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In 2000, filmmaker Ken Russell was out of work and lonely, so he posted an online personal ad. "Unbankable film director Ken Russell seeks soul mate," it read. "Mad about movies, music, and Moët et Chandon champagne." The posting found the eighty year old a wife (his fourth), but its very existence showed how far into obscurity one of Britain's once-most famous directors had fallen.
At the BBC in the 1960s, Russell's imagination often departed from the historical record; in his biopic of Richard Strauss — denounced by the Strauss estate — the composer has a foot fetish and gives Hitler a piggyback ride. When Russell started making feature films, his attraction to historical figures remained, and the liberties he took with them only became more absurdist. By the mid-'70s, Russell's controversial, free-form filmmaking had made him a household name.
In a lively and explicit biography, Phallic Frenzy, Joseph Lanza traces Russell's fascination with the darkness of sexual power in these films: Women In Love (1969), the first feature film to show full-frontal male nudity; The Music Lovers (1970), the Tchaikovsky biopic that puts at its forefront the composer's closeted homosexuality; The Devils (1971), in which Vanessa Redgrave starred as a sadomasochistic hunchback nun; Valentino (1977), about the silent-film-era heartthrob's sexual shame; and Crimes of Passion (1984), which contrasted the life of a prostitute (Kathleen Turner) with that of a preacher.
Lanza's biography, a fan's flattering portrait, spends as many pages describing Russell's onscreen pageantry as its symbolic underpinnings: exaggerated phallic imagery, abrasive anti-religious scenes, nude male wrestling, incontinence, rape and forced enemas all contribute to films that critics labeled "blissfully distasteful" and "arrogantly original." Since the '90s, Russell has withdrawn from Hollywood to make his own films with little funding or distribution. He writes a column for the London Times, and endured a brief stint on Celebrity Big Brother. Lanza spoke to Nerve about how Russell changed film, and vice versa. — Joey Rubin
How would you characterize Russell's portrayal of sexuality?
In his best films, he doesn't portray sex as a walk in the park. It's a walk in the scary woods.
Sex in his films is often wrapped in frightening images. Even when it's celebratory, you get the feeling it might go off the rails at any moment. In Women In Love, when Oliver Reed and Alan Bates wrestle, it's two naked men engaged in an act that's intensely homoerotic, but also unsettlingly aggressive.
Yes. Some people will look at the book and say, "Phallic Frenzy? This must be pornography." Well, it's about penises, but it's often about how terrifying they can be, and what the penis might have represented to Ken Russell at various times of his life. I begin the book with two traumas — he calls them traumas — that he had in his youth. One was when he was about eight years old and he went to see this movie about the Loch Ness monster. He saw this horrifying monster [which, to him, looked like] a penis. Then, he was about thirteen when he went to see Walt Disney's Pinocchio. He talks about watching Pinocchio's nose grow, and what he calls his "little willy" growing, but there's also a hand next to him groping it — an older gent — and that also terrified him, and he ran from the cinema. He sees sexuality as this very potent, powerful, strong, pleasurable, yet terrifying force that he doesn't necessarily associate with being gay or straight.
I read that Women in Love broke the cinematic taboo for male full-frontal nudity. Is that true?
I would say it was the first major release that had full male nudity, especially between people who were wrestling in a very suggestive manner. That image of Oliver Reed and Alan Bates wrestling naked was so powerful that distributors used it on posters to lure people in (above).
Russell was always comfortable exploring homosexuality and homoeroticism. What do you think fueled that interest?
If you go to Ken Russell's MySpace page, I think he listed his sexuality as "not sure." Technically, he's a very heterosexual man — he's had four wives, he's had children — but in the '70s there was something called a "gay sensibility." I don't know if people use that term anymore, but you had directors like Fassbinder and Pasolini. Even if they don't lead an actively homosexual life, I think the notion of homosexuality is strong in many people's psyches. I think Ken Russell is one of the few directors who explored it realistically.
