Ken Russell and His Naughty-Boy Impudence Remembered By THR Film Critic Todd McCarthy

Ken Russell Desmond Davis Award - P 2011
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Ken Russell Desmond Davis Award - P 2011

The director of "Women in Love" and "Tommy," who died Nov. 27, reigned during the 1970s as "the cinema's most reliable anti-philistine and provocateur."

Could the career of Ken Russell, or anyone like him, have been possible at anytime other than the late 1960s and 1970s, when cultural rebellion and irreverence were often mistaken for artistic boldness and conviction? Like so many other famous directors, Russell, who died Nov. 27, was a relevant creative force for little more than a decade, even though he remained active as a filmmaker in one way or another for half a century. During his prime, I would not have dreamed of missing anything he did, yet most of it was simply wayward, and precious little has stood the test of time. Looking back now, his having now departed for another realm at the age of 84, I have no idea what Russell believed in other than his own naughty boy impudence.

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All the same, during his so-called prime, Russell was a sufficiently dynamic figure to inspire anticipation about whatever outrage he might perpetrate next. Nearly 40 before he began forging a coherent career, Russell initially cultivated a certain highbrow reputation more by virtue of the subject matter he took on — celebrated artists and musicians, mostly — than by anything to do with his own technique. His 1960s “documentaries” for the BBC attracted attention for departing in so personal a way from the impartial norm and were nothing if not conceptually bold. Reconsidered now (they are available in a DVD boxed set), his studies of such figures as Elgar, Debussy, Isadora Duncan and Richard Strauss are certainly idiosyncratic but, often, more  gross and obvious than they are insightful and illuminating. And yet Song of Summer, about Delius, gets it just right and is worth the rest of them combined.

That was in 1968, and the following year came Women in Love, the great success that made the director's next 10 years of feature filmmaking possible. However it might look today, at the time it arrived like an exemplar of what the new sexual freedom in films was all about—bold, frank, priapic, a work with blood running through its veins. In its self-conscious forthrightness about nudity and sex talk, it also established what felt like an uncanny bond with D.H. Lawrence, so exactly did it mesh with the author's concerns. Russell's approach to a literary classic appeared vital and alive, not reverential and embalmed, as so many British and American adaptations had been until then. I almost fear to see it again, but that's the way it seemed when it burst upon the scene.

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But from Women in Love came Ken Russell unleashed, and for a decade he reigned as the cinema's most reliable anti-philistine and provocateur. Five of his next nine films were artist biographies, after his fashion. For whatever reasons, the one I preferred was Mahler, which seemed to retain a measure of seriousness and legitimate power beneath the Nazi motifs and other shenanigans. The Devils, which I would gladly watch again if an original uncut print could be procured, had a certain mad beauty and weight to it along with its demented determination to shock, whereas The Boy Friend was a ham-fisted fiasco, proving the director's utter inability to charm. But Tommy, with Roger Daltrey and a wild mix of stars, was a commercial hit that gave him a continued lease on a mainstream creative life until Altered States, his one thoroughly Hollywood movie, effectively ended it.

After 1980, I dutifully continued to watch Russell's work but nothing really registered and the provocations suddenly seemed past their expiration date; even a reunion with Lawrence, on The Rainbow in 1989, failed to revitalize the old juices, although his later projects, from films such as The Insatiable Mrs. Kirsch to a series of books on the sex lives of great composers, revealed, if anything, a heightened obsession with the libido.

Personally, Russell's obstreperousness could always be relied upon. Never did an interview with him fail to produce some personal or professional insult or an assault on whomsoever might provide an obstacle for the director's unfettered creativity. For film critics Russell reserved a special level of hell all their own. On television, the director once bopped English critic Alexander Walker on the head with a copy of his own newspaper, the Evening Standard.

But this was nothing compared to Russell's remark upon learning of the death of one of his most ardent detractors, Pauline Kael. In September, 2001, one week before 9/11, I was standing in the waiting lounge of the airport in Montrose, Colorado, with other Los Angeles-bound film folk after attending the Telluride Film Festival. Prior to boarding, I received a call informing me that Kael had passed away, news that I then conveyed to those in my vicinity. Before anyone else could react, Ken Russell barked, “Well, it's about time!”

Wherever they are, now these two hard-headed iconoclasts can begin duking it out all over again.