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_November 2006 _

The Cinema of Tony Palmer on DVD


If we exclude the glitzy Hollywood composer biopics of the thirties, the tragic dramas about musicians and band leaders of the fifties and sixties, and Ken Russell's feature and short-form works about classical and contemporary composers, then writer/director/editor Tony Palmer stands out as one of the few filmmakers to have regularly dramatized the specific events and lives of major composers.

His best-known work is still Wagner: a nine-hour monster from 1983 that featured Richard Burton is his final major role, and was for some an unending bore (which it really wasn't, once you survived the hasty, clumsy first third).

Wagner sought to capture the composer's adult life, and Palmer's 1988 drama, Testimony, dealt with Dimitri Shostakovich's uneasy relationship with Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. In that film, the central focus was on the musical conference where a former military career man was designated as a kind of cultural whip of the country's musical artists, and pretty much ordered everyone, particularly Shostakovich, to 'write for the people' or else become a non-person with no work, no public music performances, and be forced to live a disparagingly quiet, forgotten life.

Both epics are available from Kultur on DVD, and in this column we'll take a look at these two works which remain notable efforts to bring the lives composers, with all the dramatic highlights, onto the small and big screen.

Wagner was originally produced for TV as a miniseries during an era when BIG was the popular way to draw audiences over several straight days, if not weeks, from movie screens to their humble TV sets. In a strange reversal of the famous fifties trend, in which film studios went for broke by launching epic motion pictures in CinemaScope and all those 'vision and 'rama processes to combat all that free programming on the idiot box, the major networks realized ratings and audience shares would rise if epic miniseries made the seasonal rounds. With Roots (1977), Shogun (1980), Masada (1981), and The Thorn Birds (1983) setting the ratings and quality benchmarks on the American side, European cousins went for the international co-production, yielding long-form historical dramas like Marco Polo (1982).

So, to regard Wagner, a British-Hungarian co-production, as a monstrous creature is a bit unfair; Palmer's epic was designed in a serial format for the small screen, as was the Italian-British co-production of Moses the Lawgiver (1974), and Franco Zeffrelli's Jesus of Nazareth (1977). And if you really want to cite a behemoth, think Centennial (1978), which ran just over 20 hours.

What's interesting about Moses is how the producers insured their investment by cutting the miniseries down to separate movies for British and American theatrical markets, each running just over two hours. It's a practice usually seen by American networks, and was employed for a theatrical edit of both Masada and Shogun; Wagner, therefore, wasn't such an anomaly in being broadcast on TV in Europe and released theatrically, albeit on a limited scale, in North America, although its release history is a bit funny.

According to a period article in Toronto's The Globe and Mail by Salem Alaton, Wagner was given its full-length North American premiere in Toronto, in a two-part screening by the Canadian Opera Company from noon until 11:30 p.m., with a two-hour dinner break. The film had apparently been screened rather discreetly in a two-hour version (a ridiculous idea that should have stayed stillborn) in the U.S. and Canada, but a five-hour version also did the rounds at the Venice Film Festival in 1983, and the longer version was also given a brief theatrical run in the Britain.

Years later, PBS aired the film on TV in four parts, and it was later released on VHS in a four or five tape set, depending on extant comments on the internet. It wasn't until 2005 when the complete series was released on DVD by Kultur Video. The entire nine-part run is bookended with the original main and end credits, which have been snipped from the central episodes to avoid repetition. (The credits were very long, and while most of the edits in the Kultur set are clean, some transitions are abrupt, indicating the credits and opening music sometimes bled into the first moments of an episode.)

Kultur's four-disc set seems to contain the original full screen broadcast masters, which are adequate, but do show small dropouts - something with which connoisseurs of Vittorio Storaro's sumptuous cinematography will take issue. The renowned Storaro - who would later photograph the grand  miniseries Alexander the Great (1986) - was clearly comfortable shooting in the standard 1.33:1 ratio for TV, and his compositions and several artful camera movements flatter the myriad international locales used by the production to convey authenticity. Scenes in the Swiss mountains are just as magnificent, along with a boat sequence that has Wagner and a mistress rowing in front of a massive waterfall.

The series also benefits from lengthy excerpts of Wagner's music, but herein resides the first of many flaws that make Palmer's miniseries a tough production to endure, unless one has a strong familiarity with the composer. Like Testimony, Palmer structures the film like a series of musical movements that intertwine and collide through montages by Palmer himself, and one gets the sense that he loved Richard Wagner so dearly that any judicious trimming was too sinful to the legend of a man labeled a musical genius.

If seen over several weeks, the serial production might have been more agreeable, but as one epic saga, the montages and motifs are overused, particularly a dwarf blacksmith smacking a sword, or a fog-enshrouded, mechanized swan.

