One Dozen Notes for a Ken Russell Obituary
(Russell in 1971 on the set of The Boy Friend)
By Richard von Busack
As most cineastes have heard already, Ken Russell died in his sleep Sunday after a long and flamboyant career of more than 50 years; he was the most successful and long lived of a flying squad of British Fellini-Goes-To-Soho directors: Nicolas Roeg, Donald Cammell, Peter Greenaway and, far away in Australia, Baz Luhrman.
In some ways these directors were the descendants of Michael Powell; the pre-title sequence of Russell’s Billion Dollar Brain, discussed below, looks like an outtake from Powell’s 1960 Peeping Tom. But Russell’s own mad obsessions with classical music, sex and politics resulted in a bizarre and challenging life’s work that no one could (or should) envy.
1. He ended his career with boobs. From the 2006 anthology film Trapped Ashes is Russell’s episode, 2006’s “The Girl With the Golden Breasts”—the title is one last unkindness against a classical composer, in this case Claude Debussy. Russell’s snippet is a horror story about an actress who gets a boob job with “reprocessed human tissue.” (“I know it sounds gross, but it’s completely natural.”) The teats have vampire nipples and commence to suck blood. In the shock conclusion “Uncle Ken” turns up as a doctor in lipstick to explain what happened.
2. 1996’s “Insatiable Mrs. Kirsch” from Tales of Erotica has a woman working a breast pump with such rhythmic noise as to catch the attention of a meek male. Since Russell’s first theatrical film French Dressing had been something of a skin flick, we see an arc that lasts 50 years. Russell’s music video from the boobacious Sarah Brightman, might be more legit, but it was just perpetuating the cycle.
3. Another feature length Russell film, 2002’s Fall of the Louse of Usher: A Gothic Tale for the 21st Century, was shot in a garage when the director was about 74 years old. Yes, Russell was a man who never quit, and may well still be shooting movies inside his coffin.
4. That last disrespectful comment wouldn’t have been made when Russell was at his peak of fame around the cusp of the sixties and the seventies, with a succession of popular films: the model turned actress Twiggy in The Boy Friend and the witchburning horror film The Devils. The most famous of all his films must be Women in Love. Its nude wrestling scene (between Alan Bates and Oliver Reed) were a shock-success that made it to the Oscars. I saw it back then, and I was more struck by Glenda Jackson—a lean, angry actress who sort of carved the path that Cate Blanchett followed—emoting a sleepless night pinned underneath the bulk of a sleeping Reed, as outside the church bells toll away the hours.
5. Eighties Russell was a pleasure: he was a Brit ruffian opposing the Brat Pack. The rollicking Hammer-movie Satanism of 1988’s Lair of the White Worm was worth seeing twice. Its highlights were what Ms. Alison Goldfrapp could have called “the sweet dirty angel face” of a young actress named Sammi Davis; this pure girl’s sister, Catherine Oxenberg, was sought by the priestess of the snake women, Lady Sylvia Marsh (Amanda Donohoe).
All this plus a ruckusy Celtic band describing the story of the movie we just saw. It’s also hard to describe the pleasure, back in 1991, of seeing Russell’s movie Whore advertised in huge capital letters on a marquee on one of the busiest streets in San Jose. And it was an unusual film, too, based on a not very prurient play written by a former London taxi driver, who used to hear diatribes from a prostitute friend. (In the title role, Theresa Russell—no relation—delivered all the bad news that johns don’t want to hear, full-face to the camera.) Shrewd counterprogramming to Pretty Woman, to be sure.
6. Speaking of whores, Kathleen Turner’s “China Blue” illuminated Russell’s wacky 1984 Belle du Jour knockoff Crimes of Passion; Anthony Perkins whaling away at the piano when not stalking the poor bifurcated girl in one of those “Rain” scenarios of preacher vs. floozy.
The writer of Crimes of Passion: the one and only Barry Sandler, who got some props as one of the first openly gay scriptwriters in Hollywood. Sandler penned Gable and Lombard, still 30 years later renowned as the worst biopic ever, as well as the highly soapy, even Wiseauish Making Love. The many fans of Crimes of Passion owe some thanks to this berserk scripter.
