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Ken Russell the tired messiah

Ken Russell Song of Summer

Ken Russell the Savage Messiah, the Tired Messiah
by Sergey Kudriavcev


Once, when Ken Russell was 23 years old, he was a dancer in a Norway ballet troupe!

Even if you know the works of the English director Ken Russell, which are eccentric and whimsical like a capricious woman's character, and even if you know that in his picture The Boyfriend he pays a stylistic homage to Busby Berkly, a remarkable director of musicals of the Hollywood's golden age, you are still surprised at this suddenly found fact of his biography.

Ken Russell

In his early youth, in 1945, he was a seaman, later he was an actor, a photographer, a cinema amateur, who made strange films "Amelia and angel" and "Peepshow", he probably remained a genuine and sincere "cinema lover", though there are also good reasons to call him a "music lover", as were some of his characters ---Tchaikovsky, Mahler, Liszt, Wagner, Richard Strauss, the fictional character Tommy and real rock musicians: the rock-group The Who, Elton John, Tina Turner and Eric Clapton.

Amelia and the Angel

It is also difficult to deny Russell's bent for the fine arts, as he himself, disclaiming archly his own cinematographic experience, declared that he was not making "any cinematographic art, but some drawings in Goya's manner of the period when the Spaniards were at war with the French". The director's farcical style is not a flat caricature as well as it is not a "topic of the day placard". An unrestrained imagination, phantasmagoria and absurdity in his films mix with the stunning poetic images, with the feast of the "classical" painting culture, that, however, sometimes turns into baroque style or mannerism and sometimes it crosses in the post-modernism manner with the pop-art.

D.H. Lawrence Ken Russell is also known for being a "literature lover", the only thing is that he always chooses something unusual, controversial, something of epatage, either it is the decadent prose by D.H. Lawrence (Women in Love, The Rainbow), the plays of Wilde (Salome's Last Dance), the mystic-romantic works in "the gothic novels" traditions (the film about the history of the Mary Shelly's Frankenstein idea is simply called Gothic) and the "mysterious and frightful" stories by Bram Stoker and Sheridan Le Fanu, written at the end of the 19 th century or the thoroughly worked over works by Whiting and Huxley about the exorcism of a prioress, an event which had truly occurred in France in the 17th century. Oscar Wilde

However the English director's love of the different kinds of the artistic culture is of a very strange character: the admiration verges on the scorn, a resistless attraction to the object of passion harbours an inevitable repulsion, aversion. Russell's relations with a source remind of the sexual relations with a loved woman: a desire, disarray, resignation together with a latent repugnance, a wish to reject and to rebel against the "gentle dictates". This reminds of the reaction of the audience and the critics to his frenetic cinematography, doesn't it- both obsessed and exorcistical in its essence. In criticizing and not recognizing persistently the "low art" by Ken Russell, who has always been confusing morals and tastes with his outrageous, shocking "biographical" fantasies on the cultural workers and other "mad" films, the revilers looked like the screwy pastor from Crimes of Passion, who was hiding a prodigious and pathological passion for a prostitute called China Blue under the abusing and pursuit. Among the cants and fighters for other's morality there are lots of unsatisfied persons, persons who have complexes, who find it repugnant or shameful to give themselves to an attraction. It's easier for me to sublimate my love for Russell's work (though "Lisztomania" vexes me and "Gothic" and "The Rainbow" disappoint me) as I've been his fan from the very beginning, I admire his infinite inventiveness and at the same time I nearly scorn his anarchist nearness to kitsch, to deliberate lack of taste and triumphant vulgarity.

