Tag Archives: Ken Russell

Ken Russell’s Female Fugue

The Lair of the White Worm
The Lair of the White Worm

Although most critics perceive Ken Russell’s career as having declined irretrievably by the 1980s, the latter half of the decade saw him produce three extraordinary films. All three works are inspired by 19th-century authors, and marry their taste for the ornate and Gothic with Russell’s bathetic, sometimes anachronistic touches of broad humour. The films are linked thematically too, by the trinity of woman protagonists that they present. I call this trilogy the female fugue; It’s a fugue in the musical as well as psychological sense, intertwining variations on the theme of female subjectivity seen from a man’s point of view, and an amnesiac discarding of Russell’s Romantic conception of the male anti-hero so prevalent in his 1970s work, now replaced by an errant voyage through three new female identities.

While Gothic (1986) deals with Mary Shelley and the laudanum-drenched night in 1816 when she conceived the idea for her novel Frankenstein, Salome’s Last Dance (1988) is an inventive re-working of Wilde’s controversial play about the biblical seductress, staged as a private performance for Wilde himself by the denizens of a brothel. Finally, The Lair of the White Worm (1988) takes the figure of the femme fatale to inhumanly new heights in a joint celebration of Donald McGill sauciness and Hammer Horror stately-home stodge.

Watch the trailer for Gothic:

The browbeating morality of the Hollywood production code demanded a monster far more terrifying to Russell than any animated cadaver; a simpering Mary Shelley who reprimands her hero Baron Frankenstein for daring ‘to play God’. In Gothic Russell attempts an escape from the moralistic cul-de-sac created by films like Bride of Frankenstein, instead focusing on the raw creativity and the carnal debauchery of the Romantic poets. Byron, Shelley and Polidori are raving, drooling scenery-chewing fanatics, and inarticulate for all their verbosity, and Mary’s step-sister Claire seems content merely to be Byron’s plaything.

While Byron postures, proud of his Promethean literary creations, and Shelley celebrates the elemental power of lightning with a naked rooftop ritual, Mary is quietly preoccupied with a genesis of her own. She wants to escape her situation; to flee the drug-addled squalor but also to avoid the domestic drudgery of motherhood. This is also the wish of her creation, Frankenstein, who wants to transcend mortality but recoils in existential terror at the fact that he has created and is responsible for another life.

Salome is, like Mary Shelley, a female in an unwelcoming man’s world. Although she’s the subject of only a handful of verses in the Bible, religious and secular figures alike have zoomed in on the dance of the seven veils, and turned the young princess into an archetype of dangerous female sexuality, who uses her allure to ensure the death of the chaste and principled John the Baptist. Despite Russell’s use of buxom page three girls as Roman concubines, Salome herself is a far less conventional object of male lust. The actress Imogen Millais-Scott was half-blind and recovering from a rare illness, giving Salome the consumptive air of a tragic 19th-century heroine. Her velvet-voiced declamation of Wilde’s sublime lines is undeniably beguiling, certainly irresistible to Stratford Johns’s chubby, ineffectual Herod.

Watch the trailer for Salome’s Last Dance:

Just as Gothic has a modern-day epilogue, so the framing device of the play’s staging allows Russell to develop his theme. Arrested by the police as the play ends, Wilde laments that he should have played John the Baptist himself. However, Russell adds a further touch that blurs the lines as to who the victim is here. We find out that the fate of the chambermaid playing Salome mirrors that of her character; she was killed for real by the brothel owners to create a realistic climax to their performance.

Russell seems horrified by the exploitative callousness of Victorian society, but at the same time he retreats from this theme, making the death seem even more callous because it appears to be tacked on as an afterthought by Russell. ‘Maidservants in Victorian London were two a penny; she’d never be missed,’ is Russell’s only statement about the matter. As Wilde is hauled away by the police for sexual indecency, we are left with the feeling that little has changed since Roman times.

The Lair of the White Worm takes up the themes of gender and class conflict found in the first two films but treats them less seriously. It also makes a link between the savagery of Rome and the 19th-century literary tradition, beginning with archaeologist Angus Flint uncovering a Roman-era temple in the Peak District.

