Tag Archives: Ken Russell

KEN RUSSELL’S VALENTINO (1977)

Of all the star-worshiping that went on during silent cinema, it is perhaps the obsession with Rudolph Valentino that is most mystifying today. When he died prematurely, at the age of 31, numerous fans were so distraught as to commit suicide. His funeral was besieged by thousands, and a legend was born when a mysterious lady in black began annually placing funeral wreaths on his tomb for decades to come. Valentino had such an impact on pop culture that everyone from to were influenced by him.

Yet today, there are relatively few Valentino film festivals or revivals, and when his films are seen (rarely), they will inevitably prove disappointments. Valentino never made a great film. In fact, most of them are dreadful. (In his defense, he didn’t make very many). Of course, someone will inevitably make the tiresome 21st century claim that this is true of most movies from the silent era, despite the fact that there are plenty of films from that period that have good writing, performances, direction and hold up even better than many films of the Fifties and later. We could attempt to produce examples of stellar acting in lesser films, however, this does not work with Valentino. Although his charisma scorches, his acting is extreme in its use of silent film cliches, mechanical and bizarrely exaggerated to the degree that it elicits amusement today as opposed to the near orgasmic reaction of his contemporaneous fans. Undeniably eroticized, his screen persona was also amoral; he was a rapist. Otherworldly, he doesn’t even seem human, which is perhaps why he is primarily known by name alone. It’s doubtful if many today would even recognize his image.

Rudloph Valentino
Rudloph Valentino as “The Sheik”

Sometimes, the reason for stardom is more for a colorful biography than an actual body of work (e.g. Tallulah Bankhead), but this isn’t necessarily the case with Valentino. His biographers contradict each other with bullet point details, which is to be expected since the star’s press kit was largely fiction. What we do know is that he was born in Italy and immigrated to the United States in 1913 looking for employment. Some reports have him working as a male prostitute, but that is widely disputed as well. He bussed tables and briefly found work as a taxi driver, which is how he met actor Norman Kerry, who convinced Valentino to try a career in the new cinema business. Valentino became an “overnight” star with 1921’s Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (although he had been doing small parts as exotic heavies in film for seven years), became a superstar with The Sheik later that same year, and became Continue reading KEN RUSSELL’S VALENTINO (1977)

DIRECTOR RETROSPECTIVE: KEN RUSSELL, PART TWO

This is part 2 of our retrospective; part 1 is here.

Altered States (1980) was such an extravagant affair that its script writer, Paddy Chayefsky, disowned the film after seeing Ken Russell’s finished cut. It is one of two films Russell made for American studios and his last film to (barely) make a profit statewide. It is a Certified Weird entry.

Russell’s second U.S.-made film was 1984’s Crimes of Passion. Starring Kathleen Turner and Anthony Perkins, Crimes was as divisive as any of Russell’s other work. It was primarily panned by critics and died at the box office, but has garnered enough of a cult following to warrant Arrow’s upcoming deluxe Blu-ray release, which will include Russell’s unrated director’s cut (the theatrical version is “R” rated).

With a new level of serious sleaze, Russell’s Crimes is a “hallelujah” to bad taste. Turner, as China Blue, sears. Perkins is in full twitchy ham mode and is equally fun, consistently chewing the scenery. Maddening, and yet also showing restraint, Crimes feels sincere in its mockery of hypocritical sexual mores.

With a budget of 4.5 million, Gothic (1986) took in less than a million. It is also a List entry.

Ken Russell’s contribution to Aria (1987) is undoubtedly a highlight in this Fantasia for adults. Russell joins directors , , , Nicolas Roeg, Julien Temple, Bruce Beresford, Frances Roddam, Charles Sturridge, and Bill Bryden for this unique anthology. Aria is the kind of film that inspires American classical musical fans ( seeking only traditional interpretations) to bring out the white crosses and matches, slinging charges of Euro trash and sputtering about Regietheater ( which actually does quite well in Europe, as opposed to statewide opera houses which are frequently in the red). The rest of us, less constipated, will find much to savor here.

Aria still from Ken Russell Russell tackles Puccini’s “Turandot,” which admittedly is the first time I’ve been able to stomach that hopelessly conservative composer. It is easy to see why Russell chose to interpret one of the most familiar tenor arias in all of opera, Puccini’s  “Nessun dorma.” Russell uses British pin-up model Linzi Drew for a wincing, bejeweled surgical operation. It’s transfixing Russell blasphemy, which is what we have come to expect and hope for with him.

It was inevitable that the King of cinematic excess would pay homage to that blaspheming saint of excess, Oscar Wilde. 1988’s Salome’s Last Dance is taken from the infamous Wilde play. With tongue firmly in cheek, Russell makes a cameo as a photographer doing a shoot of Wilde’s play. That “outrageous evening” sets the film’s tone.

Profane, passionate, tacky, bawdy, gaudy, naughty, and wearing its theatricality on sleeve, Salome is delicious Russell, ranking with his best work. After all, what could be more campy than the Bible?  Russell is completely in his element Continue reading DIRECTOR RETROSPECTIVE: KEN RUSSELL, PART TWO

DIRECTOR RETROSPECTIVE: KEN RUSSELL, PART ONE

Part I of a retrospective covering the theatrical feature films of (1927-2011). Russell also produced an extensive number of documentaries, television films (many of which were composer biographies), and short films, which will not be covered here.

