The Devils

Altered States

Ken Russell had very little patience for the idea that one should honor tradition, and that is a major factor that mobilized his work. His best films were fascinated by the subject of tradition, namely a need to deconstruct of them. Russell subverted, parodied, critiqued and tore apart everything from classical music to the Catholic Church to British aristocracy, and did so with notable flare, fervor and dedication — biting deeply into those things that we are supposed to hold in most sacred reverence. Russell also had little patience for traditions of British filmmaking. As Mark Kermode pointed out, he rejected “kitchen sink realism” in favor of something more heightened in order to explore the tragicomic depths of human absurdity. Many of his films are about nobles and royalty, but Russell rarely followed the British classical tradition as well, instead representing the lives of elites as a farce. His inimitable visual style imbued a variety of films from horror to science fiction to his numerous and inventive biopics of classical composers. He was, thoroughly, one of a kind. So here is a bit of free film school (for fans and filmmakers alike) from the guy who cast Ringo Starr as the pope.


Ken Russell

It’s difficult for me to reflect on filmmaker Ken Russell’s career without recounting my own personal relationship to his work. When I was a junior in college, an uncensored 35mm print of his mad and magnificent The Devils (1971) was screened on my university campus. The film is unavailable in the US in its original widescreen, X-rated form in any home video format, so that experience for me remains one of the singular theatrical viewings of my life. Since then, I’ve been hooked on his work. Perhaps more than any director, I’ve felt a habitual need to share Russell’s work with friends. Sometimes they reject his challenging and decidedly non-subtle, often hyperkinetic visions, but it’s always rewarding when I show one of his films to somebody who confirms that I’m not crazy – that there is a brilliant method underlying the batshit madness of the work helmed by this eccentric British director. I recently hosted a Halloween screening of his enduringly fascinating 1980 sci-fi film Altered States (1980) genuinely afraid that the audience would respond negatively to the film’s abject body transformation narrative and overall tonal strangeness, but the end credits were met with a warm round of applause. Russell was certainly one of the most bizarre directors that Britain has ever housed, but he was hardly only that.



On Sunday’s Reject Radio and in yesterday’s Culture Warrior, I praised to the heavens Ken Russell’s notoriously controversial film The Devils (1971). And now you can see it, in NYC.



This week’s Culture Warrior helps you fill out your Netflix queue.

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published: 01.25.2015
published: 01.24.2015
published: 01.24.2015
published: 01.24.2015

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