M.I.A.: Ken Russell's Banned Dance Of the Seven Veils

"Omnibus, now, presents a new film by Ken Russell, 'Dance Of the Seven Veils.'  It's been described as a harsh, and at times violent, caricature of the life of the composer Richard Strauss.  This is a personal interpretation by Ken Russell of certain real, and many imaginary, events in the composer's life.  Among them are dramatized sequences about the war and the Nazi persecution of the Jews, which includes scenes of considerable violence and horror."

How about a new M.I.A. post?  It's been ages since I've done one, since I still have such a long list of discs I want to cover on this site.  But I don't want to lose full sight of those films still in desperate need of a disc, any kind of home video disc at all.  I mean, what if there's just a scintilla of a chance somebody in a position to do something about it actually reads one of these dang things?
So here's a juicy one for ya.  A lot of films get called controversial, but this one really was.  I mean, just read that quote above, which was read aloud on air on the 15th February, 1970, before the BBC broadcast, for the first and last time, Ken Russell's Dance Of the Seven Veils.  Right after it aired, the estate of Dance's subject, Richard Strauss, immediately pulled the rights and blocked the film from showing anywhere, ever again.  It was shown to and condemned by British Parliament the next day (you can read Russell talk about it in an interview with Film Comment here).  It was never shown again, (apart, apparently, from a few underground screenings by Ken himself with the music swapped out) until it shown as part of a heavily publicized screening at a Keswick, Cumbria film festival on Saturday 29th February, 2020.

...Although it did manage to leak online in between those two dates, which is why I'm able to write about it and show you screenshots from my homemade DVDR today.
Some noteworthy facts about this film: it was Ken Russell's first foray into color (not that you'd know it from my copy!), and his last film for Omnibus, for which he'd made his previous, celebrated documentaries: Dante's Inferno and Delius: Song Of Summer.  They'd also rebroadcast some of his earlier works and, just the year after his departure, made a documentary about Ken called Russell's Progress.  So I guess they were still behind him.  But anyway, more important than the trivia and the controversy is just the fact that it's pretty great.
This is where we really start to dip into Wild Ken Russell.  Yes, it's another documentary about a composer, but this is way more into the Tommy or Lisztomania zone than his old, buttoned up work for Monitor in the 60s.  The opening credits describe the experience we're about to have as "[a] comic strip in 7 episodes on the life of Richard Strauss 1864-1949."  If you don't know your classical music, Strauss is best known for "Also Sprach Zarathustra," which became the famous theme of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (and also used to memorable effect in Crimes Of Passion).  That and the fact that he worked directly under Goebbels as the president of the Third Reich's musical division in the 1930s.  As you might imagine, Russell had some strong opinions about that ; and while he clearly appreciated the music, this resulting documentary is perhaps the most singular instance of an movie being made as a giant, personal insult from one man to another in cinema history.
So yes, this just under an hour-long doc feature is broken up into seven sequences, each set to a key Strauss composition, with autobiographical narration taken from his own writings.  Each segment serves as a sort of proto-music video for its corresponding piece of music, also parodying the subjects Strauss was writing about and dramatizing the story of his life, all at once, in a sort of chaotic mash that manages to make sense as you watch it unfold.  And none of its flattering.  Strauss's ubermensch is a bumbling fool, and he whines in the face of his responsibilities to stand up to the Nazis, "a hero's life is not a happy one," he bemoans in the guise of a collapsed Don Quixote.  "I was constantly under attack.  I was even attacked for writing a symphony about myself.  I can't see why!  Aren't I just as important as Alexander the Great or Napoleon?"
There's no point in really analyzing the picture or audio quality of my little DVDR, because it's just a rip of something I found online many years ago.  Searching around, it still seems to be the best and only option available (the current version on Youtube is split into 10-minute chunks and even more red, but it seems to be using the same, time-coded source).  But when the film screened in 2020, press photos were circulated, which gives us an idea of how much better this film could and should look. Although these are publicity photos taken on location, not proper screenshots; so bear in mind even a fancy 4k restoration wouldn't look this good, or be in that aspect ratio.  But still, it gives you a strong idea of the bootleg's shortcomings and how badly the film is in need of decent treatment.
So it sure would be swell if the BBC could restore and release this on DVD and blu.  The Keswick film festival programmer told the BBC in 2020 that, "I have been tracking dates when the ban could be lifted.  Even after all this time, cutting through the legal red tape has been a challenge."  So I can appreciate it might not be the easiest task, but hopefully now that the copyright ban has expired, it's possible.  It would absolutely be worth the undertaking.  This is a fascinating, and thoroughly entertaining, artistic statement that definitely deserves to be seen today.  In fact, there's still a slew of unreleased Ken Russell works as yet unreleased on home video... one could compile an excellent collection if one possessed the proper enthusiasm.

