Ken Russell Penelope Gilliatt - Essay

Penelope Gilliatt

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In these days, Russell bangs our noses against the conventional cinematic notion of genius as if it were a manic affliction that landed on someone because his wife was being ill-tempered and his mistress humbly believed in him. Russell has given us big-scale biographies of Tchaikovsky and Liszt, and now he fells us with his "Mahler." (p. 119)

Mahler's character doesn't seem to have been particularly melodramatic, but Russell's film asserts that it was…. The mind of the picture is dulled and Nietzschean. There is a long scene equating Wagner and Nazism through Cosima Wagner, and including a characteristically banal sequence in which Mahler abjures Judaism by eating pig's-head and drinking milk at the same time. He seems to regret his forsaken Judaism, but there is no historical documentation for this that I can find…. Some people may hold that Russell's devil-may-care technique has enough talent to override quibbles about the truth of historical facts. But there is no higher respect in biographical art … than respect for facts.

As Russell's film has it, Mahler's guilt about his cast-aside Judaism is extravagant…. Though there is much that is portentous in the film, there is absolutely nothing that is serious; and though there is much that is revved-up in the film, there is no insight into the tensity of Mahler's music, which perhaps owes less to Wagner than the sumptuousness of Russell's picture suggest.

So all we can know in our sane moments of which the lack in Ken Russell is enough to drive one up the wall—is what we knew before: that musical composition is entirely undramatic, not subject to glib psychoanalysis, both quite intolerable and uniquely rewarding, and, above all, extremely hard work, like a self-employed plumber's. Depictions of artists as dream-driven madmen do little service to the appreciation of Mahler's music…. All through this film, we have the feeling that we are not in Mahler's fantasies but in Russell's. (pp. 119-21)

Penelope Gilliatt, "Genius, Genia, Genium, Ho Hum," in The New Yorker (© 1976 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), Vol. LII, No. 10, April 26, 1976, pp. 119-21.