Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Tuesday's Overlooked Films: Ken Russell's Elgar

The BBC has been pulling out a bunch of Russell films from the vault in a grudging sort of admiration for the filmmaker's passing, including a doco on his life, A Bit of a Devil. So my DVR seems to be filling up with an assortment of things (which means I'll finally see The Boyfriend). I actually watched this in real time and plan to re-watch it soon. We're all used to thinking of Russell as the bad boy of excess (who, having seen it, can get the giant penis of Listomania out of their eyeballs?). Certainly a number of his films live up to that surreal excess.

But there is a range to his work -- even within his most excessive films (what would qualify for that? The Devils?) there are quiet enigmas. Elgar, a short film made for Monitor shows a restrained Russell at work but one who (as the doco tells us) delighted in dancing naked to extraordinary music. People tend to remember Elgar most for the song they hear at graduations, but there's so much more. Another one of those weird confluences of the zeitgeist: the events in Penda's Fen hinge on Elgar's Dream of Gerontius and the composer makes an appearance as the story takes place in the same location, the hills of Malvern.

I was talking about this on Twitter with a friend about how sensitive and deft the film was, how it put the music at the center. It tread the line between documentary and re-enactment without falling into the silliness that usually means. As Susie said, this was in sharp contrast to the slickness of current documentaries "and no silly camera work, no 'acting' Loved shot of Elgar walking into room of draped chairs to his draped billiard table." The film is full of striking images that encapsulate significant moments of Elgar's life (some of which reappear in Russell's work, but they're integrated into Elgar's story well). The music is the real star and Russell allows the audience to embrace the music full on, giving us space to really listen with visuals that compliment but never intrude on that experience. You can watch it in pieces on YouTube: not ideal, but worthwhile nonetheless. Excellent work.

See the roundup of recommendations over at Sweet Freedom.

Teaching tomorrow: eek. So much to do! Fortunately it seems as if the zeitgeist has taken the initiative to come up with a PR campaign for my forthcoming novel Owl Stretching, so that will save me some time.

Don't forget: enter to win a free copy of It's a Curse: Drunk on the Moon 7 over at Goodreads.


pattinase (abbott) said...

Haven't seen this one but wanted to hear your thought on MELANCHOLIA. Don't always like Von Triers but we thought this one worked very well. The demolition of the wedding party by the blue planet (Dunst) in the first half, mirrors the actual event in the second. Quite stunning.

K. A. Laity said...

I have to write up Melancholia when I get time to do so, especially now that it's been passed over for blander fare for the Academy Awards (now officially no more relevant than the Grammys). I thought it was quite affecting, visually stunning and all kinds of fascinating themes -- not least of which the Vertigo music. If the stars had been male actors, the Academy would be falling over itself to reward them. Absolutely stellar work, including supporting work by Rampling and Hurt. But anon --