Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Ken Russell's wife, Lisi Russell on "Django Unchained"

(Ken Russell's wife Lisi, who grew up in the South, has been kind enough to give us her extended take on "Django Unchained" as a film historian and a white Southerner. Having worked with her husband on dozens of  film and literary projects she is also the keeper of his legacy. Here she also gives us an insight to how Ken Russell would have seen the film -including his influences found within -wrapped up in her superb writing style.)

"Django Unchained. Seriously loved it. Was surprised. The essence and details of Southern history were captured so well. When blood sprinkles the cotton in the fields, only an atavistic response is possible if you have history in the South.  By "atavistic"  I mean a trigger for primal coding which erupts in the presence of something so welded to blood responses going back 5 generations and more for Southerners. I become the slave, the cotton, the sharecropper, the plantation idiot that was traded and was trading in souls and bodies for the sake of that piece of fluff. 

My father's father picked cotton, though it was so shameful to him that he denied it as an adult, as there was no position so low in South Carolina as a picker of cotton and none so lucrative for someone else other than the picker. Back-breaking work. My father became a civil rights journalist - no surprise there. He used to say often when I was 5, "If I were a black man, I'd be blood-curdlingly angry." My father was anyway, just as a witness. The Klu Klux Klan burned a cross in our yard when I was 9. Cotton, tobacco and paper are what made the South the harborer of insane exploits, stubborn self-righteousness, self-hypnosis and repeated denials dating to the Civil War. It's genetic,  the response of a Southerner to the sight of King Cotton - it hurts out loud. No matter what side you were on in the 1800's - and who knows what our past lives were then-something still throbs in the blood when confronted with a cotton field. The millions of lies that formed the foundation to prop up a society which to this day can still be overheard saying in some parts, "But they liked being slaves." All that blood and nonsense for the sake of a bud and I don't mean Rosebud. Even the sight of a field of cotton is an insult to a black or sensitive Southerner. Damn, that shot of the cotton plants with the blood spilled on them...made me crazy with the power of the image.

Yes, the Verdi and Tosca were very Ken Russell.  As were the head-bagged KKK-ers. The big tooth on springs bouncing on the wagon-top was very Ken too, as (this shocked me) especially was the story of Siegfried and the dragon and Brunehilda - how many times did Ken tell the story of showing that rented silent film at 14 (during the 1930s) in his parents' garage (to his own invented soundtrack of Arthur Bliss). Oh, I love that music in Django.  I didn't know Will Smith was first tagged for the role. I am so happy Jamie Foxx did it. He was so triumphant. He could play every nuance.

The hick whose English is totally indecipherable is a still-current archetype. Those men with their killer dog-posse are my personal boogeymen. The stupidity of evil. The music choices are heart-stoppingly sublime. The Southern belle is criminally accurate. The variety of responses to slavery is the kind of intimate glimpse into character Tarantino gave us in Inglorious Basterds. Imaginative, detailed, grown-up and riveting. The splurting-blood card is for me overplayed, and seems adolescent more than realistic, but the violence was apt for the subject matter and Jamie Foxx was truly magnificent and his character subtly layered. Loved the underlying, recurrent homage to Sergio Leone with the costumes, the poise on horseback and the absolutely perfect, inimitable music by Ennio Morricone. (Although the blue "valet" costume was more a Ken Russell movie.) A masterpiece, in all.

I agree there were homages to Blazing Saddles too. Anyone who has heard Ray Hicks tell his folk stories will recognise that indecipherable "Elizabethan English" language dating to slave-trading Tennessee and South Carolina on the way to Tarantino's "Candyland." (Brilliant name for a plantation; and DiCaprio was superb.)  The hand cut was so brilliant. And the rubbing his bloody hand on her face was so aptly horrific. It was also Tarantino's best acting yet. Easily Tarantino's most impressive movie. Incredibly deep and rich. He should be honoured for this. It's true filmmaking. I respected the Colour Purple, but the clean, spacious and airy perfection of  Spielberg's sharecropper houses irritated me.

 How great was it to see Dennis Christopher from Breaking Away again. Tarantino is great at rescuing actors. Bless him! Samuel L. Jackson had the hardest role. When that sound erupted from him regarding DiCaprio (trying not to spoiler alert), that was a one-note master class in Stockholm Syndrome. You could feel their vampiric co-attachment being sliced and diced all the way to your bones. A better vocal performance than Laurence Olivier howling as Oedipus! 

