Saturday, November 08, 2008

Ken Russell Mahler - More then controversial - just going to far

Following my intereset in Gustaw Mahler, and his music, I ordered Ken Russell film about the Master. The film starts in a very interesting way - the entire action is set during a single train journey, as we can guess - a journey to home from the last of Maestro US trips. During the train journey with his wife Alma, Mahler goes through imaginative recollections of his life. The life, particularly the marriage with Alma, was not easy. First, he suppressed her musical talent, and initially, she gladly limited herself to loving housewife role. But over time, her disappointment grown into high level. We do not know if that was a reason of her fall into affair with Walter Gropius – but at least we can think it was... That affair, apparently well known to Mahler haunted him deeply over years.

However, I doubt that the way Ken Russell illustrates it, is justified. In one dream, Mahler is placed into a coffin with a window alive, and with absolute cynicism of his wife – is burned to ashes in crematorium. After the funeral his wife performs a perverse dance with Mahler head's marble statue...

This was quite obscene scene, I must say. We could find there a far reference to Strauss's Salome scenes with prophet's head - but it was filmed not in the way we could even try to accept as symbolic or artistic... And the facts of Alma “activity”, even after Mahler death, when she was really distorting his image – do not justify the imagery Ken Russell applied.

In the same way, the scenes of Mahler's dreams related to his conversion to Catholicism are going well too far. They suggest, that his conversion was a simple matter of business to become Vienna Court Opera director, what for a Jew was obviously difficult at that time. However, we are now sure, that Mahler's motives were much deeper and even if there was a tone of pragmatism in his decision - there was certainly no hostility to Judaism in it. The grotesque scenes in which he is hammering the Star of David into Germanic sword and play stupid games with Nazi-like perverse girl - are suggesting something that is just total falsification of Mahler's thinking, music and imagination. Even in so-called film-reality Mahler shows to Alma a rosary and calls it - "the key to opera" – it was just ridiculous. It's enough to recall that long after his conversion, he still suffered from anti-Semitism in Vienna and bore it with dignity...

The film could possibly be good, Ken Russell has a talent to underline some of Mahler's key attitudes to his music and to his life: in a dramatic scene of an argument with Alma over his "Songs on the Death of Childreen", he shouts out: "I do not choose what I compose - it chooses me".

However, I'm not very positive about the movie. I try to believe that it was not sheer stupidity or ignorance of Ken Russell, that made him to do the parts of the film in that way. I only hope, it was because in 1974, many artists pressingly tried to play the "avant-garde" to shock the audience by some “art for art's sake” - not by art for truth, for the deep meaning ....

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