[28 November 2011]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
For a time, he was the bad boy of British filmmaking, a moniker that actually meant something back in the productive, post-modern phase of cinema. A director by whim instead of choice, he turned an obsession with visuals into an iconic, inventive style. His fascination with religion, symbolism, nature, and human frailty became the calling cards of his fractured, sometimes frightening vision. Today, his oeuvre forms a footnote in the ongoing deconstruction of late century consensus, and that’s really a shame. Before all the ballyhooed bandits who supposedly struck substantive blows against the artform’s stodgy empire, Ken Russell (who died on 27 November) was the original rebel. And unlike his current compatriots, there was a slightly ludicrous legitimacy to his creative cacophony.
It was English TV where the former dancer and avid still photographer found his initial infamy. After a series of short films, Russell began creating his impressionistic biographies of famous composers, narratives that would usually avoid the facts to find the metaphysical import of the artist. While many forgave his frequent truthful miscues and meshing of period placement with modern sensibilities, not every denizen of the dead was amused. The estate of Richard Strauss withdrew the musical rights to the acclaimed musicians catalog after viewing The Dance of the Seven Veils, an effort described by Russell as a “comic strip in seven parts”. To this day, they have never allowed the supposedly scandalous work to be shown.
That was 1970. The year before, Russell had caused even greater international controversy with his award winning film Women in Love. Only his third feature (after French Dressing and Billion Dollar Brain), this re-imagined D, H. Lawrence adaptation featured robust sexuality and that most taboo of big screen stigmas – full frontal MALE nudity. Of course, no outrage goes unnoticed in the UK’s tabloid mentality, and Women became one of the year’s biggest hits. It was nominated for four Oscars, several BAFTAs (the English equivalent) and three Golden Globes (where it won Best Picture). Russell’s reputation was secured, especially among his fellow countrymen. He quickly became the era’s most important filmmaker. But even that wasn’t good enough for the confrontational creator. He would top the Strauss imbroglio with an even more contentious effort – 1971’s The Devils.
After the issue with Veils, Russell quickly regrouped. He tackled the life of Tchaikovsky, including a confrontation of his horrible childhood and closeted homosexuality, in The Music Lovers. Once again, he was the toast of the critical community. Looking for his next project, the director decided on two. One would be an adaptation of the renowned stage musical The Boy Friend (starring supermodel in transition Twiggy). The other would be a reworking of Aldous Huxley’s non-fiction focus on superstition and religious fanaticism in 17th century France, The Devils of Loudun. Starring Oliver Reed (in one of many collaborations between the actor and the filmmaker) and Vanessa Redgrave, Russell used the book’s factual foundation to mount a vicious attack on the Church and its brutal, backwards mindset.
The film, rife with sex, purposeful perversion, and uncompromising criticism, was more than an early ‘70s audience could handle. Banned almost immediately in Britain, Russell also fought with Warner Brothers over its decision to further edit the final cut. Similar to the stance taken by fundamentalists when Martin Scorsese’s Last Temptation of Christ hit theaters, conservative groups and religious proponents responded angrily at the director’s decision to mix dogma with explicit acts of carnality. The story, focusing on Reed’s character, a disillusioned priest targeted by Cardinal Richelieu, was seen as a scathing denouncement of organized religion. Fr. Urbain Grandier is accused of corrupting a local convent, and with the help of the deformed, sexually obsessed Sr. Jeanne, he is found guilty and burned as a heretic. Featuring a notorious sequence where naked nuns molest a statue of Christ, Russell’s inspired insidiousness drove censors, and the cash men, crazy.
Yet his reputation only soared after the motion picture was completed. The Venice Film Festival and the National Board of Review both picked him as their Best Director, and the added attention brought audiences to his genial, jovial Boy Friend. Besides, in less traditionalist countries, Russell’s version of The Devils played unedited, meeting with much acclaim. After 1972’s Savage Messiah (a self financed study of French sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska) and 1974’s Mahler (nominated for the Golden Palm at Cannes), Russell was handed the perfect vehicle for his opulent visual passions. Roger Stigwood was looking to capitalize on the popularity of the Who, and in particular, their groundbreaking 1969 rock opera Tommy. Long a favorite among fans and aficionados, the core concept for the production was simple. Let lead singer Roger Daltrey play the deaf, dumb, and blind boy who becomes a media messiah. Gather together a collection of current popstars for support. Let composer Pete Townshend flesh out the narrative. And then put it all in the hands of England’s foremost motion picture agent provocateur.
