Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Ken Russell in Memoriam

One of the saddest film news this autumn was the passing of the british film director Ken Russell on November 27th. Russell (1927-2011) was a renegade visionary, whose uncompromising ideas found it often hard for him to gather funds to finance his films. But whenever he directed films, he created strong visions that looked exactly like his own. Russell's films were often filled with psychedelic, colorful and unique visuals, a blasphemous outlook on Christian imagery, and unrestricted, overflowing sexuality. Russell wasn't afraid to test the boundaries of good taste or break taboos, which make his filmography so controversial. And many of his films such beloved cult classics. I take a look at his work that I've recently enjoyed.

The Devils (UK, 1971)

Russell started out his film career by churning TV movies, and it took a while for him to get a chance to try directing a feature film. His early films were succesful, with Women in Love (1969) in particular often named to be among his finest works. The success allowed Russell to be able to express himself even more vocally. The end result is one of the most controversial films of all time, and perhaps even Russell's greatest masterpiece. The Devils portrays a clash between straight-forward (female) sexuality and puritan religious views, which was bound to wake controversy. The film was banned in multiple countries, and in some even to this day. The film is still officially without a proper DVD release. The censorship throughout the years has cut the most outrageous scenes, so much so that uncut versions are hard to find. Luckily the BBC film critic Mark Kermode found the missing footage several years ago. A blu-ray and DVD are promised to come out next year, so let's hope this promise holds.

In the 17th century France, Cardinal Richelieu (Christopher Logue) is seeking to destroy protestants and wants to stretch his influence to even a small, fortified town of Loundun. The town is led by the charismatic Father Grandier (Oliver Reed), an outspoken, even a proud man, who adamantly refuses to allow religious bigots to gain power in his town. The charismatic Grandier awakens strong sexual urges with his presence in the nuns of the town's monastery. The head of the monastery is the hunchbacked Sister Jeannessa (Vanessa Redgrave), who is most deeply in love with Grandier. However, when she is initially refused and Grandier marrying another woman over her, she is driven mad. Soon the entire monastery is acting strangely, as if possessed by Satan himself. Richelieu sends witch-hunters to redeem the oddly-acting nuns, but things turn for the worse.

In the most notorious scene of the film, the nuns have a massive orgy, that doesn't even leave a massive statue of Christ untouched. The film was promptly banned in Italy, and Redgrave and Reed were even threatened to be sentenced to jail, should they ever set foot in the country. Like most cencorship, the ordeal missed the point entirely. With his film, Russell seems to want to say that in a world divided in two, where one layer gets to do pretty much whatever they please, and the other has to obey their rules, going to extremity is bound to happen. Grandier is made a scapegoat to things he has no part in. The real devils in the film are the people allowing the madness and the torture to happen, not defending the innocent, and restricting such a beautiful thing as sexuality with illogical puritan rules. The film's visual sense is vivid and unforgettable, even if the copies circulating today are of pretty poor quality. The Devils is raw, shocking, outrageous, and with a word, sinful. In other words is as pure cult film as they come.


Tommy (UK, 1975)

Probably the most famous film that Russell ever made was the adaptation of the first rock opera of all time. Tommy (based on a 1969 concept album) was made in close collaboration with the british band The Who. The band's guitarist Pete Townshend worked with Russell on the screenplay and singer Roger Daltrey plays the lead role. Tommy is a story of a boy who's deafened and blinded by a traumatic childhood experience. Even though his condition is psychosomatic, no amount of doctors, healers or preachers can cure him. But Tommy finds his calling when he becomes a star in playing pinball. His newfound self-esteem also allows him to heal, which makes a whole religious cult to start following him. But this also causes his mother and step-father (Ann-Margret and Oliver Reed) to start taking advantage of him.

Altough the story was laid out by the band, Tommy is by all means clearly Russell's film. The colorful film filled with fast cuts matched to the music, is much like a music video before the whole aesthetic was even developed. So, Russell is one of the forefathers of the MTV generation, no less. The film has a comical air and feels quite cartoonish, with it's vivid sets and over-the-top costuming. Nevertheless, the story itself touches on pretty dark subjects such as life during wartime, jealousy murders, pedophilia, childhood traumatization, and of course, the corruption of religious officials. Russell would never shy away to reveal a two-faced preacher (played here by Eric Clapton).

