Women in Love

wil2.jpg

To see the past from the vantage point of the present is to be able to judge the effect of the past on the present.

Ken Russell (The International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers, Vol. 2, 1984)

Among the film viewing this week was a Blu-ray preview of Ken Russell’s Women in Love (1969), courtesy of the BFI. I’d not see Russell’s film for a long time so watching it again in such exceptional quality was almost like seeing it for the first time. Russell’s comment about the past versus the present was made in the context of his many biographical films, a series he began at the BBC and continued into his feature career. But with the passage of time the films themselves become products of the past, and so we can’t help but see them in a different light. Almost as much time has passed since Women in Love was made as separates the film itself from the year in which it begins, just after the end of the First World War; if we don’t see the 1960s as so historically remote today it’s partly because the culture of that period continues to cast a huge shadow over the present.

wil3.jpg

Women in Love contrasts the progress of a pair of sisters, Gudrun Brangwen (Glenda Jackson) and Ursula Brangwen (Jennie Linden), who form couples with two very different men, Gerald Crich (Oliver Reed) and Rupert Birkin (Alan Bates). Gudrun is an artist, Ursula a schoolteacher; Gerald is a wealthy mine-owner, Rupert a school inspector. Rupert’s theorising about love and human relations provides the intellectual heart of the story, as well as being a comment upon it, with each of the four main characters reacting in different ways to the imperatives of love. Rupert acts as a mouthpiece for DH Lawrence’s beliefs, and it’s the theorising which seems closer to the questioning spirit of the 1960s than it does to 1918. Rupert’s desire to live somewhere with more than one person, and free of the constraints of clothing, has parallels with some of the nature movements of the period (as well as Lawrence’s own desires) but also sounds like the yearnings of a hippy idealist. Ursula is the most grounded of the quartet—when we first see her in the school she’s giving the children a nature lesson—and complains about Rupert’s lofty spirituality once their relationship begins.

wil6.jpg

Gerald and Gudrun, by contrast, are too remote from each other to be fully complementary. Gerald complains that when tragedy strikes the Crich family—as it does midway through the film—nothing can ever be right, a prophesy that fulfils itself for his family and his relationship. Gudrun, meanwhile, yearns for artistic as well as romantic freedom; she finds both when the quartet take a holiday in the Alps. Vladek Sheybal’s Loerke is a bisexual artist whose liberated attitude embodies some of Rupert’s philosophy as well as proving more stimulating company for Gudrun. Ursula merely complains that Loerke doesn’t know how to properly depict a horse. Eleanor Bron is the other key character, Rupert’s former lover, and one of Lawrence’s sterile aristocrats. She falls out with Rupert after he spoils her pretentious attempt to emulate a Russian ballet performance.

wil7.jpg

Women in Love is the first of Russell’s features that’s distinctively his own even though it lacks the exuberance of his later work. Several of the actors turn up in later films: Reed had already appeared in the BBC dramas The Debussy Film and Dante’s Inferno; Glenda Jackson was in Russell’s next feature The Music Lovers, playing Tchaikovsky’s wife, Antonina Miliukova, a role prefigured in Gudrun and Loerke’s bedroom masquerade. Russell said he worked without credit on the script but the first draft was the work of producer Larry Kramer who tried the project with a few directors before finding Russell. Kramer’s involvement underlines Rupert’s insistent desire to bond physically with close male friends (specifically Gerald), although there’s never any spoken suggestion that sex should take place. Kramer followed Women in Love with a script for Charles Jarrott’s terrible musical version of Lost Horizon (1973), a film he disowns but which made him wealthy enough to concentrate solely on fiction and works for the stage. His post-Hollywood work explores the lives of gay American men from a variety of perspectives, in the light of which Women in Love might be seen as an attempt to smuggle an acceptance of bisexual desire into the mainstream without any overt proselytising or tragic narratives. Rupert’s attempt to bond with Gerald climaxes (so to speak) in the famous nude wrestling scene, an event which doesn’t seem so surprising now but which was a confrontational moment for audiences in 1969.

wil4.jpg

That scene may also be free of any deliberate homoeroticism but Russell recalled how South American censors made it seem more so by cutting the scene:

