Lisztomania (1975)

Lisztomania_1975_1One of my great regrets is that I don’t know more about classical music. I can pick out and identify the heavy hitters, but that’s most likely due to exposure via movies or Warner Brothers cartoons. Given that, I likely couldn’t, given a choice of five classical pieces, pick out which one was by Franz Liszt.

Still, here I am, watching Ken Russell’s biopic of the composer.

“Lisztomania” was apparently a very real thing, a term coined during Liszt’s glory days as a concert pianist; normally staid concert-goers were shocked by the screams of ecstasy and longing from Liszt’s young female admirers. (It has also been pointed out that a better translation of those contemporary writings is “Liszt Fever”, as “mania” held a much more serious meaning in the 19th century) Therefore, it seems fairly reasonable to cast Roger Daltrey, lead singer for The Who, as a very real classical music rock star.

Lisztomania-26110_2Lisztomania is concerned with the composer’s adult life, starting with his affair with the Countess Marie d’Agoult (Fiona Lewis), then into a concert where the audience is populated by screaming young girls (causing me to flash back to the final concert scenes of A Hard Day’s Night), then onward through his years of fruitful creativity under Princess Carolyn zu Sayn-Wittgenstein (Sara Kestelman), finally ending with his exorcism of the Nazi vampire Richard Wagner, using a flame-throwing piano made of steel and glass. Then Liszt returns from the afterlife in a pipe organ spaceship powered by the women he loved in life, to defeat Wagner, resurrected as a Frankenstein Monster/Adolf Hitler with an electric guitar that doubles as a machine gun.

What I’m saying is, some liberties may have been taken with Liszt’s biography.

liszt5Now, biopics almost always play fast and loose with the truth, because movies, you know? Anybody going into a biopic directed by Ken Russell expecting a documentary is, to put it politely, going to be blown out the back of the theater by the sheer force of the extravagant visuals that flow out of the screen like a water cannon. That is, if they haven’t had a heart attack at the first sight of bare boobies 30 seconds into the film. And remember: we are talking about Ken Russell right after Tommy.

The drying up of Liszt’s creative powers during his years of non-connubial bliss with Marie is presented as a silent Charlie Chaplin movie, accompanied by Liszt’s “Love Dream” (Liebestraum), with lyrics by Daltrey. That’s a conceit that shouldn’t work, but it’s brilliant. And if you hadn’t already figured out that this movie was going to have only the slightest flirtation with reality by that opening concert with its mylar curtain backdrop, this is at least a fairly gentle – for Russell – wake-up call.

lisztomaniae_thumbConsidering we’ll be soon entering into the segment where Liszt is seduced by Princess Carolyn, who will unlock his pent-up creative juices (heh) by forcing him to abandon his libertine ways and concentrate on composing. This is presented in a sequence involving Liszt growing a ten foot erection during a production number with the Princess’ chambermaids, who then feed the preposterous priapism through a guillotine manned by the Princess in her best Rocky Horror corset. This is entirely justified artistically (I am sure).

And did I mention Ringo Starr as the Pope?

And did I mention Ringo Starr as the Pope?

Russell is one of those directors I have come to appreciate late in life. In my early adult years, I knew him mainly for Altered States (for which my acidhead phase thanks him) and Crimes of Passion (for which… not so much). In subsequent years I’ve found Salome’s Last Dance, and thanks to the BFI and a region-free DVD player (and no thanks to Warner Brothers), The Devils. In my younger days, he was known as “Mr. Wretched Excess”, but I have really come to appreciate his audacity as well as his visual sense.

After nearly six decades on the planet (most of it spent watching movies), I’m more than grateful to find a filmmaker who not only makes me say “Oh what the fuck?” on a regular basis, but also makes sure that I have a smile on my face while doing it.

