The Planets by Ken Russell

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This 1983 film from Ken Russell bears comparison with Michael Powell’s film of Bluebeard’s Castle in being another television adaptation by a famous director of a well-known piece of music that few people have heard about or managed to see. (Derek Jarman often spoke of Powell and Russell as two rare talents frequently ignored or slighted in their own country.) Russell’s film was made specially for The South Bank Show, the weekly arts programme of the ITV network in Britain. As with most South Bank Show films it was screened once then vanished into the archives. There was a later laserdisc release in the US but laserdiscs are now as redundant as CD-ROMs. I’ve yet to hear of a DVD release.

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Mars, the Bringer of War.

The Planets was Russell’s first film after Altered States (1980), and shares some of that feature’s cosmic moments, especially in the Neptune section. The Planets also seems heavily indebted to Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi which had been released to great acclaim the year before. Where Reggio matched unique shots to a unique score by Philip Glass, Russell produced a collage work that matches stock footage to each section of the Holst suite. The result is very effective in places, although after subsequent decades of music videos and YouTube mixology the effect is less impressive than it was when first broadcast. Among the hundreds of images some familiar Russell obsessions appear: Nazis, naked women and the inevitable crucifixion. I don’t think he managed to get any nuns into this one but the Pope gives a Catholic flavour to the Uranus section. Since the whole piece is wordless it’s left to the viewer to decide how much these juxtapositions are ironic or sincere. The music is performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Eugene Ormandy.

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Venus, the Bringer of Peace.

The Planets can’t be viewed on YouTube at the moment, probably for the usual copyright reasons, but there is a watchable copy on this Russian video site. Given the quantity of recordings of The Planets it’s understandable if there isn’t a great demand for Russell’s version but it still seems unfairly overlooked.

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Directed by Saul Bass

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Phase IV (1974).

It’s been a thrill recently poring over the Saul Bass monograph, Saul Bass: A Life in Film & Design by Jennifer Bass & Pat Kirkham, a large volume that weighs a ton and is as revelatory about the career of a great designer (and his wife and frequent collaborator, Elaine Bass) as you’d hope. One pleasure was getting to read about Bass’s film work from his own viewpoint for once. The curious science-fiction film he made in 1974, Phase IV, is well-known enough to have a cult reputation but too often his long involvement with Hollywood is passed over as a footnote to the careers of the directors for whom he worked. In addition to his celebrated title sequences, Bass was also a visual consultant responsible for the planning and filming of what used to be called “special sequences” within films, the most notorious of which is the endlessly argued-over shower scene in Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960). (See this authoritative post by Pat Kirkham on Bass’s special sequences, and the disputed history of those few seconds of black-and-white film.)

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Phase IV (1974).

All of which sent me to YouTube looking for some of the shorter films that Bass directed from the mid-60s on. The monograph explores these and Phase IV in some detail, for the latter showing pages of sketches for unfilmed sequences. I’m not sure these would have improved a film which I find flawed and occasionally ludicrous but it’s good to see what the director had in mind. The film on DVD has no extras at all but a trailer can be found on YouTube that shows off some of the startling imagery, and also includes a few shots that were cut by distributors foolishly eager to try and sell it as a horror film. It’s ironic that a man who gained world recognition for his poster designs wasn’t allowed to design the poster for his own film.

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Quest (1984).

Of the short works there’s Why Man Creates (1968) here and here, an examination of the creative impulse that’s been so popular with art teachers over the years that it’s probably been seen by a lot more people than his marauding ants. Both this and The Solar Film (1980), a documentary about solar energy, utilise Bass’s hand-drawn animation. The latter is also of note for its final shot of a baby walking into a sunset, a still of which was turned by Bass into an album cover for Stomu Yamashta in 1984. Also that year, Saul and Elaine produced their strangest work, Quest, a half-hour piece of science fiction based on a Ray Bradbury short story whose quest theme is overly-familiar from a dramatic point-of-view but which typically yields a wealth of memorable visuals. In Phase IV there was a nod to Dalí with the dead man’s hand filled with burrowing ants; in Quest we find imagery borrowed from Magritte (a floating castle-topped mountain) and MC Escher (his Cubic Space Division). The copy on YouTube is rough quality but it’s certainly worth a watch. I’m amused to discover how much Saul & Elaine were prog-rock heads (not that there’s anything wrong with that…): Phase IV has Stomu Yamashta and David Vorhaus from White Noise on its soundtrack, The Solar Film features a dubious cover version of Tubular Bells, while the score for Quest is mostly original music (with some borrowings from Holst) that sounds much of the time like Tangerine Dream when they were leaning on their Mellotrons.

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Saul Bass album covers
Pablo Ferro on YouTube