Gerald simply locked the door then there was a cut to the two men lying naked on the carpet side by side, panting. It became known as The Great Buggering Scene and filled the cinemas for months. So much for the subtleties of censorship.

wil5.jpg

The BFI Blu-ray is the usual pristine transfer which emphasises the colour and detail in Billy Williams’ photography. Among the extras there are audio commentaries by Ken Russell and Larry Kramer, a 49-minute conversation with Billy Williams, interviews with Glenda Jackson, and Second Best (1972), a previously unreleased short film, based on a story by DH Lawrence, which stars Alan Bates. With the recent BFI releases of Russell’s TV films, and the earlier release of The Devils, I’m hoping we may see more of his work given this careful treatment. (And when do we get a Blu-ray of The Devils?)

Women in Love is released on August 22nd.

Previously on { feuilleton }
The Planets by Ken Russell
Devils debris
The Devils on DVD
Ken Russell, 1927–2011
Salome’s Last Dance

The Marat/Sade

maratsade1.jpg

The Marat/Sade (1967).

Good to find this Peter Brook film on YouTube (for the time being…) as I’d been watching Ian Richardson in a couple of things recently and wanted to remind myself of how he fares here. He’s excellent, of course, as the serious foil to Patrick Magee’s equally serious Marquis de Sade. Brook’s film is a recording of his stage presentation of Peter Weiss’s play, and the two actors embody the poles of a dialogue about the perennially knotty problems of revolution, freedom, and the interests of the individual in the face of political abstractions. What fascinates most about the play is the Brechtian nature of the drama: structured as a play-within-a-play (we’re watching the inmates of an asylum performing a fictional Sade drama), and with a proxy audience regarding the performance through iron bars, the staging is as far away from dry theorising as you can get. Brief moments of debate between Sade and the asylum inmate portraying Marat act as punctuations between scurrilous chorus songs and frequent scenes of outright chaos which erupt when the demands of performance become too much for the inmates. It’s loud, sardonic, cynical, and often riveting. One of the more miserable features of drama from the 1960s and 70s is the recurrence of ham-fisted political didacticism which, however well-intentioned, makes for a dismal viewing experience. Weiss’s play shows how well you can deliver political rhetoric when the staging doesn’t ignore the presence of a possibly sceptical audience who might also like to be entertained.

maratsade2.jpg

Peter Brook has had a peculiar career as a film director, most of his films being screen adaptations of his stage productions, or odd one-offs such as his documentary-like (and somewhat superfluous) film of Lord of the Flies, and the bizarre Meetings with Remarkable Men. (More about that later.) Brook’s Royal Shakespeare Company staging of the Weiss play was performed to great acclaim in 1965 so we’re fortunate that it’s captured so well here. The cast includes many first-rate actors, not only Richardson and Magee but Glenda Jackson as the inmate given the task of portraying Charlotte Corday, Michael Williams as the Herald, and (easy to miss among the clown-faced chorus) Freddie Jones. A low-grade YouTube copy does little for David Watkin’s superb photography which gives the film a very different look to other films of the 1960s. Studios films of the era tended to be horribly over-lit so it’s refreshing to find a film such as this using only the available light to illuminate the action. Searching around for DVDs reveals a single Spanish edition which I’m tempted to buy if I could be sure it was widescreen and with the English soundtrack intact. As for the play itself, the concerns may be typical of the period but many of the sentiments have lost none of their relevance. Highly recommended.

maratsade3.jpg

Saint Genet

genet1.jpg

Miracle of the Rose (1965). Photo by Jerry Bauer, design by Kuhlman Associates.

[William Burroughs is] without a doubt…the greatest American writer since WWII. There are very, very few writers in his class; I think Genet is about the only one whom I’d put in the same category. All the British and American writers so heavily touted—the Styrons and the Mailers and their English equivalents—it’s just not necessary to read anybody except William Burroughs and Genet.

JG Ballard, RE/Search interview, 1984.