Palmer's logic was to use those sequences as musical motifs which expand into longer passages as we progress deeper into Wagner's life; so the lone dwarf ultimately presages the mass of dwarves Wagner used in his triumphant opera for the debut of the new concert house in Bayreuth, and the swan foreshadows the intricate relationship between the perpetually bankrupt composer and his lead benefactor, swan-King Ludwig II of Austria. Yet like the score, Palmer prefers to structure his mostly chronological narrative (broken up a few times by a series of incomprehensible 'nightmare' episodes of a sweaty and beleaguered Wagner) with circular motions: motifs reappear and emphasize mood, character torment, or, to some degree, pad the narrative to nine episodes.

Thematically, Palmer's approach makes sense, as Wagner's crazy and colourful life involved running between Russia, Paris, Germany, and Italy from creditors, searching for creditors, and being an arrogant prima donna who demanded, and got, significant sums of money, so he could live cozily and work on any one of his epic 'musical dramas.'

Palmer and his skilled screenwriter, Charles Wood, show Wagner's ability to work such a crazy system and curry wealthy, upper class snots because they were the remaining vestiges of a financial support network for artists once dominated by kings now losing their mighty insular power. Wagner is therefore perceived as a man who knew that clicking with any one provincial king (like Ludwig II) would guarantee some financial support, should the German nation remain an aggregate of bickering principalities, or slowly congeal into a new nation, as it eventually did.

Musically, Palmer felt the same cyclical approach would work with the handful of recordings used for the series; it couldn't have been a limited musical budget, as opera stars and amazing locations were already covered by the production. So why does he beat the same themes over our heads?

The "Prelude, Act 3" from Tristan und Isolde is gorgeous, but is maniacally repeated even within singular episodes to signal the composer's torment: from debtors, from living in exile after participating in the Dresden protests, and of his relationship with his first wife, Minna (who eventually disappears from the narrative, once Cosima makes her silent-but-chilling entrance with hubby and longtime Wagner interpreter/conductor/acolyte, Hans von Bulow).

The 53 min. soundtrack album - released internationally by London Records - actually features the bulk of the instrumental underscore, and it's mostly those cuts from Tristan, Das Rheingold, Parsifal, Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg, and Gotterdammerung that are largely over-used in the film.

(For his 1972 biopic Ludwig, Luchino Visconti's broadened the film's musical palette by using material by Wagner, Robert Schumann, and Jacques Offenbach. Also of note were two versions of "Piano Work," a final composition dedicated by Wagner to wife Cosima; an orchestra and separate piano version appear on the original Ludwig soundtrack album.)

Had Palmer engaged a composer or ace orchestrator to adapt the themes, the overall underscore would've been dramatically functional, but he may have found himself in a catch-22 by realizing no reinterpretation would satisfy ardent Wagnerites; his final usage of classic themes isn't as painful as Ken Burns' brutal overuse of the "Ashoken Farewell" song in his otherwise brilliant Civil War miniseries, but when those opening strains of the Tristan "Prelude" sear into a scene yet again, the temptation to throttle starts to bubble upwards.

Palmer's use of music plus a multi-thematic narrative are more refined in Testimony - one gets meaty chunks of symphonies, and some exquisite violin and piano solos that expand upon the composer's torment under Stalin - but as in Wagner, Palmer seems to have felt dates - spoken, captioned, or via intertitles - would've codified and divided the narrative into episodes. For the novice or passing admirer, the events in Wagner's life have no precise time stamp (making Burton's age jarring, until the composer's later years, where he physically and temperamentally fits him perfectly), and in Testimony, only the brutal congress sequence and the years up to Stalin's death are satisfying; the material before and after are largely impressionistic and cold, saved only by the power of Shostakovich's music.

That leaves Ben Kingsley's performance tempered by a mere handful of good scenes, whereas the epic length of Wagner gave Burton and screenwriter Wood far more opportunities to really explore the nature of an artist's beast. The politics in Testimony are at their most terrifying in a singular meeting between Stalin and the once-blacklisted composers (which included Prokofiev and Khachaturian) before Shostakovich is to be awarded a top prize after a period of political contrition, although the scriptwriting by David Rudkin and Palmer never again regains that chilling level of subtext, and sparse but effective dialogue.

In Wagner, once the back-stabbing in Bavaria begins between the loopy, besotted Ludwig II and his bickering ministers over money and Wagner's demands for an opera house built from scratch, Wagner suddenly becomes a compelling drama that gives its actors tasty meat to chew and relish:

Cosima (Vanessa Redgrave) eventually transform from muse to a real woman (albeit of less complexity than the long-suffering but admirably bull-headed Minna); Burton's theatrical waves shape Wagner into a dynamo of energy, spouting mouthfuls of acidic witticisms and political diatribes that reveal the composer as a clever, self-serving perfectionist who knew when to bow, shut up, and whisper favorable words to ensure Ludwig's sponsorship would guarantee the completion of Tristan und Isolde, and firm up his legacy as a contemporary composer whose passionate works would survive future generations of fickle critics; and Wagner is that notable work which brought the three Sirs - Laurence Olivier, Ralph Richardson, and John Gielgud - together for the first time on film, and created some memorable exchanges between three snotty ministers.

