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Ken Russell and His Films
By Joseph Lanza
Chicago Review Press Incorporated Copyright © 2007 Joseph Lanza
All rights reserved.
Ken Russell's phallic frenzy always reverts to two events in his youth, both of which occurred in cinemas. The first happened when he went to see The Secret of the Loch, a very British film from the early 1930s about a Scottish town all in a twist when the legendary Loch Ness monster appears. Russell recalls in his memoirs that it was a plucked chicken with a prominent beak, but it was actually an iguana, enlarged with primitive special effects to suggest a Behemoth. Little Kenny took one look at this terrifying creature's jutting head with its dangling, testicular neck skin and bolted out of the theater.
The follow-up trauma happened in his early teens, when he went to see Walt Disney's Pinocchio. He elaborates in his autobiography: "I had never enjoyed a film more. And as I watched Pinocchio's stiff little pointed nose grow and grow, so my enjoyment grew with it. And so did my willie. Something else was moving around my crotch. It was a man's hand. I couldn't believe it. How had it got there? And why? I became aware of a shadowy presence in the next seat."
Cringing at the forbidden delights this groping Geppetto offered, Russell fled the theater once again and stayed away from cinemas for a spell. But the sensations of danger and forbidden joy lingered to inform much of his life and art. In Russell's surrealistic interpretative mind, the creature in the movie, the mysterious stranger's groping paws, and the doll's growing nose formed one vast dragon that he, like a mythical Siegfried caught in a Freudian nightmare, has time and again attempted to subdue, slay, and even seduce. His childhood memories suggest the landmark impressionistic study Leonardo da Vinci, in which Sigmund Freud traced da Vinci's artistic gifts to the artist's own recollection of being an infant in a cradle and having a vulture swoop down to spank his lips with its tail. Russell's creative life is, similarly, the product of what Freud calls a "disfigured reminiscence," rife with exciting conflicts between the horrific and the erotic, the neurotic and the visionary, the puerile and the profound.
When he finally picked up a movie camera sometime in the 1950s, Russell set out to explore his mind's watery depths. His search has continued for over four decades, with his "willie" the thematic maypole. Around it, he has wrapped stories of love, hate, death, religion, politics, and the fragile role of art in a world where commerce and mass media co-opt and castrate the creative spirit at every juncture.
"All of Russell's work," the New York Times' Stephen Farber wrote in the early 1970s, "his BBC documentaries and his feature films, reveal a terror of mental and physical disintegration. In his films, death has a shocking, visceral immediacy; his career can be seen as a continuing struggle to find an imaginative vision that will be powerful enough to ward off the terrible stench of decomposing flesh." Russell appears to try to take control of this threatening natural order by making it appear fake, transforming the primordial ooze into gaudy, glossy objects from discount stores, and making alienation so alienating that he can purposely induce snickers instead of sobs.
Even though most critics consider Women in Love one of the tamer of Russell's works, which accounts for its 1969 Best Director Oscar nomination and a Best Actress Oscar for Glenda Jackson, many of its subjects have haunted subsequent Russell projects. Lawrence's story is perfect for summarizing Russell's courtships and inevitable conflicts between the sexes; his conflicted sympathies with homosexual relationships; his so-called love of nature and his phobias about its slimier side; his desire to tell a serious story while simultaneously slipping into farce; his love of art and his penchant for destroying art's mystique; his battle between visceral, irrational sensations and the more intellectual approach to life that Lawrence once derided as "sex in the head"; and spells of anger, pessimism, and even nihilism that belie his frustrated love of life. All of these themes contain a welter of contradictions that inspire rather than handicap his narratives: a kind of bizarro world where nothing is what it seems and where the director's passions and neuroses are a vital part of his stories.
The Devils, Russell's most controversial and harshest work, takes these themes further. It casts Oliver Reed as a womanizing priest who gets his comeuppance when an adoring mother superior (Vanessa Redgrave) exacts revenge for his rejection by accusing him of rape. She feigns demonic possession, submits to a public exorcism (a euphemism for a public enema), and inspires her nuns to use a giant crucifix for their orifice-plugging orgies. But the colorful depravity, much of which was censored out and only recently restored, has the effect of a Hieronymus Bosch painting, capturing in its excess a religious allegory about lost souls and eternal hell. Also, in the spirit of Aldous Huxley's novel on which it's based, The Devils links religious corruption to sexual repression and the lust for political power — all executed in an often-schizoid directing style that mixes spiritual depravity with physical comedy.