Rugged Angus and Hugh Grant’s lord of the manor are the typical male heroes who have to protect two local girls, with the virginal names Eve and Mary, from the torments inflicted by Lady Sylvia Marsh, the monstrous, vampiric snake-worshipping villain, and clearly Russell’s choice for the real hero of the piece. The heroes are good-natured but unmistakably the sort of naive dullards that populated the quota quickies of Russell’s childhood. The male-dominated Victorian patriarchy threatens her exuberant sexuality (although the film is ostensibly set contemporaneously, it’s a curious time-warp hybrid of past and present that bears little resemblance to 1980s Britain) much like Salome’s, but she is also the closest female character to Russell’s own persona.

Watch the trailer for The Lair of the White Worm:

The film has a tense, coiled atmosphere, in which Russell imbues almost everything with eerie foreboding or sexual potential; a game of snakes and ladders hosepipe becomes both phallic and serpentine, the mouth of a cave becomes vaginal. Lady Marsh has a venomous bite that turns her victims into her slaves, and even momentarily touching the venom has hallucinogenic effects. Although four people come into contact with the stuff, only the Trent girls are given visions; psychotropic and campy visions of Roman soldiers attacking a convent of nuns while a massive rubber snake coils around a crucifix. In an eerie foreshadowing of Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula, released three years later, Eve is revealed through one of these visions to be the reincarnation of one of these early Christians, adding a further layer of counterpoint to this fugue of interlocking female identities.

It’s an original rendering of an old stereotype; the women then have emotive, empathic powers (here taken to the extreme) while the men, although divided by class, have the common-sense practicality needed to outwit the enemy and restore order. The moralistic formula of Hammer-style horror dictates that good must finally triumph over evil, which it does – but only temporarily. Russell permits Lady Sylvia a last mocking laugh, and one that suggests our dashing male heroes are more than just friends.

Priapic, prurient and politically incorrect, Russell’s female fugue is as ambitious as it is irreverent. In each film Russell presents an increasingly complex portrayal of female subjectivities in a patriarchal environment. But changing critical fashions and truncated budgets ensured that the passionate cult followings these films developed would never be matched by critical attention. They stand as Russell’s last burst of frantic, thematically coherent creativity before the wilderness years of the 1990s, a decade Russell later claimed to barely even remember.

John A. Riley

Ken Russell’s Composers

The Music Lovers

There is a stock image of the composer of classical music that we will all recognise from countless bloodless biopics: Gary Oldman’s Beethoven in Immortal Beloved, Richard Burton’s Wagner in the Tony Palmer series that bears the composer’s name, and more recently, Mads Mikkelsen’s Stravinsky in Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky. Each of them cut from the same cast-iron mould of intense, tempestuous, misunderstood genius. Each performance interchangeable with the rest, as though in order to compose classical music one were required to pull just such a personality off the rack and wear it like a gown as condition of entrance to the conservatoire.

And then there are Ken Russell’s films about composers. Such larger-than-life creations as Roger Daltrey’s Liszt (Lisztomania) or Robert Chamberlain’s Tchaikovsky (The Music Lovers) may be caricatural – even comic book – inventions, but they are at least their own caricatures. For all their largeness of life, they speak to some truth about the individual composer in question rather than reaching for some imponderably vague cliché about the eternal nature of artistic genius or some such.

Because of his real feeling for historical periods and the artists of the past, the personalities revealed as much by their music as by the lives they lead, along with the overblown and the two-dimensional (‘Satan himself – Richard Wagner’ from Lisztomania), we also get such enduring and curiously endearing characters as Max Adrian’s irascible Frederick Delius in Song of Summer, and Robert Powell’s febrile, neurotic Gustav Mahler. Such affectionate character sketches genuinely seem to bring to life the world from which their music has sprung.

And after all, it is clearly the music that Russell, who as a boy had harboured ambitions to be a ballet dancer, is most interested in. ‘Oh, I’ll tune to the fields and listen to the music of nature. Forget the immortals, I finished with them long ago,’ crows Delius, and it could almost be a personal manifesto for Russell’s approach to the composer biopic. So we have these beautiful images of the young Elgar horse riding through the Malverns to the sound of his Introduction and Allegro for Strings, or Georgina Hale (as Alma Mahler) frolicking in the Cumbrian hills (standing in for the Alps) to the strains of the Leider eines fahrenden Gesellen. Like all Russell it teeters on the edge of the absurd, the pompous, the bombastic, but somehow this road of excess leads us to some sort of palace of wisdom, opening up the music and bringing it to life.