The flight of Ken Russell's cinematography that falls at the period between the end of the 60s to early 70 s and the self-repetitions, the rushing about (not to call it a crisis) already at the end of the 70 s have their explanation. His creative work is a go-between and takes the median place between the films of the "angry" of the early 60 s and the films of the "nouvelle vague" of the 80 s. After Russell's "demoniac" style it's hard to imagine that once a social farce by John Schlesinger "Billy Liar" (1963) was considered the acme of conditional narration and formal researches and that the lyric poet--the absurdist, the lover of the silent comical films Richard Lester seemed to be the subverter of foundations and limits of decency, a kind of "cinematographic hooligan". (By the way, the master would find himself in the same dramatic situation of a great eccentric artist that had already survived his fame already at the end of the 70 s, as Russell would do ten years later.) Though, Lester, an American by birth, who had assimilated in Great Britain, could be considered in a certain way rather a traditionalist than an eccentric artist, as he had developed in his films the experience of the particular "English" humor. And because of about the same reason his compatriot Terry Gilliam a bit later joined without any big troubles the surrealistic--black humorous company "Monty Python", that got out from the television to the cinema at the same time as Russell did…

…For the English cinematography the end of the 60 s is the period of renewal due to the appearance of the generation of the directors who had passed a school of different experiments on the television and differing drastically one from another (Ken Russell and Ken Loach, John Boorman and Peter Watkins). Ken Russell's collaboration with the BBC was very productive not only because of the amount of the films made but also because of polishing that unique manner that would later be defined as "Russell's one". Having started with the documentaries about artists, little by little he was adding into his versions of their biographies some elements of fantasy or even madness, having reached the edge (for the documentary television) of the possible bound in the television film the "Dance of The Seven Veils--Richard Strauss" (1968), after that the director finally moved to cinema.

His early cinema experiences were unsuccessful not by chance.

As far back as in 1963, while the last spurts of the "cinematograph of the angry", Russell seems to take care of fashion and traditions of the cinematographic surroundings that were forming at that time; just then he made "French Dressing" , even the title of which refers us to the style of the French burlesques, besides there are allusions to the cult of Brigitte Bardot in this film (and later the Marilyn Monroe myth would be brilliantly ridiculed and exalted at the same time in the "Tommy"). And in the "spy comedy" titled "Billion Dollar Brain" (1967) the director is not original at all in following lead of the "bondiana" and American patterns of comedy thrillers, though the fantastic motif of computer experiments with human brains would later appear in a visually-enchanting film "Altered States", the first one made exactly in the USA. It may also seem curious that for the leading role he invited however a French actress Françoise Dorléac, sister of Catherine Deneuve, who also could make competition for to Brigitte Bardot if she hadn't died in an automobile accident soon after making film with Russell.

His time would come two years later, when some of the former "angry" directors, Schlesinger for example, would move to America, others (Jack Clayton, Richard Lester, Karel Reisz) would become silent for several years and then also would go overseas. Ironical and sarcastic rebel, who seemed to be able only to provoke everybody with mad cinema tricks and cinema vagaries, with turning the holy cultural traditions inside out, would naturally become apparent in a brilliant screen version of the "Women in Love", a novel by famous English creator of pan-erotic literature D.H. Lawrence.

Those who start making the acquaintance of Ken Russell's creative work with the "Women in Love" perhaps would find themselves in advantage regarding those spectators who know his more "unrestrained" films. On the other hand it is very curious to observe almost all the motifs of the director's future works in the first picture that made him famous. In a post-decadent impulse Russell subverts ideals of the traditional bourgeois culture as well as symbols and fetishes of the decadence, that at the time when one century was superseding another have sent a challenge to the former art, he turns them on their head. The director could seem to be a misanthrope, a cynic if he had not salutary sense of humour. Many things may seem to be decadent-sillily involute in this film about Gudrun and Ursula sisters and their sweethearts Gerald and Rupert who got disappointed with love to women and started to feel stronger and stronger craving to each other if one takes the story of their passion too seriously. Though Russell follows Lawrence's manner skillfully reproducing erotic charm of his novels (it is a very hard affair to put the prose by this author into cinema language) he is lowering the pathos of the literary original by some witty details all the time and makes spectators to treat ironically the aesthetic ideal of the writer---"the search for the lost entirety", that was undertaken by the bourgeois in the field of free love as it seemed to them.

