Doing Too Much July 30, 2020
On Ken Russell's The Boy Friend, Lisztomania, and Gothic
Margret, clad in white in a room also furnished, from floor to ceiling, in white, being shot at with baked beans for reasons unknown. The beans are shot at her at such a high velocity that eventually they drench both her and the entirety of the room. (To the unacquainted, I say, no, really!)
Russell’s unyielding determination to visually shock — but in an intentionally silly, Bosch-esque way — was, and continues to be, pretty unparalleled. His antics were especially shocking in a Britain that, when he got his start, was being consistently lauded for its no-frills kitchen-sink dramas. One might think, then, that Russell’s unabashed love for spectacle would suit a movie like The Boy Friend
well. The third of three movies he put out in 1971, the 137-minute-long film is a luxuriant homage to the classic-Hollywood musical, a genre celebrated in part for its visual superfluities. The Boy Friend seems most influenced by the works of Busby Berkeley. Most popular in the 1930s and '40s, the director-choreographer is venerated for his
kaleidoscopically schemed musical sequences.
There are plenty of kaleidoscopic images to chew on in The Boy Friend. My favorite involves some performers essentially turning into a living, breathing deck of cards. But the movie, which is overlong and chiefly takes place on a theater stage (with some escapes into fantasy), is more tiresome than it is infectiously goofy like Russell’s finest movies. In spiritually similar pictures like Tommy and even that same year’s Lisztomania, you can tell that as the berserk images come at us with increasing frequency, Russell is practically dizzy trying to outdo himself. You know he’s having a blast even when we might not be.
With The Boy Friend, a feeling of fatigue settles in toward the middle of the film. It doesn't quite go away. It's like Russell is laboring, like he isn't having very much fun, like he and his troupe are so exhausted from entertaining us that the only viable outcome for the feature is for everyone to drop dead. Will this be They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1969) the musical? (So often does the camera rest statically on characters as they bounce around, jumping through the hoops of Russell’s stunning, ambitious visual designs.)
One could argue (and one has argued, and celebrated the reality that maybe) this is part of the point. The film is set in England in the 1920s. For most of its runtime we are watching a struggling stage ensemble led by Twiggy put on a show. Each cast member actively schmoozes the whole time because they want to impress a Hollywood producer (Max Adrian) who is apparently in the audience. (This theater is so empty that I’m not sure it could fill up the Squeeze-In.) We’re meant to be worn out by the end of the feature because its overworked cabal is, too.
During the Hollywood musical's golden era, accentuated were the smiles and romanticized was the good vibe. When Fred Astaire and Berkeley favorite Ginger Rogers danced together, they seemed so effortless, so enamored of entertaining us, that they could temporarily convince us that they lived almost solely to please their audience. We could hear about Rogers getting bloody feet in real life behind the scenes, but the second we'd switch on, say, The Gay Divorcée (1934), we could momentarily forget the madness behind the beauty and get lost in that beauty.
The problem with The Boy Friend is its joylessness — which some critics, like me, think dampens it, but which others have contended lends itself well to what seems to be Russell’s satirizing of the wasteful pomp of the Hollywood musical. I think that for its petering out to work as a canny reflection of its ensemble’s exhaustion, and of the tiresome extravagances of the genre it’s apparently lampooning, there must be some point during which we can forget the behind-the-camera effort, then start to notice the exterior disintegration.
But it's never not apparent that Russell is going through the motions. His other movies were distinct in their lovable anarchy; they seemed to be the work of a mad painter with a two-hour time limit trying to get as many crazy pictures completed as possible within the time frame. He seemed to be enjoying it — as though he was shouting through the film strip (while grinning, of course), “Now that you’ve seen , get ready for !” It should be the same for The Boy Friend, but it never entirely is. Watching the film is like wandering through a gallery where the artist is walking around and meeting people, discussing his process. But rather than enthusiastically talk about what he’s produced, how he’s produced it, he mutters to his audience bleary-eyed, enervated.
