Regardless of what you may think of Ken Russell’s movies, the English iconoclast filmmaker is without doubt a true original. Russell’s singular talent is very much on display at “Russellmania!,” a Film Society of Lincoln Center program (ending August 5), that presents nine movies made at the zenith of his filmmaking powers. Spanning his creative output between 1969 and 1977, the series includes the erotically charged adaptation of D.H. Lawrence’s novel Women In Love, the film which brought him international recognition; his two quintessential works, The Music Lovers, the 1970 operatic portrait of Tchaikovsky, and the still inflammatory The Devils, which was released the following year; a quirky Busby Berkley-style version of The Boyfriend (1971); Savage Messiah (1972), an uncharacteristically minor-key portrait of sculptor Henri Gaudier Breszka; two eccentric and idiosyncratic takes on composers, Mahler (1974) and Liztomania (1975); the rock opera Tommy (1975); and the lavishly decorated biopic Valentino (1977) with Rudolph Nureyev playing the beloved silent-screen idol.
After abortive attempts at becoming an actor and a dancer, and a brief stint as a photographer, Russell embarked on his career as director at age 31 in 1959, making documentaries for BBC television. It was here that he honed his powerful visual style and set the tone for his eventual reputation as the enfant terrible of British cinema by offering highly original and often controversial takes on the lives of artists and their work. Through the ’70s, having moved fulltime into feature filmmaking, Russell was hailed and reviled in equal measure, but nonetheless enjoyed the financial backing of the studio system of the time. Employing some of the best talent around, Russell achieved the rare distinction of being commercially popular and part of the mainstream British film industry while remaining gleefully outrageous and intensely personal at the same time. The antithesis, you might say, of Merchant Ivory or Masterpiece Theatre.
Then came the gradual fall from grace. In 1980, he was able to make just one film through a major studio, the phantasmagoric adaptation of Paddy Chayevsky’s intellectual sci-fi novel Altered States. Throughout the rest of the decade he made films with independent companies, the best of which is Crimes of Passion, a hard-eyed view of marital life, prostitution, and religious mania starring Kathleen Turner and Anthony Perkins. The others that followed vary in quality, but a quick trawl through the Internet reveals that movies like the campy horror lark The Lair of the White Worm (1988) and the Oscar Wilde-inspired drama Salome’s Last Dance (1988) have developed a sizeable cult following over the years.
By the early 1990s, however, several of his projects failed to materialize and the director eventually found himself completely bereft of financial backing. Typically, not willing or able to follow any expected paths toward retirement, he has continued, undaunted, to make movies at home on shoestring budgets, putting himself in front of the camera and employing the members of his family in his endeavors.
For those attending the “Russellmania!” series at Lincoln Center, the highpoint of the event was the presence of the filmmaker himself, who just turned 83 in July. The House Next Door had the opportunity to speak with Russell on the first evening of the series, just prior to a screening of The Devils. His ruddy-complexioned face framed by a shock of silver hair, the octogenarian “bad boy” of British cinema now walks slowly with the help of a cane. Well known for his flamboyant taste in clothing, he was sporting on this occasion a bold striped jacket worn over a Yankees T-shirt. He was amiable during the interview, but didn’t seem inclined to offer much in the way of conversation. Often, Elize Russell, his fourth wife, sitting attentively by his side, would help to fill in the gaps.
“I still make films. I make them in the garage,” he says, remarkably stoic about the circumstances under which he has to work these days. “What keeps you going?” I ask. “Dogged determination,” he replies. “Where there’s a will there’s always a way. And, you know, I continually think of ideas.” Elize explains that Russell is currently interested in making a movie about Julia Margaret Cameron, a pioneer woman photographer, who was also Virginia Woolf’s great aunt.
Prompted to talk about his early days working for the BBC, Russell says, “I was very fortunate to be able to more or less suggest my own ideas and there weren’t many that were turned down.” What about the criticism that he might have denigrated the subjects of his biopics? “They are all adulation,” he says. “They are all subjects that I really felt strongly about and they all one way or another are true to the person concerned. It was always my take on the artist and if they differed with other people’s ideas, well, that was too bad.”