 Lisztomania on Amazon

Hercules, Samson, and Ulysses (1963)

hercules_samson_and_ulysses_poster_01This movie and I go back a ways. When it first played theaters – and yeah, 1963 sounds right, yeah, fifty years ago – I begged my mother to take me to see it. Those three names were something to conjure with, alright, and I was pretty certain that there would be carnage aplenty. You see, I was pretty certain the title meant there were three musclemen involved. My mother watched a lot of peplum on the afternoon movies (yes, local TV stations showed movies in the afternoon – and mornings! – instead of talk shows full of people shouting at each other. In some respects, it was a Golden Age), so I knew about Hercules and Maciste and some other guys, so three of them had to mean three times the action.

And I have to admit I remember absolutely nothing about the movie – well, I do remember one thing, it turns out – which made it a cinch that when Warner Archive put it out on disc, it was only a matter of time before I had a copy in my hands. Especially when Chad Plambeck started enthusing about it (Chad was also kind enough to inform me that this movie didn’t hit American shores until 1965, which means I saw it only 48 years ago. That put a spring back in my step, let me tell you).

Well, there is one other thing I sort of remembered, or at least the memory came rushing back as the movie started, like a fly ball popped into the stands at an unsuspecting observer: Ulysses is not, in fact, a muscleman with a misappropriated name. We are actually dealing with Odysseus (Ulysses being the Roman version of that name), while still a teenaged Prince of Ithaca, here hanging out with Hercules (Kirk Morris, in this version). Hercules throws a discus, and Ulysses shoots it with an arrow. We are assured that the targets in this primitive skeet shooting won’t be found for days, but big deal, the kid’s royalty. He can afford it.

A group of men come to Ulysses’ father, King Laertes, to complain about a sea monster killing fishermen. This, of course, is catnip to Hercules, who will head up an expedition to kill the dastardly beastie. Ulysses will tag along with a basket full of carrier pigeons, because that is what youthful sidekicks do.

Director Pietro Francisci – to whom we will return later – is annoyingly cagey with the sea monster. Seen only at night, and in tantilizingly brief clips, it seems to be a manatee or an otter with a piped-in roar. In any case, it cuts through the water well, but Hercules harpoons it at the beginning of a terrific storm. In return, the unseen monster pokes a huge hole in the boat’s hull. So Hercules, Ulysses and four other survivors wind up castaway in a strange land.

p_beach6After Herc punches a bull to death (“I wonder what sort of creature that was,” muses one guy over the ensuing barbecue, leading to the amusing thought that there are either no cows in Ithaca, or the man is an idiot) they wander inland (leaving the fire under the side of beef burning), to find that they are in the land of Judea, where fortunately everyone speaks Greek. Or English, anyway.

In this first village we find Samson (Richard Lloyd – actually Iloosh Koshabi), who is currently in hiding, because the King of the Philistines is looking for him, probably over that whole jawbone-of-an-ass thing. Samson suspects these barely-dressed men are spies. Hercules, on the other hand, is simply looking to hire a boat to get home, and is told his best bet for this is, you guessed it, the King of the Philistines. So Herc plucks some gems from his belt and uses them as collateral for the loan of some horses. On the way to Gaza, the party encounters a lion, so Hercules must wrassle it and strangle it – or so we’re told, the editing in this scene is suspiciously choppy. Their guide, seeing this, assumes that Hercules is actually Samson, and runs on ahead to tell the King.

Herc-vs-SamsonMeanwhile, a platoon of Philistine soldiers is searching the village for Samson, and finds the carcass of a strangled lion in a pile of furs. This is extremely weird and hilarious, until somebody later mentions this is at the house of the village tanner, which makes a little more sense, but jeez, it is definitely time for Samson, a confirmed serial lion strangler, to admit that he may have a problem. This puts the Philistine leader in a foul mood and he orders the entire village burned and everybody killed (except those he can sell as slaves). Okay, this is the sole image I remembered from my youthful viewing: people being nailed to the sides of their houses while the buildings burned. That left a scar.

