Scapegoats, Ken Russell, and the PRB

December 15, 2012

Hunt_TheScapegoat

Reading a  book about Victorian photography,Francis Frith in Egypt and Palestine, I came across these statements about the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB) painter William Holman Hunt and his picture, The Scapegoat:

” …with its elimination of aerial perspective, its aggressive placement of the goat in the foreground picture plane (even Ruskin could not abide its proximity) and its hallucinogenic detail and color…”

“The Jewish sacrifice of the goat, bearing away the town’s moral iniquities, was for Hunt a clear Old Testatment prefiguration of Christ…”

goatty

This called to mind those bizarre images from Ken Russell’s Altered States.  As usual with Russell, there’s a lot more going on in his weirdness than a shallow desire to shock and be outlandish.

goat1

goat2

goat5


Altered States

December 27, 2011

Paddy Chayefsky had no business being angry about the treatment given to his screenplay for the movie Altered States directed by Ken Russell in 1980.  Reportedly, he was angry about the way his beautifully crafted dialog was treated.  Here’s a rant by whiz kid scientist Jessup (William Hurt) delivered while he’s raging drunk:

“What dignifies the Yogic practices is that the belief system itself is not truly religious. There is no Buddhist God per se. It is the Self, the individual Mind, that contains immortality and ultimate truth.”

Not far from the truth, but an absurd piece of dialog, in context.  All the characters speak in this stilted, intellectual way, which, along with the deadpan treatment of the action, gives the film a comic-ironic dimension.  Apparently, Paddy took the ideas dead seriously, but this story is ridiculous, and what redeems the film is Russell’s usual over-the-top imagery, in this case perfectly in sync with the psychedelic freakout ethos of this post 60s romp that seems trapped in Strawberry Fields.  Religious, mythic, erotic, pop-cultural, oh that Ken, he’s something else!

In this series of images from Jessup’s mushroom induced hallucinations with rural Mexican Indians, Russell recreates the craziness of pharmaceutical mirages and seems to be paying homage to that milestone of surrealism, An Andalusian Dog.

That Andalusian Dog

 

 

 

Man meets his inner lizard.

 

Pagan Goddess

Adoration

…………………  …………..

 

In stone, for eternity.

As I said, the plot and the ideas driving it are laughable:  it includes an extended interlude in which Jessup regresses, physically, to a primitive hominoid state, nearly kills some security guards, and finds peace only after breaking into a zoo and devouring a sheep raw.  I wanted nothing but to survive that night, to eat, to sleep.  Italo Calvino treats the same ideas, the bliss of pre-cultural consciousness, in his wry and funny piece, Interview with a Neanderthal Man, but, as I said, the screenplay of this film plays it straight.

During Jessup’s final trip, there are some nice images, and more homages to films, I think:

Could be Kiss Me Deadly.  What’s in the damn box?

Bill Gates freaking out on Windows?  Where did this primordial goo come from?  And who’s going to mop it up?

This definitely recalls 2001:  A Space Odyssey.

The Love Goddess saves the day!


La politique noir

November 30, 2011

From film noir to la politique noir, and I don’t mean ‘black politics’, as in Black Power.   My reading and viewing have converged at what Philip Pomper, in his biography of Sergei Nechaev, calls, “[the] striking lesson in the disastrous possibilities of revolutionary politics.”  Extreme disturbed personalities, fantastic rhetoric, and violence.  Patty Hearst, Dostoyevsky’s Demons, Ed Begley as a lunatic Texan Cold Warrior, and Nechaev, fact and fiction.  Let’s start with Ms. Hearst.