I didn't even notice Django was a comedy. That's how warped I am by my overly conflicted love/hate for the South - the heavy-duty programming and grooming (hate) and the literature and movements that sprang up in response (love). An image of rice would evoke nostalgia, (all Southerners eat rice and worship their ancestors, like the Chinese), but it's cotton that makes me react viscerally. Cotton makes me crazy! Why? I don't know. It's a behavioural pattern based on the memories of my ancestors and conversations with descendants of slaves. I have always wondered why Britain seems unaffected by their own slaving history - I've never even heard it mentioned. Is it that Southerners are romantic, land-bound and volatile by nature? They lost the war and are still ashamed? Unwilling to have been wrong? Or am I alone in caring in an emotionally unconscious way that says more about my childhood than about fact? The memories are inherited, if such a thing is possible. . . the behaviour in present time is a hair-trigger response to an image of slavery. Too many family stories, too many logbooks and bibles, too many dreams registering the whole bloody mess. 

It was the land which made a Southerner mad with possession - that verdant, fertile landscape with its heavy-blossomed and perfumed flowers. Hence the term "land-poor" so popular in the South. That means all the money is tied up in owning land and there is no cash. But the way you relate to the land is on your knees with your hands in the soil - for North Carolina, the red clay, for South Carolina, the black loam. They call Carolinians Tar Heels - because our feet drag through rivers and get natural tar on our heels, not because of the melting asphalt in the summer which also creates tar heels on bare feet. It's all about the land - and soil - and the perfumed drug of fertility - and the hound dogs - and the way the silver is laid out - just like Tarantino showed in Django. It's still like that in many ways. Even I had a "mammy" - with my dad the hero of integration. I broke a habit of expecting 15 pieces of dinnerware at table - I have those same salt cellars as Candyland did! Nothing changes in the South. The land always wins. And the people remember, without logic, whom and what they sold to hang on to the land."

Saturday, February 09, 2013

Farewell to Michael Winner, the Underrated Genius of British Cinema 30 October 1935 – 21 January 2013

(I've been behind on finishing my review of Pete Townshend's "Who I Am" whilst caught up in raging  "Django Unchained" euphoria -seeing it for the third time tomorrow-but I am remiss in not honouring this great man's passing two weeks ago so here we go.)

If Ken Russell is the British Fellini then Michael Winner is the DeSica of 60s and early 70s England. Both men proudly referenced Fellini in their work but it was Winner that stayed closer to the non-surreal and everyday comedy of errors and romance when Ken went on to out -Fellini Fellini with "The Boyfriend", "Dance of The Seven Veils" , "Mahler" and "The Devils". Both men used a family of actors, actresses and crew (Russell for his entire fifty plus year career). Both men were also flamboyant food and wine loving raconteurs making them "honorary Italians" in my book (and as an Italian myself I should know!)

                  (Oliver Reed forever blowing bubbles in "The System aka The Girl Getters" 1964)

Upon leaving for Hollywood to make action films like "Death Wish" and "Won Ton Ton The Dog Who Saved Hollywood",  Mr. Winner left behind a body of work as boldly artistic as any of the great British directors easily making him the most underrated one of the lot. The irony that Oliver Reed did his finest work with both Mr.Winner and Ken is not lost on me. Both men were able to stand up to "His Reedness", showcase his erotic beauty and place him perfectly within the physical scope of the photogenic landscapes that all three loved so much; England. Like a virtual lock of hair, my direct tweets from Mr. Winner about his films are something I will always treasure.

("We're like Laurel and Hardy but more abusive" John Cleese on his best friend Michael Winner)

Both "The System" (1964) and  "I'll Never Forget Whatisname" (1967)  are the two films I watched the night Michael Winner bid us farewell. The following day I watched "Hannibal Brooks" (1969) which is his transitional film to Hollywood as an action director. While Ken made the men (in Raquel Welch's words)  "turn around" and let their penises swing for all to see, it was Winner who for the first time in modern cinema made a man cry in anguish when he used for sex and dumped in "The System". He was also the first to imply a woman receiving oral sex (INFW) and enjoying it immensely; a land mark moment for the sexual revolution and the MPPA. Both The System and INFW are monuments to the sexual and cultural mores which were breaking down and rebuilding at the time yet Roger Vadim's "And God Created Woman" gets all the credit.  With later controversial films like "The Nightcomers" (1971) Winner is thee unsung hero of pushing sexual boundaries in mainstream major studio backed films. That alone is worthy of it's own separate post.

