Thursday, December 01, 2011

Culture Shock 12.01.11: Ken Russell was uncompromising in pursuit of excess

Challenged to make a movie so offensive even he would say it should be banned, British director Ken Russell came up with an eight-minute film called "A Kitten for Hitler."

The title is just the beginning. It's downhill from there. And did I mention it's a Christmas movie?

Best known for his adaptations of D.H. Lawrence novels and "Altered States," his psychedelic foray into science fiction, Russell died Sunday at age 84 after a series of strokes.

Many filmmakers are described as "uncompromising," but few have earned that descriptive so thoroughly as Russell, who was uncompromising in his pursuit of cinematic excess.

Baffled audiences? An occupational hazard. Outraged critics? Serves the bums right.

Often, to watch a Ken Russell film is to be assaulted by sight and sound. If film is a visual medium more than a narrative one, Russell carried that to its logical — or is it illogical? — conclusion. In his hands, even so straightforward a genre as the biopic becomes a mad experiment in imagery and symbolism. The facts of the matter, when they matter at all, are in service to what you see.

Russell described "The Music Lovers," his 1970 film about Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, as a movie about a homosexual who marries a nymphomaniac.

That's a cute way of putting it. It's also a story of repression, obsession and madness. One thing it's not is a literal biography of Tchaikovsky. But it shouldn't be taken literally in any case. It's a backdrop on which Russell can project the fantasies, fears, nightmares and delusions of his characters, all set to the compositions of the Russian composer at the center of the proceedings.

By the time the "1812 Overture" inevitably comes along, we're not surprised to see actual canons going off and beheading Tchaikovsky's tormentors.

Even when working with a more traditional narrative, as in "Altered States" or his adaptation of Bram Stoker's "Lair of the White Worm," Russell used dreams and hallucinations to stunning visual and thematic effect.

His frequent collaborator — you might even say "muse" — Glenda Jackson, who won an Oscar for her role in Russell's "Women in Love," called him an "incredible visual genius." But he also was a director who got brave performances from his actors, whether from Jackson, as Tchaikovsky's doomed wife in "The Music Lovers," or the temperamental Oliver Reed, who shared an infamous nude wrestling scene with Alan Bates in "Women in Love."

For all his visual flair, it might still be possible to dismiss Russell if all there were to his films was the extravagance. In some of his movies, such as 1972's "Savage Messiah," it seems the only direction he gave the cast might have been, "Act louder!"

Not all of his experiments are successful. "Gothic," his 1986 retelling of how Mary Shelley came up with "Frankenstein," is absurd fun, but I'm not at all convinced it's actually a good movie.

Russell also tested the boundaries of subjects such as sex and religion, both of which tend to get artists into trouble. "The Devils," Russell's 1971's film set in a nunnery, deals with both, and it has yet to get a proper U.S. release in its uncut form.

When he didn't break a boundary, he at least showed the rest of us where it is.

In his later years, Russell returned to making television documentaries, which is where he started, and the cinema lost one of its most daring, original voices.

Ultimately, I'm not sure the world really knew what hit it when Russell burst upon the scene in the late 1960s.

And I'm not sure it knows now, either.

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