Essays · Features and Columns

Fade Out: Ken Russell (1927–2011)

By  · Published on November 29th, 2011

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.

Russell’s career spanned more than a half-century, beginning and ending in British television. He was incredibly prolific, with over 70 directorial titles to his name including TV episodes, TV movies, film segments, music videos, direct-to-video titles and, of course, his feature film work which (arguably) reached its zenith in the 1970s.

Russell was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Director for Women in Love (1969), an adaptation of the D. H. Lawrence’s novel about a battle of the sexes whose adaptation includes a rather memorable (and unprecedented) nude wrestling scene between the film’s two male stars, Oliver Reed and Alan Bates. Sexuality was an exhaustively revisited subject of Russell’s, ad he challenged the UK’s (and the world’s in distribution of his films abroad) censorial parameters by depicting in blunt detail what we might instinctively term “aberrant” sexuality – however, Russell’s films were brilliant in collectively forming an argument that no form of sexuality is, in articulated practice, “normal.” The Devils’ notorious battle with British censors (which rivaled that of Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, released the same year) is perhaps the definitive case summarizing Russell’s controversial role, career, and legacy in the British film industry.

Russell’s work exhibited a fascination with many types of music, as evidenced by his both famous and obscure odes to popular and classical styles: The Who’s Tommy (1975), the Tchaikovsky biopic The Music Lovers (1970), and, of course, Lisztomania (1975), which can only be somewhat accurately described as schizophrenic historical fiction featuring Ringo Starr as The Pope. Russell’s 1980s career is best-characterized by his full immersion into genre fare like the highly entertaining horror film Lair of the White Worm (1988) and, of course, Altered States, which predicted the body transformation sci-horror subgenre that would dominate the 1980s in films like Carpenter’s The Thing, Landis’s An American Werewolf in London, and Cronenberg’s Videodrome and The Fly. Russell’s most frequent partner-in-crime was actor Oliver Reed, who once stated that his lead role in The Devils was the best of his acting career. Russell was a man well aware of his notoriety, and certainly perpetuated his idiosyncratic and occasionally confrontational persona (to no doubt his own delight) by appearing in strange cameo roles in films like Color Me Kubrick and (of all things) the UK’s Celebrity Big Brother.

While Russell’s films largely retained a recognizable, distinct style of a visionary obsessed with excess in every possible form, his work can’t be easily categorized. He worked in a variety of genres and through many mediums. Most importantly, he was an anomaly in the film industry, as his films never fit into what Graham Fuller deems “Misery” (social-realist genres like kitchen sink films) or “Heritage” (literary costume dramas) films in Britain’s cinematic tradition. Russell possessed no concern for realism, and while he made many costume dramas he had little reverence for the heritage informing its tradition. Even at the ripe old age of 84, Russell remained British cinema’s enfant terrible, and we’re all the better for it.

Russell died Sunday at age 84 after suffering multiple strokes.

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