Does he have a particular favorite among his movies? “I suppose The Music Lovers,” he replies. “I mean, I like Tchaikovsky especially.” Referring to the movie’s depiction of the Russian composer as a homosexual who chooses to repress his sexuality and makes an unhappy marriage with a woman whose needs he is unable to satisfy, he explains, “It tells the story of one of the incidents in Tchaikovsky’s life that he might have liked to forget, but, you know, that was part of his story, and so I followed his ups and downs throughout his career.”
“Is there a place you wouldn’t go?” I ask. “No,” is the terse response. “A subject you wouldn’t tackle?” I persist. “I think everything I wanted to do, I had no problem with. I could always find a reason for doing it. And if people disagreed with that reason, that was tough.”
“Did you mean to shock?” asks Elize. “Well, I guess it’s my second nature, you know,” her husband replies. “It was how I worked. I don’t know any other way to perform.” Given that his career has suffered because of the kinds of movies he chose to make, I ask him, “Do you wish you had made safer movies?” He replies, “Some are good and some are bad. Some are not as good as they might be. I don’t have regrets concerning the subject matter or how I handled it.”
Regarding the screening of The Devils, which we are about to attend, I ask if we will get to see the uncut version of the print. “It’s not guaranteed, is it, sweetie?” says Russell, turning to his wife. “We won’t know ourselves until we see it, but it’s the fullest that they could get,” she replies. As it turned out, the print was a copy of the version truncated by Warner Bros. for the U.S. release.
Stories abound on the Web detailing the announcement and a subsequent retraction from Warner Bros. about an impending release of an uncut DVD version, and the mysteriously short-lived availability of a copy of the movie on iTunes. A print which restored censored footage, including the notorious “Rape of Christ” sequence, in which a bunch of hysterical nuns sexually assault a statue of the crucified Christ, was screened at the National Film Theater in London in 2004, and a diligent Internet search will yield a copy of the 2002 Channel 4 documentary ” Hell on Earth: The Desecration and Resurrection of The Devils,” which incorporates the cut sequence.
It’s a sad testament to the fate of this filmmaker’s once-celebrated work that an organization of the Lincoln Center Film Society’s stature apparently had difficulty securing even a censored American print for their “Russellmania!” program. (The organizers also forewarned patrons that some of the other prints were not up to standard: A burn mark appears intermittently through the copy of The Boy Friend, and the print of Mahler is faded to a shade of red.) The Russells themselves don’t have access to any of the movies. “You are weirdly calm about it and not bitter, Ken. Why not?” says Elize to her husband. “Well, there’s no point in it,” he replies. “I’m glad to see them again and sad that bits are missing. There will be quite a few people who haven’t seen it, even in the cut down version. So there you go.”
The audience at The Devils was clearly appreciative, giving Russell a heartfelt reception, and they were thrilled when he introduced the evening’s other special guest, Vanessa Redgrave. In the movie, she plays the scoliotic prioress Sister Jeanne, whose religious fervor has twisted into sexual hysteria. Russell explained that she was seeing the film for the first time since its original release nearly four decades ago. In the Q&A session that followed the screening, he let the actress do most of the speaking. “I am even more astonished now,” Redgrave said. “It’s like you took cinema into another world,” she continued, making reference to the movie’s “extraordinary images of the kind of brutal chaos that certainly happened at that time, and is still happening in other times.” Russell responded, “That’s why I wanted to make it. I mean, I thought it was a tale that needed retelling every few years, because nothing changes.”
