July 3rd, 1927 to November 27th, 2011
"British film director Ken Russell dies at 84"
The British director's daring and sometimes outrageous films often tested the patience of audiences and critics.
November 28th, 2011
The British director's daring and sometimes outrageous films often tested the patience of audiences and critics.
November 28th, 2011
Ken Russell, the British director whose daring and sometimes outrageous films often tested the patience of audiences and critics, has died at age 84.
Russell died in a hospital on Sunday following a series of strokes, his son Alex Verney-Elliott said Monday.
One of Russell's biggest successes came in 1969 with "Women in Love," based on the book by D.H. Lawrence, which earned Academy Award nominations for the director and for writer Larry Kramer, and an Oscar for the star, Glenda Jackson.
Music played a central role in many of Russell's films including "The Music Lovers" in 1970, and "Lisztomania" and "Tommy" in 1975.
"My father died peacefully," Verney-Elliott said. "He had had a series of strokes. He died with a smile on his face."
Russell established himself by making short films for the British Broadcasting Corp., focusing on arts and artists including profiles of the poet John Betjeman, comedian Spike Milligan and playwright Shelagh Delaney, the author of "A Taste of Honey."
"When there were no more live artists left, we turned to making somewhat longer films about dead artists such as Prokofiev," Russell once said.
"At first we were only allowed to use still photographs and newsreel footage of these subjects, but eventually we sneaked in the odd hand playing the piano (in 'Prokofiev') and the odd back walking through a door. By the time a couple of years had gone by, those boring little factual accounts of the artists had evolved into evocative films of an hour or more which used real actors to impersonate the historical figures."
Russell's darker side appeared in "Dante's Inferno" in 1967, about the poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Russell played up the differences between Rossetti's idealized view of his wife and her reality as a drug addict.
Russell was even more provocative in his 1970 film, "The Dance of the Seven Veils: A Comic Strip in Seven Episodes." It presents the composer Richard Strauss as a crypto-Nazi, and showed him conducting Rosenkavalier waltzes while SS men tortured a Jew.
"Ken Russell dies aged 84"
Ken Russell, the veteran director of Women in Love, The Devils and Tommy, has died at the age of 84
Henry Barnes and Catherine Shoard
November 28th, 2011
Ken Russell, the veteran director of Women in Love, The Devils and Tommy, has died at the age of 84
Henry Barnes and Catherine Shoard
November 28th, 2011
Ken Russell, the director behind the Oscar-winning Women in Love has died aged 84. Russell died on Sunday in his sleep, according to his friend, the arts writer Norman Lebrecht.
Known for a flamboyant style developed during his early career in television, Russell's films mixed high and low culture with rare deftness and often courted high controversy. The Devils … a religious drama that featured an infamous scene between Oliver Reed and Venessa Redgrave sexualising the crucifixion – was initially rejected by Warner Brothers. It will be released in its entirety in March next year, 42 years after it was made, when it will form part of the British Board of Film Classification's centenary celebrations.
Women in Love, released in 1969, became notorious for its nude male wrestling scene between Alan Bates and Oliver Reed, while Tommy, his starry version of the Who's rock opera, was his biggest commercial success, beginning as a stage musical before being reimagined for the screen in 1976. But Russell fell out of the limelight in recent years, as some of his funding dried up and his proposed projects became ever more eclectic. He returned to the public eye in 2007, when he appeared on the fifth edition of Celebrity Big Brother, before quitting the show after a disagreement with fellow contestant Jade Goody.
Russell was born in Southampton in 1927, the son of a shoe shop owner whose violent episodes led Russell and his mother to seek refuge in the cinema. After serving in the RAF and merchant navy, Russell began his career as a photographer - a pursuit he maintained through his life - before moving into TV documentaries. He joined the BBC in 1959, where for the next 11 years he made pioneering arts shows for Monitor and Omnibus, the best-known of which focused on composers, including Elgar (1962), The Debussy Film (1965), Isadora Duncan, the Biggest Dancer in the World (1967), Song of Summer (about Frederick Delius and Eric Fenby) (1968) and Dance of the Seven Veils (1970), a film about Richard Strauss, which Russell himself thought his finest achievement.
His first feature, a light comedy called French Dressing (1963), was not well-received, but he scored a minor hit 1967's Billion Dollar Brain, starring Michael Caine. Two years later came the success of Women in Love, Russell's groundbreaking adaptation of the DH Lawrence novel, which won an Oscar for leading lady Glenda Jackson, as well as nominations for cinematography, screenwriting and direction (Russell's only recognition by the Academy). The film established Russell's maverick credentials, not only for its full-frontal wrestling scene, but for an approach to the source that dove-tailed with the sexual mores of the late 1960s.
He followed Women in Love with a string of innovative adult-themed films which were often as controversial as they were successful. The Music Lovers (1970), a biopic of Tchaikovsky, starred Richard Chamberlain as a flamboyant Tchaikovsky and Glenda Jackson as his wife. The score was conducted to great acclaim by André Previn. The film was widely panned but it was successful at the box office.
The 1970s were fruitful years for Russell, who made mature movies that proved popular at the box office, whatever their reception with the critics. Tchaikovsky biopic The Music Lovers (1970), scored by André Previn, was a lucrative reunion for Russell and Glenda Jackson, while The Devils, which reunited him with another Women in Love star, Oliver Reed, topped the British box office for eight weeks. But it was widely reviled in the press, with Evening Standard film critic Alexander Walker famously damning the film as "monstrously indecent" in a TV encounter with Russell, leading the director to hit him with a rolled up copy of the Standard. "I wish it had been an iron bar," Russell told the Guardian in an interview earlier this year.