The Who's music of course rocks and hard. Like you can see from the clip, they occasionally also have guest stars join in the music, such as Elton John or Tina Turner. The Tommy album is said to be about a disappointment to the hippie movement. Russell has it meaning a lot more, with it being a disappointment of the development of post-war England altogether. Cheap seaside souvenir salesmen, target-group marketers and other authorities besides religious officials are all seething with corruption and greed. Russell can do much with his rock source material. And he liked the experience so much as to try it himself by taking on an even more unlikely source material.


Lisztomania (UK, 1975)

On the same year that Tommy was released, Russell also had another rock movie out – a highly unorthodox telling of the life of composer/piano virtuoso Franz Liszt. Both films were filled with music, psychedelic visuals and starred Roger Daltrey. One became a success and another was promptly nearly forgotten. But it's not hard to see why Lisztomania was dissed. It was the one of Russell's films that was mostly directed by his whimsical id. So, below-the-navel humour comes aplenty with it.

Franz Liszt is a rock star of the Romantic age, wooing the ladies and hanging out with other great composers. He meets the young Richard Wagner (Paul Nicholas) and agrees to perform some of his composings at a live show. Liszt does so, only to snark on Wagner in the process. Watching Liszt's virtuoso techniques and pompous act among an audience of shrieking teenagers, Wagner grows envious. Liszt has trouble elsewhere, when a dangerous affair almost gets him murdered. He also falls in love with Princess Carolyne of St. Petersburg (Sara Kestelman), but can't marry her, because she's catholic and still married to her husband. Liszt therefore need the approval of the Pope (Ringo Starr) himself.

Russell's strange ideas for the film vary from 10-meter penises shoved into guilliotines, undead Frankenstein Hitler firing a machine gun -guitar at his audience and shoving and explosive piano with Liszt inside getting tied to the railroad tracks. The film borrows it's incredible ingredients from Universal horror films, comic books, varieté shows and even from the works of Charlie Chaplin. Some scenes are so filled with so many dumb jokes they could as easily have been directed by the Zuckers and Abrahams. Russell is once again ahead of his time. The whole ordeal here isn't so much sexual as it is carnevalistic and burlesque. The music is mostly rearranged Liszt and Wagner. The plot is sloppy and has only shallow similarities with actual events. But that's not the point here, the point is for the audience to have fun in Russell's cinematic amusement park. The cast appears to be, at the very least.


Altered States (USA, 1980)

Like many other renowned international directors before him, eventually Russell was sucked into Hollywood. But he waited for a right time to do it, and thus was able to continue making the kind of films as he pleased. Of course, the profit his filma would gain played a much bigger part there. But Russell refused to sell out (he had done so once before, directing the Harry Palmer spy film The Billion Dollar Brain (1967), which he detested). Luckily, Russell opened his US career with his biggest hit, the seminal ponderous sci-fi horror Altered States.

Eddie Jessup (William Hurt) is a brilliant, uncompromising scientist, known for his borderline mad methods. For instance, he seeks to find different states of consciousness via hallucinating in sensory deprivement tests. One night at a Harvard Christmas party he meets Emily (Blair Brown), a woman who is fascinated by the man's wild side. Seven years later, they have married, yet their relationship is crumbling as Eddie is more and more attached to his work than with any emotions or feelings. Eddie travels to Mexico to take part in a native ritual with some mystical herbs. This opens up primitive layers in his minds and he can see into primordial times while under the influence. Eddie brings the herbs back to the States to experiment further, and begins a series of tests with himself as the guinea pig. But little does he realize, he's loosing more and more of his humanity each time he goes back in time with his mind.

Altered States is a very strong sci-fi film of its time. In the 80's directors could still do ponderous stuff, if they only came up with a good enough high concept to sell it with. Russell has often been ahead of his time with his films, but Altered States seems to be the first in line of many of the best sci-fi films from there on. The film has clearly been an influence to a lot of ambitious projects since then. The relentless scientist losing control of his body and slowly transforming reminds me of David Cronenberg's The Fly. Russell's prychedelic montages that utilize cellular structures, footage of lava erupting, visions of hell and other religious symbols, reminds me of The Tree of Life. And of course the entire scene where a nude man awakens in a zoo after a night of transformation into a primitive, bloodthirsty beast, was stolen almost entirely to An American Werewolf in London. Altough Russell's film takes a while to kick off, the film becomes better and better as it goes along. At the centre of the film is the contrast between love and primitive urges. Love you have to work for, but giving yourself into primitivity also makes you lose your humanity. Of course, this is just a shallow interpretation. The film obviously has also many other layers and thus it would improve upon multiple viewings.


