Thursday, March 17, 2016

Mahler (1974)

          Some Ken Russell movies are consistently restrained and most of them are consistently crazy, but Mahler falls somewhere in the middle. About half the film uses straightforward dramatic scenes to explore the life of famed composer Gustav Mahler, who lived from 1860 to 1911 and contributed significantly to the classical-music canon. Bits and pieces are tweaked for comic effect, but most of these segments occupy the known universe. And then there’s the other half of Mahler—the one with the anachronistic Nazi imagery, the outrageous ethnic stereotypes, and the shock-value sex and violence. Based on the totality of Russell’s career, one suspects that’s the part of Mahler that spoke most deeply to the filmmaker’s soul. Even though he’d gone for the cinematic jugular many times before, once the mid-’70s arrived, he seemed almost pathologically incapable of resisting puerile narrative impulses.
          The trajectory of Mahler’s conventional storyline is fairly interesting, depicting how the young composer drifted away from the anti-intellectual influence of his family by embracing lessons about the beauty of nature. As the film progresses, Mahler (played as an adult by Robert Powell) faces such familiar rigors as balancing creative endeavors with paying gigs. He also endures humiliation from those who regard him as a second-rate successor to Richard Wagner. Most troublingly, Mahler navigates a complicated marriage to Alma (Georgina Hale), whom he unwisely takes for granted even though he knows she has an extramarital suitor. Eventually, the problems of Mahler’s life coalesce in the crucial moment when he converts from Judaism for Christianity in order to secure a lucrative job.
          This material should have been sufficient, but Russell gilds the lily—and then paints the thing bright, whorish red—with ridiculous dream/fantasy sequences. In the most epic of these, which is staged like a comedic silent film complete with title cards, Mahler wears an exaggerated Jewish-intellectual costume while facing Cosima Wagner (Antonia Ellis), the powerful and deeply anti-Semitic widow of Richard Wagner. Wearing a Nazi-dominatix costume, she whips Mahler, makes him jump through flaming hoops, forces him to eat the flesh off a pig’s head, and stands atop a mountain like a Teutonic demigoddess, a gigantic sword towering behind her. Need it be said that this silly film-within-a-film is such an excessive directorial indulgence that it nearly derails the whole movie?
          At least the film-within-a-film is amusing, just like the goofy visual reference that Russell makes to the Italian art film Death in Venice (1971), which featured an all-Mahler soundtrack. Incredibly, Powell retains his dignity throughout most of this film, delivering a credible performance as a diva who learns humility. Furthermore, Hale is spirited as Alma, and it’s hard to find fault with the soundtrack, which almost exclusively comprises selections from Mahler’s magnificent oeuvre.

Mahler: FUNKY

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