Monday, November 28, 2011

stencil #034 - helmut berger

Helmut Berger as Ludwig II, High St, Northcote

The sad truth about my long break from spraying stencils is that I've been deriving my onanistic gratification instead from watching the films featuring Austrian-born German actor Helmut Berger who I inadvertently came across through my other distraction from blogging: Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde.

In pursuit of fellow Tristanophiles, I read about Ludwig II of Bavaria who was an ardent patron of Richard Wagner.

One of Ludwig's first acts as King was to summon Wagner to Munich, providing him with the financial support to compose and stage his operas. Ludwig's increasing disinterest in his royal duties and neglect of his political responsibilities in favour of indulging his aesthetic satisfactions ultimately led to his withdrawal from public life and a forced abdication.

Ludwig’s frustration with social obligations, his inclination towards solitude and his solace in art make him an intriguing fellow traveller.

Eschewing traditional biographical/historical accounts, I started my Ludwig-related reading with You Higuri’s two-volume Yaoi manga Ludwig II and C. Robert Holloway’s novel My Letters from Ludwig. In hindsight, I should have started with Christopher McIntosh’s biography The Swan King and heeded his implicit warning that “much of the writing about [Ludwig] is of the same quality as the [kitschy] souvenirs: cheap, sentimental and crude." I would have been spared the disappointment to the point of ire at the (irreparable) damage done to Ludwig by both Higuri and Holloway.

Given my conviction that illustration has the power to evoke complex characters with psychological and emotional depth (e.g. Black Hole by Charles Burns and Ghost World by Daniel Clowes), I was looking forward to reading my first manga comic but anticipation turned to alarm when confronted with Higuri’s creepy, infantilised and fetishistic portraits of Ludwig and his equerry Richard Hornig:

Illustrations by You Higuri, Ludwig II, Vol.1
Higuri’s book is referred to as Yaoi or Boys’ Love – a type of manga focusing on homoerotic and homoromantic male relationships (curiously, written by and for women). I can see how the stereotypes on display might raise the ire of some but what puzzles me most is how anyone could find these kinds of images satisfying in any sense. On the whole, there is a vacuity in Higuri’s illustrations masked by an excess of romantic fantasy which renders them little more than fashion sketches on which to hang her kooky portrayal of Ludwig’s relationship with Hornig. One could justifiably feel indignant at this exploitation.

C. Robert Holloway commits an even more serious crime against the nonextant.  Holloway is a character in his own(anistic) novel whose plot hinges on the revelation that Ludwig had been Richard Wagner’s sexual slave; the initial hilarity of this preposterous idea gives way to resentment as it becomes apparent Holloway’s graphomania is simply an excuse to record his uncensored fantasies, leaving one feeling soiled.  

Christopher McIntosh’s ‘sober’ biography of the King restores a complex and balanced portrait of Ludwig, avoiding an overemphasis on his peculiarities/eccentricities. But I preferred Wilfrid Blunt’s ‘enthusiastic’ biography The Dream King which includes many wonderful photos and drawings and 'bizarre and unexpected details'.  

I cringed in recognition at Blunt’s declaration:
“Ludwig was . . . the kind of concert- or opera-goer who is so despised by the professional musician: the listener who is content to let the music break over him like a wave and who cares nothing for codas, ‘second subjects’, and all the technical paraphernalia with which the average programme note is always so generously stuffed. ”
But it hasn’t prevented me from continuing to let the music of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde break over me.

McIntosh backs up Blunt:
“Often people with little previous knowledge of music or enthusiasm for it are nevertheless carried away when they come into contact with the powerful ethos and atmosphere of the Wagnerian world . . . It has also been claimed that Ludwig was one of these ‘non-musical’ Wagnerites. Indeed Wagner himself said that Ludwig had no real understanding of music.”
But then offers this consoling justification:
“. . . each of Wagner’s operas forms a totality [Gesamtkunstwerk], in which words, music and action are fused . . . anyone who . . . respond[s] deeply must, given the nature of the work, respond to the whole. Thus when we talk about a ‘non-musical’ or ‘musically uneducated’ Wagnerite, what we really mean is someone in whom Wagner’s work has awakened a degree of musical response through the power of the totality.”
An awakening of a different kind and also the highlight of my preoccupation with Ludwig, however, has been the discovery of Helmut Berger who portrays the King in Luchino Visconti’s biopic. Unlike most reviewers of the film, I was undisturbed by the sympathetic portrayal of Ludwigprobably because I was leering. (So much for my indignation at the irreparable damage done to Ludwig by Higuri and Holloway.) Lecherous thoughts aside, Helmut Berger’s performance is riveting, forcefully conveying Ludwig’s dilemma between his public obligations and his personal ideals. As always, the Time Out Film Guide succinctly summarises the film’s shortcomings and its appeal:
“Nothing is more sumptuous than Helmut Berger's performance in the lead, the brooding mad scenes, the deliberately contrived hysterical outbursts, and it takes only a flicker of scepticism to find the whole charade risible. But suspension of disbelief has its own rewards: Visconti's connoisseurship of historical detail and manners is as acute as ever, and his commitment to his subject is total. The film was originally released in cut versions ranging between 186 and 137 minutes; this uncut one [235 minutes], obviously more coherent, simply doubles the interest/boredom rate.”

1. Select Helmut Berger filmography:

2. Tumblr tribute: Fuck yeah, Helmut Berger!
3. Critical views of Yaoi – Boys’ Love manga

4. Essay by authoritative manga scholar Frederik L. Schodt who has made me rethink my  position on manga. I might give it another go at some point.

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