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Ken Russell Retrospective is Long Overdue

The Film Society of Lincoln Center's Ken Russell retrospective, Russellmania, -- which ran from Jul. 30 - Aug. 5 -- was both long overdue and a missed opportunity. Savage Messiah, Lisztomania, and Mahler were all screened in faded prints and those were not the only disappointments of this series. Some of the good news, however, is that Russell has been present at every evening screening.

On Friday night, Russell confirmed that he is a devout Roman Catholic and took umbrage at the suggestion that his extraordinary The Devils is an unflattering portrait of the Church. He appeared onstage with Vanessa Redgrave who was a very moving presence and looked fabulous. The Devils, directed at the height of Russell's powers as a filmmaker, features amazing sets designed by Derek Jarman and bold, widescreen compositions shot by the incomparable David Watkin. (I am told that Jarman had designed the sets for a version of Gargantua and Pantagruel that Russell was set to direct and which was abruptly cancelled, one of many interesting Russell projects that were never produced.) The film was screened in the American release version in an original IB Technicolor print from the Harvard Film Archive but archive rules permit only one screening; subsequent screenings were from a DVD.

Harold Bloom described D.H. Lawrence's Women in Love as a candidate for the "inescapable" novel in the English language; Russell's adaptation is effectively cinematic. However, the film was screened in a disappointing print; photographed and printed in the DeLuxe color process, there was some color-fading, typical of the process.

Russell's subsequent The Music Lovers, however, represents a quantum-leap -- bravura filmmaking from the first shot to the last, also in widescreen, with mesmerizing long-takes and arresting, staccato editing. The film was screened in a beautiful 35-millimeter print although some of the original vividness of the color appears to have been lost in this printing.

The Boy Friend
, after Sandy Wilson's stage musical, and also shot by Watkin in widescreen, represents the peak of this retrospective along with The Music Lovers and The Devils. The film is an homage to the English music hall, to Busby Berkeley, and to Stanley Donen's Singin' in the Rain and features a charming performance by Twiggy and some wonderful dancing by Tommy Tune.

Tune, looking splendid, appeared with Russell at Sunday evening's screening and ascended the stage to perform a brief set of dance moves from the film. He also thanked Russell for changing his life and Russell replied in kind. The film was screened in the long version in a very good 35-millimeter print from a British source, marred by a burn mark -- unfortunately present for much of the film's duration -- toward the center of the screen.

Valentino, the latest film screened in this retrospective, is not one of Russell's more distinguished efforts -- indeed it was a great, lost opportunity. The strongest element here is Peter Suchitzky's beautifully lit photography, also in the DeLuxe color process, shown off in this print to excellent effect, despite some very slight color fading in some reels.

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