Purists initially balked at the changes requested by Russell and the producers, yet the final result remains the most accurate visualization of Townshend’s take on commercialized and manipulated false idolatry ever attempted. Much of the movie’s genius remains in its dead clever casting. Ann-Margaret played Tommy’s mother, a master stroke considering her earlier incarnation as a part of the packaging of Elvis Presley (as the lead in the satire Bye, Bye, Birdie and the King’s actual costar in Viva, Las Vegas). Reed was once again a part of the picture, his atonal squawk a perfect illustration of his character’s corrupt nature. Supporting roles went to noted names in the current rock purview. Eric Clapton played a nefarious preacher, while Tina Turner was the drug wielding Acid Queen. Who bandmate (and noted party boy) Keith Moon was the perverted, pedophilic Uncle Ernie, and UK idol Paul Nicholas became the callous Cousin Kevin.
The two biggest casting coups came. however, when celebrated megastars Jack Nicholson and Elton John agreed to be part of the production. The star of Five Easy Pieces and Chinatown came on for a cameo, singing (!) the part of Tommy’s quack physician. For the all important role of the Pinball Wizard (for those unfamiliar with the work, our hero becomes a cause celeb thanks in part to his unusual adeptness at the classic arcade amusement) Rod Stewart was originally targeted. But the phenomenally popular keyboard player was a much more obvious choice. His 1974 album Caribou had produced two #1 hits (“The Bitch Is Back” and “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me”) and the release of a Greatest Hits package later that year lead to another chart-topping smash. Decked out in gigantic Doc Marten boots and playing a ‘pinball piano’, John literally stole the show, driving fans to the film for his single scene appearance alone.
Even today, Tommy stands as a remarkable cinematic statement. Russell, working flawlessly within the parameters of the corrupt celebrity spotlight, exacts amazingly nuanced work from his cast. Since there is no dialogue (Tommy is an all singing storyline with additional visual narrative to supplement the songs), everything must be told and sold through performance. Daltrey, having more or less played the lead for the better part of six years, was a perfect golden boy icon. Ann-Margaret is an equally compelling mother Mary (she received a well deserved Oscar nomination or her turn). Even performers unfamiliar with the motion picture format shine in Russell’s revisionist world.
Even better, the director’s delirious reliance on visual surreality and symbolism effortlessly matched Townshend’s psychological subtext. Had the movie been a simple, straightforward interpretation of the album, we’d be bored by the time Tommy becomes a quasi-cult leader. But because of its biting social satire, its amazing musical score (given one of the first multichannel Dolby presentations), and the filmmaker’s fascinating vision, it remains a minor masterpiece, and a terrific time encapsulation of the growing Me Decade malaise.
Unfortunately, Tommy would become Russell’s last real meaningful mainstream statement. He tried to copy its anti-fame facets with the blatantly blitzed out Listzomania. Reteaming with Daltrey, the director attempted to turn the life of Franz Liszt into a junk culture jaunt through the wicked world of celebrity excess. Envisioning the classical composer as the world’s first pop star, Russell sets up a rivalry with Richard Wagner. He even depicts Hitler’s favorite musical savant as the bastion of all that is evil (quite literally—he’s a vampire here). His war of ideals—the creative vs. the corrupt, the genuine vs. the false—was overflowing with eccentric and downright bizarre imagery. From an oversized phallus wielded as a weapon, to a last act confrontation including a spaceship (???), this follow-up to the internationally embraced Tommy almost obliterated Russell’s reputation. Viewed as wildly self-indulgent and reckless, it remains one of the director’s most notorious (and unseen) efforts.
Once Listzomania started the ball rolling, Russell never regained his stature. In 1977, he tried to sell a sexed up take on the life and career of silent film star Rudolph Valentino (starring a frequently naked and awkward Rudolph Nureyev), but even three BAFTA nominations couldn’t erase his already stained standing. In one fell swoop, he had gone from creator to crackpot. The trouble with his 1980 adaptation of Paddy Chayefsky’s sci-fi novel Altered States didn’t help matters. Based on the work of scientist John Lilly and his research into sensory-deprivation, the award winning playwright and screen scenarist envisioned a storyline which suggested that, deep inside every human being, was his primordial, prehistoric ancestry, desperate to get out. Tapping into that genetic memory via drug-aided sessions, a sort of biological devolution could take place. Though not an award winning tome by any far stretch of the imagination, Chayefsky believed it made a salient point about the state of mankind.