Patty Hearst, a film from 1988, directed by Paul Schrader, with Natasha Richardson in the lead, is hard to find, but you can get it on DVD.  It doesn’t seem to be an official release, whatever that means, but it is a very fine dramatization of this crazy episode in revolutionary fringe politics.  Schrader is sympathetic to, but not sentimental about Hearst:  a young, sheltered girl who thought she knew a thing or two about the world is kidnapped and kept in a closet for weeks, blindfolded and gagged, treated like a dog, and raped (made a sperm receptacle) by her captors, male, and it seems female as well.  We would all like to think that we would come through this okay, and escape at the first opportunity, rather than imploding and joining the gang, so, as she tells us at the end, her survival, ‘rescue’, and trial were mightily inconvenient for the mass audience following every sordid minute of the tale.

I’ve written about the Symbionese Liberation Front and their rhetoric before, and the film does a great job of dramatizing it.  Ving Rhames (Marsellus in Pulp Fiction) uses that deep voice of his to convey the  incantatory and delusional charisma of Field Marshal Cinque.   The thing is, that as I’m watching it, I’m thinking of Dostoyevsky’s novel, Demons.  After Patty has joined The Cause, and is helping plan a bank job, she asks, “Will the rest of The Army help us with it?”  Everyone chuckles, and Cinque replies, “It’s just us, there is no army.”  Did Pyotr Verkhovensky really have a network of cells communicating with him?  Some characters wondered.  The similarities multiply.

The members of Hearst’s cell are all white, except for their leader, Cinque, and they all have a major case of white radical guilt.  When Hearst complains that she is hungry, they tell her “This is how black people in our country live every day!  You don’t know!”   Every word Cinque utters is considered brilliant.  At one point, a cell member responds to a rather inept and non-sequitur comment with, “Brilliant, that’s brilliant!  Goddamn it , goddamn I wish I was black!”  Later, he is shown in blackface makeup, the usual disguise they use, attempting to strike a streetwise pose.  This corrosive guilt and lack of self-esteem it brings to political thinking was not new in the 60’s:  Nechaev was very successful in exploiting it in his recruitment of middle-class and upper-class Russians of his own time.

It is well-known the Demons draws heavily on the trial record of Sergei Nechaev, who had a brief period of power within the chaotic Russian revolutionary movement.  He was a manipulator, a liar, a thief, and totally – that’s actually an understatement – unprincipled.  When he started his own journal, it was called The People’s Revenge.   He bilked Herzen and his daughter out of thousands, tried to seduce her after the old socialist’s death, played Bakunin like a fiddle, and committed so many frauds – he was always claiming to have legions of followers at his beck and call – that Bakunin’s association with him gave Marx the leverage to get Bakunin kicked out of the International, that pesky, infantile, anarchist!  (In fact, I have discovered, there is a scholarly literature on the Russophobia of Karl Marx.  He thought they, the Russian revolutionaries, were a bit nuts – how’s that for communist irony!)

What I found  surprising regarding Demons, is how closely some parts of the novel are modeled on Nechaev’s life.  The central murder of the book, in fact, conforms almost exactly to the facts of the case – the botched disposal of the corpse in a pond; luring the victim with a story of a buried press; and the almost comic disorganization of the killers.  We must recall, after all, that Dostoyevsky originally was planning a comic burlesque of nihilist politics when he began his story.  The Wise Serpent of Demons, combines many of Nechaev’s personality traits with a cunning and slyness that the real-life figure lacked.  Nechaev moved with clumsy and ill-concealed cynicism towards his goals, eventually disgusting most of those he worked with in the revolutionary underground.  Still, he was committed to the cause, fanatically, so they cut him a lot of slack.

Pomper dissects his life with a lens tinted with psychoanalytic hues, but not intrusively so:  the Oedipal, infantile anti-authoritarian, and perverse sexual mental contortions of his thinking are quite plain in his writings.  One of his favorite propaganda tropes was to depict the orgiastic and revolting sexual activities of the Tsar, the nobles, or of whomever he was attacking.  Obviously, this sort of rhetoric has a long history – often turned against Jews – and it had a grand future, being part of the revolutionary stock in trade right up to 1917.  His language makes use of religious themes as well, particularly martyrdom, for which he planned, and is in this way curiously linked to the imagery of What Is to Be Done?