Twiggy vehicle The Boy Friend was followed by Savage Messiah, a biopic of Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, then Mahler, an unlikely smash starring the young Robert Powell. Then came Tommy, followed by Lisztomania (1975), which also starred Roger Daltrey, then yet another biopic, 1977's Valentino.
Russell began the 1980s with more innovation: his first foray into science-fiction. Altered States was a hallucinatory fantasy that mixed religion and space to successful effect. Even critic Roger Ebert, who panned The Devils and the bulk of Russell's back catalogue, gave it his highest grade. But on set rows with the author of the novel on which Altered States was based, Paddy Chayefsky, led to Russell being socially exiled in Hollywood, and after one final US production - Crimes of Passion (1984) - Russell returned to Europe for good.
Here he took a break from cinema to direct operas, until a return to horror with 1986's Gothic, and 1988's The Lair of the White Worm. Though unsuccessful on release, both helped launched the careers of acting talent such as Hugh Grant, and have been championed by horror afficionados in recent years. Jackson and Russell teamed up again in 1989 with The Rainbow, an adaptation of DH Lawrence's Women in Love prequel: one of Russell's quietest, and most acclaimed films.
Russell had a rare acting cameo in 1990's The Russian House, starring Sean Connery, then returned behind the camera for 1991's Prisoner of Honor, which allowed the director to further explore his abiding interest in anti-semitism. Later that year came Whore, about the travails of a prostitute, whose very title proved problematic in the US.
The director also returned to television, collaborating with Reed and Jackson again on various projects, and making splashy documentaries such as 1996's Mindbender, about Uri Geller.
The last 15 years were spent teaching at film schools and struggling to find funding for a variety of projects, including a version of Moll Flanders, starring Barry Humphries. Russell kept innovating even through his twilight years, producing a short called A Kitten For Hitler for the Comedybox.tv and directing a play, Mindgame, off Broadway. His appetite for both adventure and publicity appeared undiminished when he agreed to enter the Big Brother house in 2007. But he only lasted four days in the house, following an altercation with Jade Goody. In a statement he said: "I don't want to live in a society riddled with evil and hatred". Producers apparently rejected a proposal by Russell to return to the house accompanied by his friend Faye Dunaway.
Russell was married four times, initially to the costume designer Shirley Ann Russell, with whom he had five children: Xavier, James, Alexander, Victoria and Toby. He also had a son, Rex, by his third wife, Hetty Baynes.
Tributes began appearing to the director on Twitter this morning, with the comedy writer Graham Linehan recalling an anecdote from the set of Lair of the White Worm in which Russell's directing style grew exponentially broader as his alcohol intake for the day increased. David Baddiel wrote that Russell was "[a] massively underrated film-maker. In his prime - The Music Lovers, Women In Love - one of our best ever." Jonathan Ross described Russell as a "film-maker of rare vision and unique talent [and] a lovely man to spend time with".
"Ken Russell, Controversial Director, Dies at 84"
November 28th, 2011
The New York Times
November 28th, 2011
The New York Times
Ken Russell, the English filmmaker and writer whose outsize personality matched the confrontational brashness of his movies, died on Sunday, news agencies reported. He was 84.
The Associated Press quoted his son, Alex Verney-Elliott, as saying Mr. Russell died after a series of strokes.
A polarizing figure who delighted in breaching the limits of propriety and cinematic good taste, Mr. Russell courted controversy through much of his career. His most popular film, the D.H. Lawrence adaptation “Women in Love” (1969), and his most notorious one, “The Devils” (1971), about a 17th-century outbreak of religious hysteria, both caused run-ins with censors.
The flamboyance and intemperance of his movies were all the more notable coming at a time when British cinema and television were still largely known for the kitchen-sink style of social realism. During the ’70s, his most active decade as a feature film director, he made a series of artist biopics and rock operas that his supporters admired for their delirious excesses and that his detractors dismissed as vulgar kitsch.
Henry Kenneth Alfred Russell was born on July 3, 1927, in Southampton, England, the son of a shoe store owner. He described his childhood as a lonely one, with many an afternoon spent at the movies, alone or with his mother. As a teenager, he attended nautical school, where he claimed to have won over the bullies by putting on amateur productions of Dorothy Lamour musicals. He served briefly in the Merchant Navy and the Royal Air Force, then moved to London, where he studied dance before turning to photography in his late 20s.
Mr. Russell’s work as a freelance photographer and filmmaker led in 1959 to a job at the BBC, where he made dozens of arts documentaries, most notably a 1962 piece on Elgar, unusual at the time for its use of re-enactments. His other subjects included the composers Prokofiev and Debussy, the dancer Isadora Duncan and the painter Henri Rousseau.
The fascination with genius, ambition and the creative process — and the project of making high culture accessible to a popular audience — continued in Mr. Russell’s later fictional features. Many of them take considerable liberties in exploring the lives and works of composers and artists: the Tchaikovsky biopic “The Music Lovers” (1970);“Savage Messiah” (1972), about the French sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska; “Mahler” (1974); “Lisztomania” (1975), which imagined Franz Liszt as the original pop superstar.
Mr. Russell’s career in feature films began with a couple of lightweight genre assignments — the romantic comedy “French Dressing” (1964) and “Billion Dollar Brain” (1967), a spy movie with Michael Caine — and took off with “Women in Love” (1969), a sensuous period piece that connected with the liberated sexual politics of the late ’60s. Although the film was generally well-reviewed and a mainstream success— it earned Mr. Russell his one Academy Award nomination for best director and won Glenda Jackson an Oscar for best actress — it was also the first glimpse of his flair for provocation.
