Saturday, 10 December 2011

Ken Russell Passes On

Flamboyant director Ken Russell passed on 27 November 2011 at the age of 84.

Ken Russell was born on 3 July 1927 in in Southampton, Hampshire. He spent much of his childhood watching movies in the cinema. He attended Pangbourne College, a nautical school in Pangbourne, Berkshire. He served for a time in the Merchant Navy and in the Royal Air Force. He studied dance and then in his late twenties he became a photographer. It was because of his freelance photography that in 1959 he was hired by the BBC. There he made several documentaries, including several segments of Monitor and Omnibus (the British series, not to be confused with the American series of the same time). He also directed several of his own short films, starting with Peepshow in 1956.

It was in 1963 that Mr. Russell directed his first feature film, French Dressing, which was very loosely based on Roger Vadim's And God Created Woman. The film was a critical and box office failure, leading Ken Russell to continue his work at the BBC. His second feature film would be a bit more successful, the third instalment of the Harry Palmer series, Billion Dollar Brain (1967) starring Michael Caine. He followed Billion Dollar Brain with one of his best known films, Women in Love (1969). Women in Love would not only establish Mr. Russell as a director, but also one who was not afraid of controversy and even self indulgence. Arguably it was in the Seventies that Ken Russell was in his prime. It was in that decade that he directed his controversial film The Devils (1971), The Boy Friend (1971), Tommy (1975--an adaptation of The Who's rock opera), Liztomania (1975), Valentino (1977), and Altered States (1980).

Mr. Russell's output slowed in the Eighties. In that decade he directed such films as Crimes of Passion (1984), Gothic (1985), and Lair of the White Worm (1988). The Nineties saw Mr. Russell work primarily in television, directing only two feature films in that decade: Whore (1991) and Lion's Mouth (2000). The Naughts saw Ken Russell return to feature films, directing such movies as The Fall of the Louse of Usher: A Gothic Tale for the 21st Century (2002), Revenge of the Elephant Man (2004), and Boudica Bites Back (2009).

Ken Russell has always been a director about whom I have had mixed feelings. In my opinion he was capable of brilliant work, but at the same time he was given all too much to such self indulgence that some of his films just do not make a whole lot of sense. For me Mr. Russell was at his best when he reined his more flamboyant tendencies on concentrated on the film's script and characters instead of filling the screen with bizarre imagery. Mr. Russell could make very good, if outré movies which I enjoyed very much. I am still impressed by such movies as Women in Love, The Devils, Tommy, Altered States, Crimes of Passion, Gothic, and Lair of the White Worm. That having been said, he could also make movies that even someone with as often odd tastes as myself could not stand (Lisztomania comes foremost to my mind). Despite Ken Russell's flaws, I do have to confess that he was a genius and even in his worst films there were often amazing visuals.

1 comment:

J. Marquis said...

I thought Altered States was wonderful. It really opened up my mind in a lot of ways.