The unfortunate prisoners are dragged along until, as is traditional, one passes out, and the leader orders her killed. It is at this point I finally got a good look at a Philistine soldier, and discovered that all their helmets were modified Nazi helmets. That may be putting too fine a point on your symbolism, but then, I am not Pietro Francisci.

As luck would have it, the woman passed out exactly where Samson had set up an ambush, and he proceeds to slaughter the entire regiment with a couple dozen javelins he brought along just for the occasion. Once Samson finds out what happened at the village, he is more convinced than ever that Hercules is a spy.

hercules_samson_ulysses_liana_orfeiMeantime, we get to meet Delilah (Liana Orfei), upgraded to the Queen of the Philistines, who is convinced that the King just needs to chill out about this whole Samson business. We will eventually find out that this is because she wants Samson for herself. Delilah has a muscleman fetish and apparently has collected all the muscleman bubblegum cards, because she instantly recognizes Hercules.

The King holds Ulysses and the other four men hostage while commanding Hercules to hunt down Samson and bring him back as a prisoner. Delilah goes along for the ride, and when her attempted seduction of Herc proves fruitless, she resorts to her prowess at scheming to lure Samson out.

It has to be admitted: Francisci puts his money into stuff the audience wants to see, because the initial fight between Hercules and Samson is a corker, in 1963 peplum terms. In a field of Babylonian ruins, they throw each other into walls and columns of huge styrofoam blocks, throw the blocks at each other, bend iron bars around each other – it’s no Neo versus Agent Smith, but it is pretty cool. I’m pretty sure six year-old me enjoyed it immensely. But once the crew has exhausted all their styrofoam and foam rubber tricks, Hercules says, “Hey, you know? We should team up.” and Samson says “I was thinking the same thing,” and then playtime’s over.

kirkmorris17Delilah keeps trying to escape and warn the King, but the two muscle men use convenient half-mile long lassos to bring her back. Eventually she will convince Samson to let her try to fool the King into giving Herc’s friends a boat and making it look like Samson is a prisoner, but she’s Delilah and shows up at the rendezvous with the Philistine Army, dressed like Barbarella on Military Ball Night. Ulysses gets to prove he’s clever by finding exactly the right buttress for Herc and Samson to bring the Temple of Dagon down (somewhat ahead of schedule) in a welter of styrofoam and foam rubber. I suspect the peplum industry had been manufacturing and storing these thing up for years, and Francisci called up the full supply.

Not all the Philistines get crushed, though, and things look bleak until King Laertes shows up with the boat builder Argos, whose newest creation is the 007 Astin Martin of the 12th century B.C., festooned with javelin throwers and arrow machines (those carrier pigeons kept Laertes apprised of where Ulysses was shipwrecked, and the wimminfolk got tired of waiting). So with a festive “Beware of Delilah!” Hercules and Ulysses take leave of Samson, though we’re pretty confident he’s going to ignore that advice.

lo3Hercules, Samson and Ulysses is generally regarded as the last gasp of the Peplum movies, and its only appropriate that it should be directed by Pietro Francisci, who started the whole fad with the 1958 Hercules, which put a pulp dimension into the Biblical-era spectacles that were so popular at the box office. By ’63, the genre is pretty much sleepwalking through the plot; I’m pretty sure six year-old me could have written this one, right down to the unmotivated teaming up of the musclemen. “An’ then they fight for a while, and tear stuff up, an’ then they decide they should be friends.” Roger Corman made Atlas in ’61, and rarely was there a more canny judge of what was hot and vice versa.

But as I said, Francisci puts the most effort into the mandatory setpieces, the big battle of oiled musclemen and the final confrontation with the Philistines, and you have to admit that at the end, you’re satisfied. You don’t come to a movie titled Hercules, Samson and Ulysses to have the secrets of the universe unfolded before you, you’re here to have fun. Bring the popcorn, sit back, and relax.