The Boy Friend is competently made. The musical sequences and accompanying songs by Sandy Wilson (who wrote the 1953 play the movie is based on) can occasionally transcend. Per usual for a Russell film, even if the images aren’t presented with gusto, they at the minimum give the eyeball a lot to ponder, and we can say with honesty that we’ve never seen anything quite like this before. But we’re never thrilled by The Boy Friend’s muchness. It reminds us why the movie musical is usually at its best when it’s primarily frothy and lightweight, with only moments of towering spectacle. It seems to forget that the musicals-unnecessarily-doing-too-much it seems to resent aren’t very well-liked to begin with. Because The Boy Friend is almost always in the throes of towering spectacle, it finally leaves us cold. There is no single provocative image to which we get attached.
the screen as often as characters say “fuck” in a Quentin Tarantino movie, as often as Jay Gatsby calls pals “old sport” in The Great Gatsby (1925). Yet even with their sensory overloads, Russell’s movies tend to be remembered for one provocative image in particular. In 1969’s Women in Love, bullish, hairy actors Oliver Reed and Alan Bates aggressively wrestle Japanese-style — i.e., in the nude — in front of a roaring fire in a mansion’s living room. In 1971’s polarizing The Devils, viewers often think of a hunchbacked nun, played by Vanessa Redgrave, masturbating with a femur bone at the end of the movie. I’m not sure there is anyone who has watched 1975’s Tommy, a dramatization of The Who’s 1969 rock opera album of the same name, and not first thought of, at the mere mentioning of the movie’s title, the tableau featuring Ann-
he hyperactive British director Ken Russell loves a provocative image. He loves provocative images so much that in each one of his projects, they take over
From 1971's The Boy Friend.
efore there was Beatlemania, there was Lisztomania. When he performed in the 1840s, in his 30s, the Hungarian pianist and composer Franz Liszt beckoned a lot of fervor out of his female fans when he played.
(He was resplendent with a thick head of shoulder-length hair, a dramatically jutted nose, and an athletic figure.) A typical straight female audience member's reaction, according to legend, might be best compared to something seen in a more contemporary setting, like an overheated Van Halen stadium show circa 1984, than anything that was going on at the time. "We hear about women throwing their clothes onto the stage and taking his cigar butts and placing them in their cleavages," the concert pianist and Liszt superfan Stephen Hough said on All Things Considered in 2011. When you read about Liszt, he comes across to us as someone with less in common with his peers and more with what we think of when we think of the archetypal rock star. With his evocative, legendarily blustery performance style and his stormy-sounding love affairs, was he the 19th century's equivalent of Mick Jagger?
In Russell’s Lisztomania (1975), the idea of Liszt-as-rock-star is literalized. He’s played by The Who frontman Roger Daltrey, who in character has an inclination for silky suits and puffy bathrobes with piano-strip patterns. Russell’s Liszt just looks atemporal — like a rock god from 1975 who has been transported to the mid-1840s. The narrative of the movie is totally scattered, like pages of an unfinished manuscript flying in the wind grabbed one at a time and then individually brought to the screen. It jumps to and from various minimally historically accurate episodes with pinballish abandon. Liszt is an art object here. By setting him at the center of myriad cartoonish subplots that don’t altogether cohere, the movie can accurately be compared to a TV show like, say, the NBC Saturday-morning cartoon I Am the Greatest: The Adventures of Muhammad Ali (1976), in which a lionized public figure became a mutable concept driving a playful conceit.
I don’t think the movie particularly works, especially in comparison to Russell’s Tommy, which also starred Daltrey and was released the same year. Tommy’s music was so strong, and its smorgasbord of arcade-busy images fused to both the music and thin storyline with such ease, that it worked well as something on which the senses could feast even if it was a little hard to digest. Lisztomania is certainly fun to look at. I won’t soon forget the sight of Daltrey visiting a Russian princess (Sarah Kestleman) dressed in poofy Orientalist drag flanked by shiny and gold phallic statues. I won't soon forget Daltrey getting seduced by a parade of women who inspire a 10-foot erection (!) and then proceed to cut off his suddenly 10-feet-long dick with a guillotine. I won't soon forget Daltrey battling a Hitler/Richard Wagner clone (!!) wearing a leopard-print suit on top of a spinning piano in a snowstorm (!!!). And I won't soon forget the shot of Liszt’s adoring female fans sitting in balcony seats during one of his concerts and their bonnets are so eye-poppingly multi-colored that together they make what looks like a screaming and smiling pride flag.
