Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Ken Russell at 80

The last two times I saw Ken Russell, it was rather unexpected. He makes surprise cameo appearances in two recent features, COLOR ME KUBRICK and TRAPPED ASHES, turning up late in the stories to play two different sorts of lunatic in two different asylums. Viewers of British television might feel that they too last saw him as an asylum inmate, as he turned up earlier this year as one of the surprise house residents of Channel 4's wonky reality show CELEBRITY BIG BROTHER.
Is he trying to tell us something?
Ken Russell has every right to gravitate to such roles because his asylum has always been the cinema, and our world is a madhouse if Ken Russell cannot be allowed to make movies. He hasn't made a full theatrical feature since 1991's dramatic monologue WHORE, though the IMDb claims that he's currently preparing a new version of MOLL FLANDERS for producer Harry Alan Towers. We can only hope that this provocative meeting of minds will yield something more ingratiatingly volatile than what he's been able to give us in the meantime, which ranges from the staid (PRISONER OF HONOR) to the silly (THE INSATIABLE MRS. KIRSCH), and from the disastrous (MINDBENDER) to the agreeably tame (LADY CHATTERLEY) and the unrecognizably bland (DOGBOYS).
Though it's been nearly twenty years of varying degrees of candy floss and novacaine, one instinctively knows that it hasn't been entirely his fault. Thirty years after VALENTINO (1977), I still can't see Ken Russell's byline on any film without imagining concussions of gunpowder and hearing the triumphal passages of the 1812 Overture. Only the spectre of Stanley Kubrick causes me to hesitate before hailing Ken Russell as the Beethoven of English-speaking cinema -- and yet, where Kubrick embodies the gravitas of Beethoven, Russell is the elation of Beethoven. And of Tchaikovsky. And of Mahler. And of Liszt. And of Townshend.
My first exposure to Ken Russell was THE DEVILS in 1971, when I was not really old enough to see it in the eyes of the MPAA. Walking into THE DEVILS without a clue is like inserting a finger(or worse) into a light socket without a clue; in retrospect, I'm certain there was much about the film that went over my 15 year-old head, but some very important life lessons have stuck with me, and every subsequent time I've seen it, I have felt renewed awe in regard to its intensity, passion, and honesty. I feel it's a necessary film to see if one resolves to see the world as it is, which is by no means a sugar pill on the tongue. I wrote a definitive article about THE DEVILS for VW some years ago, which compared all the extant video versions and explained what was still missing and what was known about it. Mark Kermode gave the issue to Ken Russell and sent word back to me that the great man had considered my work "authoritative." Years later, following the blueprint of that article, Mark made it his own cause to see THE DEVILS restored and did so, even managing the impossible: finding the film's notoriously suppressed "Rape of Christ" sequence and having it shown on the BBC. I'm very proud of playing even a detached inspirational role in that remarkable turn of events.
Next Russell film: WOMEN IN LOVE at a revival booking in 1974. When I tell people that going to the movies in the 1970s was exciting because one always went knowing that it was possible you might see something that would completely change your life, or at least your outlook on it, I am mostly thinking of WOMEN IN LOVE. Ken Russell was one of very few English directors who could be counted on to deliver this sort of ego-shattering blow every single time to bat. I was knocked out by WOMEN IN LOVE; I saw it four times the week I first saw it. It inspired me to read the D.H. Lawrence novel, followed by all of Lawrence, and later that same year, it was the movie that Donna and I saw together before I proposed to her.
The same theater where I saw WOMEN IN LOVE subsequently played host to THE MUSIC LOVERS and SAVAGE MESSIAH, and it was in the company of the theater's owners when I saw TOMMY for the first time. In the parking lot, they put me in such a condition for the screening that I felt like I was inside that burning cockpit with Robert Powell. I've since watched TOMMY more times than any of Russell's films, and while the cockpit shot now looks to me quite blatantly phony, everything up to and including the Cousin Kevin sequence is as much like a dramatization of my own life story as I've ever seen onscreen. There are moments, certain shots, when I actually feel as though I'm looking through my own navel at events that took place before I was born.
My Whitman Sampler of Unforgettable Russell Moments: Max Adrian as Delius, honking the score of his next masterpiece to amenuensis Christopher Gable in SONG OF SUMMER... Glenda Jackson taunting the bulls, Alan Bates' reading of the fig poem, and of course the wrestling scene of WOMEN IN LOVE... Richard Chamberlain's suicide attempt in THE MUSIC LOVERS... Oliver Reed's response to the threatened demolition of Loudon in THE DEVILS... Helen Mirren's spectacular nude scene in SAVAGE MESSIAH... Ringo Starr as the Pope, Rick Wakeman as Thor, and Paul Nicholas as a vampiric Richard Wagner in LISZTOMANIA... Ann Margret writhing about in soap suds, baked beans and chocolate in TOMMY... William Hurt and Blair Brown eroding like sand sphinxes under the passing winds of time in ALTERED STATES... Annie Potts wrapping a gift for her estranged husband John Laughlin in Life Savers wrapping paper in CRIMES OF PASSION, and the long dialogue scene between the two of them where she admits to feeling unclean about sex... and literally everything that Oliver Reed does in TOMMY. (Ken Russell gave us the best of Oliver Reed -- never forget that.)
Someday the BBC must release DVD box sets of all of Russell's short films and television works, including the long-withdrawn DANCE OF THE SEVEN VEILS (1970), the subject of a still-standing injunction by the Johann Strauss estate. And Warner Home Video must release THE DEVILS, preferably with Mark Kermode's wonderful "Hell on Earth" documentary included in the set. The day's not over yet -- announce it as a birthday offering, you infidels!
And so bravissimo, Maestro, and a very Happy Birthday to you, wherever you may be. We've never met, but you know me too well. Not only have you changed the way I see, you've shown me how to live.

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