Watching Mahler again I’m convinced that Ken Russell was an avant-gardist who didn’t quite have the conviction to make the leap into pure experimentalism. Certainly, he could do commercial narrative works and do them well - witness Song of Summer, say, or Women in Love - but you fell that it is the films like Mahler where his heart truly lies. Indeed, his composer pictures, which he had begun on television before moving into cinema, are often the more idiosyncratic works, and thus the more personal. Plus, as anyone who has listened to either of his commentaries that accompany the DVD releases of his BBC films on Delius and Elgar will know, this is also an area of which he possesses a terrific knowledge.
Mahler is a concoction not unlike the MGM musical Ziegfeld Follies. That film had the ‘Great Ziegfeld’ conducting one final revue from heaven; Russell’s sees a feverish near-death Mahler recollecting his past whilst on a train journey. And whereas Ziegfeld Follies allowed for musical numbers by the likes of Fred Astaire and Judy Garland, Mahler’s reminiscences are rendered as tableaux set to his various symphonies. The problem Russell has with this approach is that is also has to involve employing actors and dialogue. Not that Robert Powell, in the lead role, or Georgina Hale, as Mahler’s wife, are poor actors or give poor performances (on the contrary), it’s just that the director struggles to fit them into the scheme of things. Their best moments come when they are being used as mere figurines, or when not emoting but simply symbolising.
Arguably the finest of Russell’s composer pics was his 1962 documentary Elgar. Documentary is the operative word here as the rules of Monitor (under whose auspices the piece was made) at the time governed that the actors couldn’t speak or particularly act as such. The result was that Russell’s visual imagination could make it on-screen unhindered, whilst the loose ties and narrative problems were held together by Huw Weldon’s voice-over commentary. However, once given a freer reign Russell didn’t simply abandon the narrative aspects (as he would have done had he been more avowedly experimental) but instead made them stricter and imposed on himself the standard traits of the biopic. The result in Mahler’s case is that the film doesn’t quite succeed as a grandiose visual feast but rather as a constricted one.
If Russell were a better writer then perhaps this wouldn’t be too much of a compromise, but sadly the bombast that lends itself so well visually proves arch and crude when applied to dialogue. Of course, the images do occasionally verge on the ridiculous - one sequence sees a shot of Hale removing a cow bell followed by a helicopter shot of the Alps followed by a picture of the Earth as seen from the moon! - and he is guilty of some of the seventies worst excesses (is there anyone who seriously bemoans the fact that film makers no longing use crash zooms anymore?), yet these are nothing compared to the embarrassment that parts of his screenplay elicit. (Even if he does find space for the occasional sly line, a choice offering being “Why is everyone so literal these days?”)
That Russell has opted not to go for all out experimentation means that Mahler either succeeds or fails on the balance it can achieve between Russell’s great moments and simply awful. Luckily, this is one of his better works and is more memorable for the former than the latter (unlike, say, Salome’s Last Dance which sticks in the mind for all the wrong reasons). Nevertheless, it remains an at times frustrating experience, even if it does have the added bonus - as do all of Russell’s composer films - of having an absolutely flawless soundtrack.
Given the lack of Russell films currently available on DVD it becomes only more frustrating when those that do see the light of day are given lacklustre treatment. In Mahler’s case this means a pan-and-scan transfer of a faded, dirty and scratchy print. The image isn’t as soft as it could have been, but this remains one of the few pluses in a desperately disappointing effort. It’s not the worst print I’ve ever seen and it does, at the very least, remain watchable, but there is no reason to replace an old VHS copy as the quality is pretty much equal. The soundtrack and extras are equally disappointing, the former suffering from drop-outs and the occasional crackle, whilst the latter amounts only to the original theatrical trailer.