Russell didn’t really ruin the source material as much as make it his own. Star William Hurt was put through all manner of make-up torture to depict the then novel onscreen physical transformations. The subtext of LSD and other hallucinogens gave the director license to literally create a big screen interpretation of a trip, and the standard Russell obsessions – religion, blood, carnality – came pouring forth. Though surprisingly faithful to the novel’s middle act (Hurt turns into a primitive caveman, wrecking primal havoc in the process), the ending was like an explosion inside the aging filmmaker’s Id. It was quite clear what he was going for (a character trying to reclaim his modern humanity), but the overly stylized and mannered way it attempted to get there caused more confusion than clarity.
Well respected and praised today, Altered States was a decent sized hit at the time. But Chayefsky, furious with the liberties taken with the material (he saw it as a serious speculative effort, not an infantile F/X freak out), asked for his name to be taken off the production (he had also provided the script). Somehow, that translated into Russell being difficult and demanding, and with the cloud of his previous cinematic foibles still in full flower, he was dismissed as part of a sad, hedonistic decade.
It was four years before he would make another feature film, and his 1984 take on sex for sale, Crimes of Passion, proved to be his final Hollywood effort. Tapping the then rising Kathleen Turner for the role of prostitute China Blue (who, by day, is a fashion industry employee) and offering Anthony Hopkins the plum role of corrupt preacher Rev. Shayne, the saga of corporeal identity and interpersonal kink caused quite a stir with its frank depictions of fetishism and the erotic. While some praised its frankness, others saw it as a middle aged man’s fantasy fodder.
The next seven years would settle Russell’s reputation as a has-been. His take on Lord Byron and Mary Shelley (including the creation of her seminal work, Frankenstein) became the stagnant and unimaginative Gothic. Whereas his version of Oscar Wilde’s Salome’s Last Dance was novel (the director intercuts the play with sequences set inside a brothel where the production is being helmed) it was Lair of the White Worm that brought him back into the populist arena…if ever so slightly. Featuring a standard horror narrative (Satanic snake charms and disarms a local countryside community) and an early turn by future heartthrob Hugh Grant, it remains a crazy quilt cult hit. But after another trek into D. H. Lawrence territory (1989’s The Rainbow), and 1991’s ‘been there/done that’ Whore (controversial in its NC-17 rating only), his cinematic importance was all but erased. He turned to making music videos, oddly enough working once again with Elton John, and concentrating on television back in Britain.
Over time, Russell regained some stature. He attended festivals of his past masters and sought out opportunities to explain his often odd ideals. Even then, he is now a well regarded artifact from filmmaking’s wild and wonky past. Granted, he is still pigeonholed as a man more interested in style over substance, and thanks in part to his eccentric efforts for UK television (including a jaunty take on the English Folk Song), he had become, in his early 80s, a twee goofball granddad. He continued making movies over the last 20 years, little seen efforts with intriguing names like Lion’s Mouth, Revenge of the Elephant Man, and his rock and roll take on Edgar Allan Poe, Fall of the Louse of Usher. Almost all were self-financed, and many were filmed on the fly on his own estate. Remaining active had its advantages, yet many believed his recent output to be nothing more than an elaborate collection of in-jokes from one of Hell’s more histrionic harlequins.
Over the last few years, the much maligned maverick was supposedly working on his newest project – a take on Daniel Dafoe’s Moll Flanders. Apparently, the film was never finished. He also spent some time in New York directing an Off-Broadway play. Whether his death will spark renewed interest in the man’s considerable creative canon remains to be seen. The fact that it even requires rediscovering is perhaps the saddest aspect of Russell’s rollercoaster tale. Though he was frequently his own worst enemy, he left behind a legitimate legacy of big screen artistry that’s almost impossible to ignore. One day, the world will once again wake up to this passionate, if problematic cinematic visionary. Until then, Russell remains an enigma, one that should have been celebrated more strongly before it was too late. Now, it is.