Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Parsifal: The Search for the Grail, dir. Tony Palmer, 26 July 2010

Purcell Room, Southbank Centre

I started by thinking that this marked a slight improvement upon The Wagner Family, Tony Palmer’s appalling recent film for The South Bank Show. I was soon disabused: for one thing, it was actually made in 1998; more importantly, it managed to be more distorting, more disingenuous, even more poorly put together. Whatever Palmer’s strengths as a film-maker may once have been – despite a large number of errors, his Wagner biopic with Richard Burton is often quite compelling dramatically – he no longer seems to possess them. In a tedious, irrelevant self-justification at the opening of the film, he told us how well he knew Plácido Domingo and how ghastly the BBC was, despite its recent agreement to screen ten of his films. The BBC has indeed a great deal to answer for in terms of its populism, but it is not clear to me that it will be redeemed by screening material such as this. An old-fashioned documentary would have been a hundred times more enlightening.

Still, if Palmer’s rambling introduction were tedious and irrelevant, so was the film itself, to which one should add pernicious, ramshackle, recycled, and a host of other none too complimentary adjectives. At the heart, such as it is, of the film are an outline of the drama from Domingo, delightfully accented, with some additional commentary in which the tenor, Miss World-like, outlines his hopes for world peace, and excerpts from Palmer’s production of Parsifal for the Mariinsky Theatre, with Domingo in the title role, conducted by Valery Gergiev. Domingo sings well, if hardly idiomatically. Some of the other singers sing less well, if hardly idiomatically. Gergiev is better when he made the score sound like Tchaikovsky, worse when he drives it too hard, Solti-lite, worse still when he distends phrases for no apparent reason. The Mariinksy – or Kirov, I think, at this time – brass lack something in refinement and the choral contribution is redolent of the Red Army Choir. We hear quite a lot of the Flowermaidens’ music; it seems interminable and could hardly be less erotic. One prominent maiden looks and sounds distinctly mature. Violeta Urmana’s Kundry impressed me in London; she is done no favours here, however, not least on account of the staging.

For Palmer’s production, from what one can see of it, resembles a parody of ‘traditional’ Eastern European operatic presentations. One of his ‘experts’, Robert Gutman, about whom more, sadly, below, bemoans the alleged fact that some audiences think Wagner’s dramas to be mere mediæval pageants. Perhaps they do; I cannot say that I have ever met anyone who thought such a thing. This is what they receive here, however. Palmer’s animus against Bayreuth belies the fact that that festival has engaged directors from whose table he is not worthy so much as to gather the crumbs. Stefan Herheim’s present production of Parsifal, for instance, is not only far and away the best I have seen of the work in question; I do not think I have seen a superior production of anything. For some reason, or perhaps none, the St Petersburg production sometimes morphs into film footage of actors in a hazy setting some might think redolent of soft porn (without the porn). Perhaps this has something to do with Domingo’s puzzling emphasis upon the ‘magic lake’, perhaps not.

So far, so bad. There is, alas, much worse that must be mentioned, though I shall limit myself. Considerable attention is paid to Karen Armstrong, described as a ‘New Testament scholar’. An ex-nun who has made a media career out of attacking institutional religion and claiming that the basic message of all religions is the same, Armstrong waffles on about how some people preferred the certainty (?!) of the Grail to the challenges of mysticism. No effort, however strained, is made to connect her contributions to Parsifal. There are a couple of clips showing Wolfgang Wagner giving a tour of the Festspielhaus. Again, these are curiously disconnected from anything else, leading one to suspect that they may not have been originally intended for this film at all. It is certainly difficult to imagine Wolfgang lending his approval to such an enterprise. To fill in some time, lengthy excerpts are played, without mention of their provenance, from Palmer’s early Wagner film. No explanation is given as to why we should see quite so much material, or indeed any, of Ludwig II or of the Dresden revolt; nor is any mention made that much of the music from these clips is not from Parsifal at all. Further padding is provided by irrelevant scenes from Monty Python’s Flying Circus and Indiana Jones.

A cheap trick Palmer plays more than once is simply to sound excerpts from Parsifal against visual footage from the Third Reich; at least the latter is well choreographed, but what does this prove? Absolutely nothing. Enter Robert Gutman. I had thought he might by now have gone the way of Titurel, but apparently not. The film’s sole ‘Wagner scholar’ – someone might consider him such, I suppose, since he just about edges this side of ‘Wagner and UFOs’ – he proceeds to rant against the evil of Parsifal, completely unchallenged, just as he does in The Wagner Family: further recycling. Gutman’s claims concerning the drama are merely preposterous assertions. No argument is given as to how this pacifist work is actually an incitement to genocide. Gutman however appears so much like a bad parody of a Bond villain, cackling and rubbing his hands with glee – surely a strange reaction to so wicked a work? – that no one could possibly take him seriously.

