"Shock Value: A Weekend With Ken Russell," an American Cinematheque presentation at the Directors Guild, provides a unique opportunity to see some of the tempestuous British director's celebrated work for television along with several of his best films.
Opening the retrospective is the 65-minute "Isadora Duncan: The Biggest Dancer in the World" (tonight at 7), an astonishingly powerful and economical 1966 work that leaves you believing that Russell and fearless actress Vivian Pickles caught the spirit of the iconoclastic, ill-fated modern dance pioneer better than the subsequent Karel Reisz-Vanessa Redgrave film.
Borrowing frankly from "Citizen Kane," Russell creates a brief newsreel encapsulation of Duncan's extravagant life. Retaining the newsreel as a narrative framework, Russell tells of the San Francisco-born Duncan, who takes off for Greece--this sequence was shot by Leni Riefenstahl, no less--for inspiration and who then proceeds to fascinate and scandalize the world with her revolutionary approach to dance, love and politics. Pickles is wonderful, as brassy as Texas Guinan yet ineffably courageous, honest, foolish--and, at heart, endearingly self-mocking. Russell will be on hand afterward for a discussion.
The two-part, 104-minute "Clouds of Glory": "William and Dorothy" and "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" (Saturday at 6:30 p.m.) is flat-out brilliant, representative of both Russell and his actors at their finest. Russell catches up in the challenging relationship between poet William Wordsworth (David Warner) and his sister Dorothy (Felicity Kendal). A notable poet in her own right, Dorothy, in Russell's 1978 telling, coped with their profound love for each other bravely, with Wordsworth marrying an adoring, unsophisticated woman (Kika Markham) to serve as a saving buffer between them. Russell celebrates Wordsworth's poetry in the incomparably beautiful countryside from which he drew strength and inspiration.
In the second part, with David Hemmings giving a harrowing yet sympathetic performance of a lifetime as Wordsworth's fellow Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Russell makes stunning use of "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" as a metaphor for Coleridge's tormented existence, at once devastated and inspired by his long addiction to laudanum.
Laudanum also became the curse of the beautiful Elizabeth Siddal, the inspiration and eventual wife of Pre-Raphaelite poet and painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti. In Russell's superb, 92-minute TV movie from 1966, "Dante's Inferno" (Saturday at 8:45 p.m.), Oliver Reed, in top form, gives us a Rossetti who was greatly talented yet undisciplined, self-indulgent and self-absorbed.
His life allows Russell to ponder the gap between reality and art, and in the instance of the Rossettis, its cruel, tragic consequences. For it was Elizabeth's fate to inspire some great paintings while being an uneducated Cockney (played poignantly by Judith Paris) who ultimately bored him.
Full schedule: (213) 466-FILM.