The visionary and prolific British filmmaker Henry Kenneth Alfred
Russell, who left us on November 27, 2011 at age 84, remains an enigma.
A devout Catholic and lifelong lover of classical music, ďKenĒ Russell
directed many notable period dramas and literary adaptations, all of
them quintessentially British in feel (itís not for nothing that Russell
titled his 1989 autobiography A BRITISH PICTURE) but for the fact that
Russellís films tended to revel in extravagance and excess--as did the
Ken Russell: The Facts
Ken Russell was a boisterous individual whose
bushy-haired appearance and outrageous personality were unmistakable. He
was a semi-prolific actor in films ranging from THE RUSSIA HOUSE to
BROTHERS OF THE HEAD, and also a sometime novelist and critic. Yet itís
Russellís self-directed films, which spanned a fifty year-plus career,
for which he is and will be remembered.
Ken Russell was one of several notable
filmmakers--Dario Argento, Andrzej Zulawski and
among them--who challenged the popular conception that artistic merit is
somehow synonymous with stately refinement. These visionary geniuses
made films that unapologetically wallowed in all manner of excess,
though itís arguable that none of them did so with the finesse of Ken
Russell, who combined a seemingly effortless grasp of the mechanics of
filmmaking with an ability to shock and outrage that remains second to
When Brian DePalma, a guy who knows a thing
or two about cinematic outrage, put out
BODY DOUBLE in 1984 he was anticipating
controversy that was far more subdued than expected. Why? Because Ken
Russellís CRIMES OF PASSION--with its very Russell-esque depictions of a
glue-sniffing preacher, a sharpened dildo murder weapon and a cop
sodomized with his nightstick--premiered that same year to enormous
controversy, and handily stole BODY DOUBLEíS thunder. A similar thing
occurred in 1991, when Russellís aptly titled WHORE was released
alongside Michael Tolkienís Christian-baiting shocker THE RAPTURE.
Although THE RAPTURE was admittedly the superior film, it was up against
a provocation by Ken Russell and (to borrow a quote from
NATURAL BORN KILLERS)
itís hard to beat the king.
Itís true that Ken Russellís films contain scenes
of profound horror. Bonafide genre efforts like
THE LAIR OF THE WHITE WORM certainly
contain their share of horrific elements, as do ersatz mainstream
Russell films like the Tchaikovsky biopic THE MUSIC LOVERS (who can
forget the sight of Glenda Jackson lowering her crotch onto a grating
under which several lunatics are imprisoned, to the sounds of noisy
sucking and licking?), the abovementioned WHORE (in which the heroineís
hubbie returns home from a night of drinking to puke in her salad) and
THE DEVILS (a
historic chronicle that is arguably Russellís greatest ďhorrorĒ film).
Yet in the Russell universe comedy was just
as important as unpleasantness. Russell always claimed he wanted
audiences to wonder whether his intentions were serious or not, and he
succeeded in planting that seed in film after film. This means those of
you who brand THE DEVILS and WHORE as ďunintentional comediesĒ are
Of course none of the above would mean much
if not for Ken Russellís unsurpassed mastery of film technique. His best
films have a clarity and imagination befitting a true master of the
form, and have ushered in quite a few cinematic precedents. Russellís
1960s-era BBC documentaries (ELGAR, DELIUS, DANTEíS INFERNO, etc) broke
all sorts of rules, and his innovations didnít end there. Take ALTERED
STATES (1980), with its rapid-fire dialogue sequences interspaced with
bursts of hallucinatory action. Itís been said that Russell utilized
this technique as a way of lessening the work of screenwriter Patty
Chayefsky, yet the film works smashingly well overall, and successors
like Clive Barker and Stuart Gordon tend to direct in similar fashion.
In short, Ken Russell was one of the worldís
most complex and multi-faceted filmmakers, with a style as distinct and
recognizable as that of anyone. When, during preproduction on APOCALYPSE
NOW, Francis Ford Coppola told the press he wanted the film to be ďlike
a Ken Russell movie,Ē everyone seemed to know precisely what he meant.