Believe it or not, there is still worse to come. We have apparently reached the end, but suddenly we move to a strange woman with a nose piercing, singing a pop song about what it would be like if there were a God. Pictures of Rwandan genocide accompany, or rather overwhelm, her excruciating wailings. Horrendous it is, of course, to see such images, but the implication that they have something somehow to do with Parsifal brings offence to a new level. Joachim Köhler seemed to have set the bar high in his Wagner’s Hitler – not, the reader will note, Hitler’s Wagner – in which a monocausal explanation of the Second World War, namely Richard Wagner, is advanced. Palmer here manages to go further. We then return to the final bars of Parsifal.

Not a word is said concerning Wagner’s music in all of this: a strange conception of a music drama. No opposing voices are heard in what is ultimately an embarrassingly poor parody – that word again, I know – of a Nazi propaganda film. At least Goebbels had some skill in the dark arts. Palmer makes Michael Moore seem a model of balance without either his good cause or his (relatively) interesting method of filmic construction. One would rarely watch a Ken Russell film out of concern for historical accuracy; next to this, one would. And one would go to Russell every time were one interested in some degree of dramatic flow and coherence. Perhaps the most obvious question arising is this: why should Palmer involve himself in a production of Parsifal at all, if this is what he thinks of it? If I, perish the thought, considered it to be an incitement to genocide, then I doubt that I should busy myself by foisting pseudo-mediævalist kitsch representations of it upon St Petersburg. Production and film display profound, or rather shallow, dishonesty; the latter alternately elicits seething rage and mere boredom.


Mark Berry said...

There are at least couple of other things I should have mentioned: further padding with clips from Bergman's 'The Seventh Seal', again quite unrelated to 'Parsifal', and the misleading nature of the subtitles. Not only were stretches missed out; the meaning was altered. For instance, Parsifal at the end of Act II had 'Mit diesem Zeichen bann'ich deinen Zauber' translated as 'With a sign...' rather than with 'With this sign...'. So far as I could discern, the sign of the Cross was nowhere to be seen.

Doundou Tchil said...

Mark, you are saying what needs to be said. Ken Russell had panache, which made his inaccruracies racy. Palmer, like Stephen Fry, is less concerned with Wagner than with crass exploitation. Pornography, indeed.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this articulate summing up of all my own thoughts. I was particularly taken by his knocking of the hands that feed him and since I rushed from the Purcell Room as soon as the lights came up, I sincerely hope that the rest of the audience took his own hint about the overpriced DVDs and spurned the offer of his signature upon them, however graciously given. My sympathies lie with the German distributor sued for what I am merely supposing is an attempt to save something from this botched patchwork of barrel scrapings. This is the first time I have come across the man in person and he is positively Yentobian in his arrogance.

Harry Palmer said...

When I discovered there was a documentary about Parsifal I was excited to track it down. After reading this however I think I'll give it a miss. Steven Fry's latest mindless vanity piece was quite enough.

Mark Berry said...

Harry, I think life is definitely too short. I am grateful that I managed to miss Fry's piece: accounts of it sounded dreadful. Quite why anyone other than Stephen Fry should be interested in what he thinks/feels about Wagner is beyond me...

leonora said...

I watched it last night on BBC4 - almost wish I hadn't bothered, it was so bad.....
totally agree about Robert Gutman, he comes out with this nonsense again...it's not about 'contaminated blood' or 'racial purity' - Amfortas' sin is SEXUAL in nature, not 'racial', whatever that is supposed to mean.
One thing I did find interesting is that at the end of the production they used, the Grail maidens appear - this is not, of course, in Wagner's opera, but is in the medieval legends. I had hoped that there would be some reference to medieval literature - Wolfram, Chretien de Troyes - but no such luck.

gaspard101 said...

Thank you for this great analysis of Palmer's film.
I just watched it on iplayer and was appalled. Palmer's Mariinsky production was merely unimaginative but his film was poorly shot, incoherent and managed to be both boring and tendentious. I found it painful to watch someone so mediocre in his own chosen 'artistic' field attempt to grapple with the aesthetic, religious and political questions raised by a work such as Parsifal. He allows Gutman, unchallenged, to trot out his claim that Parsifal's hidden message is one of racial purity and anti-semitism, and reinforces this message by juxtaposing the music with Nazi propaganda footage. Nonetheless he seems happy to take the Mariinsky's money to produce a work supposedly capable of inciting racial hatred and genocide.
For me the worst moment (of many) was the bland pop music at the end, which started just after the closing bars of Parsifal. The last words we are left with are ‘Nobody callin’ on the phone, except for the Pope maybe in Rome?’ Surely this is proof that Palmer, despite having made so many films about classical music, is unqualified to do so by his own cloth-eared obtuseness.
Did anyone else find that the flower maidens reminded them of Pan's People? (Perhaps I'm showing my age here...)