“Women in Love” became notorious for an extended wrestling scene between the two male stars, Oliver Reed and Alan Bates, that featured full-frontal nudity and made it past the British censorship board only after Mr. Russell agreed to trim a few shots.
“The Dance of the Seven Veils,” a caricatured television drama from 1970, emphasized the connections of the composer Richard Strauss to the Third Reich. The Strauss estate withdrew the music rights, and the film, the last that Mr. Russell made for the BBC, remains suppressed to this day.
His 1971 film “The Devils,” based on real events that had inspired a play by John Whiting and a book by Aldous Huxley, tells the grotesque story of demonic possession at a French convent, complete with exorcism rituals and blasphemous orgies. Mr. Russell, who converted to Catholicism in the 1950s, saw the film as an attack on the corrupt union of church and state.
The American funders and the British censors called for cuts. The Catholic Church condemned the movie when it was screened at the Venice Film Festival. Even in its edited version, the film was banned by several local authorities in Britain; it was further trimmed in the United States to avoid an X-rating.
Despite his affinity for classical music, Mr. Russell’s films had more in common with the flashy British rock scene of the day. This connection was made explicit with “Tommy” (1975), his frenzied film version of the Who’s rock opera and concept album. He combined classical and rock music in the follow-up, “Lisztomania” (1975),which starred the Who’s lead singer, Roger Daltrey, as Liszt and featured a cameo by Ringo Starr as the pope.
Critics tended to welcome each new Ken Russell film as target practice. Reviewing “The Devils” in The New York Times, Vincent Canby called Mr. Russell “a hobbyist determined to reproduce ‘The Last Supper’ in bottle tops.” Pauline Kael called him a “shrill, screaming gossip.”
Mr. Russell was not above fighting back. Appearing on live television shortly after the release of “The Devils” with the British critic Alexander Walker, who had denounced the film as “monstrously indecent,” Mr. Russell hit him on the head with a rolled-up newspaper.
But even his staunchest critics would acknowledge that Mr. Russell left his mark on the medium. The nascent music-video aesthetic of the ’80s can be traced to the slick surfaces, rapid montage and voracious pastiche of his films (he lifted liberally from the likes of Fellini and Cocteau).
He had a knack for casting ascendant stars (Vanessa Redgrave, Glenda Jackson) and he sought out talented collaborators: two of his ’60s films were scored by the French composer Georges Delerue; he hired the young Derek Jarman as a production designer on “The Devils.”
Even in the prime of his career Mr. Russell cycled between hits and flops. Time and again he bounced back from critical and commercial disasters like “Lisztomania” and “Valentino.” He ventured into the American studio system with “Altered States” (1980), a hallucinogenic science-fiction film starring William Hurt. In his autobiography Mr. Russell revealed that he was hired by Warner Brothers only after 26 other directors had passed on the project. He feuded with the screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky, who took his name off the project, but “Altered States” earned him some of his best reviews and has since developed a cult following.
Mr. Russell’s career never fully recovered from his 1984 flop, “Crimes of Passion,” although he managed one final provocation with “Whore” (1991). A drama about a Los Angeles prostitute, it was the last of his films to get a theatrical release in the United States, where it received an NC-17 rating and was released on video under the alternate title “If You Can’t Say It, Just See It.”
But even with his directing career in eclipse, Mr. Russell kept busy with films and documentaries for British television, occasional acting roles and self-financed low-budget features like “The Fall of the Louse of Usher,” a 2002 horror spoof literally shot in his backyard. He wrote several novels — including a few on the sex lives of famous composers (“Beethoven Confidential,” “Brahms Gets Laid”) —and made his off-Broadway directing debut in 2008 with “Mindgame,” a play starring Keith Carradine.
In Britain he remained a public gadfly into his 70s and 80s, appearing on television talk shows and writing a column for The Times of London. In 2007 he joined the cast of the reality TV series “Celebrity Big Brother” and left the show after getting into an argument with another house guest, Jade Goody.
In a column in The Times in 2008 about a critical biography on him by Joseph Lanza titled “Phallic Frenzy,” Mr. Russell reflected on his longtime status as a critical punching bag. “I believe in what I’m doing wholeheartedly, passionately, and what’s more, I simply go about my business,” he wrote. “I suppose such a thing can be annoying to some people.”
John A. Riley
senses of cinema
“Not one word of criticism written has ever altered in any way my scripts or my next project. I believe in what I’m doing wholeheartedly, passionately, and what’s more, I simply go about my business. I suppose such a thing can be annoying to some people.”
– Ken Russell
The idea that Ken Russell, most recently visible to the British public as a contestant on Celebrity Big Brother, should be considered a great director will strike many as a ludicrous suggestion. If his appearance on reality television – arguing heatedly with Jade Goody over cheese – is not enough to tarnish his reputation forever, Russell’s critics will point to his recent attempts at no-budget home video narrative, such as The Fall of the Louse of Usher (2002), a venture which explored the very boundaries of watchability, or further oddities such as the made-for-television Ken Russell’s Treasure Island (1995), an incorrigibly eccentric musical production shot on hi-8. They may even denigrate major films like The Devils (1971) and Tommy (1975) as camp, over the top, cruel and misogynistic.
