Remembering the madness of Ken Russell

Back in July, I had the rare privilege of seeing Ken Russell’s grandly insane 1971 ecclesiastical drama “The Devils” in all its pristinely restored, newly uncut glory on the generous screen of London’s BFI Southbank — and left feeling rather as if I’d pummelled in the face with a movie camera. In a good way.

I’d never seen this hard-to-access film before, and was glad I’d waited to meet it with no missing parts: a feverish, alarming story of sexual repression and religious persecution in 17th-century France, it’s the kind of fearlessly unhinged filmmaking that is best served by being permitted to go all the way. (And by ‘all the way,’ I do mean a mass of nuns sexually assaulting a church crucifix and Vanessa Redgrave masturbating with the charred bones of an executed priest. Christmas is coming — order in the DVD!) “Chilling, silly, beautiful, usually at once,” I tweeted, slightly dazed and in need of a drink, after the screening. “Ken Russell’s bravura barminess, as possessed as his subjects, never met apter material.”

It didn’t: “The Devils” may or may not be the director’s best film, but it seems like the one that, some 35 years ahead of his final trip behind the camera, represented the culmination of his recurring visual and thematic points of concern. Though ostensibly a provocateur, Russell was an oddly (very oddly, if you like) spiritual filmmaker, his work steeped in moral judgment and reckless retribution, even if it wasn’t always in the place or order one might expect. I was intrigued to hear how Russell felt about his arguable magnum opus four decades on, and was impatient for the live Q&A with him set to follow the screening.

Alas, it never came: the Q&A was abruptly cancelled, we were told, due to Russell’s ill health. The now blemish-free film spoke quite persuasively for itself, but it was a disappointment nonetheless — and a sourer one still, now that we know there will be no further opportunities. The director passed away on Sunday, apparently in his sleep, at the age of 84: a sedate end for one of British cinema’s wildest talents.

There will no doubt be several among the slew of obituaries that will tacitly sidestep the truth that Russell made some terrible films in his time: “The Lair of the White Worm,” the kind of irresistible title that tantalises obscurity-seekers until they actually find track it down, is a prefab bore; his final feature, 2002’s “The Fall of the Louse of Usher,” has its share of apologists and an endearing, quite literal shot-in-a-garage chutzpah, but that doesn’t make it watchable either. Russell had a proudly tacky side to his creative persona that rather got the better of him in his later career: I sense many UK film buffs are trying to ignore the fact that many Brits are referring to him today, and probably fleetingly, about the death of the batty old geezer who withdrew from “Celebrity Big Brother” after a week.

When directed towards worthier material, however, Russell’s rather beautiful tastelessness was something to behold — particularly in an era of British cinema that had been encouraged toward stark naturalism in the 1960s, with the occasional shot of cutesy psychedelia. Russell would no doubt have been more comfortable in the Italian realm of excess led by Fellini and Pasolini: even his attempts at good behavior, like his dizzy, Twiggy-starring Busby Berkeley tribute “The Boy Friend,” end up as fabulously unwieldy peacock films in spite of themselves. “The Boy Friend,” all kaleidoscope choreography, sequins and toothpaste smiles, is so frenziedly bent on having a good time it’s hard to believe he made it in the same year as “The Devils.”

The National Board of Review, in a show of daring quite unlike what we’ve come to expect from them today, handed Russell their Best Director award. No one else was biting, and this 1971 one-two surely remains one of the most heroically alienating responses any director has yet made to the normalizing gesture of an Oscar nomination. He was, of course, a ‘lone director’ nominee for his D.H. Lawrence adaptation “Women in Love,” which also won Glenda Jackson her first Oscar; even that nomination, for a prickly, ambiguously sexualized costume drama that has held its place in the cultural conversation mainly on the strength of its nude wrestling scene between Oliver Reed and Alan Bates. Thanks to that pleasingly out-of-character move, Russell joins David Lynch as one of the most anti-establishment directors ever to earn a ticket to the dance.

My first experience of Ken Russell was where I suspect many younger generations of filmgoers started: his uneven, all-stops-out, sporadically stunning visualization of The Who’s rock opera “Tommy.” For reasons I can only put down to a generous supply of Christmas alcohol in the broadcast offices, one of South Africa’s public TV channels scheduled the film on the afternoon of New Year’s Day: ideal family viewing time for pinball wizards, acid queens and a fierce Ann-Margret bathing in baked beans, thoroughly earning what must rank as the loopiest Best Actress Oscar nod of all time.

I was only 12 years old, though my reaction wasn’t too different to my 28 year-old response to “The Devils” a few months ago — which is to say my eyeballs practically fell out my skull. I haven’t been back to the film in years, though I recently watched a clip of a possessed Tina Turner rocking the living daylights out of “Acid Queen” in her cameo appearance and was reminded that it’s one of the most electric musical moments in all cinema — just one reason to go back. Turner loses her mind in those few minutes; it’s where Russell, throughout his career, seemingly preferred everyone to be.

For more views on movies, awards season and other pursuits, follow @GuyLodge on Twitter.

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