A Musicological Study of Ken Russell’s Composer Films – Part 2 (Monitor and Bartok).

Part 1.

BBC Monitor and the Use of Audio-Visual Form as Musicological Comment.

The medium that Russell first gained traction in was not in fact film but in television documentaries.  The flop of his first feature film, French Dressing (1964), marks the advent of his daring creativity entering into his work as television director; a role he had begun at the BBC for their documentary series, Monitor, in the late 1950s.  Before this cinematic debut, Russell had been a purveyor of idiosyncratically stylish but formal (in the context of his later work) documentaries on the artists and creators largely of the early 20th century.  People such as Henri Rousseau, Peter Blake and James Lloyd would all find themselves subject to Russell’s direction though in very different ways.

For this section, several of these shorter works will be analysed in order to show the early manifestations of the Russell prism.  Though the director would later go on to create composer related work that could be considered so radical as to be offensive, these films are in their way still subtly auteuristic.  In these early films, the freedom given to the director is quite astonishing and he is allowed relative creative control (with the obvious limitations enforced by television censorship at the time).  Because of the shorter form and guarantee of budget, they are more concise and considered than his later works, lacking the excess that would later find Russell being criticised.

In 1961 he would make his first composer biopic, Portrait of a Soviet Composer for the Monitor series; a series that would provide him with almost yearly opportunities to make one feature quality film before he would later move on to Omnibus.  This biopic, in spite of the strange casting of the same actor to play both Rimsky-Korsakov and Prokofiev (Boris Ranevsky), is one of a small number of films for television that are formally normal.  Its form is denoted by the general style of the series format, with visual interpretations of composers’ life largely solidified by a voice over.  This same style would be used to portray the life of Edward Elgar in Elgar (1962); a stylistically similar exercise with a classicist leaning towards the history of the composer and the underlying tragedy in his music.

It was not until 1964’s Bartok and 1965’s The Debussy Film that Russell would begin to use form to delve deeper into musicological questions and reception of these composers.  These two films lay the thematic groundwork for the angles of the Russell prism, defining two different aspects that would be vital in the aesthetic realisation of Russell’s later composer films.  The Russell prism, though still forming as an autueristic drive and in confidence, first displays its burgeoning sense of distortion of history in these films, using form as a means to seek more interesting psychological, artistic and musical aspects of more modern Classical work.

The Visualisation of Music in Bartok (1964).

At a first glance when viewing Russell’s early composer films, Bartok doesn’t stand out quite so energetically as the later composer films.  In fact, there’s a strong resemblance to Elgar in its structure and emphasis on voice-over retelling as the basis of the filmic structure.  Because of its documentary format, the disembodied voice is of very little psychological consequence quite simply because it is a clear genre norm that the viewer effectively signs up to when watching (especially when the words are written by the defining figureheads of the traditional BBC documentary movement, Hew Wheldon and Melvyn Bragg).

Yet Bartok stands out for a number of stylistic reasons that give rise to comment upon the composer’s work as well the personal inflection that his music portrays over his own paranoia.  Unlike in Elgar, Russell does little to actually portray the visual life of the composer himself but instead focuses into his music for visual interpretations of his compositions, his ballet music and his opera.  He not only does this in a haphazard fashion but transposes all of the period detail to either a modern day London or to New York in the 1950s where Bartok himself is shown to be almost paralysed by his own thoughts.

Bartok is again linear in its following of the composer’s history though only relates earlier occurrences through voice-over.  Instead, Bartok functions as a strange amalgamation of musical visualisation and the composer’s own thoughts and ideas.  Whenever Bartok is shown, he is in his apartment in New York, trapped and isolated by his fear of the bustling world outside; the very bustling world that inspired his more Modernist based pieces.  These visuals of Bartok idly daydreaming away allow for a logical segway into the past and the visualised musical pieces.

Interestingly, in spite of this sense of logical progression, there is very little logical about it.  They are very obviously filmed away from the supposed location of where Bartok is and they instead come across as the earliest of Russell’s interpretation and reception of classical music.  One of the best examples of this is in the realisation of the first seduction movement from Bartok’s ballet, The Miraculous Mandarin.  The ballet has themes that, with hindsight of Russell’s future work as a whole, are key to the director’s oeuvre so it’s not surprising how effective his brief interpretation of it is.

Russell frames the scene in a modern London drawing his own personal interests in with the narrative and music of the ballet, suggesting that Bartok was thematically ahead of his time, simply by relating the story.  The music has few interruptions and each piece throughout the film is given more time than usual (in general audio-visual culture of this era).  The same is applied for Bartok’s opera, Bluebeard’s Castle with the building now instead being housed in a modernist London skyscraper with the seven doors being opened through electronic buttons on the wall.

Other moments reflect separate themes that Russell clearly wishes to address and bring out of the music.  For the first time in his composer films, he uses archive footage to address the obvious imbalance in showing the modern (1960s) world as opposed to Bartok’s natural period.  In this case, he shows archive footage of Hungary, played alongside traditional Hungarian folk music in order to highlight this essential element to Bartok’s work.  The form in this case may perhaps be one designated more for budgetary reasons than anything else but it is a decision which allows a questioning of Bartok’s musical heritage which feels more authentic than any other historical display in his composer films.  Added to this is further archive footage, tying in more natural elements to Bartok’s thematic tendencies, especially in regards to his Night Music themes.  Insect and bird calls in particular are used (in a similar vein to what he would later hint at in Mahler) but it is in Russell’s final juxtaposition, for perhaps Bartok’s most famous piece of music, that this relationship is most interesting.

Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta has a varied history in the role of cinematic score.  Once refracted through the Russell prism, it does not lend itself simply to the horror roles it would later find itself linked with (The Shining for example) but instead is recontextualised as a comment on the paranoia over public appearances of Bartok himself as a performer.  Though the voice-over does indeed also suggest this logic, the form that Russell uses to present this section is the most obvious moment where it actually provides comment on the music and the composer.  Throughout the film, moments of Bartok staring blankly into space in a small flat have often faded into the dreams and representations of his music.  Here, the moment does not cut away but shows the composer as an increasingly isolated figure by the aspects of day-today life.  Bartok does end on a more positive note (one that reflects the more positive creative turns of Bartok’s later life) but this is the moment truly where the Russell prism first allows the visual form to provide comment on the music itself by director.

Part 3.

Adam Scovell

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