Ken and the Critics
An entire book can written about Ken
Russellís treatment by critics. Unsurprisingly, most of them werenít too
complimentary to Russellís films, crying about their ďwretched excess.Ē
To his credit, Russell was never shy about firing back, claiming the
charges levied against him were identical to those that greeted the work
of his favorite composers.
For most critics Russellís best films were
his stately D.H. Lawrence adaptations WOMEN IN LOVE and THE RAINBOW, in
which the wildness is toned down somewhat, or his early BBC films. For
this critic Russellís finest work was in masterworks of outrage
like THE DEVILS, DANCE OF THE SEVEN VEILS and LISZTOMANIA, arguably the
wildest Russell movie of them all.
The latter two films were among Russellís
many classical composer biopics (others include SONG OF SUMMER, THE
MUSIC LOVERS and MAHLER). Regardless of what you may think of those
films, Russell deserves credit for making classical music fun and
accessibleÖalthough that clearly is where Russell went wrong with
reviewers. The ďcorrectĒ treatment for such fare, Iíd imagine, would be
AMADEUS (1984), a composer biopic more in line with the refined
sensibilities of most critics. As for myself, while viewing AMADEUS I
couldnít help but wonder, longingly, what Ken Russell might have done
with the material.
R.I.P. Ken Russell. Heíll be greatly missed!
A Personal Ranking of Ken Russellís Output by a Diehard Fan
KNIGHTS ON BIKES (1956): An unfinished 5-minute short that I
found too scant to properly judge.
PEEPSHOW (1956): Another short, which I found clumsy and
amateurish in the extreme.
AMELIA AND THE ANGEL (1957): A RED BALLOON inspired 25-minute
ditty about a little girl in search of angel wings. It did little for
ELGAR (1962): The first of Russellís BBC documentaries, and an
interesting avant-garde work.
FRENCH DRESSING (1964): Havenít seen it.
BARTOK (1964): Likewise.
THE DEBUSSY FILM (1965): A film-within-a-film about Claude
Debussy thatís uninvolving and distractingly self-conscious.
ALWAYS ON SUNDAY (1965): Another BBC biopic, and one of the
ISADORA DUNCAN, THE BIGGEST DANCER IN THE WORLD (1966): The most
arresting and kinetic of Russellís BBC productions (and much better than
the Vanessa Redgrave feature on the same subject).
BILLION DOLLAR BRAIN (1967): A sixties curio thatís now painfully
DANTEíS INFERNO (1967): Morbidly compelling; probably Russellís
most vital BBC production until DANCE OF THE SEVEN VEILS.
SONG OF SUMMER (1968): The most conventional and restrained--and
so least interesting--of the BBC films.
WOMEN IN LOVE (1969): Russellís most famous film, a refined and,
frankly, rather dull D.H. Lawrence adaptation.
DANCE OF THE SEVEN VEILS (1970): The Holy Grail of all Ken
Russell fanatics, his greatest and most outrageous BBC production.
THE MUSIC LOVERS (1970): I wouldnít call this Tchaikovsky biopic
ďgood,Ē but it is a jaw-dropping exercise in cine-madness.
THE DEVILS (1971): Russellís masterpiece, an insane, surreal and
altogether fascinating historical drama.
THE BOY FRIEND (1971): A film that boasts some truly awesome
musical numbers, but which is otherwise wildly overlong and ponderous.
SAVAGE MESSIAH (1972): Overblown but satisfying.
MAHLER (1974): Another bawdy composer biopic, and an impressive
dry run for LISZTOMANIA.
TOMMY (1975): A terrifically assaultive, phantasmagoric rock Ďn
roll fantasy, although it must be experienced on a big screen to be
LISZTOMANIA (1975): Arguably the apotheosis of Russellís composer
bios, a demented masterpiece of surreal delirium.
VALENTINO (1977): One of Russellís most notorious follies, but
not all bad; the riotously disturbing prison sequence is unforgettable.
THE RIME OF THE ANCIENT MARINER (1978): Havenít seen it.
WILLIAM AND DOROTHY (1978): Havenít seen it.