Jean Genet (the “Saint” was a gift from Jean-Paul Sartre) was born on December 19th, 1910 so consider this a late centenary post. Some of Ballard’s debt to William Burroughs can be found in writings such as The Atrocity Exhibition (1970) and his early text experiments. Genet’s influence, if we have to look for such a thing, I usually see in the use of metaphor to transform an uncompromising reality. Like the moment at the beginning of Crash (1973) when the crushed bodies of package tourists are compared to “a haemorrhage of the sun”. Genet’s writings effected similar transformations from squalid prison environments, turning the sexual assignations and passions of the inmates into ceremonial acts which assume the lineaments of a new religion. He used to claim in later life to have forgotten all his works but we haven’t forgotten him. A small selection of Genet links follows.

esquire.jpg

Esquire, November 1968.

RealityStudio:

Burroughs’ most famous and most widely read piece for Esquire remains his coverage of the 1968 Democratic National Convention, “The Coming of the Purple Better One,” which was included in Exterminator! Burroughs was hired to cover the convention along with Terry Southern, who was a pioneer in New Journalism with his “Twirling at Ole Miss” (which appeared in Esquire in February 1963), John Sack, who wrote on the experiences of Company M in Vietnam for Esquire (with the legendary cover “Oh my God — We hit a little girl”), and Jean Genet, an authority on oppression who turned increasingly politically active after the events in Europe in May 1968. (Continues here.)

Ubuweb:
Un Chant d’Amour (1950): Genet’s short homoerotic drama which he later disowned. The film’s masturbating prisoners and naked male flesh made it notorious and, for later generations of filmmakers, a pioneering and influential work.
Le condamné à mort (1952): A reading of Genet’s poem (in French) with electroacoustic accompaniment.
Ecce Homo (1989): A short film by Jerry Tartaglia which cuts scenes from Un Chant d’Amour with gay porn.

caillaux.jpg

Bibliothèque Gay:
Vingt lithographies pour un livre que j’ai lu, Jean Genet, Roland Caillaux, 1945. A sequence of twenty pornographic drawings.

YouTube:
The Maids (1975): Glenda Jackson and Susannah York in a film by Christopher Miles based on Genet’s play. There’s also Fassbinder’s Querelle (1982) but YouTube’s limitations don’t do it any favours.
Jean Genet (1985): an extract from the BBC interview where the writer makes a fool of interviewer Nigel Williams. This captured Genet a few months before his death and he remains the stubborn outsider to the last, questioning the conventions of the television interview which he compares to a police interrogation. A transcript of the whole fascinating event can be found here.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Emil Cadoo
Penguin Labyrinths and the Thief’s Journal
Un Chant D’Amour by Jean Genet

Salome’s Last Dance

salome1.jpg

More Wildeana. It’s taken me over two decades to watch this film, and while I can’t really say it was worth the wait it was more entertaining than I expected. Salome’s Last Dance was directed in 1988 by Ken Russell and is his own typically mannered adaptation of the Wilde play. It appeared around the same time as his adaptation of another Victorian work, Bram Stoker’s The Lair of the White Worm, and it was the latter film which caused me to lose my patience with Russell’s excesses and so ignore this one. In Salome’s Last Dance we have Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas visiting Alfred Taylor’s London brothel one night in 1892 where Taylor and company stage a performance of Wilde’s banned play.

salome2.jpg

Aubrey Beardsley’s illustrations appear in the title sequence.

If you’re a Wilde enthusiast there are at least two ways you may take this; you can be appalled by Russell’s “translation” of Wilde’s words (Salomé was written in French then translated for English publication in 1894; there’s no reason to re-translate a version the author approved), a translation which is really more of an adaptation, with much of the poetic monologue removed and the tone lowered for a general audience—Wilde’s “Iokannen” is vulgarised to “John the Baptist” throughout. Or you can try and enjoy what is at least a complete performance of the play, even though it more often resembles Carry On Salomé than anything one might have expected Sarah Bernhardt to perform. Injecting a Symbolist drama with slapstick and grotesquery is probably inevitable given the director (Russell is also co-writer and he plays—badly—the role of the Cappadocian). I found it impossible to decide whether Russell was sending up the play because he found it too pompous or whether he felt that an audience wouldn’t sit still for it otherwise. Whatever his intention, the premise is intriguing enough to inspire speculation as to how it might have been treated by other hands.

Continue reading “Salome’s Last Dance”