Ken Russell, 1927 - 2011

The British director was 84.
David Hudson
The DailyKen Russell

"Ken Russell, the British director whose daring and sometimes outrageous films often tested the patience of audiences and critics, has died," reports the AP. "He was 84."

"Known for a flamboyant style that was developed during his early career in television, Russell's films often courted controversy," writes Henry Barnes for the Guardian. "Women in Love, released in 1969, became notorious for its nude male wrestling scene between Alan Bates and Oliver Reed, while Tommy, his starry version of The Who's rock opera, was his biggest commercial success, beginning as a stage musical before being reimagined for the screen in 1976. But Russell fell out of the limelight in recent years, as some of his funding resources dried up and his proposed projects ever more eclectic. He returned to the public eye in 2007, when he appeared on the fifth edition of Celebrity Big Brother, before quitting the show after a disagreement with fellow contestant Jade Goody."

Earlier this month, when the British Film Institute announced that it'd be giving The Devils (1971) its first-ever release on DVD, we posted a roundup on what long-time Russells champion Mark Kermode calls "his most incendiary work." (See, too, Adrian Curry in 2009 on the poster.) And last month, we noted that Russell's collaboration with The Who's Roger Daltry would carry on after Tommy with Lisztomania (1975), which NPR's Phil Harrell calls "a bit over the top," a mini-review that might serve for nearly all of Russell's work and one that he himself would surely relish.

Updates: From the BBC: "He specialized in the interpretation of the great classical composers, extravaganzas which matched powerful images with a dramatic score…. He harbored a childhood ambition to be a ballet dancer but, instead, joined the Merchant Navy as a teenager. On one occasion he was made to stand watch in the blazing sun for hours on end while crossing the Pacific. His lunatic captain feared an attack by Japanese midget submarines despite the war having ended. A nervous breakdown ensued and, it was during his recovery that he first heard Tchaikovsky on the radio, inspiring a lifelong obsession with the classical composers. After a spell in the Royal Air Force he became a photographer and first made amateur films while working for the magazine, Picture Post. Music became his passion. Delius, Debussy, Elgar, Richard Strauss, Tchaikovsky, Wagner, Mahler and Liszt were among the composers given the Russell treatment."

Related reading from Rouge 8: Donald Phelps on "Ken Russell's Portraits of Elgar, Delius and Mahler." And in February, Mike Dempsy noted that Elgar (1962) "is still regarded by the BFI as one of the best television documentaries. In 1966 Russell made Isadora Duncan and a year later Song of Summer — a beautifully crafted piece on the closing years of British composer, Fredrick Delius. This for me was the culmination of Russell's trail-blazing work in this 'dramadoc' genre."

On the occasion of a retrospective at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in the summer of 2010, Nicolas Rapold wrote in the Voice that "art and history were carnival grounds for exhilarating spectacle and Romantic mania…. Case in point: The Music Lovers, an extended 1970 fever dream on Tchaikovsky's sexual torment that opens in medias res with a wordless scene of lushly scored winter revelry. In a favored Russell technique, single events — like a public recital wracked with excitement and insecurity — are elongated by long fantasy sequences, and whole stretches of images seem pushed and pulled along before our eyes by projected desires and anxieties. Cutting himself off from a secret relationship with a count, Tchaikovsky convinces himself to accept the fanaticism of an admirer ([Glenda] Jackson, a Russell axiom), and weds to pursue a new fantasy. As the composer-conductor, Richard Chamberlain looks like he might shiver into pieces."

"The typical line on Russell is that he blew open a stagnating British film industry with iconoclastic blasts of bad taste and a virtuoso style that rubbished the rulebook," wrote Justin Stewart for the L at around the same time. "It is true that the industry there was not flourishing as the 60s became the 70s, though Ken Loach's Kes, a beautiful movie with a sensitivity galaxies removed from Russell's self-indulgence, came out in 1969. Joseph Losey and Kubrick were flourishing in England. Peckinpah made Straw Dogs in '71, Hitchcock Frenzy in '72. But American funding was drying up along with fresh ideas and methods, and George Lazenby was James Bond, so the time was right for a Brit enfant terrible like Russell. With years of work as a photographer and maker of arts documentaries for the BBC, he had just the right mixture of technical adequacy, industry pull, personalized vision, and a trendy beatnik streak to echo, in his own way, the exciting things that were starting to happen in American moviemaking."