Crimes of Passion (a.k.a. China Blue, USA 1984)

As a further proof that Russell tended to be ahead of his time and trends, he made an erotic thriller long before they became Hollywood's darlings in the late 80's–early 90's. Of course, Crimes of Passion was also a major flop, even though it starred Kathleen Turner and Anthony Perkins. It is one of the lesser Russell films, altough it's still highly original and visionary. But it proved way too weird for the tastes of the mainstream. The poor box office performance of this film made the rest of Russell's directing life harder, as he spent years trying to gain the necessary funds to finance a film by any means necessary. He would still have artistic successes, but they would only come from hard work.

Crimes of Passion is about a bored housewife named Joanna Crane (Turner), who has a dual identity. At daytime she's a mild-mannered Sportswear designer and a mother of a middleclass American family. But at night she prowls the streets in a blonde wig and calls herself China Blue. China is a top-end prostitute, specializing in very kinky sex. Her strong personality raises interest in men: First, a broken man on the verge of a divorce Donny Hopper (Bruce Davison). He falls in love with China and secretly spies on her to find out more about her mysterious persona. Another one following China is the twisted preacher Rev. Peter Shayne (Perkins). He claims he's out to save China's immortal soul, but it soon becomes clear that the precher himself has a few strong urges, and what he's looking to do to China is far more sinister.

The film is a sort of commentary about the female roles in noir films, with the death being even more explicitly sexual nature than usually in the genre. Russell has difficulties of finding the rhythm of his story (written by Barry Sandler and not Russell himself, like he usually did). Russell has plenty of ideas for nice visuals and odd scenes (the first shot of China shows her in a beauty queen outfit, recieving cunnilingus from Donny), but most of the film feels a tad boring. Turner is not a convincing lead, and the film should be anchored to her more tightly. At times it also seems that Russell is playing for time. The long sex scene of Donny and China shot behind a curtain is boring to the point of dreariness. Of the leads, Perkins does the best job, yet he could do this sort of typecasting in his dreams. But Crimes of Passion does have its flashes of brilliance shining through. The end scene in particular is so otrageously funny and a big up yours to the more classical film fans, that one can't help but to love it.


Gothic (USA, 1986)

While films such as The Devils and Alternate States having already flirted with horror iconography, Russell went on to do his own and create some weird new icons as well in Gothic. On the surface, it is a film about that one fateful night in the 19th century, when the renowned writer Lord Byron (Gabriel Byrne) had invited his friend Shelley (Julian Sands) and his fianceé Mary (Miranda Richardson) to spend time at his mansion. They are joined with Byron's squeeze Claire (Myriam Cyr) and friend Dr. Polidori (Timothy Spall). Byron comes up with a competition for each to write their own horror story for the amusement of others. Mary comes up with Frankenstein.

That's not much of a story, but Russell directs his attention to a lot of other things. The poets are portrayed as a decadent lot, doing drugs, alcohol and sex with whomever they please. Sexuality flows through both in prudent anxiousness, jealousy issues and in luscious fantasies. The participants encourage each other to go further and further and soon they find that the most horrible parts of their psyche are becoming all too real. Every one has skeletons in their closets and they cause the madness to come spiralling down.

As should be clear, Gothic is not exactly an easy film to summarize. Russell's disinterest in plots and fascination with psychedelia and weird imagery is taken to its logical conclusion. Many weird things seen in the film are on screen for merely a bat of an eye, but linger in the mind of the viewer for a long time. The cast is also flawless, with the young Byrne providing a suitably charismatic lead and good character actors such as Spall and Richardson providing the necessary back-up. At first glance this may seem like a cheap period drama. But while Russell's budgets have been considerably cut, the end result is wholly unique. Russell surely did never made the same film twice.


So good night, Mr. Russell. You never got the recognition you deserved in life, but your unique, brilliant filmography keeps on giving for us friends of good cinema.

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