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David Poland

By David Poland

Ken Russell Goes Somewhere New… Heaven or Hell Will Never Be The Same

Ken Russell hadn’t made a feature film in 20 years.

I was there on opening weekend for that film… Whore… starring Theresa Russell… shot here in Los Angeles. Much more so than his higher profile films, it was a progenitor of the mumblecore movement. It was meant to feel like a doc, but much of the time, it felt like Russell walking and posing and rambling. People who were expecting a Crimes of Passion sequel with a different object of lust were sorely disappointed. But it was, as always, a fascinating film. Russell was utterly capable of being a mess… yet his work is absolutely essential.

Like Herzog, his documentary work is as important as his feature film work. I discovered a number of his documentaries for The South Bank Show at Telluride, where they honored the show one year, playing the shows 24 hours a day on the local cable access channel during the fest. The show used to appear in the US, I think on Bravo, but has been long gone. Worse, I haven’t been able to find the series on DVD, here or in the UK. It remains some of my favorite television ever, alternately 60 Minute-like and wildly interesting, as they’d bring in directors like Russell to switch it up.

Russell’s feature film career lasted 24 years, from 1967 to 1991. 18 films. Lots of music. Lots of madness. He’s still probably the most famous for his second feature, Women in Love, which won Glenda Jackson an Oscar. Tommy, his film made out of the rock opera by The Who, starring Roger Daltrey, Ann-Margret, Oliver Reed, Tina Turner, Elton John, and a parade of others can still be found as a regular feature in your cable guide, from the giant pinball machines to the Acid Queen’s sarcophagus of needles to the TV that oozes chocolate, washing suds, and beans all over the skin-tight jumpsuited Ann-Margret to the creepiest male role models you’ll see on film.

Russell was equally famous for flops. Valentino, starring Nureyev as the silent superstar, was nuked. Altered States, with put Russell head-to-head with the precise Paddy Chayefsky, is one of the most interesting movies that left everyone wanting to kill each other and made stars out of William Hurt and Blair Brown, cementing the idea of who they are as actors forever (like it or not).

Having broken out into the majors with Altered States and the surprising and controversial success of Crimes of Passion, Russell went back to work that would never get him out of the arthouses here in the US again. It was some of his best work, though he could still go way off the deep end at times. Many felt The Rainbow was one of his best, if not his best film. And then, it hit a wall with Whore, which threatened to push everyone’s buttons with the hottest movie sex bomb of the moment, Theresa Russell, combined with the guy who turned out Kathleen Turner. The movie was a giant soft-on. And Russell was just 64.

It was always a thrill to sit down in a theater, anticipating what you were about to get from Ken Russell. Beauty, madness, genius, and incomprehensibility were all on the table every time out.

He will be missed… and is not to be missed.

7 Responses to “Ken Russell Goes Somewhere New… Heaven or Hell Will Never Be The Same”

  1. movieman says:

    I couldn’t agree more with that assessment, Dave.
    Russell will always be inextricably linked with my moviegoing coming of age in the ’70s. The shiver of anticipation and adolescent thrill I experienced when encountering “Women in Love,” “The Devils,” “The Boy Friend,” “Tommy.” “Altered States,” etc. for the first time was the stuff of which warm and fuzzy cinephile memories are permanently cemented.
    One of my proudest DVD purchases ever was an import copy of “The Devils” (whose copious extras include the still notorious “Rape of Christ” sequence).
    I think I’ll watch it tonite in commemoration of Russell’s passing.
    RIP, Ken.

  2. tim hayes says:

    As much fun as The South Park Show fronted by Melvyn Bragg would have been, you mean The South Bank Show.

  3. leahnz says:

    “Russell will always be inextricably linked with my moviegoing coming of age in the ’70s”

    same here — but it began for me with being taken to see ‘tommy’ as a nipper (i remember feeling overwhelmed and shell-shocked, cousin kevin and uncle ernie, the acid queen, tommy’s tragic/insane life, yikes); i was a bit too young to see the earlier russells in the cinema, like ‘women in love’ (he was not scared of the penis, bless) and ‘the devils’, which i saw later on when i was perhaps better equipped to do so. weirdly, my own boy has now just began his intro to russell – which as a parent i’m approaching from a rather more cautious place than what i experienced – having recently watched ‘lair of the white worm’ (love it) and ‘altered states’, both of which he really dug. next, maybe ‘tommy’ – but he’s not that keen on musicals at the mo – maybe ‘gothic’. RIP mr. russell, you did it your way. thank you for sharing.

  4. movieman says:

    Amen, Leah.
    I truly believe that “The Devils” is Russell’s masterpiece, and the film that he’ll be most remembered for 100 years from now.
    And one of the keys to its evil genius is the creative freedom Russell gave Derek Jarman re: the film’s extraordinary production design.
    Plus, can’t forget Vanessa Redgraves’ balls-to-the-walls performance as the hunchbacked, sex-crazed Mother Superior.
    1971 was a different time and place.

  5. leahnz says:

    absolutely. nobody does a fucked-up witch-hunt like ken russell! bravo

  6. David Poland says:

    Thanks, Tim. Ha. (Fixed.)

  7. Joshua/CaptainZahn says:

    Ken made me the gay I am today.

    Kathleen Turner & Anthony Perkins in Crimes of Passion

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