Sunday, January 22, 2012

30. ISADORA DUNCAN, THE BIGGEST DANCER IN THE WORLD (1966)

Though barely feature-length (67 minutes, sped to 63m in the 25 f.p.s. DVD transfer), this presentation of BBC's MONITOR series marked Ken Russell's nearly complete advancement into historical drama within its format. It is reined within the realm of documentary, to the extent it is, by a foreword delivered on-camera by Isadora Duncan's friend and biographer Sewell Stokes, who co-wrote the teleplay with Russell. His friendship with Isadora results in a far more down-to-earth and candid overview of her life and career than was managed by Karel Reisz's 1968 film THE LOVES OF ISADORA, and Russell certified its candor by casting in the title role Vivian Pickles (a trained dancer previously cast in his 1964 TV-film THE DIARY OF A NOBODY), who was more solidly-built and thus physically consistent with Duncan than Reisz's choice, the more attractive and rail-thin Vanessa Redgrave.

Russell later said in a press interview that Isadora Duncan was one of his favorite artists, but this film (egged on by Stokes' insights) tends to underscore her personal vulgarity, her romantic obliviousness to what really made the world turn, and her pushy sense of snobbery and entitlement. At the same time it celebrates the extreme degree to which she devoted her life to an art largely of her own conception, that had much more to do with instinctive self-expression than actual dance. ("I am not a dancer," she declares, "I am an expressionist of beauty!" She also says, "As a dancer, I'm really a great orator.") The script enjoys a few laughs at the expense of the prominent men who became her lovers -- like multi-millionaire Paris Singer (Peter Bowles) and the Soviet poet/provocateur Sergei Yessenin (Alexei Jawdokimov) -- and, without drawing too much attention to it, it points out enough macabre coincidences of Isadora's bedevilment by machines, including the Singer Sewing Machine, to suggest her as a silly free-spirited fly in the face of her era's real revolution, namely the Industrial Revolution. (Indeed, she eventually dies in a machine, the victim of one last vain, theatrical flourish.) In a Greek fantasia sequence, Russell also borrows images from some of Leni Riefenstahl's work, conveying the valid observation that there was something proto-fascistic in the idealized body language of Duncan's art and in the way she gathered young and malleable minds around her central pole of narcissism.

Pickles (later chosen by Hal Ashby to play the doting mother in HAROLD AND MAUDE) very capably embodies the various extremes of Isadora Duncan -- the bolshevik, the water sprite and the schoolmarm, as it were -- and her performance is said to have provoked a 20-minute ovation when the film was given a public screening in Monte Carlo. If ISADORA DUNCAN as a whole feels somewhat less extraordinary than Russell's previous groundbreaking MONITOR successes, it nevertheless marks the source of a deep vein of dance and theatricality running through his subsequent work and marks the first of Russell's many wonderful collaborations with director of photography Dick Bush, editor Michael Bradsell, and that most singular of British supporting players, Murray Melvin (who appears as a photographer).

Viewed on DVD (KEN RUSSELL AT THE BBC).

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