From Film Comment: Gene D Phillips's 1970 interview and Stephen Farber in 1975 on "Russellmania!"

Catherine Grant has begun "assembling links to scholarly studies of Russell's work, and to related online resources."

Viewing (15'03"). Shelagh Delaney's Salford, Russell's portrait of the playwright who died just a week ago.

Viewing (1'56"). On the BBC, Michael Winner pays tribute and notes that he saw what was cut out of The Devils: "It was almost longer than the film itself!" And more viewing (2'50"). The BBC's video obit.

More from the Guardian, which has a special section devoted to Russell: Stuart Jeffries's interview from April of this year, an image gallery, a collection of clips and Bernard Rose in 2008: "François Truffaut once said that if you love a man's work, you love all of it. That's how I feel about Ken Russell. Of the British directors active in the 1960s and 1970s who inspired me, Nic Roeg and Jim Henson were mentors in a very direct way (I worked for them), while Stanley Kubrick and Lindsay Anderson were remote, mythical figures. But Russell was my hero, the heir to Michael Powell's peculiarly emotional Englishness and vivid visual rhapsodies. And, sadly, a controversial figure more loved abroad than here."

Women in Love, Russell's "sexually-graphic 1969 adaptation of DH Lawrence's novel, earned him an Oscar nomination and international recognition with Glenda Jackson picking up the Academy Award for Best Actress for her role in the movie," notes Murray Wardrop in the Telegraph, adding that Oliver Reed "said that Russell 'started to go crazy' when he worked with him on the film. Reed said: 'Before that he was a sane, likable TV director. Now he's an insane, likable film director.'" And the Telegraph's posted an image gallery.

"He ventured into the American studio system with Altered States (1980), a hallucinogenic science-fiction film starring William Hurt," writes Dennis Lim in the New York Times. "In his autobiography Mr Russell revealed that he was hired by Warner Brothers only after 26 other directors had passed on the project. He feuded with the screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky, who took his name off the project, but Altered States earned him some of his best reviews and has since developed a cult following…. But even with his directing career in eclipse, Mr Russell kept busy with films and documentaries for British television, occasional acting roles and self-financed low-budget features like The Fall of the Louse of Usher, a 2002 horror spoof literally shot in his backyard. He wrote several novels — including a few on the sex lives of famous composers (Beethoven Confidential, Brahms Gets Laid) — and made his off-Broadway directing debut in 2008 with Mindgame, a play starring Keith Carradine…. In a column in The Times in 2008 about a critical biography on him by Joseph Lanza titled Phallic Frenzy, Mr Russell reflected on his longtime status as a critical punching bag. 'I believe in what I'm doing wholeheartedly, passionately, and what's more, I simply go about my business,' he wrote. 'I suppose such a thing can be annoying to some people.'"

For the Telegraph's Tim Robey, The Devils "come to be seen as the defining film of a great hellraising career: one in which hell was sometimes almost literally raised, as at the castle of Lord Byron in his 1986 literary fantasia, Gothic…. There was mischief, insult and daring in Russell's vision, and a playfulness that made him unique — his favorite game was to exploit the starchy norms of British prestige cinema and then abruptly throw an orgy, or blow loud raspberries in the direction of the church. In this sense he followed the rudely provocative tradition of Fellini or Buñuel, but fused that with an antic spirit of thoroughly British eccentricity."

John Bridcut, who wrote and directed Elgar: The Man Behind the Mask (2010) for BBC4, and is currently working on a film about Delius, in the Guardian: "People sometimes look back wistfully to Russell's early work at the BBC, where he first made his name, under the fond illusion that, when he was making films for Monitor, he had not yet gone off the rails. His 1968 Delius film Song of Summer (in my view the best composer film he ever made) featured Max Adrian as the blind and paralysed composer, with [Christopher] Gable again as his gawky amanuensis, Eric Fenby. Even here there were telltale flashes of sexual fascination, with clerical groping in the church, or the supposition that Delius's wife had a lesbian relationship with Ida Gerhardi. But the sombre outcome of Delius's tertiary syphilis for some reason steered Russell away from the raunchy sex life that Delius had had as a younger man. Perhaps the ageing Fenby kept Russell's eye on the music." As for Elgar, "it would not be an exaggeration to say that, more than any other single factor, it triggered the Elgar revival, which has continued unabated to this day. For that alone, Russell deserves a place of glory."