These items together are a simulacra of Russell’s visual offerings. Excitingly high-concept as they are, though, his eagerly ribald images don’t have much to grab on to. And because there isn’t much of a storyline, there can’t even be a spell to fall under. The film simply wants to be loony. One hundred three minutes isn’t long for a feature, but in this case, it is too long. Lisztomania is a sugar rush of a movie. It's initially stimulating, but, because the substance of the sustenance driving the rush isn't sustainable, it's eventually sickening. The real Liszt retired from performing in 1847 at the height of his powers. At 36, he knew when acceptable muchness gave way for too-muchness.
ord Byron, the flamboyant, multi-hyphenate English peer, spent most of the summer of 1816 with writer Mary Shelley, her stepsister Claire Clairmont, Mary’s philosopher husband Percy, and Byron's personal
physician John William Polidori at his manor in Geneva, Switzerland. The stay was supposed to be sun-dappled and relaxing. But unexpectedly, it was clobbered with violent rainstorms. The quintet was often confined to the bowels of Byron’s house for days on end. (It was later concluded that the gloom was abnormal: Byron and co. were experiencing a volcanic winter brought on by the April, 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora; 1816 is known colloquially as “the year without summer.”) To amuse themselves, the fivesome would often sit by the fire and take turns reading from Fantasmagoriana, a French collection of German ghost tales. Soon, the pastime gave way for productivity: Byron challenged his guests to write their own scary story, and they accepted.
A competition ensued. Though writer’s block was rampant initially — Mary recounted several days spent trying to come up with a concept and failing — the works borne out of Byron’s dare came to be legendary. Byron didn’t come up with anything lasting. Neither did Percy nor Clairmont. But Mary, notably, would complete some of what is now known as Frankenstein, which was published as a novel in 1818. Polidori came up with The Vampyre, which is widely considered the first work of the romantic vampire literature later perfected by Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla (1872) and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897).
Ken Russell’s Gothic (1986) rejiggers what happened that summer; he's made a characteristically loco and teasingly ahistorical dark comedy with lots of gaudy imagery. Mary, Clairmont, Percy, Byron, and Polidori are portrayed by Natasha Richardson, Myriam Cyr, Julian Sands, Gabriel Byrne, and Timothy Spall, respectively. I’m not sure how these people were really tempered based on my cursory research. But, as portrayed in the movie by these actors, Mary is even-handed if a bit nervous, Clairmont sprightly and sometimes devious, Percy increasingly impulsive (at one point he frolics nude atop a rooftop as rain assails him), Byron sexy and devilish, and Polidori hopelessly, sometimes merrily self-destructive. As shown in the film, he seems to have a bit of a masochistic edge: In one scene, Polidori repeatedly slams his hand into a nail on the wall, beaming the whole time.
Byrne and Cyr suit Russell’s morbid vision particularly well. The former has the dangerousness-cum-seductiveness of a vampire count. He speaks with such pageantry that you half-expect most sentences to end with a mad cackle. And Cyr, who has a mountain of curly dark hair and baby cheeks, visually brings to mind a spunky fairy-tale heroine. But when she’s at her most mischievous, Cyr is like one of Dracula’s brides freshly sprayed with holy water and pelted with garlic cloves, primed to let out a glass-shattering scream and scurry down a hallway and into the shadows.
What is true in Gothic? Featured are some of the legendary ghost-story readings. But in the movie, which has been macabrely written by Stephen Volk, this truth is overshadowed by one of the film’s creations. Really, Volk alternately says, it was a séance that most instilled creatively stimulating fears in the characters. After conducting the ritual around a skull, which results in a seizure for (and dubious demonic possession of) the film’s Clairmont, the fictional versions of these figures are soon bombarded with visions of their greatest fears. Ensuing tableaux may not seem that insane in comparison to others devised by Russell in his lifetime. Still, there are some unforgettable ones. In one scene, Cyr’s nipples are replaced by a pair of shifty eyeballs. In another, Richardson, sleeping dramatically on a messily sheeted bed, is unconsciously visited by a little brown imp who stands on her belly and grins at nothing. Of course, Russell cannot resist using this drop-by as an excuse to compose a perfect cinematic recreation of Henry Fuseli’s The Nightmare (1781). (The image, perhaps the film’s most indelible, was used on most of Gothic’s merch at the time.)
As is typical for the majority of Russell’s movies, the images seen in Gothic — a succession of hopped-up memento mori-style visuals — are more engaging than both the narrative and its sense of character. Neither, in Gothic, give us much insight into these people. Any time you're walking into any Russell film that has any sort of basis in real life, though, it's unreasonable to expect anything more than a newfound impressionistic idea of someone. This is a sensually nightmarish horror movie. Like the works produced that eventful summer by Mary Shelley and John William Polidori, you can’t compare Gothic to much. You can’t compare any of Russell’s projects, successful or otherwise, to really anything either.
The Boy Friend: C+