And, of course, I can't sign off on a post like this without a reminder that it's a crime how Warner Bros is suppressing The Devils, and we need them to finally do it justice today!

Controversial DVDs: Blackadder Supposedly Remastered

I've done a bunch of Controversial Blus posts before, but how about one for DVDs?  Because this situation is a real fiasco, and with no HD bumps on the horizon, it's still where we're at in 2022.

We're here to talk Blackadder, the clever and inventive historical sitcom that revealed a very different side to its star Rowan Atkinson than most know him for today.  It ran for four seasons, each depicting a different descendant of the Blackadder family line throughout British history.  Season 1 is the most ambitious, set in Shakespearian times, with the wonderful Brian Blessed as King Richard IV and Peter Cook as Richard III, plus beloved costars Tony Robinson and Tim McInnery.  Later seasons honed the formula into a slightly more conventional sitcom (a lot of jokes get just the thinnest repaints as they recur year after year), but they also introduce a slew of terrific cast members, including Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, Miranda Richardson, Robbie Coltrane, Simon Jones and Jim Broadbent, who continued to breath fresh, exciting life into its ever-invigorating run.  So it might be nice if they got it right on home video.
The BBC released Blackadder on DVD with Warner Bros in a pretty definitive, five-disc "Complete Collector's Set" digibook in 2001.  And in 2005, they reissued the same set in a traditional amary case.  They also released seasons individually starting in 2001.  But however you decided to purchase it, these same discs were the sole, go-to way to add Blackadder to your home video collection here in the US.  But then, in 2009, BBC came out with a new, Remastered Ultimate Edition 6-disc digibook set (reissued in a traditional amary case in 2014), now in conjunction with 2 Entertain rather than Warner Bros... I'm guessing because rights lapsed.  This set's packaging proudly proclaims, in all caps, that it "INCLUDES EVERY EPISODE OF BLACKADDER DIGITALLY RESTORED FROM THE ORIGINAL PROGRAM MASTERS!"  Okay, we know it's all still SD, but still, for a big fan, it sounds worth upgrading to, no?
2001 BBC DVD top; 2014 BBC DVD bottom.
Well, have a look at the above.  Without looking at the caption, could you even tell me which was the remastered version?  They look like pretty much the same, garishly interlaced transfers to me.  To be fair, they're not identical.  They're both 1.33:1, but framing sometimes shifts slightly.  In the first set of shots, it moves a few pixels lower.  It doesn't in the second.  But at different points throughout the show, it sometimes shifts.  And if you're thinking that second set of shots are off a frame, that's because the one frame doesn't actually exist in the other transfer, which is almost certainly a symptom of these US DVDs simply re-encoding transfers made for UK PAL discs to NTSC.  But for all intents and purposes, despite these slight variations, there is no gain in PQ here.  And it goes a bit cheaper these days, but the "remastered" edition originally listed for $79.98.  That's a lot to throw down for no gain.  And let's look at some more.
2001 BBC DVD top; 2011 BBC DVD mid; 2014 BBC DVD bottom.
Blackadder's Christmas Carol
is a stand-alone television special from 1988, which means it originally aired between seasons 3 and 4.  It's a pretty fun subversion where Ebenezer Blackadder is an ultra-cheerful, kind man who's always in the holiday spirit and, we're told in the opening theme song, doesn't laugh at toilet humor.  He's visited by Christmas spirits not to teach him a lesson, but to simply reward him for a job well done, but the visions they show wind up convincing him the world is an unfair place, and he becomes the cynical, self-centered nihilist he's always been in his other iterations.

