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Ken Russell has Died

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 man himself.

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 Carmelo Bene 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 none.

     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.

The Films
    
Itís true that Ken Russellís films contain scenes of profound horror. Bonafide genre efforts like GOTHIC and 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 sorely incorrect.

     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

The Films
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 me.
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 stronger ones.
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 dated.
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 fully enjoyed.
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 appreciated.
THE PLANETS (1980): A so-so stock footage dramatization of Holstís symphony that really could--nay, should--have been better.
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 film!
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 Millais-Scott.
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 characteristic elements.
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 goof.
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 seen it.
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.

The Books
A BRITISH PICTURE (ALTERED STATES) (1989): Russellís autobiography, and everything youíd expect from such a flamboyant individual.
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 fi comedy.
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.

 

--12/14/11

     

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