I originally bought Pomper’s  biography hoping to find more writings of Nechaev’s, but apart from some letters, and excerpts from articles he wrote, and, of course, the full text of his Catechism, there was not much.  I was particularly disappointed by the absence of a translation of his Foundations for a Future Social Order, the document in which he lays out his plans for society after the revolutionary transformation.  From the bits I have read of and about it, it is a grim vision of a militantly regimented society that seems drawn from the history of ancient Sparta and Fourier’s utopian plans.  What particularly upset some (according to Nechaev) were his notions of communal dining.  This led to Marx’s famous contemptuous dismissal of his ideas as “barracks communism.”  In his world, Pechorin would be less than superfluous:  he would be a pest to be exterminated.

Was Nechaev on his mind when Italo Calvino wrote Beheading the Heads?  In this short story, a tourist happens upon a land where the leaders are ritually executed periodically (as were some kings in ancient times, if The Golden Bough is to be believed).  The action then jumps back in time to show us the nihilist cells planning for The Revolution, after which there will be no leaders other than those who agree to die, and so prevent tyranny.  One man questions whether they should not ritually execute the leaders of their cells since that is what they plan for society.  Are they not hypocrites if they do not?  Naturally, there is some hesitation on this point amongst the revolutionary heads.  They hit upon a compromise:  they will ritually mutilate the leaders at suitable intervals, leaving the post-revolutionary society to fully implement their plan.  It concludes with descriptions of revolutionary activity led by men with no fingers, missing ears, sometimes a wooden leg, each vanished appendage a testament to their zeal for the New World Order.

Finally, we have Ken Russell’s film, Billion Dollar Brain (1967), with the always enjoyable Michael Caine.  It’s basically, a mediocre spy film that followed Caine’s work as Harry Palmer in The Ipcress File.  The film is enlivened by Karl Malden playing an utter sleaze of an ex-agent gone ‘entrepreneur’  working for ‘General’ Midwinter (Ed Begley), a fanatical anti-communist zillionaire from Texas.  Midwinter is angry at the world, at the government (the password between his men is always, “now is the Winter of our discontent“) and most of all at the commies.  He has a secret plan to use germ warfare against the Russians while his private army of rebels in Latvia begin the dissolution of the Evil Empire.   He mixes Christian fundamentalism with anti-Russian hellfire to work up enthusiasm among his ‘employees’, while his plans are being completely undermined by Malden’s diversion of the mercenaries payroll into his own pocket.  The Russians are onto him too, and they efficiently dispose of his army in an air attack on the frozen Baltic that brings to mind Alexander Nevksy’s victory at Novogorod.  Perhaps it takes a Brit to penetrate to the center of the American Texas phenomenon.  In this case, Russell’s exaggeration was no exaggeration.


Almost Parallel Lives

November 29, 2011

The dates of their lives were very close, but those lives-not by a long shot!  Both had obituaries in the NYTimes today:

Lana Peters, Stalin’s Daughter, Dies at 85

Shown below in a cuddly pose with the great Russian bear, the Red Tsar, and sitting on the lap of Uncle Laventry (Beria), chief of the secret police, later one of its victims, with papa working for the masses in the background.

Ken Russell, Director Fond of Provocation, Dies at 84

He could be flat-out ridiculous, as in his biopic of Tchaikovsky, The Music Lovers, or brilliantly over-the-top in The Devils.  He was not deterred by being a “punching bag” for some critics:   “I believe in what I’m doing wholeheartedly, passionately, and what’s more, I simply go about my business,” … “I suppose such a thing can be annoying to some people.”


Witchfinder General

December 25, 2010

Thanks to the blogger at the tilting planet and his futile preoccupations for pointing me to this little low-budget gem, Witchfinder General from 1968.  It isn’t rated highly by most – Ken Russell, hearing that his film, The Devils (1971), was thought to be influenced by it supposedly said it was the worst he’d ever seen (from Wiki) – but I think it tells its story rather well.  It’s a small film, focusing on a few characters in 17th century rural England, no large historical tableaux, no battles, but it makes its point, and Oliver Cromwell shows his face.

