Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Ken Russell on “the Richard Lester style” and Spike Milligan

I’m editing the last half of my 2008 interview with the late Ken Russell for upcoming Deceased Artiste episodes of the Funhouse TV show, and thought I’d share the clip embedded below. By way of explanation, a program of Russell’s early homemade shorts and some of his later oddities (including a screen test he shot for Twiggy) played at the Thalia Soho in the late Eighties. (The theater, now known as the Soho Playhouse, was indeed where I was interviewing Russell, whose only theatrical production, Mindgame, was mounted there.)

Among the offerings was “Portrait of a Goon,” a short that Russell made in 1959 for the TV show Monitor. The film is currently locked away from public view on the academics-only BFI site.

Chronicling a day in the life of the mighty Spike Milligan, the short surprised me because it included quick cuts, odd camera angles, and other aspects of what we now call “the Richard Lester style.” Lester famously directed Milligan and Peter Sellers in “The Running Jumping and Standing Still Film” (1960). The story goes that, when Lester was hired to direct A Hard Day’s Night, Goon-fan John Lennon was very impressed with this prior credit of Lester’s.

Watching the Russell short I began to think that, while Russell was certainly using that style a year before Lester, that perhaps its true source was neither “Unkle Ken” nor Richard L., but Spike himself. Although he never directed a film, Milligan’s work on The Goon Show on radio and in plays like The Bed Sitting Room (later, of course, adapted for film by Lester) indicated his love of momentum and jumping from situation to situation.

Whatever the case may be, two things remain inarguable:
—Richard Lester is an incredibly talented filmmaker (as was Russell, who at his best was a visionary)
—he was basing his style in part on the rhythms of silent comedy and the jump cuts introduced by Godard in A Bout de Souffle.

But, when one sees Russell’s “Goon” short, one realizes that Spike was indeed the *other* auteur behind the style that, after A Hard Day’s Night, became the standard way to edit rock music on film — and in commercials, and music videos, and…..

NOTE: To see the style pass down to a bunch of folks who would *never* credit the Spike, check out the first season of Laugh-In, which included blatant visual rips from "The Running Jumping and Standing Still Film." (Hey, if they could rob from Ernie Kovacs, why not Lester/Milligan also?)

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