nearly the last feature Powell made in Britain:

Did Powell have it in for Moira [Shearer - the star of The Red Shoes and playing a murder victim in Peeping Tom], or was this succession of brutal deaths nothing more than a sick joke? I suppose we could ask the victim herself, though I doubt she'd tell - if indeed there was anything to tell. But a mystery persists, nevertheless. Why did Powell make the film in the first place? In doing so, he engineered his own suicide. As far as his directing career in England was concerned, he was dead. Has any other director in the history of the cinema been buried by one of his own movies?

Powell was 55 when Peeping Tom was slaughtered by English critics. They said it was odious and shameful, something the cat dragged in. In fact, it was a barbed black comedy in blood colors about the fascination and peril of living for movies. Powell was by then a singular figure in Britain, and Peeping Tom had a uniquely droll admission that movie was a kind of pathology. Powell also loved old England and Celtic myth. In Colonel Blimp he made a fond tribute to gentlemanliness. But he was a loner, famously sharp-tempered and aloof in ways he declined to notice. In his coy voice, Russell is alluding to that haughty and self-destructive independence in Powell (as well as to his eye for red-headed actresses).

For the next twenty years Powell did too little. There were a couple of films in Australia and some T.V., but years of De Gaulle- like retreat in his cottage in Gloucestershire - all in the age of "swinging London," when Russell and many others had their turn. Later in life Powell came to America. He was artist-in-residence for a term at Dartmouth; he deepened his friendship with Martin Scorsese (and married Scorsese's editor); he was director emeritus for Francis Coppola - Russell says that was like being tea-boy, but people who knew Powell then recall stiffer drinks. And in 1980 he began his autobiography, the second volume of which, Million-Dollar Movie, was barely complete at his death in 1990.

Million-Dollar Movie is not simply a sequel to A Life in Movies (1987), but a re-make. The second volume has not been published in America, in part, I daresay, because it goes back over old ground, and begins to hammer the Powell credo that a film depends on one man, its maker or begetter. Repeated too often, the claim sounds angry and egotistical; at his best, on film, Powell was most magisterial when swift. The beauty of audacity masked his arrogance.

But the first volume, already 700 pages, was a great success that revived interest in Powell's films. The two volumes together make plain how unlikely a career Powell had. He is the most beguiling of British directors; his work seems larger and warmer year by year, while Hitchcock looks more mean-spirited. But Powell was blithely unworldly and allergic to most kinds of "team spirit" in pictures. Being Powell was a triumph of the will, an inability to be orderly or obedient. He loved art for art's sake, and saw no difference between a movie and an opera and an illuminated manuscript. He was oddly out of his time: though a camera buff, he felt he kept imaginative company with Chaucer, Milton and Blake.

How onerous it must have been for him to small-talk with the people who financed movies (and who were so certain The Red Shoes didn't have legs). It's a wonder that Powell and Pressburger stayed businesslike for so long, for I doubt they knew or cared "what the public wanted." They took that old plea as humbug, and pursued their own fancies. Brooding on the common tastes can be so depressing. That enough people adored their results then, and now, testifies to a recurring English insight about the movies (a heresy in America, for critics as well as practitioners) that there's no proven point in aiming at the public. Aim at your heart, or the mind's eye, and you have as much chance of success as if you calculate the allure of The Last Action Hero. Powell had always cultivated his garden - that's why he had enemies in a business that liked to think it was devoted to agriculture.

If anyone admired Powell more than Russell, it was another gardener, Derek Jarman, a one-time art student and lifelong painter who got into movies by doing production design for Russell on The Devils and Savage Messiah. Jarman was a homosexual who celebrated role models for that way of life in Sebastiane and Caravaggio. He died of AIDS in mid-February, having skirted death several times since 1986. Yet he was never more active than in his last years. HIV was his prison and his liberty, and its threat led to The Last of England, The Garden, Edward II, as well as Wittgenstein and Blue. Jarman worked on tiny budgets in the spirit of a home-movie-maker, with a gang of friends.

He also kept a journal: Modern Nature covers the years 1989 and 1990, when he was in and out of the hospital, observing his own gauntness and living in a cottage near the beach at Dungeness, in the shadow of a power station. The journal is very moving, with harrowing accounts of treatment mixed with lists of flowers planted in his garden and of films held together against lack of money and reports of friends dying. Not that Jarman had much time for melancholy or premature mourning. He was exuberant; he insisted that he had a chance of beating HIV; and on several occasions he held off death through work, stress and immense vocation, the very things doctors warned against. He lost his sight, and Blue, his last film, is nothing but a blue screen and a commentary that grows out of the journals. Here he is in April, 1989:

Wednesday 30

A chill coming on after lying naked on the shingle for the photos. Restless night, shivering and hot by turns. Woke feeling very fragile.

A dull cloudy day, colorless. Read the Lorca biography.

Thursday 31

Still unwell. Washed all the bedding and t-shirts and pottered round the garden. Dreamed all morning of escape. To where?

Will go back to London on Monday and try to work out a plan for the film. James rang to say funding was on the way for The Garden. I feel it is too late: the summer's gone.

However hard I try now I find it almost impossible to connect with others, let alone myself. Was it ever any different? Was I gifted, or was it as a burden of proof that I took to film?

Those who knew Jarman saw his conviviality and his generosity. They would have been surprised by such expressions of apartness. Powell was also a grand companion in whom one felt a brusque, fearless isolation. Russell in his time has been praised and deplored as a law unto himself, a visionary but self-indulgent, beyond reason. And Russell's early documentaries worshiped solitary genius and the carefree bohemianism that took life as the threshold to art. Powell was prepared to stay idle a couple of decades to stress his work; while Jarman discovered that only art could keep him alive. None of this was reasonable, or medically plausible. Nor was it appealing to those who put up the money. So people like Powell nearly dared the bosses to be stupid enough to pay for them.

All three complain, more or less, about a dogged British resistance to cinema. British culture, they say, prides itself on its literature, on its theater, on its Leavisite scheme of stories that deliver moral lessons. There is also the idea that the British are not naturally visual or melodramatic, though that theory has to deal with Dickens, Turner, Hogarth and Francis Bacon. It may be more to the point that much in British life flinches from, or is embarrassed by, the enactment of fantasy, which is so vital to movies. There is a British modesty that sighs and says that movies are really a bit of a lark, rather silly, something fit for Americans. But that dampening down may only intensify the melodramatic urge. Powell could be prickly in manner, terse in conversation; yet he was overwhelming and emotional on the screen.

Maybe men like Russell, Powell and Jarman were determined to feel embattled. Jarman came closest to fulfillment in what many regarded as impossible circumstances. Russell rejoices in the reputation of a dangerous outsider. And Powell - consciously, or by magic - took steps to make himself an outcast. For all of them, the romantic urge to solitude was compulsive. It is there in the flagrant imagery of their films and the swooning upheaval of their narratives; and in their sense of themselves. Is it a British gift to film history to suggest that the "normally" absurdly expensive collaboration might also be a private passion pursued by half- crazed amateurs? At least that frightens off Hollywood money - so then the few, the happy few, can soldier on in brave penury, singing a lonely song. Who knows, a day may come when grim and overpriced American professionalism has been surpassed by technology, while British eccentrics keep filming in their garden with antique cameras, watching the flowers explode.

The New Republic 25th April 1994 v210:n17. p39(3)

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