Besides the two sets, I also have this episode on a third DVD: disc 2 of the BBC and 2 Entertain's 2011 2-disc set, BBC Holiday Comedy Collection, which collects holiday specials from a variety of British comedies, from Are You Being Served? to The Vicar of Dibley.  Unsurprisingly, then, it's a closer match to the 2014 DVD, which was also put out in conjunction with 2 Entertain, although you'll notice slight differences with the framing across all three discs.  Still, while the brightness also slightly changes between the 2004 and newer discs, they are, in essence, all equally interlaced messes, and it feels pretty arbitrary to declare any one of them superior to the others.

I have read some reports that one joke was cut out of some versions of this special, but I'm happy to report that all three discs here have it properly included and are uncut.
2001 BBC DVD top; 2014 BBC DVD bottom.
Now, I left the negative space around the Cavalier Years (a 15-minute short shot for a Comic Relief television special in 1988) shots to show you a peculiarity in framing.  Notice how the 2001 DVD has a letterbox along the bottom.  The Remaster removes that, lowers the image, and in so doing, reveals more picture that had been trimmed along the top.  So that's a nice little correction.  But in those season 2 shots, the remaster actually zooms in, cropping the image along all four sides.  And just look at what they did to the 1999 Back & Forth special!  They've widened it to 1.78, yes revealing a little more along the sides, but blatantly stretching the image horizontally for the sake of "filling" modern televisions.  It's a disaster; I mean, just look at it.  So I'd say that's two steps forwards and one step back, but Back & Forth is a much more obvious flaw than any of the pros and cons in the others ones.  And yes, they're all still interlaced.  To be clear, everything, on every disc in both sets is interlaced.
All discs in both sets, and the Holiday Collection, feature Dolby 2.0 audio with optional English subtitles, except for Back and Forth, which both sets provide in 5.1.  But there is one important distinction I have to credit the Remastered edition with.  There is a joke in episode 3 of season 3 that has been cut out of the original DVD, but is restored in this Ultimate edition.  It's an inoffensive (and not particularly funny) reference to The Scarlet Pimpernel, so I doubt it was cut for censorious reasons... but for whatever reason it was missing from the old DVDs and it's back in the new ones.  So that's one real bit of good they did.
The other real good they did was cook up a bunch of new special features.  But that's undercut somewhat by the fact that they lost all the extras from the 2004 set.  Besides some inconsequential stuff in the disc menus and a few bonus trailers, the 2004 set chiefly has two noteworthy extras.  The first is a hefty, 25-minute on-camera interview with writer/ creator Richard Curtis.  And the second is an almost 20-minute featurette called Baldrick's Diary - The Making of Back & Forth.  Now, you could be forgiven for thinking that second one is on the new set, quite clearly on disc 5: Baldrick's Video Diary, a featurette on the making of Back & Forth.  But actually, these are quite different.  One mostly follows Curtis around, while the other is hosted and partially shot by Tony Robinson.  As you'd expect, they do cover much of the same ground; but they are actually two entirely different documentary shorts on the making of the same show, and serious fans will probably want both.
But it has to be said, The Ultimate Edition comes up with a whole lot more.  First, there are eight episode commentaries, sporadically appearing throughout seasons 2, 3 and 4.  Sometimes they're a little slow, but they're mostly all rather fun, and they change up the roster of who's speaking, so sometimes you'll get Rowan Atkinson with producer John Lloyd, or Lloyd with Ben Elton and Richard Curtis, or Tony Robinson and Tim McInnery.  Stephen Fry even does two solo.  And if that's not all, there's a new, one-hour retrospective documentary called Blackadder Rides Again, which is rather excellent.  And it's back up by almost two hours of extended interviews.  Put into competition, the new set of extras are clearly better.  But as a wise Old El Paso spokesperson once said, why don't we have both?
So it's a real mess.  It's not really "Controversial," because every review I've found just takes the BBC's word for it that the remastered versions are nice and very welcome improvements without any actual analysis of the picture quality.  Now we see how controversial this situation should have been.  Which set is better?  In some ways the Remastered Ultimate Edition did make some genuine improvements.  But in other ways, they actually made things worse and the original Complete Collector's Set remains preferable.  And most of the episodes just look equally poor on both.  Purists will need both sets so they can get all the uncut episodes looking as best they can, as well as both sets of extras.  But for most viewers, it's a frustrating and disappointing tie; and the only real solution would be for the BBC to finally bend down to restore everything for HD (without stretching it to 1.78!) and compiling all of the available extras... maybe even a few new ones.  But it's been a long time with no sign of any such project coming so far, so we'll probably have to make do.  But whatever you decide to get or not get, at least know that this remastering business was pretty much a crock.