A scandal around the "Women in Love" (in spite of several awards including an Oscar for Glenda Jackson, Brook theatre actress discovered anew for the cinema) was evidence of that Ken Russell succeeded in his revolutionary action, and the delayed-action mine put under the foundation of respectable English mode of life, which intellectual elite was still clinging to, worked perfectly. Approximately at the same time an American Joseph Losey in collaboration with the remarkable English playwright Harold Pinter exposed in their trilogy "The Servant", "Accident" and "The Go-Between" the process of inevitable equalization, washing out the frontiers between classes, devastation, estrangement and degradation of the "masters" in society of the "servants" (though the latest film appeared as early as two years after "Women in Love"). But the "savage messiah" of the English cinema (he may be called like this using the title of one of his films of principle) went further in the realization of his destructive intentions. In the cinema he made the revolt---at least at the level of epatage (the only scene of fight between naked Gerald and Rupert near the fireplace is worth something, isn't it!), highly-strung form, sarcastic-manneristical style---the revolt that never took place in the political and social life of quiet, decent and high conservative Great Britain, and made it practically just after the students' disorders in Berkeley and Paris.

Russell didn't make modern films at that time, preferring to chop off the roots, not the top of the tree and trying to trace the prehistory of overthrowing spirits which had been maturing inside the former system, to sing of the lonely and obsessed destructives of all of the standards and dogmas both in life and in art. The heroes of his "mad cinema-biographies"---Tchaikovsky in "The Music Lovers" (personally I would translate it as "Lovers in Music"), French sculptor Henry Gaudier Brzeska in "Savage Messiah", Mahler in the film of the same title, Liszt in "Lisztomania"---all of them are rioters in art born by a rioter in art. It is naivete to approach these pictures from the point of view of fidelity to the historical facts, to reproach the director with the excessive subjectivism in estimating Wagner or Strauss, for example, whom the director perceive almost like spiritual forerunners of fascism and Hitler himself, to blame the director with liberties, frivolities and equivocal details in showing intimate sides of life of prominent figures.

It is interesting to mark that everywhere---right and left---they take offence at Russell, as he seems to be a very sequential anarchist. They felt very offended in our country by the "The Music Lovers" and vulgar divertissements "a la russe" in "Lisztomania". Americans in their turn felt resentment against "Valentino" that was not only destroying the myth of the "king of silent pictures", but also deriding the Hollywood morals. Though "Lisztomania" has some tendentiousness in contrasting Liszt with Wagner made nearly in traditions of soviet biographical films of the late 40 s, both sketchy "class character" of our biographical films and sugary "melodramatization" of history and private lives of celebrities to Hollywood taste are alien to Ken Russell in principle.

The real facts or circumstance of some biography for him are just an occasion of irrepressible imagination, of giving birth to whimsical phantasmagorias, post-modern fairy-tails, in which the irreconcilable heroes fight with an overpowering system like with a multihead fire-spitting dragon. Russell is the director of mass culture, television (where he has come from as a matter of fact) and rock-music epoch, intentionally he pulls the wool over our eyes, confuses us and bluffs. He presents Liszt like the first rock-musician (and Liszt is played by Roger Daltry from "The Who"), in "Lisztomania" he makes the Pope (played by Ringo Starr!) to view a portrait of an American cinema star of the 40 s Joan Crawford and makes the Rudolph Valentino's admirers to react like Elvis Presley or Elton John's fans.

Ringo Starr as the pope

Surely, in a sense, the way of avoiding lyricism and biographical plot is the way of self-destruction----and even in such an "anarchist" style Russell breaks all the limits easily and comes to reductive style and simple caricature in "Lisztomania", self-mocking in "Valentino", spent manner in "Gothic". So it is always more interesting to watch the director when he is trying to bridle his frenetic visual imagination or when, without restraining his cinematographic ambitions, he makes it to come down on us in a story about an absolutely imaginary celebrity. "The Devils" and "Savage Messiah" correspond to the first tendency and "Tommy", surely, corresponds to the second one.

The film "The Devils" (1971) is stylistically related to one of the director's best television films, "Dante's Inferno" (1967), which, for example, has earned such an appreciation from a French critic J.Tulare: "beauty of the form and correctness of the tone". And though the critic has lots of doubts as to the cardinal Richelieu's image in "The Devils", the Frenchman, feeling hurt for his famous compatriot, can't keep from noting that the "madly baroque" picture won Russell the "reputation of the flamboyant cinematographer". The film tells a story of a sudden love to a priest that possessed the prioress of the same convent that mentioned in the film "Mother Joanna of Angels" by a Polish director Jerzy Kawalerowicz, but in the English director's film the story takes place where it took place in reality---in a French town Loudon in the XVII century. It is probably the best and the most serious of all the extravagant pictures by Ken Russell, it is the most adjusted, nearly geometrically plotted by an artist Derek Jarman, the future avant-garde and post-modern director of the 80 s.

