“You can’t film creative genius, because it’s going on inside the person,” Ben Kingsley once said in description of of Ken Russell’s “massive contribution to the language of cinema… The way he linked the vulnerability of the flesh to the creation of great works of art.” Compliments like this one came all too late in assignment toward the works of Russell, who passed away November of 2011. It turns out, it’s sometimes similarly hard to discuss and place creative genius with filmmakers. Only in the current decade are we beginning to understand Russell’s once hotly debated filmography and his innovations in film language so inventive that they were difficult to measure or even recognize in their initial application.
Today would be Ken Russell’s 90th birthday, and, in a better-late-than-never effort, we wanted to collect and share some of our favorite experiences of Russell’s films as a means of both encouraging you to do the same for the occassion and encouraging everyone to always meet every film on its own terms so we can appreciate those challenging geniuses whose output might require effort to consume. Brilliant artistry often requires work from the consumer and the artist, but if both parties can meet in the middle, it’s worth it, and sometimes, as is the case with Russell’s best films, it can even feel infinite somehow.
Women in Love (1969)
It’s strange to start a commemoration of one of the more divisive, enigmatic, and even controversial filmmakers with an appreciation of his most celebrated and almost universally praised film, but Women in Love also marks the hardest Russell (or any filmmaker) would have to work to earn my affection. The adaptation of a favorite writer, particularly one who’s proven somewhat uncinematic in preparedness for adaptation (in this case, D.H. Lawrence) always makes for a tricky negotiation between the viewer and the filmmaker. But in the space between Russell’s trademark experimentation and D.H. Lawrence’s literary precision, it becomes hard not to admire. It’s a bit misleading that Women in Love earned the most standard appreciation for Russell– aside from the critical praise, the film also earned four Oscar nominations including a win for Glenda Jackson in the role of Gudrun. While Russell maintains a bit of the formality of Lawrence’s modernist text with his subdued framing approach of his Romantic subjects in more domestic spaces (subdued, at least, in relation to the rest of his filmography), he also frequently unleashes the text of the story and the dialogue of his characters into an ethereal essay regarding the material of love and its different forms and expressions, from the dignified and persistent to the violent and passionate. Women in Love is a film that is daring, stirring, philosophical, meditative, and sexy, sometimes all at once (particularly in the famous fireside wrestling scene between Gerald (Alan Bates) and Gerald (Oliver Reed), a watershed scene for homoeroticism in cinema). It’s a strange exercise that maintains a faithfulness to its literary source material and yet expounds upon it and moves freely from it to make a work that is wholly new and driven by a unique spiritedness. – David Shreve, Jr.
From deaf, dumb, and blind pinball wizard to 20th century messiah, Tommy took us on a rock odyssey that explored his life through abuse, power, consumerism, and stardom. Ken Russell’s film, based on The Who’s 1969 rock opera, Tommy, is lavishly scripted and directed, and wonderfully weird, even by musical standards, in way that that no modern film has come close to capturing. Every set piece is a marvel; every scene is bursting with an energy that feels closer to magic than technical skill. While the narrative of Tommy is more-or-less intelligible from the album’s lyrics, Russell marries the songs with unexpected images that form a treatise on the relationship between popular culture and religion. It’s impossible to ever hear Tommy the same way again after seeing Russell’s film. While both works of art stand complete on their own, the film, even with its differences in lyrics and arrangements, imparts a new language through which to decipher the album, a language that is at times literal and figurative, but ultimately based in the triumph and tragedy of finding gods within our celebrity figures. From Tommy (portrayed by The Who’s lead singer Roger Daltrey) having sex with Tina Turner inside a knight’s armor that draws blood through syringes, to Elton John’s The Champ stomping around in giant Doc Martens, Jack Nicholson’s devilish Specialist, and Ann-Margaret rolling around in baked beans and melted chocolate, much of Tommy seems like acid-trip that only the 70s could inspire. But beyond the flashing lights, and technicolor whirlwind is a beating, emotional heart that never loses sight of its lead character and his struggle to find responsibility and inspire it in others. While the film could be described as illogical to the undiscerning eye, that’s not the case. Ken Russell, in his sheer wizardry, crafted a film based in the logic of pure emotion and it remains a cinematic experience that needs to be seen to be believed. – Richard Newby
The Devils (1971)
There are some films that leave your mind a whirlwind. Ken Russell’s The Devils is one of those. The kind that have you scraping remnants off the walls of your brain, weeks later after viewing. Like most nunsploitation movies, to the untrained eye it may appear to be a flurry of obscene nonsense, sacrilege, and blasphemy. But there are always themes and images within that beg contemplation. After all, beneath the torn and bloody habits are the women who wear them, and in bearing their bodies they also bear their souls.
The Devils is based on the mass hysteria of a convent that took place in the 1700s in Loudun, France. Its controversial non-fiction account was penned by Aldous Huxley who recollected the widespread possession of nuns who claimed that a priest made a deal with satan and terrorized them with his sexual perversion. As is the way of middle-aged Inquisition Catholicism, there are plenty of histrionic exorcisms and burnings at the stake.
These same acts are depicted in The Devils to staggering effect, depending on which cut of the film you can get your hands on. Several of the scenes were banned by censor boards for their flagrant sexuality and violence, and multiple versions exist. The ones that show the infamous “rape of Christ” and necrophilic masturbation are shocking and will certainly offend some viewers, but they’re also tremendously entertaining. When the entire convent erupts into hysteria, it’s a feast for the eyes. Women tear their clothes, behave like animals, and move only by instinct and desire. Russell’s speciality is sexuality and the church, and he digs into both with wild abandon. It seems he was in his heyday when directing The Devils, if only we could all be so lucky to have the means to create so freely.
This horrific dream stars Vanessa Redgrave and Oliver Reed, two delusional icons wrestling with their place both on earth and in heaven. Redgrave is frantic as Sister Jeanne des Anges, a sexually-obsessed nun whose libido and guilt practically leak from her pores. Her body is bent to a discomforting angle due to her hunchback, and her piety masks a mind that’s just as misshapen. Reed is Father Grandier, a man sick with power, a sexual martyr whose predatory persuasion is only matched in obscenity by his distracting facial hair. His complexity lies in the fact that he alone stands against corruption higher on the ladder. For whatever reason, he is the object of Sister Jeanne’s (and many other women’s) desire, and in the end it is he and Sister Jeanne who will bear the brunt of the punishment the Church so ferociously longs to dole out.
Sexuality and religion are only some aspect of the narrative since where the church lives; so do politics. Like other great nunsploitation films, The Devils plants tongue firmly in cheek and calls out the church and secular leadership, making a mockery of both without fear. As our players spin about they are surrounded by plague, frantic conversation about the fate of the city and faith itself. The king takes part in bizarre games and performances, and side characters speak nearly in riddles. It’s a lot to take in.
Watching The Devils is like sitting nude in the middle of the busiest intersection in the biggest city in the world. It’s loud and erratic, blinding and distracting in its effect on the viewer, and it is totally unforgettable. Somehow, it feels like you’re complicit. For horror fans it is an absolute must-see, and a wonderful piece of Russell’s work to look back on in honor of his 90th birthday. – Becky Belzile