The Infectious Madness Of Marat/ Sade

And now for something completely different.  Today's film is 1967's Marat/ Sade, or as it's properly titled in its unabridged state, The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum at Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade.  Based on the Peter Weiss stage-play, it's directed by Peter Brook (Lord Of the Flies), who also directed it on stage.  And the film retains all of its original Royal Shakespeare Company performers, including such heavy hitters as Patrick Magee playing the marquis himself, along with the great Glenda Jackson, House of Cards' Ian Richardson and The Elephant Man's Freddie Jones.
If you're unfamiliar with it, the extended title pretty much tells you all you need to know.  This is a production of a play Sade wrote and produced while locked in a mental asylum.  It's the play itself, not a dramatization of the true story behind the whole thing (like 2000's Quills, also based on a play), but the film's not just the play performed.  Even on stage, it's performed as a play about a play being performed.  The actors in the film are playing the inmates putting on the play, apt to slip out of character to indulge their particular madnesses.  We see the hospital staff and visitors reacting to their behavior, and part of the drama of the film is whether they'll allow the show to continue.  The "inner" play dramatizes the death of Marat during the recently concluded French revolution.  It's introduced by the director of the hospital, who assures us this is being put up for our delectation and the patients' rehabilitation.  So we are put into the world of the 1800s audience witnessing this off-the-rails presentation of the 1700s.
If that sounds totally meta, it is.  And it's a wild experience.  On the one hand, it plays like a Socratic dialogue, with Marat and Sade serving as ideological poles.  But it's also a salacious tale of sex and murder as told by the most base madmen.  You've got some of the world's greatest actors playing complete amateurs who can barely be convinced to stand in the right place, let alone sing.  Oh yes, this is a musical, too, with boisterous songs interspersed with deadly serious political and philosophical speeches.  The music is all diegetic and as chaotic as the rest of the proceedings.  But no, this isn't just a theatrical performance captured on film; it's a proper movie, with Brooks seamlessly blending locked shots with wildly maneuvering handheld camerawork to tell his story absolutely cinematically.  It's not for everyone, but Marat/ Sade's a masterwork.
Image originally released this film on DVD all the way back in 1998.  But it was fullscreen.  MGM reissued it as part of their Avant-Garde Cinema line in 2001, now properly widescreen.  Just one problem: it's non-anamorphic (despite what dvdcompare says), and in the modern era of widescreen TVs, that's just untenable.  And unfortunately, those two crappy options are still all we've got here in the states.  But the good news is: there's a whole, wide world out there!  In 2019, Kinokuniva released a blu-ray edition in Japan, so that fixes that.  And correcting the anamorphic problem alone would make it a must-upgrade, but still, one has to ask: how is it?
2001 MGM DVD top; 2019 Kinokuniva BD bottom.
Both discs are 1.85:1 (well, rounding to the nearest number, technically, the DVD is 1.86:1 and the blu is 1.84:1), which is impressive because in my experience, a disc being non-anamorphic usually winds up covering for a screwy AR.  But I guess MGM keeps it tight.  Still, being the same AR doesn't mean the interior framing is the same.  In fact, the BD draws back to reveal more picture on both sides and the bottom.  And it is a solid jump in sharpness and clarity to HD.  It's clearly not a modern scan - you can tell by trying to peck out the film grain.  You'll just notice lots of little smeary bits and macroblocks.  But there is still a lot more detail and photo realism, especially when you consider that non-anamorphic widescreen films are necessarily lower resolution, making this DVD look extra blurry.  And while it's basically the same timing across both discs, the colors are a little more distinct on the blu.
And yes, the blu is fully English-friendly, with the original English mono in lossless LPCM and completely removable Japanese subtitles.  The DVD only has lossy audio, of course, plus a Spanish dub and optional English subtitles (again, despite what dvdcompare says).  It's a shame, though not surprising, that the BD doesn't have English subtitles, because when the inmates sing in unison, but in anarchic disharmony, it can be tough to make out what they're saying.  The lossless audio does make it clearer than the DVD did, but still, those English subs would've helped for a few lines.