"Savage Messiah" (1972) fortified the idea of "the Messianizm of savages". Telling a story about perished young (at age of 24 years old) talented French artist and sculptor Henri Gaudier, who had taken the second family name in honour of his wife Sophie Brzeska (20 years elder than he), Russell, with Derek Jarman assistance again, as if projected on the screen the clutter and confusion in people's minds and moods before and during the First World War. The allegedly platonic love of the young sculptor to the woman, who was old enough to be his mother, that was embarrassing public opinion, is most probably invented by the director and is just a ground for reproducing the atmosphere of not only the decadence, that was maturing in the heart of the art, but also, in a way, of the "moral decadence" of the Edwardian England that came to take place of the "golden period" of the Victorian government. "A portrait of the artist as a young man" by Russell doesn't rest upon Joyce's catholic-mythological symbolism, but, again, upon the same anarchist idea of overthrowing, of the "sunset of Europe" (according to Spengler) or "twilight of the gods" (according to Nietzsche). Having addressed that crisis epoch once more after "Women in Love", the director would come back again to the confines of the centuries, to the beginning of the 20 th century in several of his films, until he makes "The Rainbow" (1988), which surprises by its academic style, cultural solidity, literalism, in which the director doesn't allow himself any exuberant imagination, sarcasm and skepticism in the narration about how "innocence gains experience" and how a spontaneous protest matures inside a respectable family and is then to burst into raging of uncontrollable passion.

It is hard to believe that the author of "The Rainbow" has ever made the most festively ornate, the most refined and indomitable film in his biography---the rock opera "Tommy", which has every reason to be considered the forerunner of the video clips epoch. The fairy-like, illusionistic, hallucinatory talent of Ken Russell flourished in this film more than ever. Some scenes may shock by their "pariah art", uncontrolled, tameless freedom for blending all the styles and genres---from the lofty to the low or even base ones---a kind of "multicoloured smearing" (nearly literally sometimes) on the screen sheet. And, nevertheless, "Tommy" is among the best pictures by this director, if, certainly, you accept the offered rules of game without any reservations. The main merit of the film is the fact that Russell succeeded in reproducing the sense of the rock opera, it isn't that he just illustrated its contents by some beautiful pictures. His "Tommy" is a metaphoric narration about disappointment of the generation that was born at the end or after the Second World War and went into life in the "stormy 60 s" with the rebellious moods and desire for changing the world radically. Together with the hero, Ken Russell seems to be craving for finding the way out of the impasse of silence and despair, of the multicoloured Hell of the modern civilization that is repressing by its frenetic visually-material profusion. "I'm free" is the song of triumph, it's not only Tommy's aria, but also the song of the author of the film, the "savage messiah".

It is not a secret that approximately at that period (from the end of the 60 s and during the 70 s) many cinema masters were looking for salvation in addressing the rock culture, this starting with Michelangelo Antonioni, who used the "total" music by Pink Floyd in "Zabriskie Point" and finishing, for example, with Milos Forman, who directed the remarkable rock musical "Hair". But it is much more interesting that another "lover of music, painting and literature", a subversive Jean Luc Goddard was enthusiastically editing the music by The Rolling Stones and the diffuse discourses upon revolution in his film "One Plus One". In the American distribution, by the way, the film was titled "Sympathy for the Devil".

A parallel with Goddard is not casual in this case. Just as Goddard in French cinematograph forestalled his time considerably and was, probably, one of the first post-modernists in the world cinema, Russell became a pioneer of the post-modernism in English cinema. Ken Russell and Jean Luc Goddard are little comparable in their cinematographic predilections, but the rebellious spirit, dangerous games of the "enfants terribles", passion for experiments and epatage and an ineradicable love to the cinema as to the triumph of coloures, sounds and moving pictures is, probably, what they have in common. It is interesting to note, that being thrown together in the joint musical film "Aria" (1987) both directors are distinguished among the ten authors by their skill of plotless form creating.