In this article, though, I want to argue that in British cinema, and in the medium at large, Russell should be celebrated as a great director. His is a consistent authorial voice that can be heard throughout all of his work, even though the authorial voice is often contradictory – sometimes sublime and romantic, sometimes grotesque and brash, sometimes angry and satirical, sometimes displaying a goofy slapstick innocence. Russell is able to bring out the Donald McGill already latent in Aubrey Beardsley, to bring out the conflict and anguish behind the most sublime pieces of classical music, and to bring his own intensely personal vision to other people’s work, as in his adaptation of The Who’s rock album, Tommy. What makes Russell such an interesting figure is the varied nature of his work.
To understand the first reason why this florid-faced, loud-mouthed figure of ridicule should be considered great, we should return to the BBC, and its arguably long forgotten Reithian ideals.
Russell as Reithian Populist
“Educate, inform and entertain.”
– Lord Reith
Like the much-better-regarded Stanley Kubrick, Russell’s creative career progressed from still photographer to short filmmaker. His short works got him noticed by Huw Wheldon of the BBC, who was helming a programme called Monitor, which was to purvey arts and culture to the British people. From his first films for the programme, short and assuming features on poet John Betjeman and composer Gordon Jacob, one would hardly picture the Byronic svengali who would later film masturbating nuns and public executions in The Devils.
Wheldon was apparently suspicious of Russell’s attitude and his desire to fictionalise accounts of his subjects, but he allowed Russell to make a dramatised documentary on the life of the composer Edward Elgar. Wheldon insisted on no dialogue, so Russell recreated scenes from the composer’s life in long-shot, and used a narrator, resulting in an informative yet creative biography that made quite an impact when broadcast in 1962. This became the early Russell’s modus operandi, making artistic and musical subjects accessible to the general public.
Where possible, though, Russell’s idea of accessibility involved exaggeration wherever Wheldon would allow it. Russell’s more surreal side was aired in episodes such as “Pop Goes the Easel” (1962), a film on the subject of pop art where Russell perfected one of his trademark moves – matching content to form by interspersing interviews with the artists with acted fantasies and breezy montage. Kubrick would later view it as research for his pop-culture design of A Clockwork Orange. The short, Lonely Shore (1964), depicted debris on a seashore, with a voice-over trying (and mostly failing) to guess what these sand-submerged objects were used for.
Then came the longer episodes as Russell gained more creative control – films on impressionist composer Claude Debussy, dancer Isadora Duncan (Russell himself had attempted a career in ballet dancing) and artist Henri Rousseau followed. The Rousseau film was called “Always on Sunday” (1965) and featured Russell’s trademark interest in the artist as a naïve outsider, as well as surrealistic touches such as a tiny actress playing the playwright Alfred Jarry. Russell made these high-brow figures accessible, and in doing so also purveyed a sort of arthouse-lite æsthetic, his “The Debussy Film” (1965) structured en abyme: as a film-within-a-film, like Fellini’s famous 8½.
In 1970, after working at the BBC for ten years, and having made three feature films, the light seaside comedy French Dressing (1964), the spy film, Billion Dollar Brain (1967) and his first masterpiece, Women in Love (1969), Russell made his most controversial move yet and made a film for the BBC on the German composer Richard Strauss, who was appointed head of the Third Reich’s music bureau by Josef Goebbels. That Strauss could make such beautiful music and harbour such detestable politics seemed to fascinate and disgust Russell, who depicted the composer frolicking with Nazis, and Jews being tortured all to the strains of the composer’s work. This caused the Strauss family to retaliate by withdrawing music rights and effectively making the film impossible to see. Russell’s days as a Reithian educator were over, though he would retain an interest in making the biographies of composers relevant to the present day. He reminded producer Harry Saltzman of his promise to let him make a film of his own choosing after successfully helming Billion Dollar Brain, and Russell chose the life of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, which he pitched as “the story of a homosexual who married a nymphomaniac.” Wheldon has stated that, around this time, he noticed a change from the quiet unassuming man who joined the BBC to the newly outspoken, confrontational public figure. Russell’s life as a purveyor of accessible art and music was over, and his career as a thundering, controversial “enfant terrible” was about to begin in earnest.
Russell as Master of Imagery
“Grandiosity, sublimity and luxury for which you reproach me”
– Henri Gaudier-Brzeska
When one sees eccentric public appearances by Russell, such as his heckling of Little Britain comedians Matt Lucas and David Walliams at an awards ceremony in 2005, one can forget that Russell was a major box-office draw in the 1970s. A film such as Tommy may seem risible today, but cast a fresh eye over this era of Russell’s work and it can be seen as a forerunner of the music video, “MTV æsthetic”. Baz Luhrmann’s opulent box-office successes, William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge!, have been compared in some circles to Russell’s work. The iconic ending to Altered States (1980) was parodied in the video for A-ha’s hit “Take on me” and MTV designed an animated logo that also mimicked this memorable moment. Russell biographer Ken Hanke remarked of ’80s MTV that, “There are more pirated images from Tommy than can be comfortably counted, all drenched in pseudo-Russell symbols that, in this usage, are devoid of all meaning.” (1)
Hanke may be right, but Russell himself was always one of cinema’s greatest pasticheurs. Unlike later directors more steeped in the MTV æsthetic such as Guy Ritchie, Quentin Tarantino and Luhrmann, Russell only borrows from the best: Federico Fellini, Jean Cocteau, Jean Vigo and Orson Welles. Russell can be seen as the godfather of the rock video, via Sergei Eisenstein’s influence on him. Pop art also played its part and, perhaps unexpectedly, Russell’s Reithian populism. His desire with Lisztomania (1975) was to explain Franz Liszt’s immense popularity in his own day by comparing him to a modern pop performer. By Russell’s account, producer David Puttnam interfered with the project, insisting on more pop art and less context, and also adding the painfully stupid “hoedown” music to the opening scene.
