R.I.P. Ken Russell

Numerous UK sources have reported the death of Ken Russell, the British director known for films full of outlandish, hallucinatory visuals, controversial subject matter, and, above all, a mischievous desire to stimulate the senses. Somewhat ironically for one so often referred to as a “wild man,” Russell is said to have “died peacefully in his sleep.” He was 84.

Russell’s career began in the rather staid world of BBC documentaries, particularly those that had to do with composers. Among these, Russell often cited Song Of Summer as the best film he ever made, and his dramatization of the last days of Frederick Delius was near-unanimously praised by British critics—more or less the last time that would happen. Presaging the notoriety to come was 1970’s Dance Of The Seven Veils, a movie that painted Richard Strauss as a Nazi, even going so far as to include a scene of a Jew being tortured to a Strauss composition. Strauss’s family was, obviously, outraged. The film remains banned to this day.

Russell’s feature film career also began somewhat atypically, beginning with the comedy French Dressing and including an entry in the Michael Caine-starring Harry Palmer series, Billion Dollar Brain. But in 1969, Russell truly arrived with Women In Love, a movie that managed to score him an Oscar nomination and simultaneously launch his reputation as one of the most audacious filmmakers of his time. The adaptation of D.H. Lawrence’s novel starred Alan Bates and Oliver Reed, whose famous nude wrestling scene shocked censors but struck a chord with libertine late-’60s audiences, leading to the film and Russell being widely celebrated. (Russell would later revisit Women In Love by directing its 1989 prequel, The Rainbow.)

Russell fully embraced his role as a boundary-pusher for the bohemian age, directing a string of films like The Music Lovers, The Boy Friend, and Savage Messiah that were known for their scenes of rollicking sexual liberation and Russell’s equally fast and loose playing with the facts. Most controversial of these 1970s-era efforts was The Devils, an adaptation of Aldous Huxley’s The Devils Of Loudun that starred Oliver Reed as a 17th-century priest executed for witchcraft and Vanessa Redgrave as a nun who’s sexually obsessed with him. Thanks to its numerous graphic scenes—forced enemas, an orgy of naked nuns raping a Jesus statue, Redgrave masturbating with a charred leg bone—the film was banned around the world, chopped to hell, and more or less disappeared in its original form for around 40 years. (The British Film Institute announced just two weeks ago that it plans to release The Devils in its original, X-rated form on DVD next March.)

Much less controversial but no less out-there was Tommy, an appropriately phantasmagoric adaptation of The Who’s rock opera that took at face value the somewhat silly story of a deaf, dumb, and blind pinball wizard who becomes a de facto messiah, with Russell turning it into an equally iconic, rollicking head trip of a movie. Perhaps most recognizable of Russell’s many additions, of course, was an infamous sequence of Ann-Margret rolling around sensuously in a froth of detergent, baked beans, and chocolate—a nod to the parody ads on The Who’s Sell Out, a satire of the real-life commercials Russell had directed as a young man, and, more generally, one of the many “why the hell not?” moments in Russell’s career.

Both Tommy and his follow-up with Roger Daltrey, Lisztomania—which featured a synthesizer score from Rick Wakeman, who also co-starred as Thor—helped to push motion picture sound into the future with their pioneering Dolby soundtracks, a feature that became crucial to his Russell’s first dalliance with Hollywood. Backed in some theaters with the experimental “Megasound” system, Russell applied his trippy visual acumen to science fiction for the first time with 1980’s Altered States, an adaptation of Paddy Chayefsky’s novel about a psychology professor (played by William Hurt) who experiments with sensory deprivation. Hallucinatory and bizarre, the film’s visual highs and lows mirror the peaks and ebbs of Hurt’s increasingly fractured psyche. (Not surprisingly, it remains a favorite of connoisseurs of “movies to watch while high.”)

Unfortunately, Russell’s foray into Hollywood didn’t exactly pan out, with the director quibbling repeatedly with Chayefsky, who publicly disowned Altered States. And Russell’s follow-up, the Anthony Perkins and Kathleen Turner-starring erotic thriller Crimes Of Passion, stirred up nothing but backlash and critical slams. But Russell rebounded in Europe, first by directing operas, then moving on to classic horror stories. He directed Gabriel Byrne in 1986’s Gothic, a retelling of the night Mary Shelley first devised Frankenstein, and then adapted Bram Stoker’s The Lair Of The White Worm, an impish little film that delivers exactly what the title promises, plus naked vampire snake girls.

By the ’90s, Russell had developed such a reputation for being controversial that the title of 1991’s Whore seemed like deliberate baiting—and in fact, Russell positioned Whore as a deliberate answer to Pretty Woman, arguing that his film was a more honest version of the same story, and protesting the fact that Whore was branded with an NC-17 and marginalized, while Pretty Woman rode its R rating all the way to blockbuster success. That same year he also directed Richard Dreyfuss in the more factually based historical drama Prisoner Of Honor, but his reputation was more or less cemented by then as a sensationalist—something Russell didn’t exactly decry, even submitting to a Hollywood retrospective of his work in 1995 titled Shock Value. Around this time, Russell also began courting celebrity in front of the camera, turning up in small acting roles in films like The Russia House and Brothers Of The Head; in 2007, he even participated in a season of Celebrity Big Brother.

Russell’s tongue-in-cheek flamboyance—including proclaiming himself “the saviour of the British film industry”—and the increasingly schlocky production values of his more recent, self-financed films certainly contributed to his image as a self-styled enfant terrible of cinema, one who valued flash over substance. But to classify Ken Russell as simply a provocateur would be to deny his films’ powerful effect on their viewer—their lingering, brain-searing imagery, the sensuousness and even old-fashioned romanticism buried beneath the superficially shocking sexuality, the relentless, in-your-face refusal to do anything that smacks of the normal or expected. Anyone who’s ever seen a Ken Russell film knows there is and never will be anything else quite like it, and what more can any director hope to accomplish?