Seeing The Devils today, it’s not so much the notoriously graphic nudity or the scenes of horrific violence that stand out, but the powerful and disturbing portrait of government and institutionalized religion colluding against the common folk. With the movie’s shock value somewhat lessened after a first viewing, it’s also possible to better appreciate the remarkable modernistic production design by Derek Jarman, who would later carve out an iconoclastic filmmaking path for himself. And all the while, there is ample evidence of a singular vision behind the camera. Amid all the hysteria and chaos, whether he is lampooning the king and his court, giving full rein to the sexually charged theatrics of the supposedly possessed nuns, or unflinchingly recording moments of torture and burning at the stake, Russell is clearly in control of his movie. A similar unfettered spirit was felt the next evening at the screening of Russell’s personal favorite, The Music Lovers, at several points of which members of the audience spontaneously burst into applause. Russell pulls out all the stops in the bravura sequence where Tchaikovsky performs his piano concerto. He intercuts the recital with the fantasies of the three women who will figure most prominently in his life—his sister, his patroness, and his wife—as they listen transported by the music. Unabashedly teetering toward kitsch, he taps into the essential pulse of the music and carries his audience joyously along.
Two days later, I sit down with his wife, Elize, also known as Lisi, to learn something about the filmmaker’s life during this past decade. Although Russell’s movies weren’t making headlines anymore, the British papers have from time to time spotlighted his activities. There was the story about his brief 2007 stint in the TV reality show Celebrity Big Brother and the one about how he met his current wife. The reports mentioned an Internet ad, placed after the breakup of Russell’s third marriage, which read “Unbankable film director Ken Russell seeks soul mate—mad about movies, music and Moët & Chandon champagne.”
“The actual story is slightly different from the public version, which makes such a good story that we don’t want to contradict it,” says Elize. Their story, she says, dates back to the early 1970s, when, growing up in North Carolina, she saw Savage Messiah and was so excited by it that she wrote the director a fan letter. “As a poet and an actress, I felt that he captured better than anyone that feeling that an artist has—that everything is for art, and [nothing] has as much meaning as what your inner calling is telling you to do.” They started a correspondence during the course of which Elize mentioned that she would be in New York—little dreaming that he would show up unannounced at her doorstep. “He rang my bell at nine in the morning,” she recalls. “We talked for 10 minutes in the kitchen over a cup of tea and he gave me tickets to the premiere of Tommy.” But she never saw the movie. “I had just gotten into New York and I got lost on the way.”
They continued their correspondence for a year or so longer. “He asked me to be in Liztomania and my mother said over her dead body.” Then, even after their letter writing lapsed, Elize says she kept a picture of Russell on her dresser for 20 years until she finally decided to throw it away. Five years later, in 1999, she read a story about her idol in the New York Post. It turned out that the director had joined a dating service after his third marriage ended and when that proved unproductive, a friend of his published the now infamous want ad on his website. A British paper, sniffing a juicy tale, interviewed his past wives and published the story, which was later picked up by the Post. “I thought it was a joke when I saw it, but I wrote his friend because there was an address.” Soon after that she received a call from Russell. “He said, ’Of course I remember you. You missed Tommy, so why don’t you come over and see the opening of my film Lion’s Mouth, which I have just completed?’” Elize went over to England and, about a year and a half later, they got married.
Since then, Elize has starred in about eight Ken Russell movies. “Working with him is like being a blob of paint in a great painting. It’s the most fun a person can ever have,” she enthuses. “He’s a wonderful director and he inspires an atmosphere on the set like a wizard where magic things happen. A bee flies in at the right moment, the butterfly lands on your shoulder at the right moment. He’s not the greatest communicator in the world, I say that with all respect and love, but he doesn’t need to be because he works inter-dimensionally, so that everything comes out of his great enthusiasm and concentration and focus. He is very skilled at completing things in a disciplined way.”
The Russells either self-finance their “garage movies” or get funding for them through universities. “We use household objects to represent extravagant other things,” Elize reports. “If you can do it with enough commitment, it’s believable.” Russell’s most recent film is Boudica Bites Back, a 20-minute historical opera, in which Elize plays the Celtic queen who united the local tribes and strove to drive the Romans out of Briton.
“Ken says he was born to make films. He admits he is not the greatest at personal relationships,” says his wife and greatest fan. “That’s because he is very shy; he skips the steps. He goes from quiet to explosive without being able to explain what his thought process is. His love and knowledge of music is more that anyone I have ever met. And all of these things make him an unusual person—in fact, a genius. He’s a very sweet man and he is one of the most misunderstood people on the planet. I adore him. I can’t help it.”