I was shocked yesterday to learn of Ken Russell’s passing, because it took the form of a rather bizarre coincidence. I’m at college, and in my class on film adaptations, one of the films we compared to its original source material was Lawrence’s “Women in Love”. So it was only about three weeks ago that I went on a sort of mini-Russell kick and watched “The Devils” (the censored cut).
Prior to this my exposure to Russell extended only as far as “Tommy”, “The Music Lovers” and “The Lair of the White Worm”.
Now here’s my confession: I appreciate Russell, but I find it very hard to “like” him.
I came to “Tommy” as a fan of the album; and while the performances were great, the film was well-directed, and it got as close as any adaptation ever has to Townshend’s original conception, the original story, for all it’s ridiculous was a weird sort of psychedelic religious fable. There’s an odd sort of simplicity to the record that isn’t on film; though granted that’s not Russell’s style.
I absolutely LOVED “The Music Lovers” the first time I saw it; it coming too at a very coincidental time, when I was considering fulfilling a childhood dream by writing an adaptation of “The Nutcracker”. Of course, then, the opening scene had me enthralled, but it was the first hour or so of the film that really showed me how absolutely and perfectly film and music could merge.
I obsessively rewatched it, showing it to many others, but…with each passing viewing, I realized I liked it less and less.
Initially, when I first saw the “Exploding 1812 Overture” scene, I remember thinking, “I wondered when Ken Russell was going to show up in his own movie!” Up until then everything had been relatively restrained. (Don’t even get me started on how little I appreciated the scene with Nina’s “many lovers” fondling her in the asylum…) It’s been a very long time since I revisited it, for fear that I’ll just find a pale shadow of what I once saw.
Clearly then I’m one of those who finds Russell’s excesses often too much (I forgot to mention “Altered States”, but that’s probably because I gave up when William Hurt escapes from the lab after his transformation); so why would I even watch “The Devils”, Russell fans might ask? No surprises here, I thought much of it too garish, and very disturbing and not only because I consider myself a practicing Christian. Somewhere in there was a fascinating story, but I felt it was usually consistently buried under quite a lot of hysteria.
After typing this, I realize that Russell might not have liked me very much in terms of my taste, but I’m sure he’d be delighted at my reactions—-I’m exactly the sort of person he’d want to shock and liven up.
But why do I keep coming back, if so much of Russell’s work rubs me the wrong way? I suppose it’s because, for all my hang-ups, I recognize that Russell was a true talent. As a a fellow “Music Lover”, there is no doubt in my mind Russell had one of the best ears for music. Even Scorsese is perhaps a distant second, if only because Russell had an ability that not even the greatest music aficionado directors possessed—-the ability to visually demonstrate the act of creation itself.
Even more so, I think I’ll miss Russell BECAUSE of how I disagreed with him. He was deliberately offensive, shocking and vulgar; in short, he took chances—-something very few mainstream directors can say nowadays.
Sir, you offended my moral, and aesthetic sensibilities very deeply.
And I shall miss you very much.
The Music Lovers is indeed a film that it’s “hard to warm up to,” in that it dea;s nto only with artistic ecstacy but narcissism, degradation, madness and death.
You responded to the imaginative ways Russell found to wed images to music. That’s the most entrancing part. The rest is a good deal rougher. It starts at a winter festival — and ends in a madhouse.
Tugh film — and its greatness is in its toughness.