Ken Russell is dead.
And while I consider Ken Russell a giant, a genuine force to be reckoned with, a man who left a giant shit-smeared mark across the face of cinema like a moustache added to the Mona Lisa, I confess I haven’t seen one thing he made in the 20 years since his film “Whore” was released.
That’s crazy. According to the IMDb, he’s directed 19 things since then. I knew he contributed to “Trapped Ashes,” an anthology film that I still haven’t seen, but I didn’t see it. And I’ve never heard of the other 18 projects. He was just off my radar.
Again… that’s crazy. But if you’re looking to sum up the cinematic output of one Henry Kenneth Alfred Russell, the word “crazy” is probably a great place to start. His was a long sustained and beautiful madness that played out in a wildly uneven filmography, where his highs were as high as anyone’s who worked in the British pop ’60s and the international art house ’70s, and where his lows were as low as anyone working in the Golan/Globus exploitation mills of the ’80s. He clashed famously with actors, directors, censors, rock stars and most other life forms at one point or another.
There is a certain amount of mythology that surrounds Russell, and in that regard, he’s sort of like the great English stage actor/movie star drunkards, where part of the appeal is the sense that they have enormous appetites and great passions. As long as there was a chance the money guys might get their money back, Russell was able to keep making provocative, daring, and weird-as-weird gets movies.
Tonight, as I’m watching Twitter roll by, a common refrain seems to be “Wow, I can’t believe how few of Ken Russell’s films I’ve seen, and I envy people who will finally be spurred by whatever press he gets today to look his movies up and see them. They’ve got a wild ride ahead, and it’s only fitting that the way to honor that legacy is to look back at the wild ride he had.
The moment of greatest respectability for him came in 1969 with “Women In Love,” which won Glenda Jackson a Best Actress award and which got Russell a nomination for Best Director. This came after a long run of highly respected television work, and it made him a major name in the world of film immediately. If that hadn’t done it, then the notoriety around his 1971 film “The Devils” would have put him on the map even as it got him in trouble with censors around the world. Even today, the film remains unavailable in its full unedited 111-minute version, although BFI is scheduled to be releasing a Blu-ray of the film in 2012. I wish Warner Bros. would finally embrace the controversy around the movie and release it here in the US as well. Forty years down the road, it’s probably time to stop acting terrified of the movie, which marked the kick-off to a period of frenzied creative effort from Russell, who seemed to have no filter at all. In movies like “The Music Lovers,'” “Mahler,” “Tommy,” “Lisztomania,” “Savage Messiah,” and “Valentino,” he was willing to try anything onscreen, and he proved himself totally capable of making a terrible movie on an almost spiritual level. I have a theory that only a truly great filmmaker can make a truly terrible movie, because you have to be willing to fail spectacularly to succeed.
One of his best-known films was also the film that scared Hollywood off of him for good, and it’s a shame. These days, more people know the A-Ha video that was inspired by the film than actually know the film itself. “Altered States” was written by screenwriting legend Paddy Cheyefksy, based on his own novel, and by the time 1980 rolled around, Cheyefsky had a clause in his contract saying Russell had to shoot every single word as scripted with no changes. Russell seemed to almost take that as a challenge, and he managed to run roughshod over the script without violating that rule. The film is bold and strange and full of big ideas, and there are moments that flirt with greatness. Even so, Hollywood loves to hate “difficult” filmmakers, and the rest of the ’80s saw Russell working outside the studio system on movies like the intriguing “Gothic,” the laughably sleazy “Crimes Of Passion,” the high-minded exploitation flick “Aria,” and the totally daffy “Lair Of The White Worm.” He wrapped up the decade with “The Rainbow,” which is probably the closest he ever came to a real return to the austere superheated qualities of “Women In Love.”
Russell loved the big image, the outrageous visual metaphor, the silly, the profane. He taught film at the University Of Wales in later years, and he has been continually feted and celebrated with retrospectives of his work, enough so that I hope he understood that no matter how hard it was for him to get things produced on his terms, the work will endure and will be worth discussing and debating and getting angry about for as long as we’re still discussing and debating and getting angry about movies.
Russell was 84, and is reported to have died in his sleep. It seems impossible that a man responsible for so much sound and fury onscreen went out so peacefully, but his work remains out there for new audiences to discover, as loud and as outrageous as ever.