Fast-paced montage is evident throughout Russell’s work, from “Pop Goes the Easel” to Altered States. It is used in the documentary to emphasise the breezy bricolage of his pop-art subjects, in Altered States to convey the protagonist’s drug induced state (bacteria under a microscope are used; Darren Aronowsky would use a similar technique for his The Fountain in 2006). Most interesting is when Russell uses it to heighten the emotional intensity of his subjects – as in certain moments of The Music Lovers. Editing, though, is not the only trace of Eisenstein’s influence on Russell; he pays homage to Ivan Grozny (Ivan the Terrible, 1944) with the production design of Lisztomania.
Russell’s aforementioned admiration of Eisenstein takes into account, as Susan Sontag did, that the Soviet master’s work veers dangerously close to camp. (2) It is sometimes easy to forget that Eisenstein, as well as firebrand revolutionary and intellectual formalist, was also playful and comic. He adored Charlie Chaplin, as Russell clearly does, and drew numerous cartoons featuring exaggerated phalluses. Russell used huge phalluses as props in his Liszt film, exhorting star Roger Daltrey to stand astride a huge specimen in a pose that recalls a photograph of Eisenstein with a huge priapic cactus between his legs. Russell’s spy film, Billion Dollar Brain, seized on a reference to Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky (1938) in the source novel, and used it as inspiration for a fast-paced battle on a frozen lake.
Although fond of pastiche and of wearing his influences on his sleeve, Russell has an eye for an impressive shot that is his own, and a restless creativity. No less an authority than the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze was able to recognise these facts, remarking of Russell’s associative style that, “Ken Russell was able to play with the quality common to a hardened face, an internal frigidity, a funereal glacier.” (3)
Russell delights in the human face: a profile of Robert Powell near the start of Mahler (1974) is perfectly framed to emphasise the uniqueness of that actor’s features, while The Devils uses lenses to gain comic-book distortions of the already formidable visages of actors like Murray Melvin and Max Adrian. One of the most visually striking, yet simple, moments in all of Russell’s cinema is the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” sequence from Valentino (1977), set during the making of the Italian star’s breakthrough picture. Although explosions rage on the set, what truly startles the viewer is the way the glamorous visages of Alla Nazimova and Natacha Rambova (portrayed by Leslie Caron and Michelle Phillips) enter the frame from the right hand side.
Russell delights in depicting nature (on which more later) and would use the mountain range of Skiddaw in the Lake District, wherever possible, for its unique scenery. As usual with Russell, the desire to depict something æsthetically beautiful goes beyond any fidelity to the truth. Russell has made the Lake District stand in for several different locations over his career, from a Russian birch grove to Mahler’s Austrian idyll. He remarks sullenly in his autobiography: “Unfortunately Valentino never went to the Lake District and in no way could the green hills of Cumbria have doubled for the arid hills of Hollywood.” (4)
Russell delights in less than subtle deployments of the more outlandish propositions in film language. Crash zooms are audaciously used and The Music Lovers features hand-held camera where one can feel cinematographer stepping closer to the actors, creating a claustrophobic intensity. Although he has worked with talented cinematographers such as Douglas Slocombe and Dick Bush, a 2007 retrospective of his photographic work revealed just what an amazing eye for composition Russell has, coming across like a retro-Edwardian version of Diane Arbus.
Tommy’s use of primary colours and striking composition recall the comic book, a medium which has come in for as much harsh criticism as Russell’s own films. In order to tell its fast-paced, action-packed narrative, the comic book has to compress, to simplify and to exaggerate. This is exactly what Russell had to do with the numerous sub-plots and themes Russell found connected to Townshend’s lyrics. This is another example of Russell’s ability to match form and content. His visual sense was always connected to the thematic material of his films, which I will now go on to discuss.
Russell as Satirist
“One would have to have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing.”
– Oscar Wilde
Were Russell merely a pioneering forerunner of the so-called “MTV æsthetic”, he would still have his place in the history of cinema. But what makes him truly memorable and worthwhile is his constant satirising of everything. Tellingly, he once planned a film of Rabelais’ Gargantua. His satire is related to the kind that Russian theorist Bakhtin detected in Rabelais’ work. (5) When a Russian music fan confronted Russell on his film on Tchaikovsky, he accused him of turning the composer’s life into a “a frenzied carnival” (6) and Russell retorted with a point that I shall return to later: that his film was only as concerned with sublime and tranquil beauty as Tchaikovsky’s music was, the implication being that the sacred cannot exist without the profane.
But the disgruntled Russian’s criticism hits on exactly the point of a great deal of Russell’s art. Like other filmmakers such as Fellini, Werner Herzog and Emir Kusturica, Russell has a vision of life as a carnival or pageant, a brash noisy celebration of life that confronts us with the potential and with the frailty of the human body. A vision that shows us people used and mis-used as puppets, and yet still has the courage to laugh about this, and refuses to lapse into the preachy or sanctimonious. This carnival atmosphere was expressed by Russell in the early documentary “Pop Goes the Easel”, where the four artist subjects prowl a funfair seeking inspiration, while a ridiculous novelty pop song plays on the soundtrack. Peter Blake (who would go on to design the album cover for The Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band) sits and impassively sketches some dwarves who work at the fairground, while they try to look unfazed by either Blake or Russell’s camera.