Aria Ken Russell In "Aria" Russell shone for the last time to date in a cinema variation on the musical theme of "Turandot" by Puccini, having struck the spectators by a powerful and madly beautiful flow of whimsical visual visions as if he was continuing the human consciousness experiments mentioned in "Altered States", where the formalistic investigations had pressed all the rest. Aria Ken Russell

The American experience turned to be not very fortunate for this English director, at least because his original style could hardly blend with the American cinematograph (even harder then with the English one), which has the mission of pleasing the spectators. If "Altered States" (1980) had a certain success, because of the fantastic plot, "Crimes of Passion", made four years later, provoked a scandal and a strong dislike. Unfortunately this picture is taken seriously, it is taken as a typical example of a thriller including pathological scenes, as an epataging story about a high-paid prostitute, who satisfies the unusual wishes of her clients, but is in reality a successful designer called Joanna Crane, who finally finds her happiness in marriage. Having reacted indignantly to the provocative episodes, neither the spectators nor the critics in America didn't want to notice the crafty quotations, post-modernist footnotes scattered all over the action and as if telling to not believe our eyes and to get at the heart of the story. Why, as a matter of fact Ken Russell's film is an ironical modern paraphrase of the story about Adam and Eve and their temptation by devil, making them to taste the forbidden fruit. But there won't be any extension of the human race without the Fall. There won't be any love. It is strange that Russell was also presented claims on "lack of control in comparison with his other films". On the contrary, the control over imagination is less evident in his "mad biographies" than in the stylistically consistent "Crimes of Passion" which has a subtle and well thought-out structure and nearly has nothing unnecessary and casual, where the mythological-mystical cliches and the fixed sexual complexes are mentioned in an inventive, mock (especially in the "Psychosis" part of Antony Perkins poking fun at his best-known character, the Hitchcock's Norman Bates) or self-mock way.

But having come back to Great Britain and having done the second circle in the depth of the centuries (from the romanticism of the beginning of the 19 th century in "Gothic" to the neo-romanticism and aestheticism of the beginning of the 20th century in "Rainbow"), Ken Russell in 1990 had to go to America for a second more time and took a risk of making a film on a "slippery" theme with a demonstrative title "Whore".

Whore Ken Russell

So, the "progenitor of English post-modernism" in no way can find his place in the today situation of the "newest vague". His direct disciples, like Derek Jarman for example, and his indirect disciples, like Peter Greenaway, who has made in 1988 his variant of "Dante's Inferno" using Ken Russell's aesthetic discoveries, advanced farther on the way of the "post-modernization" of cinema. But even more austere and reserved, more refined and elegant aesthete-singer of "dangerous liaisons" of the past and present director Stephen Frears cannot be imagined without a certain part of influence of the author of the pictures like "Women in Love", "The Devils" and "Savage Messiah".

Derek Jarman

Ken Russell suffered a thankless fate of an artist separated from his own creative work, which already exists independently and is part of the cultural process; and that one, who had created it, is not able to rise at the previous level of skill, to surprise the world with something unexpected, to declare his subversive gift again. Unfortunately the "savage messiah" turned into the tired messiah. But, anyway, late Ken Russell, disappointing and tiresome, is preferable to many young directors, which look lap-animals near this lion, frayed by an unmerciful destiny. The first ones discover, with a clever look, "Americas" which are discovered long ago yet, and make triumphantly, with shining eyes, a "storm in a teacup". And the tired messiah that was standing at the origins of today cinema lost some of his push and energy but didn't lost the main thing---his irony and sarcasm, to himself including.


Sergey Kudriavcev, "Iskusstvo kino" ("Art of Cinema"), #7, 1991
© Sergey Kudriavcev 1991

translated from the Russian by T.W. Animal
translation © T.W. Animal 2004

included on the site by the kind permission of Sergey Kudriavcev
thanks to T.W. Animal for the translation and for chasing the rights


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