Robert Barry

Ken Russell and the Press: Why such fury?

The Devils

‘… This is its writer-director’s most outrageously sick film to date, campy, idiosyncratic and in howling bad taste from beginning to end…’ Leslie Halliwell on The Devils

‘The most excessive and obscene of all this director’s controversial works…’ Leslie Halliwell on Lisztomania

The climactic moment of Ken Russell’s relationship with the press came when he smacked Evening Standard critic Alexander Walker over the head with a rolled-up copy of his own review, on live television, while letting out a loud expletive. (Sadly, the BBC, with its usual disregard for history, does not seem to have preserved this footage.) Most of the time, however, the blows were verbal and travelled in the opposite direction. With the great director’s death last year, and the release of his monsterpiece The Devils (1971) on DVD in something at least resembling a director’s cut, Russell seems on the verge at last of becoming respectable. But why was he so beyond the pale in the first place?

The Devils is released on DVD by the BFI on 19 March 2012. Review online soon.

At first the answer seems obvious: think of all the extreme, graphic and unpleasant imagery in Russell’s films. Think of the copious nudity, the bizarre tonal shifts, the campy acting. Russell was outrageous, and the critics were duly outraged.

‘A garish glossary of sado-masochism … a taste for visual sensation that makes scene after scene look like the masturbatory fantasies of a Roman Catholic boyhood.’ Alexander Walker

One distinctive characteristic of Russell’s divisive oeuvre is the way time has treated it: a slow wave of respectability or near-respectability has been advancing over it, starting at the beginning and working forward. At the time of The Music Lovers (1970), there were voices bemoaning his creation of such a dreadful, unsubtle and lecherous film when his BBC work had been so very fine. The unspoken feeling was that tight budgets and strict supervision by Huw Weldon had focused Russell, curbed his tendency to excess, prevented plunges into sensationalism. Which was probably true enough. Hand in hand with that belief went the assumption that artists are better when controlled by executives, or that the moving image isn’t an art and needs to be governed by some kind of management class. Cinema had unleashed a monster, given Russell too much freedom from censorship and editorial constraint, too great resources, too much adulation and self-importance.

It wasn’t until the 80s that one began to hear positive things about his work of the 70s. In his documentary A Turnip-Head’s Guide to British Cinema (1986), filmmaker Alan Parker praised The Devils, but included an interview with David Puttnam, who had worked as a producer on a couple of Russell films, arguing that the vituperation of the British press had essentially sent Russell round the twist, with the burlesque of Lisztomania (1975) positioned as the tipping point. This theory seemed to inform the slightly more sympathetic reviews given to Russell’s 80s films by a new generation of reviewers. These films were bad, according to the reviewers, but they were bad because they caricatured the real merits of Russell’s fine films of the previous decade. This position was still being parroted by Alan Yentob in his recent obituary profile, Ken Russell: A Bit of a Devil, which might as well have been subtitled ‘Why I Never Employed Ken Russell at the BBC’.

‘A welter of arbitrary gags, manic self-references and frantic exploitation-movie clichés.’ Tony Rayns

Of course, some critics were sympathetic, to a point, and admitted to finding The Lair of the White Worm (1988) amusing, as it was obviously intended to be. But there was often either a patronising note to their amusement, or a sense of regret that Russell was apparently no longer capable of ‘serious’ work. Others saw the more dignified The Rainbow (1989) as a step in the right direction, and declared it Russell’s best film since Women in Love (1969), following Russell’s own lead. But such views still disavowed the value of excess, camp and hysteria in the Russell oeuvre.

Electric Sheep and Strange Attractor will screen The Lair of the White Worm on March 14 at the Horse Hospital as part of Ken Russell Forever.

Now it’s not too hard to find critics who will admit to admiring Gothic (1986) or even Salome’s Last Dance (1988). It’s impossible to imagine such films being made today, with their jostling together of high art and low comedy, Glenda Jackson and wank-mag models. You still struggle to find anybody who’ll talk knowledgeably about the later TV work, much of it for The South Bank Show (was Melvyn Bragg’s loyalty a result of friendship, admiration or the sheer inertia that otherwise made the ITV arts show so dull in its later years?), or about Russell’s self-produced final films. Lack of visibility is part of this: a film like The Strange Affliction of Anton Bruckner (1990) should certainly appeal to admirers of the early BBC work, and it’s possible that one day even The Fall of the Louse of Usher (2002) will be honoured.