Both discs are pretty much barebones.  The DVD had the trailer, which the blu is missing.  But the BD has a 24-page, black & white booklet.  Of course, the text is all in Japanese.
Of course, a fancy new Marat/ Sade from Criterion or Arrow would be super.  A fresher scan, the English subs, get us the trailer back and a bunch of new extras to boot.  But I'm not holding my breath.  Is Arrow Academy even still a thing?  At least we've finally got a solid, perfectly watchable HD edition with uncompressed audio.  And if you're region-locked, remember Japan is still Region A.

Ken Russell's Whore: If You Can't Say It, Just Upgrade

Alright, readers, get your Ken Russell Completist hats on again, and I'll get my Obscure, Foreign DVD hat on. I've spent a considerable amount of time researching DVD releases of Whore, one of the more controversial films by Russell. And, the situation is pretty dire; just look at its dvdcompare page... all more or less fullscreen, all cut. Presumably all taken from VHS. Just one low quality, dodgy import after another. And many of those don't have the original English audio track. Of course, it's never been released at all in the US or UK. Well, I've dug deeper, and I believe I've found... the least worst DVD option available.

Update 1/28/16 - 8/4/22: It's a whole new ballgame (pun? I'll let you decide)!  Whore is now out as a special edition blu-ray from Australia's Imprint.  How is it?  We'll take a look, but you can bet it's miles better than what we had six years ago.
Whore is based off a theatrical monologue called Bondage by English writer David Hines. Here, Theresa Russell (no relation) talks to the audience directly, telling us her unglamorized account of her life as a prostitute. But rather than being on stage, she's out on the streets, in peoples' homes, and everywhere else during the the course of her story, while constantly breaking the fourth wall. She has scenes with other characters, and during one uncharacteristic moment, another character is even allowed to monologue to the audience. It's actually a rather unique and effective combination of the faithful, theatrical piece and the additional opportunity afforded to the cinematic medium: a play that moves out into the world. And as it's Ken Russell, it's also quite stylized and provocative.

Oh, and look for a cameo from the one and only Jack Nance - is his appearance a deliberate reference to his role in Twin Peaks, finding Theresa's abandoned body just like Laura Palmer's (albeit, not "wrapped in plastic")?  You decide!
The cut/ uncut nature of this film is so complex, movie-censorship has had to create two separate articles on this film. But the short version of it is that there are essentially three cuts of this film: 1) the original, uncut version, 2) the heavily censored R-rated cut and 3) the less censored NC-17 cut. The completely uncut version doesn't seem to be available anywhere outside of VHS. Believe me, I've looked into it, so just give up on trying to find a copy of that. But, at least, it seems like almost every DVD release includes the NC-17 cut as opposed to the R-rated. The difference between the unrated and NC-17 is mostly dialogue, actually, and seems to have been cut for pacing rather than censorship. As opposed to the R-rated version, which is all about cutting down the sex, violence and swearing. So the R is to be avoided, but while the uncut would be ideal, the NC-17 isn't so bad.
Now, the dvdcompare article I linked to earlier mentions several foreign discs, including an Italian one. But the DVD I've landed on is actually a newer Italian disc from a label called Pulp Video (this one, not this more common one). It's still cut, but at least it's the NC-17 cut, and like all the others, it looks like it's sourced from VHS.  And Imprint's new blu-ray?  Yes, it's still the NC-17 cut, but it's from an infinitely more attractive, widescreen source.
2011 Pulp Video DVD top; 2022 Imprint BD bottom.

