Criterion Prediction #186: Mahler, by Alexander Miller
Director: Ken Russell
Cast: Robert Powell, Lee Montague, Georgina Hale, Miriam Karlin
Synopsis: A colorful interpretation of the life and work of Gustav Mahler, told through a series of interpretive flashbacks.
Critique: When it comes to creative license or dramatic liberties in realizing the life of someone famous, it’s kind of silly to expect that one can faithfully and accurately render the personal experiences of anyone in a feature narrative. So why bother? Which is probably the reason why I like the orgiastic expressionism of Ken Russell so damn much. Russell furnishes stories about artists such as Mahler, Pyotr Tchaikovsky, Franz Liszt, Henri Gaudier and Sophie Brzeska with numerous flights of explosive, surreal bravura.
I don’t think Tchaikovsky fetishized the death of his wife and brother via beheading by canon in The Music Lovers. Nor do I think that Mahler was haunted by dancing Nazi pallbearers or dominatrix incarnations of Cosima Wagner who proceed to disrobe the famed composer by throwing knives at him while he’s propped on a giant cross before fighting a fire-breathing, cave-dwelling monster in Nazi-clad armor, all taking place in a film within a film that represents his adoption of Christianity over his Jewish heritage. But, oh my goodness, it’s infinitely more interesting than the saccharine dullness we see time and again with modern biopics. We get still movies about fascinating people that are insufferably fucking boring; The Theory of Everything, Bohemian Rhapsody, Ray, etc. The writers and directors take liberties but only in the interest of shoving their these stories into cozy, structurally similar niches. Russell’s liberties consist of wildly conceived flourishes of orgiastic fantasy that transcend the time and space linking classical composers and sculptures with the same ribald indulgences analogous to contemporary celebrity-dom. As a director, he’s about as subtle as a wrecking ball but his gleeful stylistic sojourns have such rebellious sensationalism, it’s hard to ignore his relative brilliance.
Russell’s most well-known titles are The Devils, Altered States and Tommy but his creative chops are at their most unpredictably engaging when crafting “biographical” historical narratives. Mahler lands somewhere between the celebratory, Freudian excess of The Music Lovers and the aesthetic audacity of The Devils but it somehow retains a steady vision throughout.
Why It Belongs in the Collection: I kind of admire The Criterion Collection when they don’t go for obvious titles from well-known filmmakers. Clearly, some of this chalks up to some lesser known features are easier/cheaper to get the rights to than others. That’s why Lars Von Trier’s The Element of Crime is spine #80 and then you work your way to Breaking the Waves (#705) years later. So, ushering in Russell with Women in Love makes sense and a logical follow up would be Mahler. After all, it’s been noted with the Criterion logo, going all the way back to the Hulu days. Honestly, the arrival of Women in Love getting the Criterion treatment actually came as more of a surprise in that it beat Mahler.