“It is a pity when one, either through force of circumstance or because one is afraid of being ridiculed by others, won’t produce and expose to everyone that little spark of something special which is unique to him alone.” Ken Russell
Frank Capra, Francis Ford Coppola, Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick, Akira Kurosawa, Martin Scorsese, and Steven Spielberg, are considered by both film critics and fans alike to be several of the all time greatest film directors who ever lived. I am certainly not going to be a voice of dissent about that in this blog. Taking it a step further, I would be willing to bet that even if you’re not a cinephile like yours truly, upon reading the list of directorial greats you immediately recognized all or most of them. After all, how many times have you watched “It’s A Wonderful Life,” on television during the holiday season, wished you could slap around a few disrespectful folks like in The Godfather and Goodfellas, or metaphorically soar to new heights with the lovable E.T.? While watching those films you’re bound to have caught the name of the person responsible for helming the project. But, if we were talking movies, one of my favorite subjects to converse about, and I mentioned the name Ken Russell, how many of you out there would know who I am referring to, even though the man was dubbed early on in his career as ‘the Orson Welles of England?’
I could name a few of my Facebook friends who immediately come to mind, who would undoubtedly know whom I am writing about: Bill Millstein, Mike Boussidan, James Froelich, and Jonathan Shivers; but what about the rest of you? I am sure that there have to be more of you out there who are familiar with both his name and body of work, but one of the reasons I was drawn to writing about Ken Russell this week is that he’s not a household name. I figured it would be interesting to introduce Russell to those of you who are unfamiliar with this passionate film director…A man who is known for making arresting films, but at the same time is an individual, in every sense of the word, who courts controversy from both the public and the critics. Why does such controversy surround this film maker? In one regard it could be because he frequently questions the taste of the movie-going public and pushes the envelope when it comes to their open-mindedness. But most often times, in this blogger’s opinion, it is because both movie patrons and the critics fail to recognize the powerful significance behind the provocative imagery Russell exposes his audiences to.
Henry Kenneth Alfred Russell was born on July 3, 1927, in Southampton, England. His childhood was marred by the hands of his abusive father. In order to escape the man’s rage, Russell would often go with his mother to the movies after the school day was over. It was during this time that he was exposed to two of the films that would have tremendous influence on the beginning stages of his career, Die Nibelungen and The Secret of the Loch, although his favorite film is 1934’s L’atalante, directed by Jean Vigo. Russell himself is best known for getting an academy award winning performance out of Glenda Jackson (Best Supporting Actress) in his film Women in Love, 1969, which is an adaptation of the novel written by D.H. Lawrence, The Devils, 1971, The Who’s Tommy, 1975, and the science fiction film Altered States, 1980.
Before throwing his hat into the ring of professional entertainment, Ken Russell tried his hand at a number of different professions, none of which panned out for him, and for cinema geeks everywhere, I yell out a collective: “Hooray!” Russell was a dancer. Yes, a ballet dancer in a troupe in Norway, a photographer, and he also served in the British RAF (Royal Air Force). But, fortunately for every one of us ‘cinephiles’ whose movie-going experiences have been enriched by one or more of his works, movie making turned out to be his true calling. In an attempt to break into the business, Russell’s career began with his series of documentary “Teddy Girl” photographs that were published in Picture Post magazine in 1955. The magazine would go out of circulation two years later. Russell would continue to work as a documentary photographer until 1959, but it was his short film, Amelia and the Angel, that landed him a job at the “BBC” (British Broadcasting Corporation). During an eleven year run with the BBC, Russell made numerous documentary films; chief among them was Elgar, 1962. This particular film turned out to be ground breaking because it was the first time the BBC, more specifically the arts show Monitor that Russell was working for, allowed a director to use actors in reenactment scenes instead of just still photographs with voice narration. In addition, he worked on other notable movies of the time such as The Debussy Film, 1965, Isadora Duncan, the Biggest Dancer in the World, 1967, and in 1968, Song of Summer about the English composers Frederick Delius and Eric Fenby. Russell has cited that film as the best work he has ever done.
When watching a film directed by Ken Russell, one immediately picks up on the fact that he is the omniscient power throughout his movies, which he guides with a voice that is both constant and unswerving. The voice, however, frequently changes tone when viewing his entire body of work. It can be awe-inspiring and sprinkled with a heavy does of romanticism; but at the same time, and even in the same film, it can change in mere seconds to that of brazen and monstrous, and just as in real life, unbridled happiness can quickly give way to all consuming anger. Ken Russell has a true gift when it comes to drawing out of his actors just the right performance for what he is attempting to convey to the audience, but as with anyone else in life, he is most assuredly not for everyone. For example, a number of movie patrons who were not acquainted with Russell’s style other than his work for the BBC, were disconcerted by The Music Lovers, 1970, this blogger’s favorite film by Ken Russell. When shown it turned out to be the antithesis of the standard ho-hum BBC biography normally produced for public consumption about famous individuals, in this case, about the life of Russian composer Tchaikovsky. Audiences were even more in an uproar when Russell brought to the proverbial silver screen his movie The Devils, 1971. The film is based on both the novel The Devils of Loudun by Aldous Huxley and the play by John Whiting which shares the same name with the movie, and it is in essence an elaborate depiction of the story of religious conflicts in seventeenth-century France.
In recent times, Ken Russell has been a visiting professor since 2004 at the Newport Film School at the University of Wales. His primary responsibility is to give the students advice on their graduate films. I hope they know how truly lucky they are to be afforded the wealth of experience he can share with them. I hope they don’t dismiss Russell as a doddering old man who is not hip enough for what they want to showcase to the masses, because chances are he’s done it, and in a much better way. In addition to teaching, Russell is back to work directing his first full length film in almost five years, Moll Flanders, which is an adaptation of the novel written by Daniel Defoe. Also in 2008, he made his New York directorial debut with the off-Broadway thriller, Mindgame. Sadly, I wasn’t able to see it while I still lived in New York, but I will most definitely be at the cinema when Moll Flanders is released.
Fires roaring, snakes slithering, speeding trains, cries of anguish, proclamations of joy, bursts of vibrant colors, and a rocking soundtrack are just some of the elements one can find in any number of Ken Russell films. He turned eighty-three last month, so who knows how much longer we will have this take no prisoners director around to entertain us. When the time eventually comes when he is no longer able to work, or is no longer with us, fortunately for both fans who have followed his work for many years, as well as for those who have yet to discover him, his work will live on for all to enjoy.