But if anyone's looking to get a jump on next year's cards ....
Wednesday, December 24, 2008
I've always had something of a soft spot for Ken Russell's films -- sure, they're usually garish, stylistically overblown, and often in what is at best questionable taste, but I've always felt that in his case these were features, not bugs, and that if he had even the slightest amount of taste or restraint his stuff would actually be worse rather than better. As it is, if he finds a subject that fits his peculiarly florid style, he can produce a genuinely great film (The Devils, Women in Love), a camp classic (Lair of the White Worm, Gothic), or something that's a little of both (Altered States).
But on the other hand, there's also ... LISZTOMANIA.
I'd seen this years ago, in what I seem to recall may have also been an altered state, but on seeing it again, it's possible it may only have seemed like it in retrospect.
We can't know for sure until that far-off day when Jerry Lewis' The Day the Clown Cried is released, but until then, this may be the most aesthetically indefensible film ever made. Russell takes a not-necessarily-bad idea -- that Franz Liszt was the 19th century equivalent of a rock star (more or less true -- in fact, the term "Lisztomania" isn't Russell's, but a contemporary one coined by the German poet Heinrich Heine to describe the hysteria provoked by his concerts), and then proceeds to beat the life out of it over the course of 103 jaw-droppingly weird minutes.
This is a film which opens with Roger Daltry as Liszt, fighting a duel wearing only a loincloth while a pair of cornpone Homer-and-Jethro-type narrators fill in his backstory, then proceeds through a series of truly craptacular musical numbers, one of which features a chorus line of Liszt's mistresses and a twelve-foot penis (don't ask. I mean, really, just don't ask), and finally conludes with a scene that's hard to believe even if you have seen it (hey, don't just take my word for it, check it out for yourself).
The film strains to be "provocative" but, thanks to its uneven mix of over-the-top fantasy scenes and Carry On-level humor, it's mostly just strident and grotesque. And that's not taking into account the stunt casting of Daltry (with Ringo Starr as the Pope), Rick Wakeman's appalling prog-rock score ("with the assistance of Franz Liszt and Richard Wagner" according to the credits, for which I'm sure they'd be grateful), and the heavy-handed attempts at satire (Wagner, first seen wearing a sailor suit whose hatband reads "S.S. Nietsche", is depicted as a proto-Nazi and a vampire -- literally), which turn every scene into a fresh assault on the very notion of good taste, until finally the film threatens to collapse into a singularity of sheer dreafulness from which nothing recognizable as art can possibly escape.
Now, I can't in good conscience recommend that any of you see this -- that's 103 minutes you'll never get back, and I ain't taking the rap for that. But on the other hand, there's something perversely liberating about watching someone throw every possible shred of restraint and dignity to the winds. I, for one, enjoyed every cringe-inducing minute of it.