Russell not only directs with his mind, but with his entrails. He melded the mind with the body, and a lot of people forget their bodies when they're over-intellectuallizing, but not Ken Russell. He's always reminding you something's sputtering, something's leaking somewhere.
You mean the complicated nature of sexuality as opposed to a glossy idea of pleasure?
With sex in the age of AIDS, you have this mediator separating people [from the act]; the person isn't completely there because they're thinking, "What can I do? What can't I do? How can I prevent myself from getting this disease?" I think that mediation between the fantasy and the reality was present in Ken Russell's work before AIDS. If you look at Women in Love, I don't think there's a successful sexual scene in that movie. You get the sense that the guys couldn't climax or the woman wasn't satisfied or the guy wasn't satisfied. There was this sense of the actual act being the anti-climax. In the post-AIDS age, that's what's going on: "I really love this girl," or, "I really love this man, but there's some stuff I can't do without latex." There's a built-in complexity with sex, but in the '70s, in Ken Russell's films, the conflict was already there. He didn't need AIDS to tell him it was there.
Even though he's respected today, his films received mixed reviews at best.
I often distrusted many of the unfavorable reviews because they were panning Ken Russell for all the wrong reasons. I think there was one critic who hit the nail on the head when he said, "Why criticize Reubens for being too sensual?" You don't go to a Ken Russell movie for some quiet, humanistic interlude that's all tasteful. Ken Russell at his best lets it go wild and crazy, and if you don't have a taste for it you shouldn't be reviewing a Ken Russell film. He wasn't attempting to be like FranÂois Truffaut, making everything cute and pretty and something you watch with your legs crossed.
It seems like a lot of the actors he worked with were trying to change directions in their career or break their typecast role.
If you ever watched Blow-Up, the Antonioni film, you'll notice that Vanessa Redgrave, among many other beautiful features, has a very beautiful back. And then you see her in The Devils, and she's this hunchbacked nun. I thought maybe that was Vanessa Redgrave's way of breaking into new form as well, by playing this deformed nun who in many respects was the strongest role in the film. In the end, it's [Redgrave's character] who you kind of feel sorry for. You see how terrible she could be, but she was also the most human because her conflicts were the conflicts of many people watching it — this thwarted romantic. I think Ken Russell was a thwarted romantic too, so maybe he would tend to side with her.
Speaking of thwarted romance, he's secluded and separated himself from Hollywood, and is now self-producing and self-financing his own work. He says people assume he's dead.
It's funny, because some people would say, "Oh, it's so sad that Ken isn't making feature films anymore." I mean, everybody gets older. In 1971, he said his dream was to go somewhere in the New Forest area and be among friends, have strawberries and champagne and make his own little idiosyncratic films. And lo and behold, that's actually what he's doing. So I think it came full-circle.
Those later films that he did, they're very idiosyncratic, very eccentric, but I think that they're fun to watch because Ken is just doing what he likes to do. He doesn't care about a committee approving it. He doesn't worry about the money people trying to cut this and that. He's just sort of doing what comes to the top of his head. And even with a limited budget and a digital camera, he still has this great sense of color, this sense of composition, editing. I think there's something romantic about it. Ken Russell would not tell you he's a romantic — part of him is always cautioning himself against romanticism — and yet his favorite composer is Tchaikovsky, who was the ultimate romantic composer.
He was a contestant on the last season of Celebrity Big Brother. Was his involvement in that a late-life lunge for public attention?
I didn't mention it in the book because I really didn't think it was a high point. I really wanted to end the book on his house burning and his rising from the ashes like the Phoenix. Yeah, he was on Celebrity Big Brother, but only for a few days. He just left; he couldn't take it. Most of the people didn't know who he was. They thought that he was just this eccentric, doddering old man. There was this young girl who he didn't get along with at all, and she was completely insensitive. She didn't know who Ken Russell was. She was from Generation Z or whatever. They were sitting together on some lounge chair, and Ken Russell was just talking about clouds or raindrops, or whatever, and getting very lyrical about it, and this girl was looking at him as if he was from another planet. And that really tells you how difficult it is for somebody like Ken Russell to make an impact in today's culture. He's not weird for the sake of being weird; he's just weird because he's weird.