‘Russell’s swirling multi-coloured puddle … made me glad that both Huxley and Whiting are dead, so that they are spared this farrago of witless exhibitionism.’ Stanley Kauffman

The opprobrium hurled at Russell still seems remarkable, and we’re approaching a time when it will look as quaint and wrongheaded as that which greeted Peeping Tom (1960). When Alexander Walker spoke of his loathing for The Devils and his admiration for A Clockwork Orange (1971), I always wanted to hear why one was terrible and the other wasn’t. Both make their moral points via a lot of sex and violence, and both could be accused of relishing the attendant horrors a bit too much. If anything, the Kubrick film strikes me as the more pornographic.

Another point of comparison is the career of Derek Jarman. Russell’s production designer on The Devils and Savage Messiah (1972), he embarked on a directorial career of his own that was by no means universally praised, but he never faced the united front of derision and fury that Russell had to put up with. Perhaps the greater dynamism of Russell’s camerawork made his films more powerful, therefore more upsetting. Perhaps his early footing in mainstream cinema led to his movies being judged by different standards. But if one looks at the nudity, the irreverent humour, the stylisation, the bloodshed, it’s hard to see why Jarman would provoke less outrage. I have a vague theory, and it’s that Jarman’s homosexuality afforded him some protection in the liberal media. When he indulged in camp humour and shock tactics, the critics somehow felt he was entitled to do so, by virtue of his sexual orientation. Russell, as a known heterosexual, had no business being flamboyant, indulging in vulgar humour, or celebrating the arts with the enthusiasm of a football fan.

‘Ken Russell doesn’t report hysteria, he markets it.’ The New Yorker

Russell’s sense of humour is a particular sticking point. His jokes aren’t always very funny (but sometimes they’re hilarious, to me anyway) but they make a tonal point, throwing the viewer off balance, and they often establish Russell’s attitude to his material, his characters, his audience, and sometimes, yes, his critics. The evolution of one gag, as recounted by Jarman, is instructive.

‘What would really offend the British public?’ asked Russell one day as they were prepping The Devils (so he was influenced to plunge further into controversy by the critical attacks). ‘Well, I suppose you could kill a lot of people,’ mused Jarman, ‘but if you really wanted to upset them you would kill some animals.’

‘Yes!’ cried Russell, seizing upon the idea, and proposed that they show King Louis XIII relaxing on his lawn by blowing the heads off peacocks with a musket.

‘Oh, we can’t do that!’ protested Jarman, but Russell thought they could, and set about getting a special effects man to rig explosive collars to the birds so they could be decapitated on cue.

But a little while before the peacock shoot, Russell’s conscience got the better of him. Remembering Louis XIII’s strange obsession with blackbirds, he suggested instead that the monarch might be taking pot-shots at a Protestant prisoner attired in feathers and beak. Shirley Russell, his brilliant costume designer and wife, duly created a blackbird outfit, and the scene was shot.

As Graham Armitage, the actor playing Louis, watched the crow sink, perforated, into an ornamental pond, he jokingly remarked, ‘Bye, bye, blackbird.’ In another fit of enthusiasm, Russell had him do it on camera. Then, in post-production, he had his composer, Peter Maxwell Davies, quote the 1920s song of that name on the soundtrack. The moment was duly singled out by reviewers as proof of Russell’s offensive flippancy, his reckless anachronism, his lunacy.

‘This gaudy compendium of camp, second-hand Freud and third-rate pastiche is like a bad song without end.’ Sight&Sound

It’s Russell’s arch, bawdy comedy that really seems to get their backs up. When Russell kept his tongue out of his cheek, even if he let it loll out of his mouth a bit, he didn’t usually attract so much negative press. But his more po-faced pieces, like the BBC Lady Chatterley (1993), received at best faint praise, probably because they’re really not as interesting as the ‘swirling, multi-coloured puddle’ films.

