Ken Russell’s The Music Lovers (1970) is a cruel, brief taste of what representations of LGBT characters could, and would have been if the tidal wave of AIDS had not clashed the shores of culture, taking productive, yet fragile years of progress with it. Russell faces stereotypes and conceptions of homosexuality like Saint George to a mighty conservative dragon built from years of hatred and hypocrisy. Russell’s radical take on gay issues is by no means a surprise. Russell worked closely with Larry Kramer on the adaptation of D.H Lawrence’s Women in Love the year before. Kramer being most famous as a prominent AIDS activist and writer of the now classic play The Normal Heart. Both Women in Love and The Music Lovers, back to back, share a great deal of the same attributes. Exhibiting unabashed nudity and homosexuality, not to mention another brilliant performance by Glenda Jackson. Based loosely on the life of the Russian Composer Peter Illych Tchaikovsky and his sordid marriage to Antonina Miliukova, The Music Lovers is a wild, astounding fantasia of nightmares, homosexuality, erotic obsession, narcissism and 19th Century Classical Music. Russell takes the stereotypes and ideas we have willingly accepted for over 100 years of cinematic history about homosexuality, and forces you to shove it up your ass. He dares you to accept these characters realities, your own ideas of what sexuality truly means, through a jaded looking glass where no one story is the truth, no one conception is right or wrong. Russell, unlike so many directors we tout and applaud year after year, refuses to let you, the audience member, get away with it.
The first stereotype Russell addresses is the sissy. The film begins with a mad, wild carnival in the snow. The camera dips, preens and zooms around drunken lovers in animal masks, musicians playing demonically, dancers stomping like thunder on elevated stages. We follow two men sharing a bottle of vodka to what we quickly, and shockingly discover, is a sexual pick up between two consenting men who drunkenly find their way to bed. The first man being Tchaikovsky (Richard Chamberlain), the second Count Anton Chiluvsky (brilliantly played by Christopher Gable.) Count Chiluvsky struts his way half naked after a torrid night with Tchaikovsky, playing Sissy to the tilt, swapping one catty remark after another with the disapproving Modeste Tchaikovsy (Kenneth Colley) like one of many effeminate back stage choreographers and suit dressers. But for the first time, we do not see the Sissy bossing around glamorous show girls or dressing gangsters in swank department stores, we see him in the bedroom, the object of his affection, the star of the film no less, is still naked between the sheets, sleepily satisfied with the nights activities. Here, Russell takes the stereotype and puts him in the place the usually laughing audience, would never want to see him, in the bedroom living in sexual bliss with his lover. The Sissy now dares you to laugh at him now, after years of laughs and servitude.
But Chiluvsky, as we are informed, is not the only lover determined to take on Tchaikovsky, whether it means using psychological torture, blackmail and cold hearted manipulation to get him. Every character in Ken Russell’s world is on the lam, out for a buck and ride on the high horse. Throughout film history, the homosexual is the one who plays the card of manipulation, psychological torture and blackmail. Films such as Man with a Horn (1950) and Advice and Consent (1962) prove to be the brightest examples. But Chiluvsky is merely one of many out to get Tchaikovsky, gay or straight. Yet through his malicious revenge and manipulation, Chiluvsky is the only character in the film not diluted by nostalgia, fame or fortune. While every character lives a delusional fantasy, Nina with her dreams of luxury, or Madame Von Meck’s unrequited love lavished with money, Chiluvsky insists on the reality Tchaikovsky will never face. A love they once shared that is the most honest and pure out of any pretend game of affections shown throughout. Warning Tchaikovsky, ‘To accept what you are…don’t pretend.’ Further Warning him of his impending marriage to Nina, explaining that ‘All women aren’t attached to…spiritual relationships.’
No one is ever what they seem in Tchaikovsky’s idealistic, nostalgic mind. Even Tchaikovsky’s seemingly virginal, idyllic, white dressed sister Sasha (Sabina Maydelle) informs the audience and an agony ridden Tchaikovsky that ‘…I’ve been married three times, and never a days bad health.’ Madame Nadedja Von Meck (Izabella Telezynska), Tchaikovsky’s most wealthy and supportive contributor and unrequited lover, proves in the end to be a manipulative, callous vampire, her constant companionship in the guise of two ghoulish, androgynous twins, coffin bearers to her vampiric obsession with Tchaikovsky’s ‘genius.’ She proves her vampiric nature when she quickly strips her support away when she finds he is a homosexual (revealed of course, by Chiluvsky in an act of lustful revenge). The main drama, Tchaikovsky’s marriage to Nina, makes us assume she is a cunning, ruinous and manipulative nymphomaniac, but proves to be just as manipulated and agonized as Tchiakovsky, if not even more, by her mother who becomes her seedy pimp, throwing her into a pit of horrifying insanity, left to rot in a lunatic asylum.
