by Tony Dayoub
What sad, unexpected news to return from vacation to. The passing of British director Ken Russell particularly touches me. As I shared with critic Carrie Rickey this morning, Russell was the first auteur I ever identified with, even before I was old enough to know what the word meant. As I matured, the flaws of excess in his work became more apparent to me. But Russell was nothing if not ambitious in his desire to take risks at the expense of being liked by the critical establishment.
One can't overstate Russell's influence on music videos, for example. Starting his career directing BBC documentaries on famous historical figures from the world of music, Russell initially adhered to the boilerplate style of intercutting between photos and talking heads. But Russell increasingly became more fanciful in his reenactments until they became the centerpieces of his docs. He carried over this style to his work in cinema, and his biographical fantasies on everyone from silent film star Rudolf Valentino to Percy Shelley. Still, his musical inclinations were often a dominant theme in his filmography, whether he was focusing on Tchaikovsky in The Music Lovers (1970), the titular composer of Mahler (1974) or directing musicals like the stagey The Boy Friend (1971), the rock opera Tommy (1975) and my personal favorite, his "Nessun dorma" segment for the opera omnibus Aria (1987) (see the segment in its entirety below).
"Nessun dorma" crystallizes everything good and bad about Russell's work. His propensity to eroticize his films could be both eloquent—as in his D.H. Lawrence films, Women in Love (1969) and The Rainbow (1989)—or profane—The Devils (1971) and Whore (1991). For "Nessun dorma" the nature of this eroticism was more "meta:" star Linzi Drew was a porn actress. Russell's stylistic flourishes could be excessive, particularly in his more outlandish horror films like his 1988 adaptation of Bram Stoker's The Lair of the White Worm (which introduced Americans to Amanda Donohoe and Hugh Grant) or his drug-fueled depiction of Percy Shelley and Lord Byron's haunted summer in Gothic (1986). Other times it could form quite an impression, as it did to this young viewer when he first saw the intense Altered States (1980), the combative shoot of which effectively ended any chance that Russell could get American backing for his films in the future (Crimes of Passion being a notable exception). Here is a stunning sequence from Altered States, (only William Hurt's second feature!):
Russell's finest film, The Devils, has yet to be released on DVD here in the U.S. and has only been slated for release in the U.K. (next year). Starring Vanessa Redgrave and Oliver Reed, the film is a harrowing look at a convent of nuns struggling with their lust for a good-hearted but licentious priest. According to the Guardian's obituary yesterday, during a talk show appearance by Russell in which an Evening Standard film critic called The Devils "monstrously indecent," the director hit the critic with a rolled up copy of the Standard. Never one to shy away from controversy, Russell later said, "I wish it had been an iron bar."
He died Sunday at the age of 84.
Recommended Films - Billion Dollar Brain, Women in Love, The Devils, The Boy Friend, Tommy, Valentino, Altered States, Gothic, "Nessun dorma," segment in Aria, The Lair of the White Worm, The Rainbow, Whore