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PHALLIC FRENZY:  KEN

RUSSELL AND HIS FILMS

By JOSEPH LANZA (Chicago Review Press; 2007) 

This isnít the first book about the English cinemaís premiere enfant terrible Ken Russell, but it is very likely the best.  Thatís largely due to the simple fact that the others--which include Joseph Gomezís KEN RUSSELL (197 ), John Baxterís AN APPALLING TALENT (1973) and Russellís own A BRITISH PICTURE (a.k.a. ALTERED STATES; 1992)--were all published some time ago, while this one is at least up-to-date.  In a life and career as incident-filled as Russellís, there are always new and interesting developments to be taken into account by any prospective biographer, and author Joseph Lanza is more than up to the task. 

     Ken Russellís films include crazed gems like MAHLER, TOMMY, ALTERED STATES, THE LAIR OF THE WHITE WORM, WHORE and many others.  All are characterized by an unapologetically scatological sense of humor, graphic violence, an overall obsession with sex and a probing intellectuality that often gets overlooked by prudish critics.  I consider Russell one of the great unfettered geniuses of the cinema, and this book at last puts his work in its proper perspective. 

     Joseph Lanza is best known to me for FRAGILE GEOMETRY, a wildly idiosyncratic study of the life and films of the British moviemaker Nicolas Roeg (complete with a chapter comparing Roeg with Ed Wood!).  PHALLIC FRENZY is a far more traditional account, related in standard biographical fashion and in strict chronological order, though with a definite laudatory point of view.  Lanza, in other words, is a fan of Ken Russellís films, and unafraid to challenge the prevailing critical sentiments on underrated Russell freak-outs like GOTHIC and LISZTOMANIA, both apparently ďexcessiveĒ and ďscandalousĒ.  Well yes, they are those things, but thereís far more to them.

     The author thankfully doesnít dwell overmuch on his subjectís childhood.  Rather, he keeps the opening chapters concise, relating how the youthful Russell, growing up in the English town of Southampton, was traumatized for life by a film called THE SECRET OF THE LOCH, along with warring parents and an ill-advised teenaged stint in the Royal Navy, during which he was bullied mercilessly.

     Russell later thrived making films for the BBC, creating scandalous, rule-breaking works like DELIUS: SONG OF SUMMER, ELGAR and DANTEíS INFERNO.  His first feature of note was BILLION DOLLAR BRAIN, a Michael Caine-headlined inversion on traditional James Bond themes that was a box-office flop.  It was followed by the tasteful and refined WOMEN IN LOVE, which conventional wisdom would have us believe is Russellís ďmasterpieceĒ. 

     To his credit Lanza refutes that notion, treating WIL as at best a warm-up to the unforgettable 1970 Tchaikovsky biopic THE MUSIC LOVERS and 1971ís taboo-shattering THE DEVILS, in my view Russellís true masterwork.  Itís gratifying to find that Lanza agrees with me about the importance of THE DEVILS to Russellís filmography, writing that it was ďhis hardest labor, his consummate masterpiece, his CITIZEN KANE.  Now (Russell) started fearing that the bloom was off the Rosebud.Ē

     Ken Russell would of course go on to make many more unforgettable films throughout the seventies and eighties, and Lanza is careful to mention them all, even if his coverage at times amounts to little more than a paragraph or two (Russellís hilarious South Bank Show autobiography, for instance, is given scant attention). 

     We also learn about Russellís forays into opera and novel-writing (with the outrageous sci fi Biblical pastiche MIKE AND GABYíS SPACE GOSPEL, which I recommend), and various Ken Russell projects that never came to fruition.  These include a Sarah Bernhardt biopic starring Barbara Streisand, a Bob Guccione produced adaptation of MOLL FLANDERS, and a sequel to THE LAIR OF THE WHITE WORM.

     Lanza does his best to close the book on an optimistic note, with Russell turning his back on conventional filmmaking and distribution practices to pursue his own unique vision in the homemade ventures THE FALL OF THE LOUSE OF USHER (2001) and HOT PANTS (2006).  Still, the prognosis is pretty grim, with Russell finding himself persona non grata at all the major studios and reduced to looking for a mate on the internet in the wake of three failed marriages.  Yes, an eligible woman, the American Elize Tribble, did respond to his online proposal (ďUnbankable film director Ken Russell seeks soul mate--mad about movies, music and Moet et Chandon champagneĒ) and the marriage commenced.  Itís apparently still going strong, even if Russellís movie career isnít!
 


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