Today, Let's Be Ken Russell Completists!

What do you get the Ken Russell fan who has everything? Oh, sure, the Russell lover in your life already has BFI's fancy but woefully incomplete restoration of The Devils, the BBC Collection boxed set and a loaded special edition of Tommy. But I bet they don't have this pair of DVDs on their shelves: Tales of Erotica and Women & Men: Stories of Seduction. They probably passed on them because they look like cheap, late night cable TV softcore from the 80s (Tales of Erotica is even bundled in a boxed set with three other DVDs of presumably genuine softcore flicks called The After Dark Collection). Well the cable TV part, but the fact that these are clearly being sold as softcore, or trying to be sexy, is pretty misleading. They're both anthologies, somewhat based around the topic of sex or romantic relationships, but you'd have a hard time finding anything less steamy than these flicks. And anyway, far more most important than degree of steam is that they each have a segment directed by the great Ken Russell. So let's look and see what we've got.
I remember when HBO was advertising the heck out of their original 1990 movie Women and Men: Stories of Seduction. They were trying to get a lot of mileage out of the fact that Molly Ringwald was making a comeback in it, and she had - gasp! - short hair. There's actually a bunch of noteworthy name actors in this, including James Woods, Beau Bridges, Melanie Griffith and Peter Weller. They also have the high minded concept of being based on stories by famous writers like Dorothy Parker and Ernest Hemmingway. I already made this point in the last paragraph, but just to hammer it home, you'll never find anything less sexy than James Woods and Melanie Griffith meandering around an old train station flatly reciting Hemmingway to each other for 30 minutes, or Elizabeth McGovern do voice over narration about suicide in a terribly put-on "20s lady" accent.

Anyway, you can buy Women and Men on its own; but for the same price you can get Women and Men and its 1991 follow-up Women and Men 2 packaged together, so you might as well get that one. I did, but honestly, I never even watched part 2 until the other night for this review. There's one slightly interesting segment by Mike Figgis, where he Juliette Binoche and Scott Glenn in a bit taken from one of Henry Miller's novels. Other big names in part 2 include Matt Dillon, Kyra Sedgwick, Ray Liotta, Andie MacDowell and Johnathan Demme. But enough about all that, let's get to the Ken Russell.
Happily, Russell has the most fun source material: Dorothy Parker's "Dusk Before Fireworks." Ken Russell leaps at the opportunity to splurge on wild 20s fashion and set design - I guess there's a reason why HBO marketed this film around Ringwald's look after all. The story is classic Parker: frivolous and fun. There's not a lot of substance, but a good handful of entertainment to be drawn out of this silly story about two lovers who to have an affair but are constantly interrupted by the telephone. It's a stage play for the small screen, but Russell gives the film a look that justifies seeing it filmed rather than in person at your local community theater.
Unfortunately, but predictably, both films are just videotape-sourced fullscreen transfers, soft and interlaced. Ghost frames, too, yup. They're made for TV back before widescreen televisions were a thing, so it's the right OAR. But these could look so much better today if anybody who owned the rights cared. That's never going to happen, though, so I recommend just taking what we can get. The upside is these DVDs can be found dirt cheap. And of course there are no extras or anything, except both films have the option to view them dubbed into Spanish. I think it actually makes McGovern's performance better.

And now we move away from adaptations of classic literature disguised as softcore to ridiculous comedy disguised as softcore. Tales of Erotica is a film made up of four short films. In fact, they're really four episodes of a German television series called Erotic Tales, packaged as one little movie for the USA. This stuff is really ridiculous. Mira Sorvino stars in the first segment where she has no lines, because all the action is instead narrated by her two New York nurse friends from who "tawk laik dis" in cartoonishly exaggerated accents. The week before she's to get married, Mira falls in love with a man in a painting, and winds up entering into its dull, dreary world. Amazingly, this episode won an Oscar as a stand-alone short film in 1994, which just blows my mind.
It almost blows my mind as much as Melvin van Peebles segment, which starts out as a long hip-hop barbecue music video. Eventually the dancing stops and we find out there's one guy at the party who's essentially a parody of Lenny from Of Mice and Men, and nobody wants him to come to the after party because he's such a goofy hick. He's bummed until he helps an old lady out of a car wreck and she turns out to be a genie who grants his two greatest wishes: a motorcycle and sex. But it's really more of a double wish than two separate wishes, because he just has sex with the motorcycle, which transforms into a half-human hybrid in a scene which must be seen to be believed. Unfortunately, there's a condition to the wish, and I guess irony ensues.

There's also some terrible thing where a woman seduces a jacuzzi salesman by behaving in the most obnoxious way possible. And then it all turns out to be a conspiracy of some convoluted sort that makes no sense. The best thing about it, I guess, is a small role by Witchboard's Kathleen Wilhoite.
The only good thing about this film is Ken Russell's segment, and even that's far from his greatest work. It's called "The Insatiable Mrs. Kirsch," and it tells the story of a young man staying at the same hotel as a beautiful woman, but he hears strange buzzing sounds coming out of her room at night. This is just Russell being playful with a silly little story that suggests sometimes maybe erotic fantasies do come true, when you chance upon that one in a million like-minded partner. It rolls around in its beautiful ocean-side scenery like a pig in mud, and has some classically over-the-top imagery, like a woman turning an entire field into a crude illustration of a naked man with a huge penis... which she does jumping jacks on. It's not exactly one of his greatest artistic achievements, but it's quite charming.
Again, there's no extras except for four horror bonus trailers from Trimark's catalog. And again, it's another fuzzy full-screen video sourced transfer. But, like Women and Men, you can get it for pennies, so what could you expect?

If you want to go even farther, the entire, original Erotic Tales 30-episode series has been issued on DVD overseas. There's a collection of ten(!) now hard to find, individually released German discs by WVG Median released back in 2005. And in 2011, Madman released two boxed sets, Erotic Tales and More Erotic Tales (also sold together as one larger set) in Australia. These are all listed everywhere as being anamorphic widescreen, but I've checked them out, and the OAR actually varies episode to episode. And all the eps featured on Tales of Erotica are fullscreen on the Madman sets, too.  So don't bother tracking them down just for a widescreen Russell episode. The rest of the series involves some other noteworthy filmmakers, though, including Nicholas Roeg, Hal Hartley and Bob Rafelson, so who knows? There may be another genuinely good episode or two in there if you have the temperament to go digging.

But this post is about being a Russell completist, not a Roeg completist.  So I recommend just picking up the Women and Men and Tales of Erotica discs wherever they're cheapest. They're not amazing, but speaking as a Russell fan myself, I was pleasantly surprised.

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