ALTERED STATES (1980): Awe-inspiring trippy entertainment,
although (like TOMMY) it MUST be seen on a big screen to be fully
THE PLANETS (1980): A so-so stock footage dramatization of
Holstís symphony that really could--nay, should--have been
CRIMES OF PASSION (1984): Another mind-scraping Russell
freak-out, though it hasnít dated well at all.
FAUST (1985): A thoroughly uninspiring video recording of a live
operaÖI guess you just had to be there.
GOTHIC (1986): A film as frenzied and surreal as nearly any
youíll see. Required viewing!
ARIA (1987): Russell directed a segment of this anthology film
inspired by various operas that frankly isnít much--the segment or the
KEN RUSSELLíS ABC OF BRITISH MUSIC (1988): Havenít seen it.
SALOMEíS LAST DANCE (1988): A solid dramatization of Wildeís
SALOME, with an unforgettable turn by the woefully underutilized Imogen
THE LAIR OF THE WHITE WORM (1988): An overrated film, although
this bawdy horrorfest definitely has its moments.
MEPHISTOPHELES (1989): Havenít seen it.
A BRITISH PICTURE (1989): A funny, endearing and fitfully
outrageous free-form dramatization of Russellís autobiography.
THE RAINBOW (1989): Another stately D.H. Lawrence adaptation that
works better in parts than as a whole.
WOMEN AND MEN: STORIES OF SEDUCTION (1990): Russell directed a
segment of this 4-parter that I havenít seen.
THE STRANGE AFFLICTION OF ANTON BRUCKNER (1990): Havenít seen it.
ROAD TO MANDALAY (1991): Likewise.
WHORE (1991): A thorough stinker, though it does contain many
PRISONER OF HONOR (1991): A bland made-for-HBO dramatization of
the Dreyfus affair, starring, appropriately enough, Richard Dreyfuss.
ANDREW LLOYD WEBBER: THE PREMIERE COLLECTION ENCORE (1992):
Havenít seen it.
THE SECRET LIFE OF ARNOLD BAX (1992): Likewise.
THE MYSTERY OF DR MARTINU (1993): Likewise.
LADY CHATTERLEY (1993): Yet another so-so D. H. Lawrence
adaptation, and in many respects the least of the three.
THE INSATIABLE MRS. KIRSCH (1993): A 25-minute PG-rated erotic
ALICE IN RUSSIALAND (1994): A fun, freewheeling documentary on
Russian counterculture (though beware: itís paired with a deadly
Jean-Luc Godard short).
CLASSIC WINDOWS (1995): Havenít seen it.
KEN RUSSELLíS TREASURE ISLAND (1995): Likewise.
MINDBENDER (1996): A thoroughly ludicrous Uri Gellar biopic that
provides some serious bad movie fun.
KEN RUSSELL IN SEARCH OF THE ENGLISH FOLK SONG (1997): Havenít
DOGBOYS (TRACKED) (1998): Lackluster made-for-cable crap, notable
only for the presence of the terrifically leggy Tia Carrere.
LIONíS MOUTH (2000): Havenít seen it.
ELGAR: FANTASY OF A COMPOSER ON A BICYCLE (2002): Likewise.
THE FALL OF THE LOUSE OF USHER (2002): A glorified home movie set
in an inflatable castle--my God, what a piece of SHIT!
REVENGE OF THE ELEPHANT MAN (2004): Havenít seen it.
TRAPPED ASHES (2006): Likewise.
A BRITISH PICTURE (ALTERED STATES) (1989): Russellís
autobiography, and everything youíd expect from such a flamboyant
FIRE OVER ENGLAND (THE LION ROARS) (1993): A highly
characteristic collection of humorous musings on British cinema.
MIKE AND GABYíS SPACE GOSPEL (1999): Russellís first novel, a
hilarious and endlessly quotable retelling of the Old Testament as a sci
DIRECTING FILM (2001): A collection of fun anecdotes in the guise
of a how-to text on filmmaking.
ELGAR THE EROTIC VARIATIONS & A MOMENT WITH DELIUS (2007):
Havenít read it.
BEETHOVEN CONFIDENTIAL & BRAHMS GETS LAID (2007): Likewise.
VIOLATION (2005): Russellís final and best novel, an amazing
X-rated futuristic freak-out.