28 November, 2011

Ken Russell, R.I.P.

Ken Russell died yesterday, Sunday 27th Of November, 2011. Very sad news and a great loss to film making. A uniquely British talent. Shouldn't be remembered solely for the wild abandon with which he could attack or display the outré, or his indulgence in gloriously over the top imagery; all his films display a spectacular cinematic sense, an artist's eye, and a composer's sense of emotion, tone, and tempo.

He lived locally, and I had hopes of some day meeting him, if only to thank him. A friend of mine told a story of Russell driving up to our local Fish and Chip shop in his vintage car, flamboyantly entering and attempting to order a fish not on the menu, and turning on his heel and walking out.

Here's a run-down of his works I've seen, and for the little that it's worth, my appreciation of them:

1967 Billion Dollar Brain
I should give this another chance. Last time I saw it, I felt that it had let the Harry Palmer series down with its satirical jabs, and sub-Avengers-cum-Strangelove tone. On the other hand it ain't the train wreck some have described it as.

1969 Women in Love
It's a film I find hard to take seriously more because I just don't appreciate D.H.Lawrence. It's OK. but the plot lurches at the end are hard to take straight faced. Of course if your idea of homoeroticism involves naked wrestling Oliver Reed, you have a stronger stomach than I.

1970 The Music Lovers
When I was really little, I preferred the Grieg biopic Song of Norway to this; what did I know when I was 7? Not anywhere near as good as Mahler.

1971 The Devils
This was the first Russell I saw theatrically. I think I saw it as part of my Uni's on campus film program, and the followed it on at least two more occasions at the local rep house, the Theater of the Living Arts. Despite its highly stylized look, its earthy unflinching portrayal of medieval grue, really made me smile. All history should be like this. Python summed it up a few years later in Grail with "How do you know he's a king?" "He hasn't got shit all over him."

And that's even before you get to the machinations of corrupt church and state, and the portrayal of religious hysteria (and the politically motivated fomenting thereof), routinely denounced by religious hysterics. Really his sharpest film, most human and misanthropic simultaneously.

1974 Mahler

The first Russell I ever saw, and I saw it on TV, I was erroneously informed that it was made for television, and I thought if someone could make something this cinematic for TV they must be a genius. Strangely I've a memory of a travelling shot through trees to music that I was hoping to someday pay homage to, and on rewatching it recently I couldn't find it. Imagery so fantastic it permeates your dreams. A great movie about creativity and brooding morbidity, no wonder I loved it as a teenager.

1975 Tommy
Great kitsch fun as a pop object, not much cop as a film, but that's down to the source material. Ken makes a great fist of it all the same. Anyone who could convince Ann Margaret to swim in Heinz Baked Beans is all right in my book.

1980 Altered States
One of my favorite films. It manages to convey both the notion that reality is a solipsistic creation of our primal brains, and that love, literally, is all we have to hold it together. Some mocked the whole apeman thing, but how are American Werewolves more credible than psychoactive drugs combined with flotation tanks unravelling an evolutionary regression? I cannot understand Paddy Chayefsky's quite vocal and credit withholding problem with the film. Having read his own, inferior, novelization of his screenplay, I cannot imagine how the film could be a better realization of his themes. A stunning achievement by Russell, and a landmark score by John Corigliano (one of the prizes of my dwindling LP collection).

1984 Crimes of Passion
Some of us used to think Kathleen Turner was sexy. Proof of that is that I remember the poster more than I do the film. There's some over the top stuff with Anthony Perkins and a killer dildo, I'd like to see him duel the twins from Dead Ringers with their gynecological instruments for mutant women. A weird thriller satire on sexuality. Everything that Russell does in this film was done with much less style humour and panache by Kubrick in Eyes Wide Shut.

1986 Gothic
All I remember at the time was that the idea of the film seemed a bit better than what we got, and that Natasha Richardson made a very comely Mary Shelley. One of those, wish they'd had a couple more rewrites, they might have made it work, or not, films.

1987 Aria (segment "Nessun dorma")
I have little memory of this film, apart from liking the Robert Altman segment set in a theatre.

1988 The Lair of the White Worm
Anyone for Tennis, or Fangs? camp fun it certainly was, and made light relief of the tone of Gothic. I'd like to send Amanda Donahoe to eat up all these friggin' glitterin' vampyri who brood and take themselves so seriously. Maybe after that I'd send Lady Sylvia Marsh, the character she portrayed.

1989 The Rainbow
Didn't get around to seeing this one until this year. And it makes a nice D.H.Lawrence bookend with Women... , although its brief excursion into saphic-eroticism is not a patch on the former's sweaty alcoholic man love. It is nearly scuppered by Sammi Davis's acting in the lead role which is canny in naivete, but a bit all over the place the rest of the time. And, I still don't really care for Lawrence, wish Russell had done more Stoker.

Well, OK. There are only three of Ken Russell's films that I absolutely love, and boy do I, but I cherish the artistry in all of them. Even the pointless tasteless excess of the Nazi bits (can you imagine if he had collaborated with Russ Meyer?). There's some I need to seek out to see for the first time, and a few that I should review for pleasure and to note how they strike me now. All in all, I will feel grateful for his work and poorer for his loss.

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At 07 December, 2011 09:55, Blogger Brian R Tarnoff said...

A slight revision to my take on Tommy. I would actually prefer to sit through the film than listen to just the album, so the film has to be a bit better than I gave credit.


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