So we shift from the fullscreen 1.34:1 of the DVD to the BD's widescreen 1.85:1.  The matting does shave off a little on the tops and bottoms, but it reveals a bunch more on the sides; and overall, the framing is much more attractive.  This has to be the intended framing.  The colors and contrast are also nice and strong, as opposed to the faded and washed out DVD.  And it's so much clearer; you can now clearly read on-screen writing (like the bar rules in the bathroom scene) that were a pixelated blur before.  So it's a massive gain for us fans.  But it's not exactly a showroom floor blu.  Grain is soft and there's a lot of unfortunate edge enhancement, both of which betray an older master.  So this isn't the kind of disc that other blu-ray sites would rate an A+ - and they're correct not to - but just looking at the overall situation of Whore on the home video market, this is a really exciting upgrade.

The DVD has 2.0 English audio, plus 2.0 and a 5.1 mix of the Italian dub, and optional Italian subtitles.  Imprint drops the Italian stuff, naturally, but bumps the stereo mix up to lossless LPCM and adds optional English subtitles.
DVD featurette.
The reason I latched onto the Pulp DVD as opposed to any other is that it actually has extras. None of the others could say that (beyond bonus trailers and other fluff). Now, don't get me wrong; there's no Ken Russell commentary... this isn't exactly The Lord Of the Ring extended appendixes here. But there's some stuff; an effort was made. And looking back at the transfer, it's not interlaced. The menus are animated. I feel like with this release, they at least tried to make the best disc possible given the materials they were limited to, which is more than you can say for most of their competitors.

So what we get is essentially the film's original electronic press kit. You get a four minute featurette of on-set interviews with Ken and Theresa Russell, Benjamin Mouton and producer Dan Ireland, plus some behind the scenes footage. Then there's another four minute interview featurette just with Theresa, and a four minute (four was the magic number for Trimark, apparently) collection of promo scenes. They're like deleted scenes except they're in the movie (even the R-rated cut), just meant to be like talk show clips or other press looking for clips of the film. There's also the film's original, misleading theatrical trailer (making Whore sound like a titillating male fantasy rather than an expose of how women are mistreated) and a photo gallery. So yeah, nothing to run and alert the neighbors about; but it does add a little value.
But now Imprint really makes a proper special edition of it.  Unfortunately, they drop the vintage stuff, but they come up with a surprising amount of first class content.  There's an expert audio commentary by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas and Josh Nelson that takes a while to find its footing, but becomes worth tuning in to after about a half hour.  And then there's even more exciting is the on-camera stuff.  I was surprised to see they got a brand new interview with Theresa Russell, and she's not afraid to be candid about her career or experiences on this film.  Former porn star Ginger Lynn, who has a small cameo role in Whore, has some rather frank memories of working with the Russells, too.  And co-writer Deborah Dalton has a revealing on-camera interview, giving us better insight into the thinking behind the film.  Then gay punk/ porn filmmaker Bruce La Bruce joins us to talk about how Russell, and particularly this film, influenced some of his work, especially 1996's Hustler White.  And finally Kat Ellinger gives us a slightly meandering video essay, but starts particularly strong, putting the film in the historical context of courtesan diaries as a distinct genre of fiction.  Finally, Imprint also has the trailer, and the first 1,500 copies comes in a limited edition slipbox.
So this is terrific; Ken Russell has finally been given an edition worthy of his creation.  Still, it could've been even greater.  A fresh scan of the film elements would've looked decidedly better.  And it's not a huge deal, but it's a little disappointing that they dropped the vintage EPK stuff.  More disappointing is that the uncut footage is still absent.  Even if they couldn't get the original film elements for a proper restoration of the director's vision, they could've at least ripped a VHS copy and included the missing material as deleted scenes.  But putting aside what they didn't do, and just looking at what they did accomplish, this is a huge upgrade with some fantastic features, giving us a quality release of this underrated feature for the first time ever.