The Master of Cinematic Vulgarity: Ken Russell (1927-2011)

Called "the British Fellini," Russell directed Tommy, Women in Love, Altered States, Lisztomania and other over-the-top classics

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Topical Press Agency / Getty Images
Topical Press Agency / Getty Images

English film director Ken Russell examining strips of film in 1967.

“It’s strange that people can’t reconcile vulgarity and artistry,” Ken Russell told his biographer John Baxter. “They’re the same thing to me. But don’t get vulgarity mixed up with commercialism. By vulgarity I mean an exuberant over-the-top larger-than-life slightly bad taste red-blooded thing. And if that’s not anything to do with Art, let’s have nothing to do with Art.”

The English director, who died yesterday at 84 after a series of strokes, spent a half-century addressing subjects of the most refined art [EM] composers like Elgar, Delius and Liszt, the dancer Isadora Duncan — and rolling gloriously in the mud with them. Or, in his adaptation of D.H. Lawrence’s novel Women in Love, by having actors Oliver Reed and Alan Bates wrestle nude by a fireplace. To Russell, there was no High and Low in art, just passion and intensity. Nor did he see an aesthetic distinction between the music of Franz Liszt (which he turned into the riotous Lisztomania) and the music of Pete Townshend (his audience-pleasing film of The Who’s Tommy). Visually as well as narratively, he created a run-amok style more lubriciously Mediterranean than reservedly, ironically English. It’s said that when he met Federico Fellini, the Italian master of going-too-far addressed him as “the English Fellini,” and Russell returned the compliment by calling Fellini “the Italian Ken Russell.”

(PHOTOS: The Life of Ken Russell)

A sensationalist of the first rank, Russell designed his movies and TV films to provoke strong reaction, and did they ever. After his bio-pic The Debussy Film aired once on the BBC in 1965, the estate of Claude Debussy suppressed any reruns. His free interpretation of Paddy Chayefsky’s script for the 1980 Altered States led to the writer taking his name off the film (using the pseudonym Sidney Aaron). The Devils, Russell’s 1971 version of Aldous Huxley’s book The Devils of Loudon, so shocked certain Catholic groups with its depiction of nuns mesmerized by witchcraft that, even today, the uncut film is not officially available in the U.S.

Henry Kenneth Alfred Russell was born in Southampton. His father, the owner of a shoe shop, was a remote sort, and Russell got his emotional education seeing movies with his mother. After serving in the Royal Air Force and the Merchant Navy, he became a photographer and amateur filmmaker. That got him a job in Huw Weldon’s division of the BBC, where he liberated the staid bio-pic TV form with his splashy surrealism.

For a film on Elgar, Weldon told Russell he could use actors only mute and in long shot. The director used that restriction as an advantage, creating a hallucinatory musical landscape. As Michael Brooks writes for BFI Screenonline: “When Russell’s camera isn’t swooping and gliding over Elgar’s beloved Malvern Hills, it’s fixating on strangely arresting shots: the sequence covering Lady Elgar’s death begins with tendrils of mist snaking through a silver birch wood, continues with a dark room full of mysteriously shrouded furniture and ends with the bereaved Elgar’s new and obsessive interest in microscopic natural phenomena.” Russell’s film on Bartok sent spiders, bat and owls flitting across the screen to the composer’s Night music. The Debussy Film, cowritten by Russell’s frequent collaborator Melvyn Bragg, scampers among three styles: the life story, visualizations of the music and a fictitious making-of segment, with a director trying to come to terms with both his subject and his actors.

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Moving to features, Russell earned his only Oscar nomination for Women in Love; his female lead, Glenda Jackson, took Best Actress. But the nude wrestling was mild stuff compared with the homosexual tensions in his Tchaikovsky film The Music Lovers, and the demonic exertions of Vanessa Redgrave and her fellow nuns in The Devils.

It wasn’t just that Russell had a fondness for lurid subjects; it was the juice he extracted from them. He might have been the loving father telling bedtime stories of Greek tragedies to his kids and performing them with a giddy gusto that conveyed both the legends’ essence and their value as perennial horror stories. One of the first directors to believe that Over the Top was an appropriate tactic for his time, he smashed the barriers between propriety and prurience. “This is not the age of manners,” said the four-times married Russell. “This is the age of kicking people in the crotch and telling them something and getting a reaction. I want to shock people into awareness. I don’t believe there is any virtue in understatement.”

He got his one big Hollywood assignment when he replaced Arthur Penn as the director of Chayefsky’s Altered States. And somehow he made it into pure Ken Russell. It has sex, violence, comedy, thrills, tenderness. It’s an anthology and apotheosis of American pop movies: Frankenstein, Murders in the Rue Morgue, The Nutty Professor, 2001, Alien, Love Story. It opens at fever pitch and then starts soaring– into genetic fantasy, into a precognitive dream of delirium and delight. Madness is its subject and substance, style and spirit. The film changes tone, even form, with its hero’s every new mood and mutation. It expands and contracts with his mind until both almost crack. It keeps threatening to go bonkers, then makes good on its threat, and still remains as lucid as an aerialist on a high wire. It moves with the loping energy of a crafty psychopath, or of film makers gripped with the potential of blowing the moviegoer’s mind out through his eyes and ears.

Times got tougher after the Altered States fracas, and his one Russellian triumph in the decade was the low-budget Gothic, a retelling of the relationship of Lord Byron and his circle at the time Mary Shelley was writing Frankenstein. In the Russell version, Byron was Count Dracula, feeding on his guests’ dreams and demons. Percy Bysshe Shelley was every weak hero, John William Polidori every mad doctor, Claire Clairmont every wench until lust turns her into a succubus. And the author herself, racked by visions of her stillborn child, joined the ranks of the cursed mothers of The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby.

A joyously cantankerous fellow, Russell thrived on confrontation. On a 1971 chat show to discuss The Devils, Russell consistently interrupted critic Alexander Walker, then swatted Walker with a rolled-up copy of his pan of the film. In his last notable stint on British TV, he appeared on Celebrity Big Brother, trapped in a flat with Jermaine Jackson, The A Team’s Dirk Benedict and Leo (“You Make Me Feel Like Dancing”) Sayer, but quit after a tiff the first week. Russell’s disputatious disposition may have contributed to the long line of unrealized projects, most prominently his attempt in the 1980s to make a film of Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Evita with either Barbra Streisand or Liza Minnelli in the title role.

Not the sort whom the Queen would award with year-end honors, Russell never became Sir or Lord Ken. But, his son, Alex Verney-Elliott said as he announced his passing, “He died wirh a smile on his face.” The old man might have been remembering all those extravagant images he dreamed up and committed to film, and hoping that Heaven was a place very like a Ken Russell movie.

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