Thursday, December 5, 2013

Lisztomania (1975): Psychadelic Fantasia as Biography

Lisztomania (1975)
dir: Ken Russell

Ken Russell is, quite possibly, the most unhinged director of the '70s and '80s. To say that Lisztomania is, quite possibly, his most unhinged movie...well, that says a lot. His career has included the pop rock psychedelia of The Who's Tommy, Kathleen Turner playing a flute with her pussy in Crimes of Desire, Gothic's drug trip with Mary Shelley and Lord Byron, a Hollywood actress with vampiric breast implants in Trapped Ashes, and William Hurt turning into a proto-human consciousness by taking drugs in a sleep tank in Altered States. Yet, Lisztomania, a bio-musical about composer Franz Liszt, contains more elements of insanity that slam against each other to make a hysterical metaphorical fantasia based in a litany of interpreted facts.

With Lisztomania, Ken Russell is asking "How does one adapt the jam-packed life of a musical pop star?" While I said Liszt was a composer, he was also a widely-adored composer whose performances could be interpreted as the foundlings of pop concerts. To go with that life, Franz Liszt had two wives, a residency in Rome, and a friendship with Richard Wagner, on top of being an astounding womanizing composer who influenced or hobnobbed with almost every major composer of the time.

Russell's answer was to make a movie that is as soaked in showmanship and fantasy as Liszt's pop concerts, where women were afflicted with "Lisztomania," which was the predecessor to Beatlemania. It was reported that women would swoon, collect broken piano strings, and even create a locket to contain the leaves of a cigar he had smoked and thrown into a gutter. In the mentality of that insanity, and the need to inflict a fever on his audience, Russell made a surreal-as-fuck movie about Franz Liszt. And, this being Ken Russell, he goes a bit far, obscuring the facts with his flights of fancy to the point where you don't know what is truth, what is false, and what is allusion. Really, this is the only movie that I think almost requires a pop-up video trivia track to touch on all of the hints that Russell drops in Lisztomania.

He opens with a mirror covered metronome ticking away in a fantastic ornate room, and then Liszt making love to a woman by alternately kissing her breasts in time with the metronome. The woman adjusts the metronome to a faster pace, and Liszt speeds up. The woman moans, and paces it faster, and Liszt speeds up to a manic pace with ecstatic results...when a guy bursts into the room with an epee intent on killing the lusty Liszt. Liszt defends himself by climbing onto the chandelier, and we are barely 3 minutes into the movie. By the end of this single scene, we'll have Franz Liszt engaging in a dual, wrapped in a Tarzan-esque sheet-as-loincloth, with a bluegrass musical number detailing what is happening, and why. Finally, the husband abandons his wife, nails both of them into the body of a grand piano, sets the piano onto a train track with a train coming, and lets that that train explode the piano. And, we're about 6 minutes into the movie.

While this all seems like a hell of a lot of silliness, there is a lot of real life information to be parsed from this one scene. Liszt is said to have had perfect time, resulting from being forced to train as a pianist set to a metronome by his father. The woman he is making love to is the Countess Marie D'Agoult, and the man challenging him to a dual is her husband Count D'Agoult. Franz had been teaching the Countess how to play piano well before he became famous. The Count divorced the Countess, took away her money, and allowed Franz to marry her but basically forced them to live in destitution.

And, that's the way Lisztomania goes. It crams as much information as one can possibly cram into every scene while also making these factoids as obtuse, fantastical, and entertaining as possible. There is no direct information offered in Lisztomania. Instead, Russell gives an incredible fountain of information in a movie that is seemingly intent on making sure you don't know what is going on.

Franz Liszt is shown to have been a contemporary and good friend of Richard Wagner, who is running around in the second scene wearing a sailor suit with Nietzsche adorned on his cap. Of course, this is letting us know that Wagner was a disciple of Nietzsche, who later rejected Wagner when Wagner got too big for his britches. Wagner, later in the film, is shown as a literal vampire who leaches support from everybody, including and especially Franz Liszt who frequently wrote letters praising Wagner when Wagner was exiled. Even later, Wagner is shown stealing music from Liszt (it is still claimed that he totally trainspotted from Liszt for Parsifal), and also creating his anti-Semitic race of proto-Nazi supermen with his "Wagner societies."

Liszt, meanwhile, can't stand domestic life, ditches his wife and kids for a Russian Princess, whom he had tried marrying. In the end, he wasn't able to marry the princess because the princess couldn't get her marriage annulled. With this setback, Liszt goes to Rome to work in peace, but is interrupted by the Pope after he writes a piece dedicated to him. Wagner is sent out into the real world again to work up against Wagner Vampire, who was creating his supermonster of The Ring Cycle, which Russell likens to a Frankenstein Monster.

Add in that Wagner was forced to get the stink of Russian politics on him via a room of ceramic asses, has a musical number that includes him riding a 12-foot giant cock, his eldest daughter first marrying one contemporary then Wagner before he became a vampire, a visit from Ringo Star as the Pope, and you begin to get an idea of just how cracked of a lens Ken Russell is using. Also, his eldest daughter is pissed off at him for leaving her mother, and uses a voodoo doll with his likeness to inflict pain and a series of illnesses on him. This is symbolizing just how intent she was on hurting him, and how he caught a fatal case of Pneumonia at a festival that she had organized.

Lisztomania is a vastly entertaining movie. If you want to directly learn from Lisztomania about Franz Liszt, you'll learn absolutely nothing because everything is so steeped in metaphors and symbolism that you'll probably not get everything that Ken Russell ever was implying. It is a bit frustrating if you want to know what is going on and you're not willing to just go with it. It is intensely rewarding to watch this film accompanied by the internet trying to figure out what is going on at every single point.

Is Lisztomania successful?  Hell yes, and fuck no. Both. Neither. I don't know. You'll be transfixed. It's never boring. But, as a traditional movie, or even a traditional musical?  Well, it doesn't spoon feed you anything. At all. Ken Russell is relentless in this movie, far more than in any other film he's ever made. Lisztomania is a bombardment of dissonance, metaphors, musical numbers, biography, famous musicians, symbols, and historical figures. And, it works so beautifully...yet it doesn't work at all. I'm in complete love with it, but almost nobody will like this movie at all.

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