The deaf, dumb, and blind boy in Tommy might be sexless, but he's still threatened with syringes, fire hoses, and an array of invasive instruments. When submitting to mind-altering drugs, Tommy Walker (Roger Daltrey) envisions his death: a skeleton with a snake writhing out from his pelvis. Even amid the film's carnival atmosphere, exaggerated acting, and childlike, flighty atmosphere, Tommy conveys an underlying terror, particularly with the subject of child abuse lording over the otherwise cartoonish proceedings. Russell might simplify the movie's message by saying it's about the death of innocence and the triumph of commerce, but something about Tommy suggests that the shimmering and often-campy world of artifice offers another kind of mysticism. The film's fans tend to remember Ann-Margret's flashy jewelry and makeup, the vibrant colors of the pinball arcade, the maniacal acting, the garish costumes and choreographed hysteria, and the final crowd scene full of drugged-out and menacing 1970s youth. Such images and sounds overwhelm the rather anticli-mactic ending, when Tommy finds redemption by diving back into the waters where he was conceived.
The New York Times' Vincent Canby, who hated The Devils for what he called its "clanking, silly, melodramatic effects," paid Tommy a backhanded compliment, begrudgingly admitting it's "the movie that proves that there are times when too much may be just about right, when overindulgence approaches art. ... Tommy is to movies what a juke box is to furniture. It is not something you'd want to live with every day but it's kind of fun when you go out."
In Lisztomania, Daltrey returns as the lothario composer Franz Liszt, who attracts screaming fans and struts like a sex idol on the stage. He smiles during one dreamlike interlude as his trouser snake rises to twelve feet, but he screams all the way to the penile guillotine, paying the price for his Faustian pact with a power-hungry princess who promises him fame in return for his soul. "Russell's gimmicks may be crazily burlesque," Jack Kroll wrote in Newsweek, "but they burlesque historical truth. Liszt was the first great international superstar, lionized by a public that was already marshaling itself into what has become the mass audience of today's mass culture."
Valentino, an underrated masterpiece for which even Russell has expressed feelings ranging from disdain to ambivalence, casts Rudolf Nureyev as the silent screen's Latin lover. But instead of the dark, mysterious, and relentlessly erotic screen image, Valentino emerges as a combination buffoon and Hollywood martyr. In one grueling scene, "the Sheik" spends a night in the slammer. A sadistic prison guard, apparently curious and jealous about "the eighth great wonder of the world" Valentino supposedly has between his legs, forces the star to urinate in his pants while a gaggle of whores and drunks and a snaggle-toothed masturbator torment him more. Russell films this scene in an apparent fit of inspired anger; fortunately, he fought off the studio's attempt to nix it. It remains one of the most brilliant, uncompromising, and disturbing moments ever to show up in a mainstream feature.
Then there are all those eels, lizards, and snakes that saturate Dr. Jessup's (William Hurt) hallucinations in Altered States, or the menacing boa constrictor in Gothic that keeps haunting Mary Shelley (Natasha Richardson) on the night she conceives her novel Frankenstein. And there's that menacing solid steel electric dildo that the randy Reverend Shayne (Anthony Perkins) wields in Crimes of Passion to terrorize the prostitute he also wants to save. The Lair of the White Worm, Russell's drollest British film offering, is one drawn-out phallic parlor game: a guiltless pleasure for those who like their sensationalism with wit. The movie belches out crucifixion nightmares with skewered nuns and rapacious Romans a vampire seductress whose fangs castrate a Boy Scout and a slithering, carnivorous creature deep in a cave's bowels that waits for sacrificial victims. With this, Russell includes dialogue that at times resembles an amalgam of Noel Coward and Oscar Wilde; there's even a metamessage in which the film's semi-hero, the smug and stiff-upper-lipped Lord D'Ampton (Hugh Grant), represents the last gasp of British aristocracy in the Thatcher era.
In addition to the aforementioned stars, Russell worked with such acclaimed actors as Alan Bates, Ed Begley, Gabriel Byrne, Michael Caine, Leslie Caron, Richard Chamberlain, David Hemmings, Karl Malden, Helen Mirren, Jack Nicholson, Julian Sands, and Kathleen Turner, not to mention such rock superstars as the Who, Elton John, and Tina Turner. These players helped Russell make some of the most daring, original, disturbing, blissfully distasteful, and beautifully photographed films of all time.
Through the years, Russell has earned laurels and barbs. He's been called the "Wild Man of the BBC," "the enfant terrible of British cinema," and a "fish and chips Fellini." There's even a possibly apocryphal story about Russell and Fellini encountering each other in Italy outside a movie studio. Russell tells him he's considered the Fellini of the North, while Fellini replies he's considered the Russell of the South. But Fellini's excesses usually exude a more lightheartedly Italian regard for love and luxury. In Roma, for instance, when he has priests rollerskating on a catwalk in a Vatican fashion show, Fellini satirizes the clergy with prickly affection.
In contrast, when Russell portrays Cardinal Richelieu in The Devils as a shrew in red silk, getting wheeled around inside a church fortress lined with steel bars, he regards the papacy with a much more caustic, and uniquely British, irony. Russell has often claimed that many of his films are Catholic in nature, but he appears to hate Catholicism as an institution. And for all his garishness and his reputation for making movies for crazy people, Russell exceeds Fellini as an organized storyteller; his inspired lunacy works best when he has a tight script to complement his mania. Russell's best films are, as a result, easier to follow, less sloppy, more deviant, and more edgy than Fellini's.