8. Blasphemy! Russell loved it. The seven eyed goat in Altered States; the nuns getting randy over a crucifixion in The Devils, Jesus on the cross getting slithered over by the white (actually blue) worm in the above mentioned movie. A group grope by nuns in his 1985 production of Gounod’s Faust. This list isn’t near complete.
9. At one point, Russell was going to direct Evita. With Liza Minnelli (rocking Sex and the City Part 2, above.)
10. The critics raved: Reading Pauline Kael on Savage Messiah and The Music Lovers is as much fun to as watching Richard Chamberlain go gibberimg nutzoid. David Thompson, knowing and loathing Russell from 40 year old BBC TV travesties of the lives of Great Composers, eventually had to give some grudging respect to the indefatigablity of a true vulgarian.
11. Don Boyd (in Time Out London) on what happens when you don’t invite Ken Russell to join your anthology film: you get called on the telephone: “Why the f… [fuck, that is] have you not asked me work on this film with you? I know more about music and opera than anyone you know and I have as much talent as any of the rest of that shower you have collected!’ (“This ‘shower’* included Jean-Luc Godard and Robert Altman!” Boyd notes.) Years later, when reviewing the result, I thought Russell’s sequence was more tough than Cronenberg’s version of J. G. Ballard’s Crash:
“…in the unjustly neglected Aria (1987) Ken Russell borrowed brilliantly from Ballard’s theme of sexualized car wrecks. There is no dialogue in the Russell sequence, which is staged to “Nessun Dorma” from Puccini’s Turandot (the same music that Nick Nolte listened to as he obsessed over Rosanna Arquette in New York Stories). In a symbolist neo-Egyptian ceremony, a woman (Linzi Drew) is robed, encrusted with red sequins and crystal rhinestones, crowned with windshield glass and finally branded as Queen of the Car Crash. The rhinestones turn to broken pieces of safety glass, and the veils on the servants turn into operating-room masks. The injured woman is hallucinating the whole thing in an emergency room. The physical horror of a car crash is more terrible here than it is in all of Crash.”
*From the British slang dictionary: “Shower: Noun. A derogatory and all encompassing term for a motley group of people.”
12. Finally, the argument to be made that Billion Dollar Brain (1967) is Russell’s best movie, even if the director dismissed it in one line in his autobiography as spy rubbish. Emulating Hammett’s Continental Op, ace man-of-the-pen Len Deighton didn’t give his middle-aged loafer of a spy a name in the course of his very good novels. In the movies, the spy was called Harry Palmer, which added up to Michael Caine playing Michael Caine as a secret agent.
Here, Palmer, a cheap London detective and MI-5 freelancer, is sent through the Iron Curtain to the Baltic States by orders of a computer voice over the telephone. (This was an age of technophobia, when the very sight of the whirling of open-reel computer tape was enough to scare the audience.) The mission is all part of a breathlessly told but oddly plausible tale of a Koch-like Texas billionaire (Ed Begley Sr.) shelling out anti-communist money to Baltic revolutionaries.
Trying to make sense of it all, while a harpsichord and glass harmonica duet twang and whisper, Caine wanders Helsinki in the thrall of a fur-hatted mystery girl. It’s Francoise Dorleac, Catherine Denueve’s elder sister; that Dorleac died before the film was complete is likely part of BBB’s narrative oddity.
Devoted fans of Casino Royale (1967), also thought of as spy rubbish, might get a charge out of Russell’s appropriations of Sergei Eisenstein, of the 10,000 mile wide jump cuts, and the perverse display of flesh you probably didn’t want to see. This includes Karl Malden in a sauna, and a striptease by longtime Viennese character actor Oskar Homolka, giving a very warm performance for a man wearing nothing but long underwear. (Gesturing at a portrait of Lenin, Homolka’s Col. Stok of the KGB confides to Palmer: “English…I touched him once.”)
When evaluating the life and art of a Wagner or a Strauss, Russell might have been slightly out of his depth. By contrast, digging his way out of a slick spy movie, Russell was at home, lending his considerable visual flair and romanticism to a rare entertainment.