Perhaps the major problem of Testimony is that, by scaling down the focus to an event and specific repercussions, one has Shostakovich being miserable and getting older for the rest of the film - and that's just not very compelling for another 40-odd minutes left in the running time.

Just as maddening are the finales in which both Wagner and Testimony go on like a Terence Malick narrative; writer/director Malick can't structure an agreeable denouement, and forces us to settle for multiple false 'poetic' endings, as in his meandering Thin Red Line.

Palmer's approach in Wagner is to drop Franz Liszt (Cosima's pop) back into the narrative after a long absence, and have the two aging composers reflect on their lives, while multiple strands of music, memories, former loves, and Wagner's final moments are intercut between their conversations (along with the dwarf and the swan, yet again). Wagner's final affair with a young woman similarly appears without much buildup (though there's an inference with eye exchanges between him and the girl in an earlier scene) and no sooner have we connected the dots than he drops dead in Cosima's initially argumentative arms.

In Testimony, the end is prolonged by memory flashes, an overuse of a facial close-up of Shostakovich's wife (who also disappears from the narrative early into the film), and a flipped dream sequence where Stalin appears at Shostakovich's bedside as the composer lies dying, after the composer is seen helping and propping up the dying dictator in an earlier sequence.

Both films do offer a mix of virtues:

Testimony has one great dramatic center, some bravura Steadycam sequences, effective newsreel-styled black and white cinematography, and a greater diversity of music to offset a weak script, clumsy montages, and surprisingly banal performances from supporting players (except Ronald Pickup, who also played Nietzsche in Wagner).

The repetitive use of music and montages in Wagner are tempered by a fine cast, exquisite use of palatial locations, and many fascinating nuances that make Richard Wagner, as a nineteenth century pop star, quite contemporary. (A scene involving bellowing groupies while Wagner tries to have a good dinner is absolutely brilliant.)

Just as witty (albeit, quite vicious), is a scene in which Wagner sits in a parlor with his marginalized Minna, mistress Mathilde Wesendonck and her cuckolded hubbie Otto, and the von Bulows, with Klaus playing the piano, and Wagner's possessive hand grasping Cosima. It's a marvelous scene that encapsulates the gleeful lecher in Wagner, as he appropriates a new mistress while his former loves can only sit and watch with sadness, and civil disgust, and listen to the serenade performed by the next cuckold.

Palmer and screenwriter Wood also show Wagner's anti-Semitism through angry rages against the few creditors willing to support his art, and his disgust with Germany's new King when Jews were given full national status as 'native' Germans - raising his ire and hatred even further. Portents of Nazi horrors echo from these verbal missives, but the screenwriters set up a finger-waving session through Nietzsche, who speaks his mind before bidding adieu to Wagner and Cosima after a long but troubled friendship.

Palmer also pushes the envelope by adding a daring love scene between Wagner and Mathilde Wesendonck (svelte body doubles doing a lot of full frontal action in amber, soft-focus movements), and he adds a strange tenor to Cosima's birthing scene: son Siegfried's imminent arrival plays like the birth of a barbed Damien, and it's among the strangest birthing scenes put on film.

Kultur's four-disc set of Wagner is a good stop-gap until a better transfer (with needed chapter stops for each episode) is attempted by another party. It's rather surprising no effort was made to craft a making-of featurette, or give Palmer the chance to speak about his unfairly maligned production, nor provide some production sketches on the making of this massive work.

Other Palmer films deserving a proper DVD include Death in Venice (1981), Puccini (1984), and England, My England (1995), on Henry Purcell and co-written by Charles Wood.

Before concluding, a few recent DVD releases should also be cited for their film music content. An older title brought back into circulation is All Day's expanded DVD release of Ganja and Hess (1983), which features an overly appreciative commentary with the director, co-star, cinematographer, and the film's composer, Sam Waymon, bubbling about a seminal work by independent black filmmakers that's either a lost masterpiece, or an indulgent, narrative mess to some.

Also of note are two releases from Twentieth Century-Fox: Deadfall, which features John Barry's score isolated in mono, plus a meaty composer featurette; and the two-disc anniversary edition of The King and I (1956), with an isolated score in stereo, and plenty of featurettes on the music, and score.

Subversive Cinema's five-disc monster set of Richard Stanley's Dust Devil includes a CD of  Simon Boswell's score, offering twelve really eclectic themes (31:33); Discotek's two-disc set of the insane Electric Dragon 80000V also comes with a CD, with 17 loud, abrasive, and beautifully hypnotic cacophonous tracks (47:31) by composer Hiroyuki Onogawa; and the documentary Hubble: 15 Years of Discovery comes with a bonus CD featuring Axel Kornmesser and Markus Löffler 's score in SPV's two-disc set.


Mark R. Hasan (2006)

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