The more cynical, late-’70s Russell, working on Valentino (which would be the biggest financial disaster of his career, and would in fact nearly end it), included a scene in which silent movie star and camp icon Nazimova parades into the funeral parlour where Valentino’s body is being kept. She has several attendants with her, carrying the folds of her huge cape, which is then removed from her back and draped over Valentino’s coffin. Her exaggerated gesture, an overhang from her larger-than-life screen persona, is revealed to be nothing more than an attention-grabbing photo opportunity for the gathered press, as she re-stages herself fainting before the coffin so that they can get the best possible picture. “Every day is Halloween in Tinseltown”, one character tells Valentino (Rudolf Nureyev) in the film.
Since The Devils, Russell has been accused of misogyny. True, Crimes of Passion (1984) and Whore (1991) revel in the sexual objectification and abuse of their attractive female stars, but this is beside the point. In The Devils, the priest, Urbain Grandier (Oliver Reed), gives totally honest testimony at a trial, and he is burned alive for the purposes of political gain. Tommy Walker (Roger Daltry) is physically and sexually abused by relatives, Russell taunting us by daring to play these scenes for laughs. In Valentino, the bisexual movie star is debased in a gaol cell by a sadistic guard, forced to micturate before an audience of caricatured, baying prisoners. Russell, who always insists that he is not “political” – meaning he will rarely enter into discussions that can be reduced to left and right – has a passionate hatred of privilege and power and their mis-uses.
Valentino’s gaol-cell scene is a classic Russell moment because of its double-edged nature. On the one hand, Russell’s aim has always been to show the reality behind superficial glamour that can blind one to the truth – even movie stars need to go to the bathroom. But, on the other hand, the scene is a commentary on the bloodlust of the public, their desire for public hanging. In this context his appearance on Celebrity Big Brother altercation with Jade Goody, and subsequent comment on the whole incident – “I don’t want to live in a society riddled with evil and hatred” – make sense in a further context than one more attempt at scrounging some column inches by an eccentric and “unbankable” old man.
The Devils is Russell’s satirical masterpiece, a film that teeters close to the brink of insanity in its depiction of emotional and physical cruelty, and its depiction of power hungry officials and blood-hungry masses. Based on true events from 17th century France, which were then recorded by Aldous Huxley as The Devils of Loudun, the film tells the story of father Urbain Grandier, who is a sexual philanderer as well as chaplain of the walled town of Loudun, while plague ravages the land and religious wars rage. The mother superior of Loudun’s convent desires Grandier and, when she realises she cannot have him, she accuses him of witchcraft. Soon, mass hysteria breaks out, nuns vomit and cavort wildly, a hideously invasive exorcism is performed, and the Cardinal and King use the ensuing confusion to consolidate power by bringing down the walls of Loudun, offering the plague and violence ridden townspeople a public spectacle: Grandier’s sacrifice. These are the bare bones of the story, but Russell fills each frame with enough grotesquerie to make Heironymous Bosch blanche. Here, Russell’s eye for imagery is in the service of his satirical vision. The mother superior, Sister Jeanne (Vanessa Redgrave), was subjected to a violating examination in the search for evidence of this dæmonic possession. Aldous Huxley, whose book, The Devils of Loudun, the film is nominally based on, compared the barbaric examination of the mother superior to “nothing less than a rape in a public lavatory”. A gruesome image indeed, and one which Russell attempts to crystallise through Derek Jarman’s production design. The room in which this horrific scene takes place is decorated with white tiles, suggesting a sterile bathroom.
Russell’s biopic of Mahler received harsh criticism, as have many of Russell’s films, for being “campy”, a term that would often be applied to Russell, especially as he turned to lightweight horror pantomime like The Lair of the White Worm (1988). But Russell recognised that, even within Gustav Mahler’s music, there was irony. Russell seizes on Mahler’s use of the word “burlesque” in the title of one of his pieces, and burlesques the seedier parts of Mahler’s life. His sexual inadequacy, his renunciation of Judaism (which Russell saw as a mercenary, career-advancing move) and other aspects of his life are converted into bizarre stream of consciousness fantasy sequences.
Crimes of Passion and Whore form a pair – Russell’s late two-part masterpiece, an angry attempt to un-mask the glamorous face of America’s media image and expose the writhing hypocrisy underneath. A well-worn aim, of course, but Russell’s pot-shots brim with genuine anger, after years of burning himself out with his creativity, and arguing with producers to get his more personal projects made. While Crimes of Passion courts misogyny by showing a white-collar worker become a prostitute by night, Whore, made in response to the saccharine view of prostitution portrayed in the popular Pretty Woman (Garry Marshall, 1990), shows how Liz (Theresa Russell), an ordinary working-class woman, is drawn into prostitution, and is exploited by her pimp (Benjamin Mouton) and by her clients. The film is a provocation from the start: off-kilter acting, to-camera monologues, and an unbelievably crass reggae song with the refrain of “I want to bang her!” all assault the viewer’s senses. The crude “exploitation film” tone that the film sets up in its opening sections matches the exploitation that Liz suffers. Liz is subject to a parodic “anniversary dinner” with her pimp, which somehow manages to sicken the viewer more than the cornucopia of sexual perversions she endures. But the films most jaw-droppingly satirical monologue comes when her pimp performs his own to-camera monologue, rationalising his actions with unbelievable self-denial. Although Liz eventually escapes his clutches, it is only at the expense of further violence, and her future is uncertain.
Crimes of Passion introduces Anthony Perkins, iconic in the title role of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), as a preacher who is alternately fascinated with and repelled by sex and pornography. He is a similar character to Sister Jeanne in The Devils – Russell exploring the idea that sexual desire and religious fervour are similar – at least in so far as their mysterious power can drive certain individuals crazy. These two films are relentlessly sleazy – one may feel unclean after basking in their “sexploitation” aura – but this is all part of Russell’s multifaceted cinema, like Tommy Walker, we must face obscenity if we desire purification of vision.
