Tuesday, 21 August 2007

If you want to make films like Stanley Kubrick and Lindsay Anderson all you need to do is do what they did — study the rare early films by Ken Russell

In July, 2007, to honour the eightieth birthday of Ken Russell, the National Film Theatre in London unearthed thirty-seven films Ken Russell had made for television. Twenty-nine of them were made between 1958 and 1966. Many of the films were quite unknown, screened once on late-night television forty and more years ago. Almost all were shot on 35mm.

The discoveries from watching these films were many and profound, especially to those of us who thought we had a good working knowledge of the Great British Film Canon.

To test your knowledge of the best of made-in-Britain cinema, I’m going to describe scenes from five films made in England in the 1960s. Can you name the film and the filmmaker?

1. A young man who has decorated his rooms with collages, pictures torn from magazines, that serve as a visual metaphor for his thoughts and feelings, takes pot shots with an imitation hand-gun, and mimes a violent game with a cool, almost mute, un-named girl.

2. A portrait of a uniquely British community, full of strange rituals, climaxes with a pompous leader giving a condescending speech from the stage. An emergency happens and the audience starts to flee, but the speaker, lost in a sense of their own self-importance, continues with their oratory.

3. In daylight, a man strikes something with a bone. The scene changes to darkness and we see a machine of the future which speaks with the voice of a man. The machine breaks down and sings a song which was popular in the 1920s.

4. The villain of this film is a wheelchair riding German, dressed all in black, including black gloves and black glasses.

5. A dashing young Swinging Sixties photographer zooms around London in a flashy car as he moves between on-location photo-journalism and fashion-shoots in his own apartment. Clue — the photographer is played by a David H.

If you answered Lindsay Anderson’s if.... for the first two; Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 and Dr Strangelove for the third and fourth; and the late great Antonioni’s Blow Up for the fifth, you’d be surprised to learn they were all scenes in films made by Ken Russell. The first and fourth are from Ken Russell’s Pop Goes The Easel (1961); the second scene is in Russell’s The Miner’s Picnic (1960); the bone-to-the-future leap was first done in Ken Russell’s The Preservation Man (1962), although when watching the film you have to read the scene literally and think like Kubrick to spot the connection, but the connection, or the spark, is undoubtedly there. In Russell’s Preservation Man, the song sung by the machine is not about Daisy Daisy and her bicycle made for two but the fantasy piece ‘I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles (which, for a time, served as Russell’s signature tune. He used it throughout Women in Love). The bone being wielded in Russell’s film is being used bang out a tune on a bicycle. The tune is ‘Show Me The Way To Go Home’, which all of you know is the theme and the subtext of Stanley Kubrick’s great film. The hip photographer in the fifth description was not David Hemmings in Blow Up but David Hurn in Russell’s stunning 1964 film, Watch The Birdie.

Unearth buried treasure and the Canon of Truth changes.

What the BFI’s Ken Russell season effectively did was unearth the syllabus for The Secret Lindsay Anderson and Stanley Kubrick Film School. Ken Russell’s were the films on which they found their themes and built their style.

When I edited Lindsay Anderson’s Diaries for publication, I remember being surprised to read in his own hand that he had been impressed by a something he’d seen on television. It was his habit to denigrate the work of his contemporaries. In his diary he wrote: “Saw Pop Goes The Easel again last night. Awfully impressive.”

The scenes I’ve outlined from Russell’s impressive film — a portrait of four pop artists which not only sets the artists and their art in their environment but which, in several astonishing dream sequences takes us into the artist’s minds — the collage metaphors, the imitation gun, the mime with The Girl, the speech from the stage — were not in David Sherwin’s original if.... script. They’re Anderson additions, added in after he watched, and re-watched, Ken Russell’s films.

Lindsay was never quite confident about his own abilities as a filmmaker, or rather as a visual filmmaker. The theme of this failing he turns to again and again in his diaries particularly when he is documenting the day-to-day creation in 1972 of ‘O Lucky Man!’. If.... had been a joy to make because his working relationship with his director of photography, Miroslav Ondricek, had been strong. Anderson had brought Ondricek over to England from Communist-controlled Czechoslovakia, because Ondricek’s work for Milos Forman (Konkurs, Black Peter, The Fireman’s Ball) had the right mix of the realistic and the poetic (a feature of all of Russell’s early televsion work) that Anderson was seeking. Ondricek’s artistry covered for what Anderson thought were his own failings. O Lucky Man! was a less harmonious shoot because, in the interim, in the words of Roy Baird, if....’s associate producer, Ondricek had become ‘grand’. If.... had taken Ondricek to Hollywood, and what on if.... had been a keenness for cheap Arriflex cameras and an eagerness for creative improvisation, had become an insistance on expensive Panavision equipment and an attitude that said to the director ‘I know what is best.’ Lindsay was hurt partly because he knew in his heart of hearts that Miroslav Ondricek did in fact know what was best. But a director can’t play second-fiddle to his D.P. so he didn’t hire Ondricek for his next film, In Celebration (1974). Instead Lindsay Anderson went back to his secret film school and ‘poached’ his mentor’s cameraman. Ken Russell’s films had all the visual flair he felt his own were lacking. The trouble was, after persuading Russell’s regular D.P., Dick Bush, to leave the set of Tommy to work for him instead, he was crestfallen when, on day one of In Celebration, it became clear to him that the man responsible for the great visuals on Ken Russell’s films was not Russell’s D.P. but Ken Russell himself.