Based on a novel that fictionalizes an historical character, Matthew Hopkins, it tells of his cynical and profitable work searching the countryside for suspected witches, and extracting confessions when he finds them.  They are tortured, hanged, and burned; Hopkins gets a hefty fee, and the local officials who request his assistance get a cut of the action too.  How much of this story is invented, I do not know, but it captures something about the nature of witch hunts, 17th century and contemporary.

Despite the fact that he’s doing the Lord’s work in the midst of the Puritan Revolution, Hopkins is a bit of dandy.  His undoing comes when he “tries” and executes the uncle of the attractive young lady shown at top who is betrothed to a gallant soldier in Cromwell’s army.  The young man vows vengeance, and achieves it, hacking away at Hopkins’ carcass with a hatchet, and crying “You have taken him from me!” when his fellow soldiers shoot Hopkins to end the bloody frenzy.

Before his end, however, Hopkins has a good run, and even invents, or claims to, a new way of burning the devil’s minions, by lowering them with ropes onto a burning pyre – we’ve seen that before…  He also takes the time to personally “interrogate,” in the privacy of his rooms, any comely maiden that is brought before him.

In the case of the soldier’s woman, she serves herself up to him, knowing that is the only way to have a chance of saving her uncle until her beloved returns from the war.  Her uncle is killed anyway, and she is ravished and raped.  The film ends with Hopkins’ death and her deliverance, but the soundtrack is of her horrified screaming.  Is there any true deliverance for her, after her ordeals?


The Devils – When Church and State are one

December 12, 2010

The Devils is a Ken Russell film from 1971 that I saw a few years after that.  Since I wasn’t eighteen, I don’t know how I was admitted to the theater at the Los Angeles County Art Museum, and I certainly don’t know why they were showing it!  The film was incredibly controversial, heavily cut by censors, and still is not available in an official DVD version, which accounts for the poor image quality of the commercial release I have.  It is a loose adaptation of a book by Aldous Huxley, The Devils of Loudon, that tells the story of demonic possession of a nunnery in 17th century France.

Louis XIII is king, Cardinal Richelieu is master.  Loudon is a ‘free town’, allowed to maintain its independence and the fortifications that guarantee it.  Within their circuit, despite the carnage of the religious wars, Catholics and Protestants have managed to live and work together in peace.  Richelieu will have none of that:  he wishes to concentrate all power in the king; to destroy the independence of towns; and to drive the Protestants from the land so that Church and State may be one in a new France.

Father Urbain Grandier is a charismatic churchman in Loudon who has his own interpretation of Catholic celibacy and the like.  Women of all sorts adore him, and vie to have time with him in church to ‘confess’ their sins.  Some get to be more intimate, including the daughter of an influential figure who becomes pregnant by him and is then set loose.  His arrogance and strong ideas make lots of enemies, and when he defies the Cardinal’s emissary who wishes to demolish Loudon’s walls, he’s made an enemy who will not give up until he’s dead.  The fevered and twisted imaginations of some sex-starved nuns provide a good pretext for trumped-up charges of sorcery, a convenient way to remove Grandier from his position of power.  Church and State – no separation…

The film is lurid, bizarre, sometimes funny, and horrifying in its focus on the brutality of Church ‘justice’.  The orgy scene with nuns gone wild, ‘raping’ Christ, and the visions of Sister Jeanne drove the censors wild.  Anyone who has delved into Gothic literature, or the art and mysticism of the Counter-Reformation will recognize it as a dramatic, but not all that distorted presentation of historical truths.  (Click to enlarge the images.)

The film opens with a bit of royal theatrical diversion.  The Cardinal offers his ring and support for a new France, and “may the Protestants be driven from the land!”

