Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Devils and Ken Russell

Ken Russell on the set of Tommy (1975)

The great visionary madman, director Ken Russell died November 27th at the age of 84, leaving behind a collection of films that were both visually stunning, intelligently written and always, and I mean always, just a little twisted.

Probably best known to mainstream audiences as the director of the 1975 film adaptation of the Who's rock opera Tommy, and as anyone who can remember the twitching face of Tina Turner's Acid Queen could tell you, Russell was  master of creating an image that was both seductively attractive while at the same time, mind-numbingly repulsive.

I'll admit that I am not nearly the fan of his first two major films, Women in Love and The Music Lovers. While both are brilliant, striking films that cover adult subject matter in an intelligent and compelling manner, they simply are just not weird enough for me to enjoy as much as Russell's later work. 

So don't get me wrong, both of these films, especially, Women in Love are well worth watching, but for me, Russell is at his best in his later work starting with 1971's The Devils in his embrace of a recurring, and compelling visual fixation that's a mixture of religious imagery with graphic sex and violence.

Watching classical actress Vanessa Redgrave writhing in sexual ecstasy as she fondles the femur of the priest she's caused to be burned at the stake and you really have no other choice but to either shirk back in total disgust or move ahead in total acceptance and appreciation.

Now don't get me wrong, because it's not like Ken couldn't make a bad film, it's just that even his bad films, such as 1975's Lisztominia, the whole mess is still so visually striking and well, just plain strange, that you can't help but have a good time, even if that means putting up with a feature length film starring Roger Daltrey, who as an actor is really a very good singer.

One of Russell's most successful features and which was also the film that introduced Hugh Grant to an American audience was the gloriously silly, Lair of the White Worm (1988). The ravishingly sexy Amanda Donohoe blasts across the screen as the perfect Russell woman. Beautiful, sardonic and very dangerous.

Personally, my very favorite Russell film was Salome's Last Dance, his play with-in a play version of Oscar Wilde's classic. Glenda Jackson, Stratford Johns and several other British stage greats are all a treat, but the completely over the top performance by Imogen Millais-Scott as Salome is stunning in its abandoned depravity.

Ken Russell was a man who was fascinated by our highest artistic goals and our lowest human vanities. He made films that were seductive on so many different levels intellectually and emotionally, and I for one am raising a glass to the man.

Ken Russell was an artist.

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