Tuesday, January 10, 2006

On better understanding the dances in Women In Love

How to talk about Women In Love...? As some of you might know, I have been amassing quite a bit of knowledge/viewing time in and about the films of Ken Russell. Most rational people loath Russell's work, finding him overly self-indulgent, lewd, crass and dishonest to the classical figures he most frequently represents. I see where their claims are borne from, yet I find there to be a vast element of experimentation in Russell's films that these reviewers are missing out on. More will be said on this topic, as I plan to write yet another leaflet to sell at Skylight books on the subject (which I also plan to publish in sections here, but thanks to anyone who went out and bought my previous offering up).

Today, it's Women in Love. The film is a rather deceptive one on many levels. It is like no other film out there, yet it masquerades like all the rest. MGM has packaged it like any old period piece, and to an extent it is, but it is also pure example of Russell's directorial styles. Russell first made films for the BBC. Short narrative works about the lives of (normally) composers. One film made a few years before Women In Love perhaps best explains some of the extravagances of the film. Isadora Duncan: The Biggest Dancer in the World was a breakthrough film for Russell at the BBC. And Duncan found her way into Women, specifically the character of Gurdrun. The film uses dance to parlay emotion. Arguably the most fantastic (in every sense of the word) sequences of the film are the two (perhaps three) dance numbers (the perhaps being a more Jack Smith like rhumba to Tchaikovsky decked out in silver makeup and shimmery headresses that would later be echoed by Amanda Donahoe in The Lair of the White Worm).

On a visit to socialite Hermoine's "country cottage," sisters Ursula (Jennie Linden) and Gurdrun (Glenda Jackson, who won the Oscar for best actress for the role) dance a Russian widow ballet which exposes the pretense and lascivious nature of Hermoine who merely wishes to entice Rupert Birkin (Alan Bates, also playing, many argue, D.H. Lawrence himself). Her gratuitous flamboyance and ritualistic mating churns repulse all involved (including the viewer) and alienate her from the other guests as a creature of decadence and excess. Russell removes us from the period film that he has hitherto established and creates a trance-like atmosphere: one more indicative to the climate of the late sixties. In moments such as this, one cannot disassociate Russell with (at least the heritage of) Jack Smith. Released in 1965, Smith's Flaming Creatures celebrated the fantastically Camp performances of Maria Montez Universal's "Cobra Woman." Creatures, famously shot on outdated films stock to produce immediate nostalgia and displace the scene to the world of dreams - also separating the viewer from a rational world.) Birkin suggest the piano player switch to "I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles" a ragtime tune of the 1920's. This action reinstates the traditional narrative flow of the film. Hermoine is, however, exposed in this lapse of narrative convention. We shall never see her the same way again.

perhaps the more famous moment comes a third of the way into the film as the sisters take a private picnic on an island during a large party hosted by Gerald Crich (who later becomes Grudrun's love(?) interest). Gurdrun again takes to a rather over the top dance as Ursula sings , again, "I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles." The audio track of her voice shifts, and a dreamlike sequence begins. It is perhaps only punctuated by the clumsiness of Gurdun's movements. As she returns to Ursula to discover that they are not alone on the island. A herd of horned oxen hone in on the women. Gurdrun, unphased, tells her sister "keep singing." Again, the logic of traditional film here breaks, and the sequence becomes a dance of persuasive sexuality. Gurdrun's continues, approaching the herd in a state of sheer ecstasy. The oxen regard her and are slowly driven away by her gestures. Russell depicts this sequence with primarily hand held camera that echoes Gurdrun's choreography. The light that splashes over Russell's lens and the transfixion that Jackson's performance demands of us induce a similar sort of spell that the sequence labors under. But here, like with most experimental works, you must be willing to allow this to occur. For most people approaching Women In Love carry the novel as pretext. They do not allow Russell to shape their state of perception. It is quite possible that Russell suffers the curse of context. Whereas the lavish production makes Russell's films the absolute spectacle that they are, perhaps it is only with the same approach one takes to more Avant Garde film works to truly understand Russell's intent and mastery.


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