Russell as Romantic
“Don’t bother looking at the view – I have already composed it.”
– Gustav Mahler
In Russell’s autobiography, he states that when his Catholicism lapsed (ostensibly through the draining experience of making The Devils) he found a new Bible in the form of Wordsworth’s writings. Russell had always loved the Lake District, and one learns far more about his love of this region than his life in films from reading his autobiography. After being blasted with phallic imagery, surreal horror, savage satire and sexual pratfalls, one might assume that his films are cold, cruel and betray a disconnected lack of emotion. Russell, though, is also a lover of nature, a romantic with a capital R, as well as a negotiator of the fraught pathways of romantic love.
The similarly infuriating career of Frank Zappa is a good point of comparison. Zappa’s hatred of empty consumerism caused him to heap scorn and satire on his fellow Americans. After being hectored so much by the man, bashed over the head with crude satire and details of botched sexual encounters and stomach-churning perversions, one can forget that he was also a composer of sublime pieces such as “The Girl in the Magnesium Dress” and “Revised Music For Low Budget Guitar and Orchestra”.
Similarly, when Russell is remembered it is usually for controversial imagery such as the innumerable blasphemies that litter The Devils, and not for the beautiful simplicity of the opening image of Mahler, of a wooden hut by an idyllic lake suddenly bursting into flames to the strains of the composer’s music. This is an image that anticipates the burning barn in Andrei Tarkovsky’s Zerkalo (Mirror, 1975), released in the Soviet Union a year later.
Russell has made films on the figures of Romanticism, from Lord Byron and the Shelleys in Gothic (1986) to William and Dorothy Wordsworth in his made-for-television Clouds of Glory (1978). But as Charles Baudelaire has stated, “Romanticism is precisely situated neither in choice of subject nor exact truth, but in the way of feeling.”
Russell’s way of feeling is as Romantic as they come – love is tragic, art is to made to fly in the face of common sense, at the expense of a quiet, normal life – at the expense of friends even. This is most evident in his film Savage Messiah. Russell was a box-office success and in many ways a fashionable figure by 1972, when he decided to finance this unusual little film himself.
Savage Messiah is another biopic, this time of the artist and sculptor Henri Gaudier Brzeska, a man with innumerable similarities to Russell. This film is his most autobiographical work, disguised as someone else’s biography. Like Russell, the Gaudier of Savage Messiah is opinionated, contrary and impulsive. And, also like Russell, he has an innocent quality. Russell mobilises Gaudier (Scott Antony) to display his Romantic conception of the artist: Gaudier’s most telling trait is that he works incredibly hard, sweating long into the night to finish his work. In one memorable sequence, Gaudier brags to an art dealer about a sculpture he has done that does not in fact exist. When the dealer asks to see it, Gaudier and his friends steal a slab from a graveyard and Gaudier chisels it long into the night, while lecturing his friends on his passionate artistic beliefs. Gaudier seems to know that this self created panic and looming deadline will spur him on to do his best work.
Despite his penchant for depicting huge phalluses, Russell has often claimed to be sexually naïve; he reports that he remained totally uninterested in the opposite sex until his mid twenties. Perhaps some of this rubs off in Russell’s depiction of Gaudier’s relationship with Sophie Brzeska (Dorothy Tutin), an aspiring Polish writer some twenty years his senior. The two are so taken with each other that they trade names, and yet the relationship always remains platonic, despite Gaudier’s occasional attempts to move the relationship beyond this stage. Russell makes clear than Gaudier’s involvement with the buxom dilettante Gosh Boyle (Helen Mirren, in an early role) is to be frowned upon in contrast to his platonic devotion to Brzeska. When Gaudier is eventually killed, in action during World War I, Tutin’s restrained yet tearful performance moves the viewer because the very restraint exercised in their life together, along with the passion that has struggled to make its self known, is replicated.
“The present-day composer refuses to die.”
– Edgar Varèse
Since 1991’s Whore, opportunities to direct feature films dwindled for Russell. He was told he was “unbankable” after Valentino in the late 1970s, but it was finally true. Since then, he has worked occasionally in television, and resorted to camcorder films on miniscule budgets such as The Fall of the Louse of Usher and Revenge of The Elephant Man (2004). Though these films have been universally derided – inevitable due to their oddball, patchwork nature – they remind us why Russell does the things he does: because he loves doing them. It is hard to imagine many other directors, fresh from a bitter dispute with studio bosses, simply cavorting around in their back garden and filming the result, for pure larks.
At a question-and-answer session at London’s Bfi Southbank in 2007, Russell was asked by an audience member why, with little in the way of forthcoming projects, he wouldn’t consider applying for Arts Council funding for his films. Russell’s answer was that the Arts Council was made up of “poofy people”. “You can’t say that, Ken”, said Russell’s interviewer, collaborator and lifelong friend, Melvin Bragg, who was visibly shocked. “Yes I can”, Russell retorted. “I can say anything I want.” An ostensibly homophobic comment, but to take offence at his choice of words is to miss the point. Russell doesn’t dislike homosexuals (he directed one of the earliest scenes of overt homoeroticism in mainstream cinema, and collaborated fruitfully with gay artist and filmmaker Derek Jarman), he dislikes people who he perceives affect an aloof, snobbish attitude. Russell dislikes political correctness, but because he dislikes those who seek to whitewash the crueller and more difficult aspects of life – the “whited sepulchres” of Biblical fame – and those who abuse their power and harm others for greed and gain most of all.