Viewing (1'06"). Russell tells a story about Fellini.

Viewing (1'51"). Martin Scorsese tells the BBC about his admiration for Russell. Listening (3'32"). More on the BBC from an angry Glenda Jackson.

"In March last year, I interviewed Ken Russell," recalls Sean O'Hagan. "We spoke over the phone about his days as a working photographer in the 1950s. It was a tough call: he was slightly deaf and very grumpy. Our first attempt at communication ended abruptly when he shouted: 'That will be all, thank you very much!' and slammed the phone down. I persevered and, with the help of Lucy Bell, who was hosting an exhibition of his work in her gallery in St Leonards-on-sea, finally got a more illuminating interview…. [H]e referred to his photographs as 'still films' which, in a way, they were. Initially he was a street photographer, wandering the streets of London's Notting Hill 'until something caught my eye.' He also made portraits, mainly of the lithe and pretty girls with whom he had studied dance. Even then, the surrealism of his later films was evident."

Also in the Guardian, Derek Malcolm writes that Russell "was so often called rude names – the wild man of British cinema, the apostle of excess, the oldest angry young man in the business – that he gave up denying it all quite early in his career. Indeed, he often seemed to court the very publicity that emphasised only the crudest assessment of his work. He gave the impression that he cared not a damn. Those who knew him better, however, knew that he did. Underneath all the showbiz bluster, he was an old softie. Or, perhaps as accurately, a talented boy who never quite grew up…. Whether you loved or hated his work, he was an original. And not quite the 'shrill, screaming gossip' Pauline Kael called him. He once wrote an article entitled 'The Films I Do Best Are About the People I Believe In.' And he made a television programme called Ken Russell's ABC of British Music (1988) which proved that point absolutely. It won an Emmy for the best performing arts programme. Look at that film and at Song of Summer and the Elgar film and you have the best of Russell on television. Look at The Devils and Crimes of Passion — and the first quickfire 20 minutes of Tommy — and you have just about the best of him in the cinema."

Gerard Raymond interviewed Russell for Slant in 2010.

"Russell told of his four-decade 'crush; on actress turned MP Glenda Jackson in his final TV interview," reports the Telegraph. The as-yet-unseen interview will be broadcast on Friday on Sky Arts.

For Glenn Kenny, The Boy Friend (1971) is "a genuinely clever slice of affectionate post-modernism that toggled between delicacy and grotesquerie more purposefully than many other of his films ever would."

Time's Richard Corliss: "It's strange that people can't reconcile vulgarity and artistry,' Ken Russell told his biographer John Baxter. 'They're the same thing to me. But don't get vulgarity mixed up with commercialism. By vulgarity I mean an exuberant over-the-top larger-than-life slightly bad taste red-blooded thing. And if that's not anything to do with Art, let's have nothing to do with Art.'" Further in, Corliss notes that, when it came to Elgar, BBC exec Huw Wheldon "told Russell he could use actors only mute and in long shot. The director used that restriction as an advantage, creating a hallucinatory musical landscape. As Michael Brooke writes for BFI Screenonline: 'When Russell's camera isn't swooping and gliding over Elgar's beloved Malvern Hills, it's fixating on strangely arresting shots: the sequence covering Lady Elgar's death begins with tendrils of mist snaking through a silver birch wood, continues with a dark room full of mysteriously shrouded furniture and ends with the bereaved Elgar's new and obsessive interest in microscopic natural phenomena.'" And Corliss himself on Altered States: "It's an anthology and apotheosis of American pop movies: Frankenstein, Murders in the Rue Morgue, The Nutty Professor, 2001, Alien, Love Story. It opens at fever pitch and then starts soaring — into genetic fantasy, into a precognitive dream of delirium and delight. Madness is its subject and substance, style and spirit. The film changes tone, even form, with its hero's every new mood and mutation. It expands and contracts with his mind until both almost crack. It keeps threatening to go bonkers, then makes good on its threat, and still remains as lucid as an aerialist on a high wire."