Which takes me nicely on to Stanley Kubrick, whose own DPs have stated that Stanley was almost entirely responsible for the visuals on his own films.

Do you remember the trailer for Kubrick’s The Shining, the music by Bartok and the camera in close-up on the bald head and wide open eyes of a late middle-aged man who has the power of visions? Ken Russell’s 1964 film of Bartok is built around that very same image, a poetic film constructed around the fantastical visions of a bald headed man with strange staring eyes. Kubrick even uses the same piece of music by Bartok. The glorious leap in style between the films Kubrick made in America and the films he made in Britain is so great it goes beyond the bounds of ordinary artistic development. How did he make such a leap from the primitive style of The Killing to the glory that is 2001? Was he abducted by a higher intelligence? In a sense, he was.

These are the hallmarks of the mature Stanley Kubrick film style:

1. Long sequences playing silently except for classical music on the soundtrack.

This technique came to full fruition with the waltzing spaceships in 2001. The technique was pioneered by Ken Russell for The Debussy Film (1965), which only really comes to life when Russell turns down the talky soundtrack and lets whole sequences of five minutes or more play as an accompaniment to the music on the soundtrack. The final scene of The Debussy Film is set to music from Debussy’s opera, The Fall of the House of Usher. In it, Debussy, played by Oliver Reed, is brooding in a lonely mansion which is being closed up. Each subtle change in his body language is echoed in the music on the soundtrack. There are achingly beautiful compositions as the stark light changes in a huge room where a woman is closing the shutters over ranks of floor-to-ceiling windows. It’s everything The Shining and Barry Lyndon should have been. Do you remember the spectacularly wonderful scene in 2001 of an actor running round a circular corridor that seems never ending? Running round an unending circular corridor was first seen in Russell’s Pop Goes The Easel, in the very same sequence that inspired Dr. Strangelove, though the actor in Russell’s run is running for her life, trapped inside her own nightmare. In the Russell film, the run round a curling corridor is a pulse-racing chase shaped by jolting jumpcuts. There’s an orchestral shot in one Russell’s BBC films of the inside of an inflight war-plane as the huge bomb doors open.

2. Sequences cut to ‘quick’ music with the quick cuts coming on each pulse beat of the score.

Kubrick did this brilliantly in A Clockwork Orange, speeding up the image and the soundtrack for comedic effect for a sex scene cut to The William Tell Overture, and in sequences cut to Pop Art images to create, for example, the famous scene of The Dancing Christs. Creating musical collages out of Pop Art images was, of course, done by Ken Russell in 1961’s Pop Goes The Easel. And the year before that landmark film, Ken Russell made what I’m sure is the best ten-minute film ever made in Great Britain, a musical collage called London Moods — a celebration of life, and a critique of brutalist modernism, which includes repeating Pop Art images dancing along to a jazzy musical score that moves from the great bells of St. Paul’s to astonishing bridges-and-buses compositions filmed from the waterway of The Thames.

3. Scenes starting with a close-up on a detail and the camera pulling back to set the detail in context within the wider picture.

This has long been a staple of good film making but Stanley Kubrick uses it so often in Barry Lyndon, starting and ending scene after scene with it, that it the sets the film’s mood, pace and rhythm. Many of Russell’s BBC films employ the technique, often when using still photographs, such as in his 22-minute 1960 film Journey into a Lost World. But it is the shot which concludes Russell’s 1959 miniature, Variations on a Mechanical Theme that seems to have the most effect on Kubrick. Russell’s shot is so graceful and grand — the camera pulling back from a detail on a seaside pier — that it almost certainly inspired the fourth hallmark of the Stanley Kubrick film style:

4.The long tracking shot away from the subject and along a parallel line.

This is the shot with which Kubrick opens A Clockwork Orange and uses to set scene after scene in The Shining.

Russell’s influence on Stanley Kubrick continued, of course, when Ken Russell moved into making feature films. After seeing what many believe is Russell’s masterpiece, The Devils (1971), a film which has still never been screened in anything like its original form in America, Stanley Kubrick tried to do-an-Anderson and hire away members of Russell’s main crew. David Watkin, The Devils’s Director of Photography, and Derek Jarman, Russell’s production designer, were both approached by Kubrick but both stayed loyal to Russell, to photograph The Boyfriend (1971) and to design Savage Messiah (1972) respectively. When Stanley Kubrick was preparing to make Barry Lyndon, he phoned Ken to ask about the locations he had used for The Music Lovers. Russell told him and was pleased to note that Stanley used every one of them.

It is to Ken Russell’s great credit that his pioneering 35mm BBC films were made on budgets that would blush the cheeks of Poverty Row producers. £300 for the first of them, a ten-minute film with John Betjeman — an on-location film essay on architectural space and the human condition — rising to £13,500 for the almost feature-length film about Isadora Duncan (1966), the film which made Vivian Pickles into a star. Her astonishingly rich performance as a pioneering artist who refuses to be crushed drew prolonged and spontaneous applause at the film’s 2007 London screenings. With their greater budgets, longer shooting schedules and more intellectual approach to filmmaking, Anderson, Antonioni and Kubrick took cinema in Britain to new heights. But because of the good work done by archivists mining the seams at the British Film Institute, we now know the name of the giant on whose shoulders they stood.

(c) Paul Sutton, 2007

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