Homosexuals in films of the 50’s and 60’s are villains, standing in the way of our heroes potentially happy, normal life like a minotaur in the labyrinth, if only we could destroy them, as the audiences hope, they will. Here, Russell takes the mythos of the villainous homosexual and reverts it, topsy-turvy like Carroll’s Mad Tea Party. The villains in this tale are not homosexuality, but the hypocrites who consistently condone it. The sneering, gossiping contemporaries at the conservatory where Tchaikovsky debuts his Symphony No. 5, hover around him like hoards of so many blood thirsty vultures. While some see his genius, the glaring rumors of his homosexuality are constantly used as arsenal to deflate or trivialize his accomplishments made from sweat and tears. ‘A man whose as careless about his private behavior as you are is hardly likely to be as much more scrupulous in his own work.’ hisses the Director of the Conservatoire, Nicolas Rubinstein (Max Adrian), after Tchaikovsky performs one of his greatest works. Richard Chamberlain ingeniously portrays the total anguish and frustration Tchaikovsky feels as society uses any excuse it can to punish him for something as pointless as his homosexuality. It are these accusations, the vicious realities of homophobia that throw him into a hellish marriage, an existence of nightmares and delirious fantasies. The obvious tragedy that Russell makes us understand, is that Tchaikovsky will never understand a life of honest, happiness and moral integrity by accepting his homosexuality, because society will never let him. Here we are faced with a conundrum on the negative implications of gayness. Vito Russo dismisses the film for this principal in The Celluloid Closet, quipping ‘If you love your mother, you’ll be a homosexual—but you won’t like it.’ Here Russo reveals one of many aspects in the less-than-perfect scope of representation in gay cinema. Not only is homosexuality a negative in The Music Lovers, Russell follows a golden rule now unfortunately even more golden than ever before. The faggot must die. Examples abounding in Philadelphia (1993) and Brokeback Mountain (2005). Keep in mind, the faggot may live happily and humorously in comedies such as Les Cage Aux Folles (1978) and its American counter-part The Birdcage (1996), but death and tragedy are the only plot developments Mother Cinema will take in all its mainstream dramas involving homosexuality. But Russell still manages to transcend the jarring two dimensions of gay agony in film. Tchaikovsky’s homosexuality is so subversive in Russell’s film because it is not the main conflict of the drama. While so many dramas such as Cruising (1980) or even Basic Instinct (1992) interpret homosexuality in ghoulish blacks and whites, portraying it as the main tumor of all dramatic conflict, homosexuality is but one of the many items on Tchaikovsky’s grocery list of general insanity. The death of his mother, his nymphomaniac wife, a judgmental family, not to mention his own raging egotism, narcissism and callousness. It makes one wonder how his orientation can barely get an elbow in. Tchakovsky does not die solely because he is a faggot, he dies because he is a genius.
While we celebrate the progress of more neutral, harmless representations of LGBT characters in the media, sewn into popular sitcoms or reality TV shows, a stench of compromise lingers in the air since those horror years of the eighties that we have never, truly escaped. We are made to believe we are lucky to be seen at all, let alone in a positive light. But even the more widely reaching representations of gays and lesbians are distressingly, only found in comedy. Glee is synonymous with gay characters because it is coated with repulsive, candy colored layers of auto tuned, over scored show-tunes. Mitchell (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) and Cameron (Eric Stonestreet) of the hit TV show Modern Family reach a wide demographic not because they represent a refreshing take on gay life in America, but because they are merely the innocuously gay comedy duo Laurel and Hardy, doddering and hamming their way, fat and thin, into the 21st century. But even the positive light of so much popular television, film and media shines such a nauseating magenta that even the most effeminate gay man should want to crawl under the carpet with a sense of nausea. To see Mario Cantone dish with the girls of Sex and the City is to watch Hattie McDaniel in a do-rag scream at Miss Scarlett to hurry up and get ready for the barbecue. Progress would be challenging the stereotypes we are still so nauseatingly presented with, that have somehow lasted since the advent of film itself, the sissy, the queer, the faggot. Where are the Ken Russell’s, the Derek Jarman’s of mainstream film today? Where are those who are willing to challenge the stereotypes of the LGBT community in new, challenging ways that demand questions to be asked?
One could argue that this is all merely because the real representations of the LGBT community are only to be found or represented in independent and underground film, in years of literature and theater. But The Music Lovers, that mighty harpy of a film refuses to let me accept that. How can one explain the outrageous box office success and scandal Russell’s films experienced all throughout the seventies? The attention he gave the starving British film Industry? These were not modest art house sleepers, these were films hounded and despised by critics, exploited for endless scandal in the tabloids, audiences flocking based on reports of unabashed nudity, sexuality, scandal and outright, brazen pageantry and insanity. These films were box office hits. One could point out that the past is the past, the audience of the 1970’s anticipated the legalization and acceptance of Hard-core Pornography as ‘porno chic’, making Deep Throat (1972) the biggest cinematic scandal of the decade. The audiences who gleefully watched full frontal nudity and tales of sexual scandal could never predict the horror of the AIDS epidemic. The audiences could never imagine that thinking back to the sixties and seventies would be like shutting the book on some wicked dream to be forgotten, its morals and values bought and sold. We have never recovered from those horror years because we still watch films like impatient children, like we did and still choose to do, when Speilberg and Lucas took power over our dreams, while those with anything important to say were swept beneath the carpet. Ken Russell died in 2010 with only modest tribute from the press. The once scandalous, profitable director spent his last years floundering on trashy British reality television, scrambling for funds, desperate to make films on any budget he could find. The Music Lovers has only recently been released on DVD in the United States with little fan-fare and few accolades to this day. We are far from 1970. Executives still proclaim the only ones going to the movies are twelve year old boys, making even the most exploitative nudity and sex in film seem refreshing and invigorating compared to the rehashed comic book franchises and endless CGI animated films that drown the current market. Every film is now for children, every reality has been Disney-fied. What nursery have we the audience hidden in, and whenever shall we come out to the parlor again?
Copyright Thomas Lampion 2012