Monday, November 28, 2011

RIP, Ken Russell

I'm depressed to report that the irrepressibly brilliant and brilliantly irrepressible British director Ken Russell died yesterday at the age of 84 after a series of strokes. Russell was and is one of the greatest filmmakers to ever work in the medium, and directed two of my all-time favorites, THE DEVILS and THE MUSIC LOVERS, among many, many others. Probably best known for his absurdist phallic/Catholic imagery and movies like TOMMY, ALTERED STATES, and the Oscar-nominated WOMEN IN LOVE, the Ken Russell catalogue is bursting with hidden treasures (like GOTHIC, THE BOY FRIEND, THE RAINBOW, SALOME'S LAST DANCE), nearly unavailable classics (SAVAGE MESSIAH, THE MUSIC LOVERS, THE DEVILS, MAHLER, DANCE OF THE SEVEN VEILS), and astounding trashterpieces (THE LAIR OF THE WHITE WORM, CRIMES OF PASSION, LISZTOMANIA).

I was lucky enough to see Mr. Russell several times last summer in the midst of a retrospective of his work at Lincoln Center, and he was a charming little old man with a quiet voice and a quick wit. At a screening of THE BOY FRIEND, a film starring the stick-thin fashion model Twiggy and the 6' 7'' beanpole dancer Tommy Tune, he was asked by an audience member, "Why did you cast Twiggy?" He pursed his lips and chirped in his inimitable British inflection, "...because I wanted someone to make Tommy Tune look... small." Later, someone shouted out, "Who's your favorite rock star?," to which he responded, plainly, "Beethoven." I was even able to meet the man himself after a screening of THE MUSIC LOVERS, and, still held rapt by the power of the images I'd just seen, was only able to mumble something brief and complimentary, but it was a powerful moment to come face to face with one of the great image makers of the Twentieth Century. His passing pains me, but his films are a gift– and they pulsate with a colorful imagination, a rich vitality, and a visceral hyper-realness that may never be matched. To encapsulate my love for the man and his films, let me finish with a perfect quote from the man himself: "This is not the age of manners. This is the age of kicking people in the crotch and telling them something and getting a reaction. I want to shock people into awareness. I don't believe there is any virtue in understatement."

So here's to the man who tamed Oliver Reed, who let loose the white worm, who sent Liszt on a spaceship and unmasked Wagner's vampiric tendencies. Here's to a man who could devastate and could entertain, and sometimes, when the light was just right and the wind was up, could do both at once. You will be missed.

1 comment:

Maurice Mitchell said...

Ken was a controversial figure alright. We lost a good one.