He's not really doing anything more transgressive today than he was in the '70s, yet his more recent films had more problems with censorship because of the Reagan-era anti-pornography legislation and all that. Is this a new kind of prudery?
It's a different kind of prudery. I think it's prurient out there. Sex is being sold the way salami is sold, to use another phallic metaphor. But at the same time it's limited. It's not as full of mind food as a Ken Russell movie. I think there's a new censorship, and it's based on, "Will people buy this? Will people understand this? Does this have too many cerebral footnotes for the viewer?" If you look at a movie like Lisztomania, nobody would ever make it today, because first of all they'd have to know who Franz Liszt was, then they'd have to find out about his conflict with Richard Wagner, and then they'd have to figure out that Franz Liszt was considered the Liberace of his time.
You say at one point that watching a Ken Russell film provides the reader with a chance to get release.
Well, Ken Russell uses the word "therapy" in a lot in his interviews, as in, "It was very therapeutic to do this and that." Therapy in the sense that you get this momentary cathartic release. Your problems might come back to you a day later, but with Ken Russell it really was therapeutic: let's live out this nightmare. Dante Gabriel Rossetti [a subject of Russell's 1967 TV film, Omnibus], for instance, had this big libido, but he had this wife who wanted to live a chaste existence, so there was always this sexual frustration there. So he would have these girlfriends on the side. But in the end, his sexuality still lived to haunt him. It was like this terrifying world of snakes and whatnot. But watching these people suffer and watching these traumatic scenes that are done with these swirling camera movements and these jarring zooms and these vibrant colors is therapeutic because it's so physical. I don't think watching a Ken Russell film is going to cure you of anything. It'll just give you this momentary release, if your tastes go that way.
He has a movie forthcoming — on IMDb it says Moll Flanders is in pre-production.
Yeah, I'm not sure where he is with that. He wanted to do that years and years ago with Bob Guccione, and it didn't work out. It's hard for me to comment, because it's so easy for a film to be in pre-production and suddenly lose money and not be made. He wanted to do one based on the life of [nineteenth-century Serbian electrical physicist] Nikola Tesla, which would have been fascinating. Then the president of Serbia was shot, so he lost money for that.
You talk about his legacy, but today it's almost unchartable.
His influence is there, but nobody acknowledges it. One of his dubious influences was on the music video. In the past, you had Soundies and you had Richard Lester doing the Beatles movies, but when MTV came of age in the early '80s, you would have these very slick cinematic touches, and that came from Ken Russell more than anybody else.
Do you think that awareness of how his films have been translated into this commercial product is bothersome to him?
I think it's a paradox, because at the time he was trying to shock people, but all that shock stuff is very commercial in its pabulum now. It's what a soap opera used to be. But that pairing of music with vibrant and sometimes shocking images was shocking. So he'd probably be frustrated at the paradox that nowadays everybody's doing it. There's a scene in The Music Lovers where Tchaikovsky envisions using a cannon to chop off all the heads of the people who bother him as the 1812 overture plays. That's very much MTV to me.
That sequence does look familiar in a way, the jumpiness of it and the nonsensical meaningfulness.
That's what it was. Nowadays you can look at something weird, but there's style behind it. There's a sense of chicness. Ken Russell's weirdness was never chic. When he did Tommy, he was very much in danger of alienating the typical audience who would listen to The Who, because it had these very corny music-hall interludes. It was a pretty successful film, I think for the star power. If you watch it today you can tell that Ken Russell was never much of a fan of rock music, yet his cinema hit a pop nerve for its time.
©2007 Joey Rubin & Nerve.com