Many times, the negative responses to Russell's films reveal the critics' biases and hang-ups; often they inadvertently make Russell seem appealing to the kinds of viewers — and there are many — who like such films. Depending on who reads Penelope Gilliatt's scathing review of The Devils, her words might be an incentive to run to the theater or grab the video: "The epileptic rhythms of the editing are revved up with a score that might be program music for the onset of psychosis." Who needs a press release when a bad review can be this enticing?
Then take the chronically anti-Russell Pauline Kael, who drags along her aesthetic baggage whenever she wags her erudite finger in the director's face. In one breath, she dismisses both Women in Love and one of Michael Powell's finest films, claiming that Russell "makes Lawrence's period romantically exotic the way a movie like Black Narcissus was exotic, so even when he's most effective it's a fruity falsification of Lawrence's work." She gets nastier with her review of The Music Lovers, calling Russell's enthralling take on the life of Tchaikovsky "baroque vulgarity" and accusing him of being "one of the most reckless movie directors who have [sic] ever lived."
Confronted with Savage Messiah, Russell's relatively kink-free offering about the Vorticist sculptor Henri Gaudier, Kael snaps: "[Russell] garbles until there is no base of truth left in a situation; his volatile mixture of bombast and venom and parody isn't an exaggeration of anything we can recognize; we no longer know what world we're in. That's why, at a certain point in a Ken Russell movie, I always say to myself, 'The man is mad.' But it's why those who adore his movies say, 'He's a genius.'"
Stephen Farber, on the other hand, appears to be among those adorers that got Kael riled. His review of The Music Lovers recognizes that Russell "has abandoned himself to his subject, and his dynamic baroque style of shooting and editing draws us boldly into scene after scene. The imagery is as lush and intoxicating as the music. At moments, Russell achieves a kind of cinematic synthesis, a dizzying, disorienting experience in which all senses — visual, aural, even tactile — seem to blur."
Life's Richard Schickel, with some reservations, credited Russell as "one of the most exciting talents to appear in some time." Dilys Powell, in London's Sunday Times, called him, with some fondness, "an appalling talent." The tag stuck with many, including film historian John Baxter, who used it for the title of his 1973 book on Russell that includes a priceless appraisal: "Like the sorcerer's apprentice in his beloved Fantasia, Russell has the power and knows the spells, but lacks the master's insight that would allow him to understand and control the creatures he summons up. And though his creations are often appalling, even to himself, he would rather not know how to control them, for fear that with knowledge would come a crippling impotence."
Decades later, Russell would continue to fight these creatures. But in an age of multiplexes, entertainment conglomerates, bottom-line movie producers talking down to audiences, and bean counters, all reaching for the lowest common denominator with hollow heroes, generic scripts, talent-packaged stars, and audience-sampled content, Russell flipped his middle finger to the movie industry and, with a digital camera, retreated to a parallel world: a thatched cottage at his home in England's New Forest district that he had converted into a makeshift movie studio in order to tell stories his way.
If detractors dismiss him as nothing but a dirty old man with a penis fixation, Russell has only to remind himself that he's in good company. In 1915, when D. H. Lawrence published The Rainbow (which Russell later adapted), a reviewer from London's Daily News described the novel as "a monotonous wilderness of phallicism." Russell is also a lot like Francois Rabelais, the sixteenth-century French satirist and scholar, whose Gargantua and Pantagruel he once tried filming. Rabelais, also deemed blasphemous, seasoned his observations on theology, love, and art with phallocentric images.
Ken Russell's movies offer both brazen sensationalism and food for thought; they horrify yet inspire. Even during moments when the plot drags or the foils between good and evil get too simplistic, viewers plugged into Russell's nervous system can count on continual jolts of sound and vision that few directors can pack with such command. Through it all, Russell maintains a simultaneously impish and intellectual sense of humor. And a man so willful and consistent about being "vulgar" and "excessive" at the expense of "decorum," and who has done so in most cases without any regard to what is "fashionable" or even "bankable," needs and deserves an appraisal that values his quirky aesthetics.
Unfortunately, too many critics have discounted Russell's excesses from a template more apt for assessing a film by John Ford or Francois Truffaut. But support for Russell has surfaced from various places. "Russell's films are often coarse, symbol-ridden, pretentious, and confusing," Ephraim Katz wrote in The Film Encyclopedia, "but there is always a sense of excitement about them and a creative energy that makes the release of each an event eagerly awaited with curious anticipation." One of the very best observations beamed from an unexpected source: the Catholic Film Newsletter, a publication from the U.S. Catholic Conference's Department of Communication, that stamped the "Condemned" seal on The Devils and later Valentino, but had some enthusiasm for Lisztomania. According to its writer Michael Gallagher, "To accuse Russell of excess when he is working in this area, however, is very much like accusing Rubens of sensuality."
Excerpted from Phallic Frenzy by Joseph Lanza. Copyright © 2007 Joseph Lanza. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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