This essayist can see how Russell’s comment, and many of the images and ideas in his work, might cause offence (the misogyny in Crimes of Passion, particularly), but I argue that we should be grateful for such a thorn in our side, a boisterous version of “that still small voice”, one who will always disrupt. Russell has disrupted the self-congratulatory smugness of the award ceremony and the chat show with rude outbursts, and disrupted the low-brow smugness of reality television with everything from loud snoring to bringing up Italian neorealism – a remark which, whether made intentionally or not, brought the very concept of cinematic and televisual realism into sharp focus when made in that context.
Without such disruptions, Russell’s cinema seems to claim, we remain complacent, inattentive to the beauty of Tchaikovsky and Mahler, indifferent to the surreal beauty of flotsam and jetsom washed ashore on a beach. The key image here is of Tommy, who was never deaf, dumb and blind as the song lyrics claim, merely one of the mummified catatonic seers whom Deleuze finds wandering aimlessly throughout postwar cinema. Finally freed from his stifling complacency, he climbs a mountain (a lyric of Townshend’s which Russell beautifully makes manifest) and finally gains a panoramic perspective.
This article is dedicated to my mother, who tried to warn me off Ken Russell at an early age, and failed.
1. Ken Hanke, Ken Russell’s Films (Metchuen, NJ, and London: Scarecrow Press, 1984), p. 428.
2. Susan Sontag, “Notes on Camp” in Against Interpretation (London: Vintage, 2001), pp. 275-92.
3. Gilles Deleuze, translated by Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam, Cinema 1: The Movement Image (London and New York: Continuum, 2005), pp. 92-3.
4. Ken Russell, A British Picture: An Autobiography (London: Mandarin, 1989), p. 148.
Mikhail Bakhtin, translated by Helene Iswolsky, Rabelais and his World (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1984).
5. Russell, p. 64.
French Dressing (1963)
Billion Dollar Brain (1967)
Women in Love (1969)
The Music Lovers (1970)
The Devils (1971)
The Boy Friend (1971)
Savage Messiah (1972)
Altered States (1980)
Crimes of Passion (1984)
Aria (1987) Compendium film, Russell directed the segment “Nessun Dorma”
Salome’s Last Dance (1988)
The Lair of the White Worm (1988)
The Rainbow (1989)
Moll Flanders – in production
Select Work for Television:
“Pop Goes the Easel” (1962)
Diary of a Nobody (1964)
“The Debussy Film” (1965)
Isadora Duncan, The Biggest Dancer in the World (1966)
“Dante’s Inferno” (1967)
Delius: Song of Summer (1968)
The Dance of the Seven Veils (1970)
Clouds of Glory (1978)
Prisoner of Honour (1991)
Lady Chatterley (1993)
Ken Russell’s Treasure Island (1995)
Elgar: Fantasy of a Composer on a Bicycle (2002)
Knights on Bikes (1956) - unfinished
Amelia and the Angel (1957)
Lion’s Mouth (2000)
The Fall of the Louse of Usher (2001)
Hot Pants Trilogy (2006):
The Revenge of the Elephant Man
The Mystery of Mata Hari
The Good Ship Venus
Boudica Bites Back (2007)
Joseph Gomez, Ken Russell: The Adaptor as Creator (London: Frederick Miller Ltd, 1976).
Ken Hanke, Ken Russell’s Films (London and Metchuen: Scarecrow Press, 1984).
Joseph Lanza, Phallic Frenzy: Ken Russell and his Films (London: Aurum Press, 2007).
Gene D. Phillips, Ken Russell (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1979).
A British Picture: An Autobiography (London: Mandarin, 1989).
Directing Films, The Directors Art from Script to Cutting Room (London: Batsford, 2001).
The Lion Roars: Ken Russell on Film (Boston and London: Faber and Faber, 1994).
His first film...
Amelia and the Angel
Amelia and the Angel
Ken Russell, 83, is the director of the Oscar-winning Women in Love (1969) and Tommy (1975). His first film, a 26-minute short called Amelia and the Angel, was made in 1958. It follows the journey of a schoolgirl, Amelia, around London as she attempts to find an angel costume in time to appear in her school play.
"I was 30 at the time, I wanted to get into the film industry and I just thought of this idea. Filming took two weeks and I was very, very fortunate in that I had a brilliant young actress to play the main role of Amelia. Her name was Mercedes Quadros and she was the daughter of an Argentinian diplomat, recommended to me by a friend. I met her, was enchanted by her and her father gave her permission to play the part.
"She was delightful, no trouble at all – as long as I gave her scary whirlwind rides in an old, broken-down Morris 8 I had she was as good as gold. I remember she fell over on the steps of the Albert Memorial at one point and broke her hand, the poor devil. In most of the film, she has her right hand turned away from the camera. I've met her again now that she's grown up. She lives in Argentina, with her kids. She looks back with fond memories.
"Funding the film wasn't a difficulty – it cost peanuts. I didn't have much money at the time, about £100, but that was enough to make the film. When I had finished it, I showed it to Huw Wheldon at the BBC. He got me a job on [the arts programme] Monitor. A lot of people who were trying to get work on Monitor at the time made films about things like the barrow-boys of Elephant and Castle. Mine was such a change from anything like that and Huw was impressed by it because it was so unusual; he wasn't expecting a film of that sort of quality. It got me into the BBC and launched me on my career, as it were.
"I was in America very recently, a couple of weeks ago, doing a tour and this was the film that everybody wanted to see. It was a huge success; there were almost riots. What is the secret of its enduring appeal? It's just a nice story, that's all."