The use of parody and pastiche in Russell can seem problematic: it’s often far off the mark in terms of accurately evoking the subject being spoofed, since Russell’s sense of humour was rather Rabelaisian. What I take to be a mockery of Richard Lester’s The Three Musketeers (1973) in the opening duel of Lisztomania is barely recognisable in its intent, while the Chaplin sequence in the same film is as distant from its source as Roger Daltrey is from the Little Tramp, although at least the tribute to The Gold Rush (1925) is discernible. Later, the Gothic horror stuff in Castle Wagner is terrific fun, but feeds on a vague shared consciousness of generic stereotypes rather than anything specific to, say, Hammer or Universal.

If Russell were concerned with accuracy any more than he was concerned with strict biographical authenticity, this would be a problem, but the satires are pretty much tossed off without regard for stylistic precision. Russell’s own camera style is so dynamic, he can’t limit himself to the static, classical set-ups of Lester and Chaplin. But there’s one filmmaker whose visual sense he adheres to more doggedly.

The Boy Friend (1971) is an elegant and faithful transition of Busby Berkeley’s remarkable style to a 1920s setting and a wide-screen presentation. Both these modes alter the look of the results greatly, but the compositions and movements (which go well beyond the statuary overhead shot) are pitch-perfect. Crucially, Russell isn’t spoofing Berkeley, or referencing him as part of a set of stylistic ideas, rather, he’s channelling his talent.

Berkeley, more even than Lang, Welles, Eisenstein and Fellini, is the primary influence on Russell’s vision: the floating head of Wini Shaw singing ‘The Lullaby of Broadway’ in Gold Diggers of 1935 is re-imagined as a goat’s head in Altered States and a skull in Gothic. The symmetrical shots in Russell owe more to Berkeley than Kubrick (who was probably influenced by K.R.). And Ken didn’t need pop art to inspire his visuals, since the popular art of Berkeley already showed how to turn trashy modern aesthetics into sheer beauty.

Ken Russell Forever runs from 10 to 20 March 2012 and includes screenings of Altered States, Gothic, Savage Messiah, Lisztomania and Women in Love.

David Cairns

Nick Harkaway is Harry Palmer in Billion Dollar Brain

Billion Dollar Brain

Nick Harkaway is the son of John Le Carré and was born in Cornwall in 1972. He loves obscure cover versions of 1980s hits, with Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain’s version of ‘Life on Mars’ being an especial favourite. He abandoned screenwriting for the life of a novelist, and his second book, the gloriously inventive Angelmaker (William Heinemann) is Apocalyptically crammed with clockwork bees, doomsday machines, East End gangsters and sinister government agencies. His Alter Ego is Michael Caine’s Harry Palmer in Ken Russell’s Billion Dollar Brain (1967). EITHNE FARRY

Ken Russell’s movies are amazing, but mostly as places to visit. You wouldn’t want to live in those taut explorations of emotional inaccessibility, repression and sexual incompleteness – or the phantasmal horrors and erotic nightmares of Russell’s more Gothic efforts.

But in the midst of The Lair of the White Worm (titled woman in erotic relationship with snake god) and The Music Lovers (closet homosexual composer marries nymphomaniac) and the rest, Russell made Billion Dollar Brain, with Michael Caine as the slightly down-at-heel secret agent Harry Palmer.

The world Palmer lives in is brightly coloured, Byzantine and dangerous. He is assailed by thugs and beautiful assassins, hangs out in Frank Lloyd Wright ski chalets, drinks drugged champagne and sticks doggedly to his job. The enviable thing about Palmer is that somehow, in the face of the clear impossibility of his victory, he never seriously considers the possibility of failure – and neither do we. He’s not a genius, not a martial arts expert. He’s a bloke with a job to do. He’s perpetually on the make, but somehow he never goes bad.

Russell may have been working for hire on Billion Dollar Brain, but he was still Russell. It’s not a nice world or a safe one. And it’s 1967, with all that it entails: you can’t watch Caine slap Françoise Dorléac around without feeling a bit queasy. (Mind you, she has just tried to kill him. During sex, no less.) I’m tempted to say that I’d be a bit-part – a person inhabiting the world that Palmer protects, enjoying the ambience and avoiding the beatings, the losses, and the fear. But that’s a cop-out. I’d be Harry, and accept the risk in exchange for the dream secret agent lifestyle. Because, you know: how often do you get to say ‘I’d be Michael Caine’?

Angelmaker is published by William Heinemann.

Nick Harkaway