"It was as if," suggests the Guardian's Peter Bradshaw, "Russell looked around at the stupefying dullness of Britain in the Heath/Wilson era and thought: what can I do to shake this lot up? 'I conduct to live; I live to compose,' says Robert Powell in Russell's 1974 movie, Mahler — and perhaps Russell, in his heart, admired the clarity and calm of an artist who could keep distinct money-making endeavour in the public sphere, and creative labour in private."

The Guardian also collects tributes from Glenda Jackson, Robert Powell, Melvyn Bragg, Vanessa Redgrave, Peter Maxwell Davies, Douglas Hodge and Don Boyd.

IndieWIRE asks Shade Rupe, a personal friend of Russell's, for his thoughts. He begins, "Kenneth Alfred Henry Russell entered Earth on July 3, 1927, in Southampton, England and quickly found his way to the cinema, citing Milton Rosmer's 1934 picture The Secret of the Loch as his first bout at the flickers. The story of a loonish Scottish academic trying to convince everyone the Loch Ness Monster was a real beast would find a new home in Russell’s skull in his hypersexual The Lair of the White Worm…."

Viewing (13'14"). Guardian film writers Xan Brooks, Catherine Shoard and Andrew Pulver discuss the legacy. And more viewing (1'25"). Vanessa Redgrave on the BBC.

Updates, 11/29: Russell reviewed Pauline Kael's The Citizen Kane Book for Films and Filming in May 1972, and chained and perfumed has a scan of the page.

David Cairns offers "a stream-of-consciousness stagger through selected images."

"Ken's part in my life begins in 1970," recalls John Wyver. "One Saturday, perhaps attracted by the already notorious scene in which a naked Glenda Jackson rolls around on the floor of a train carriage, we took ourselves off to the Odeon to see The Music Lovers (1970). And, reader, it changed my life. I had never seen anything so thrilling and so frightening and so visceral as Ken Russell's absurdly over-the-top biopic of Tchaikovsky. Here was joy and laughter and intense involving drama such as I had never encountered (I was only fifteen, and had lived a sheltered life). As I recall it (and I recognize that nostalgia may play a part here) I there and then determined that I would work in the cinema or television."

"Over the last few years, the much maligned maverick was supposedly working on his newest project — a take on Daniel Defoe's Moll Flanders," writes Bill Gibron at PopMatters. Apparently, the film was never finished…. One day, the world will once again wake up to this passionate, if problematic cinematic visionary. Until then, Russell remains an enigma, one that should have been celebrated more strongly before it was too late. Now, it is."

Updates, 12/1: Robert Horton in 1988 on Salome's Last Dance: "When Wilde watches his play staged, we see the way it reflects on his own life; he identifies himself as the play's John the Baptist, and predicts himself betrayed by his homosexual lover just as John is betrayed by Salome…. Salome's Last Dance might well have been a trashy, glitzy exercise in camp were it not for the tragic layer of Wilde's own life, as suggested in sharp strokes by Russell."

"Instead of writing one more obituary detailing the man's fascinating life and making note of his extraordinary body of work, I thought I'd let Russell speak for himself." At Movie Morlocks, Kimberly Lindbergs presents "some of the director's best quotes borrowed from Altered States: The Autobiography of Ken Russell, which was originally published in 1989."

Update, 12/2: "A raunchy musical version of Alice in Wonderland, which the director had been working on at the time of his death, is expected to be made by the same team who were working with him, incorporating his ideas but with a new director," reports Ben Dowell for the Guardian.

Update, 12/4: "Ken, it's Mark. Listen, I'm in the nappy department of Mothercare and I think we just found the rape of Christ…" In the Observer, Mark Kermode recalls making it his mission to find a missing sequence from The Devils, which, of course, he did. When he first met Russell, "Ken was everything I hoped he would be: passionate, belligerent, friendly, enormously well-read and often laugh-out-loud funny, but with a steely streak of deadly seriousness, a man who had become used to seeing his work misjudged and mistreated, but who never felt the need to apologize for his own genius."

Update, 12/8: "British cinema lost with Ken Russell a vital antibody to its gangrenous pragmatism and aesthetic sclerosis," declares the Celluloid Liberation Front in Film International. "Russell's imaginative exuberance has represented a refreshing if erratic presence within the parochial insularity of the British Cinematic Complex."

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