Oliver Reed is great as Grandier.  Vanessa Redgrave, as Sister Jeanne, the hunchback prioress of the convent presides over a bevy of girls who are dying to get a glimpse of the man as he leads a procession through the town.  Remember, most nuns were forced to be such by families that didn’t have means or marriages for them. (See Jacques Rivette’s wonderful adaption of Diderot’s novel, La religieuse [The Nun], for example).   These are all daughters of well-to-do families, essentially imprisoned for life.  The expressionistic set design is fabulous.

Jeanne is obsessed by this handsome man of God whom she glimpses through the grate that gives the women their only view of the world outside.

She has ‘visions’ of him, and of a not all that pure nature.

In her dreams, she is Mary Magdalen, come to wash Christ’s feet, and dry them with her hair.  She is beautiful, not a cripple.

Mystical states come to an end – reality does not disappear.

Grandier is just a man, one who loves his neighbor, and his neighbor’s daughter…and many’s the neighbor’s wife who would love to love him…

An eerie black and white sequence depicts Sister Jeanne’s erotic dream of embracing Christ as he comes down off his cross.  She eagerly licks the blood from his wounds, only to awake to reality and find that she has clutched her rosary so hard that her hands are bloodied.  Religious fervor can go too far.

Grandier confronts the Cardinal’s emissary when he starts to demolish the walls.  He has a paper proving that the king granted the city the right to maintain them.  Richelieu tries to get the king to renege on his word, but no dice.  “Leave Loudon alone,” he is told.  The king is impatient.  He’s having fun taking aim

at Hugenots forced to run the gauntlet dressed as black birds.  Ahh…but if Grandier could be disposed of, there would be no opposition and the Cardinal would have a free hand to work on the king.  A plot is hatched.

An interview with Jeanne gets the inquisition going.  A lunatic devil-chaser with John Lennon glasses stages an exorcism while the town’s élite watches from behind a grill.  Yes, such things did go on.  And much has been made of the tinted Lennon glasses:  was Russell taking a swipe at pop culture icons of the day?  I don’t know.

The chasing out of the devils continues in a full-fledged orgy within the local church, the most controversial scene in the film.  Devils?  Within and without.

Grandier is tortured, but will not confess to witchcraft.  He understands the situation perfectly.

Forced to crawl through the streets to his funeral pyre, he is tormented to the end, but refuses to give in.  His enemies, and just about everyone else, turn out to see him burn.  The father of his former lover holds up his son and shouts, “Lucky bastard!  Not every boy gets to watch daddy burn!

With his death, the Cardinal has his way.  The walls come down.  The woman he secretly married wends her way out of the place of desolation while Sister Jeanne and her girls are shut away forever in their convent, despite promises to the contrary.  Sister Jeanne is given a present of Grandier’s charred thigh bone – you can guess what she does with it.


Burn them!

December 11, 2010

Some well-known witch burnings from film.  Carl Dreyer’s 1928 The Passion of Joan of Arc.  Often noted as one of the greatest films in history…and so it must be.  The close-ups are harrowing.  Joan burned at the stake, but in Day of Wrath, Dreyer showed a woman being burned while lashed to a stretcher.

Ingmar Bergman’s stunning 1957 The Seventh Seal features a witch burning too – no stake.  She’s just a young madwoman.  The virtuous knight who plays chess with Death considers killing her executioners and freeing her, but she’s almost dead anyway.  He gives her herbs to dull her pain.  As she dies, the terror in her eyes stimulates a frenzied existentialist rant by the knight’s squire.  The point?  There is nothing.  It was in the air in those days, but this film is no cliché.

Father Urbain Grandier, the subject of Aldous Huxley’s study, The Devil’s of Loudon, was loosely translated into riotous film by Ken Russell’s 1970 The Devils.  The movie is totally over the top, but totally on the mark.  The representation of the spiritual madness of cloistered nuns, walled towns, and the unspeakable brutality of Church ‘trials’ for witchcraft is disturbing.  It’s also comedic at times – can you believe it?  The movie was extremely controversial – contains nude scenes of nuns orgiastically blaspheming, etc. etc. – and still is not ‘officially’ released on DVD.


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