 INFW is by far and away the most intelligent film about the swinging 60s and also the most dazzling. "Smashing Time" is more colourful (just barely), "Magic Christian" more hedonistic for certain. Lindsay Anderson's "...If" more socially concious and "Performance" more artistic (again just barely) but INFW is by far and away the most honest film about swinging London. Standing as a veritable time capsule of the era. Shoot that one into space to explain London in the 60s and you'll be covered. Many great montage sequences of post war 60's Britain including some postcard shots of Cambridge complete with Emily Choir style "oooo woooo" background singers and an astonishing "advert" that Ollie's ego maniacal character Quint creates to give the middle finger to the advertising establishment at a swank London awards show. The advert is still shocking today in ANY context proves to be a smash however. The fetching Carol White (rest in peace) is brilliant as the secretary who squanders her self worth on Quint while Orson Welles plays Jonathan Lute, Quint's conniving and lovingly sardonic boss. Look for Winner perennials Harry Andrews, Frank Finlay and Norman Rodway and countless iconic Swinging London locations (Robert Fraser's Gallery, Biba, The Troubadour, Battersea power station, Soho, Mayfair etc)

 Winner and Reed's first major film The System (aka The Girl Getters) may be my most favourite of the lot because to watch it is to go back in time to the seaside era of post war Britain which is an era that  I hear so much about. Torquay is proper seaside as well over two hours drive from London and on the far southwest coast. Great film shot in black and white with beautiful glittering shots of the beach, delightful music and Oliver Reed at his freshest playing the very handsome young local photographer (Tinker) who's on the pull for townie girls, land ladies and even tourist girls on holiday. Jane Merrow is also divine as the shapely upper class model who's father owns an estate in town and who wants to remain wholly unattached while enjoying her sexuality. I kept wanting to be both characters: the local photog with loads of friends and the beautiful buxom teenage model with her entire life ahead of her. Surely this could be remade?

Hannibal Brooks with the fantastic Michael J Pollard (who still looks great today) and Lucy the Elephant is Winner's last cinematography love letter to Europe before eventually becoming an ex pat Hollywood director. Making mainstream Hollywood films like "The Mechanic",  "Death Wish" and "The Sentinel" (watch out for Beverly D'Angelo going 'solo' in a leotard) and his notorious remake of  "The Big Sleep" saw flair and usually ticket sales but nothing as heartfelt as these early masterpieces. I give him full credit for making money and taking care of himself though. (The amount of unfair shit thrown at Michael Winner for being successful is simply shameful.) "Hannibal Brooks" delights though it is a nail biter for an large mammal defender like myself. It is a transitional film in the sense that it features many intense action sequences and distressing situations (even for a standard war film) not seen in Winner's earlier London/UK centric work yet the love of lush scenery (this time Europe) is still apparent. Stunning cinematography-especially of the Alps and the authentic Germany and Swiss peoples. It was on the set of "Hannibal Brooks" that Ollie, loyal to Winner's judgement, was visited by Ken and offered "The Debussy film". Not wanting to "step down to television" Winner convinced him to work with Ken and the rest is history.
                          You got a friend. Lucy and Oliver Reed on the set of Hannibal Brooks.

"The Jokers" (1967) , a delightful film, can't be left out of Winner's early oeuvre nor can Francis Lai's unparalleled scores for HB and INFW. "The Jokers" stars Michael Crawford as an upper class Army reject and Ollie as his brother who hatch a plot to steal the Crown Jewels. Sadly the film has ver had any kind of release, even if I'm not mistaken, VHS and  is only available on You Tube but it is well worth a watch. Opening music is fab, sitar flavoured dramatic booming brass. More "Swinging London" - the film makers great use of London locations rivals INFW. Included is a short sequence of Jezebel, a 1916 Dennis N-Type fire engine (still owned and run by the Royal College of Science Union at Imperial College London), the Tower of London (but of course) and loads of great shots of the West End. While Johnny Pearson is The Joker's soundtrack composer /God Francis Lai scored both INFW and Hannibal Brooks with some of the most poignant sounds ever.

I can go on and on and undoubtedly will create some kind of longer and more elaborate tribute to Mr. Winner one day but for now I'd like to ask all off you out there to see one of these earlier films and celebrate the man, the country of England and his genius.

Robert Michael Winner 1935-2013  Rest in peace.

God, filled with mercy, dwelling in the heavens' heights, bring proper rest beneath the wings of your Shechinah, amid the ranks of the holy and the pure, illuminating like the brilliance of the skies the souls of our beloved and our blameless who went to their eternal place of rest. May You who are the source of mercy shelter them beneath Your wings eternally, and bind their souls among the living, that they may rest in peace. And let us say: Amen -Kaddish Jewish prayer

For the love of Ken Russell

The above picture of Ken Russell calls to mind The TEMPTATIONS OF DR. ANTONIO (LE TENTAZIONI DEL DOTTOR ANTONIO) from Boccacio 70 by Fellini who once told Ken, "They call me the Italian Ken Russell!" 

The film can be viewed in screen caps on the indispensable American Buddha website.