It’s always sad when an actor or filmmaker dies, and in 2011 we have had to mourn the loss of many great stars of past and present. Pete Postlethwaite, John Barry, Maria Schneider, Jane Russell, Michael Gough, Elizabeth Taylor, Sidney Lumet, Peter Falk – all great losses, many of them at much too young an age. Only ten days ago John Neville, the delightfully charismatic star of Terry Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, passed away peacefully aged 86.
But perhaps none of these deaths should be mourned more than that of Ken Russell, who died this week in his sleep at the ripe old age of 84. Aside from his short-lived and ill-advised appearance on Celebrity Big Brother, his name will be unfamiliar to the majority of young filmgoers – people who didn’t grow up with his biopics of Elgar and Mahler, people who didn’t spend their twenties listening to Who records, and people who had little interest in Alan Bates and Oliver Reed wrestling naked for the affections of a Labour MP.
Ken Russell was a maverick in every possible way. He courted controversy throughout his career, with his actions off-screen being as newsworthy as the contents of the films themselves. When Alexander Walker, the respected film critic for The Evening Standard, described his film The Devils as “monstrously indecent”, Russell responded by bashing said critic over the head with a rolled-up copy of his own newspaper.
Despite declaring himself to be a staunch believer in censorship, Russell frequently angered the British and American censors with his uncompromising, often operatic depictions of violence, sex and insanity. The nude wrestling scene in Women in Love, which broke the conventions surrounding male genitalia on screen, was only the tip of the iceberg (so to speak). The Devils remains unavailable in its uncut form, with all existing versions omitting the infamous ‘rape of Christ’ scene. And his TV film The Dance of the Seven Veils, which presents composer Richard Strauss as a sadistic Nazi, is effectively banned after the Strauss estate withdrew all song rights until 2019.
Critics of Russell always held that he was excessive and indulgent for his own sake. The sheer level of sex and violence was unnecessary, they claimed, and his obsessions with religion and classical music were unhealthy. It is undoubtedly true that if you describe any Ken Russell film to the uninitiated or the timid, they are more likely to run away in fright than rush out to see it. But Russell was no Lucio Fulci or Yorg Buttgereit, going way over-the-top to disguise the lack of anything underneath. He didn’t always get it right, but when things clicked the results were nothing short of astonishing.
Long-time fan Mark Kermode, who has campaigned tirelessly for the American distributors to release The Devils uncut, once summed up Ken in this way: “he was somebody who proved that British cinema didn’t have to be about kitchen-sink realism—it could be every bit as flamboyant as [Federico] Fellini.” Whether you like Russell’s films or not, there is a boundless energy to all of them, an almost hysterical amount of passion and emphatic self-belief which make our hearts sing even as our heads tell us that what we are watching could be total cobblers.
Despite his ongoing interests in opera and classical music, Russell at his peak was as populist a filmmaker as Spielberg. No-one else would have chosen to make a film about Franz Liszt’s conflicts with Richard Wagner and cast Ringo Starr as the Pope. His work with Roger Daltrey, first on Tommy and then on Lisztomania, reflected a desire to blend high art and popular culture together, to cut through the snobbery of his peers and demonstrate the power of music on a universal, visceral level.
But where Spielberg’s strength was pulling on the heartstrings and sending out his audience in a good mood, Russell had no time for sentimentality or easy answers. He never suffered fools, he never compromised, and he resented the very thought of softening the impact or dumbing down his ideas. His desire to challenge audience perceptions surrounding controversial or highly regarded subjects often backfired, but you could never accuse Russell of doing anything to get by, let alone doing it for the money.
Working was Ken Russell was a memorable experience whether you were the star or the assistant runner. On Tommy there were nightly drinking and shagging competitions between Keith Moon and Oliver Reed, which got so uncontrollable that they were booked into a different hotel to the rest of the crew. During Altered States he and author Paddy Chayefsky (Network) would have blazing rows on a daily basis. And on Billion Dollar Brain, he took Len Deighton’s relatively refined spy novel and turned it into an all-guns blazing satire of both sides in the Cold War, with Michael Caine spending most of his time on screen looking as bemused as we are.
But beneath all the stories of excess and eccentricity, Russell was a man of substance and intellect who saw through the madness and hypocrisies of our world and exposed them through his films. At his peak, between Women in Love in 1969 and Altered States in 1980, he delivered a series of films which are all consummate and essential viewing. The former is arguably the finest D. H. Lawrence adaptation, a heady blend of sexuality and jealousy boasting splendid cinematography from Billy Williams. The latter is a hallucinogenic blend of Antonioni’s alienation trilogy and Cronenberg’s body horror, with William Hurt at his absolute best. Tommy and Liztomania are still great fun, if only as guilty pleasures or evidence that rockstars can act outside of Wayne’s World.
But Russell’s greatest work remains The Devils. Even without the famous scenes, it is a spellbinding and mesmerising film as much about the separation of church and state or the rights of the individual as it is about faith, delusion and insanity. Derek Jarman’s sets look cutting-edge even now, as is Peter Maxwell Davies’ frightening score. Oliver Reed and Vanessa Redgrave never topped their performances here, with both of them exhibiting burning charisma (the former in more ways than one). In an age where cinemas are frequently cluttered up by misogynistic so-called torture porn, it is hard to believe that something as intelligent and extraordinary as The Devils remains unseen in its intended form.
The death of Ken Russell should be marked by a renewed celebration of his work. But for all their qualities, we should not just be celebrating his back catalogue. We should be seeking to recapture the spirit with which they were made: a spirit of boundless passion and feverish enthusiasm, not marred or constrained by the fear of failure which is suffocating Hollywood as we speak. Hopefully in the wake of his death, the American distributors will finally see sense and release The Devils fully uncut. There would be no greater pleasure in audiences openly embracing something kept from them for so long. If nothing else, it would give Russell, the revolutionary populist, the last laugh.
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