Sunday, November 06, 2011

Ken in Conversation with Peter Blake January 15th on SKY Arts

(Look at that duvet cover! Cath Kidston eat your heart out. Pete Blake from Ken Russell's 1962 Monitor film "Pop Goes The Easel".)

From BFI Online including film clips:

"For the first two years of his directing career for Monitor, Ken Russell had exclusively worked with shorter items of typically 10-15 minutes in length. By 1962, his reputation was such that Monitor's head Huw Wheldon was prepared to entrust him with a full-length programme. Elgar, broadcast on November 11, was the best known, but a few months earlier Russell made Pop Goes The Easel, a 44-minute set of variations on a theme of Pop Art.

The film was nominally a portrait of Peter Blake, Peter Phillips, Derek Boshier and Pauline Boty, who had all achieved substantial reputations in the art world despite still being in their twenties (Blake was the oldest at 29). But Russell's approach was far more visual and musical than verbal: although brief snippets of the artists' opinions are conveyed on the soundtrack, they're a relatively minor part of the overall texture, which seeks to hurl the viewer into their universe (much of it is shot in their own self-decorated flats) and drink deep from the wellspring of their influences.

As one would expect from the finished artworks, these were drawn from the contemporary world around them, and Russell duly constructs an elaborate, rapidly-cut rhythmic kaleidoscope of images of film and pop stars (Brigitte Bardot, Buddy Holly), fashion magazines, fast cars, politicians, the space race, guns, girls, American culture in general, and anything else that could be made to convey a similarly vitality. Jean-Luc Godard had been attempting similar film-collages in France, though Russell had arguably gone further by 1962.

He thinks nothing of cutting to a nightmare sequence featuring Boty pursued by a sinister wheelchair-bound villain down endless circling corridors (anticipating similar scenes in Bela Bartok two years later), or a dynamically shot and edited wrestling match enjoyed by all four artists, which in retrospect looks like a dry run for the equivalent scene in Women in Love (1969). It also marks the first appearance of a pinball machine in Russell's work, which would become an iconic object in Tommy (1975).

If Pop Goes the Easel looks dated to present-day eyes, that's both understandable and unavoidable, but in 1962 it was as cutting-edge in both content and form as anything the BBC had ever considered for broadcast on what was then its sole television channel. Accordingly, it was greeted with widespread controversy, something else that would become a familiar Russell trademark over the following years."

Michael Brooke

A Essay from Savage Messiah: A Ken Russell Site:

A biography of four pop artists (art not music). The title is a pun on the expression pop goes the weasel.  This was the first documentary to treat pop-art as a serious movement rather than as a joke. Unfortunately the four artists Derek Boshier, Pauline Boty, Peter Blake and Peter Phillips and  have not stood the test of time with only Blake retaining minor acclaim*.  The four artists, who seem to live in a sort of commune, play with cowboy guns (edited with a cowboy firing back) or try and fail to look natural in front of the camera as they discuss their work.
The programme is introduced by Huw Wheldon and after this formal beginning it moves into mixtures of art and music (Buddy Holly etc), the film itself very much in pop art style.
The only really good scene is a dream sequence where Pauline Boty is chased round corridors by a woman in a wheelchair. The dark glasses and hands pulling the wheels forward (compare Tommy) are genuinely menacing.

Restricted by black-and-white Russell handles the colour artworks well, but compared with for example Savage Messiah the subjects are just too boring to carry the film and end up looking very pretentious. Tony Hancock's The Rebel from 1961 covers the same material satirically (with Oliver Reed as one of the artists)The party sequence is copied later in Song of Summer and there is a scene playing pinballs (Tommy). Glimpses of the future: Pauline Boty looks out the window like Glenda Jackson at the end of The Music Lovers, and sings I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles as if she was in The Boyfriend.  All four go to a wrestling match which presages Women in Love.  The photography throughout is beautiful, black and white atmospheric imagery reflecting Russell's background as a photographer.
Camera is by Ken Higgins (Elgar, French Dressing), editor is Alan Tyrer (Elgar).  Derek Boshier would later appear in Dante's Inferno playing Millais, and Pauline Boty would appear in Bartok, more painters turned Russell actors.  In a revival of the film twenty years on, the three male artists discuss the film- Pauline died a few years after the making of Pop Goes the Easel.

* A response to Fisher from a site visitor named Adam Smith:
You mention the 1991 revival which was orchestrated to coincide with a big Pop retrospective exhibition. One result of all this was a modest Pauline Boty revival, granting her long-overdue recognition. Not a star yet perhaps, but certainly recognised in the Pop world. Peter Blake has always enjoyed a wider currency, and is certainly no has-been. Peter Phillip's work is better-known than you might think (the cover of The Cars' Heartbeat City album is typical of his highly distinctive and collectable work). Derek Boshier was refreshed thanks to a big 60s exhibition at the Barbican in 1993, but appears in all the textbooks. So I think you can afford to rate them all a little higher in your episode summary now."

Copyright Savage Messiah: A Ken Russell Site Iain Fisher

Here is a preview of Ken with Peter Blake!

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