The late Ken Russell is undoubtedly one of the most ambitious and visionary filmmakers in the entirety of cinema. Excessive and flamboyant, he was often dismissed by mainstream critics. Russell was equally criticized in avant-garde circles for not having the courage of his convictions (meaning he wasn’t academically non-linear enough. There’s a reason Russell is often compared to the painter Francis Bacon, who continued painting surreal figurative works in the age of academic abstract expressionism). Admirably, Russell had no use for categorizations, but as idiosyncratic as he was, his execution did not always rise to the concepts in his work.

Russell’s strengths and weakness are evident in his first theatrical feature, French Dressing (1964). It’s a British caper comedy in the vein of ‘s Hard Day’s Night (1964). Initially it was a box office and critical failure. Russell’s penchant for surreal imagery and sharp edits is intact, although subtle by later standards. Even when subdued, Russell’s style doesn’t work for this kind of material, rendering the film heavy handed and narratively confused. However, it was original enough to develop a cult following, the first of many for Russell.

Believing French Dressing to be a misfire, Russell returned to the safety of television work for three years before reemerging with his next feature, Billion Dollar Brain (1967). It is the second sequel in the Harry Palmer series, with Michael Caine once again taking the title role. Russell proved just as ill-suited for this spy thriller trying to cash in on the James Bond fad, but Brain is also a standout in the franchise. Russell’s personal, icy stylization is in evidence throughout the film’s more fantastic sequences. Russell is most in his element with chaos, and most bogged down with restraints imposed by script and production. Despite its flaws, Billion Dollar Brain tries to play elastic with its genre, rendering it a fun mess.

Still from Women in Love (1969)Women In Love (1969) was the film that brought Ken Russell to worldwide attention (he was even nominated for Best Director). Many critics rank it as Russell’s most narratively satisfying film. Of course, Russell has D. H. Lawrence for a literary source and, despite its infamous nude wrestling scene between and Alan Bates, the film is almost shockingly restrained and faithful to the spirit of Lawrence (out of necessity, Larry Continue reading DIRECTOR RETROSPECTIVE: KEN RUSSELL, PART ONE

134. LISZTOMANIA (1975)

“A veritable insanity, one unheard of in the annals of furore!”-Heinrich Heine on “Lisztomania” (1844)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Paul Nicholas, Veronica Quilligan, Sara Kestelman, ,

PLOT: Composer/pianist Franz Liszt hosts concerts before screaming throngs of 19th century women, and enjoys as many groupies and mistresses as he can fit in on the side. Young composer Richard Wagner gives Liszt a piece to perform, thinking it will make his career, but is outraged when the star transforms the composition into his hit “Chopsticks” on stage. Wagner takes it upon himself to wreck Liszt’s life and career, eventually seducing the older musician’s illegitimate daughter into joining his fascist cult while simultaneously building an Aryan monster with which he hopes to conquer the world.

Still from Lisztomania (1975)

BACKGROUND:

  • There really was a phenomenon known as Lisztomania (the term was coined by the poet Heinrich Heine). Hungarian Franz Liszt (1881-1886) was a virtuoso concert pianist as well as a composer, and as a young man his concerts would induce fits of hysteria in (especially female) concertgoers; fans would fight over the performer’s discarded gloves or broken piano strings. This condition of ecstatic fandom, now familiar to anyone who has ever attended an arena rock concert, was unheard of at the time, and authorities were seriously concerned about it, considering it a psychological disorder.
  • Portions of the movie were adapted from the book “Nélida” by Countess Marie d’Agoult (played in the film by Fiona Lewis). The novel was a thinly-disguised description of her love affair with Liszt (with whom she had three illegitimate children).
  • Lisztomania was made by Russell back-to-back and released in the same year as the hit rock opera Tommy, which also starred Daltrey.
  • Lisztomania was the first movie recorded in Dolby sound.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The musical number at the Russian palace where Liszt pulls out his giant inflatable, um, instrument, and the scantily clad female dancers treat it as an, um, maypole.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: At times, it’s the biography of Franz Liszt if it were directed by Benny Hill working from a script by . With Nazi golems, Richard Wagner as a vampire, a climax aboard a heavenly spaceship, and a giant phallic musical number, this phantasmagorical biopic is Ken Russell at his ebullient silliest.

Clip from Lisztomania

COMMENTS: In his melodramatically excessive movies like The Devils or Altered States, it’s sometimes hard to tell when Ken Russell is being Continue reading 134. LISZTOMANIA (1975)

LIST CANDIDATE: TOMMY (1975)

Scott Sentinella’s writing has appeared in “The Carson News”, “The Gardena Valley News”, “Animato”, “Videomania Newspaper”, “Cashiers du Cinemart”, Dugpa.com and ALivingDog.com.

DIRECTOR: Ken Russell

FEATURING: , Ann-Margret, Oliver Reed , Eric Clapton, Elton John, Jack Nicholson, Tina Turner, Paul Nicholas, Keith Moon, Pete Townshend, John Entwhistle

PLOT: Captain Walker is missing and presumed dead in World War II, but when he turns up alive, his wife’s new lover kills him. Unfortunately, Walker’s son Tommy witnesses this, and the trauma leaves him deaf, dumb and blind. But Tommy can still play a mean pinball, and he becomes an odd messiah to an army of idol worshipers.

Still from Tommy (1975)

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: Because, with that story line, it’s a musical—literally a “rock opera”—and because Ken Russell stages every single scene like something out of a bad acid flashback.

COMMENTS: The Who’s original 1969 album, “Tommy” is wonderful to listen to, but its supposed story is impossible to figure out without, so to speak, illustrations. In this film, one of the first recorded in multi-channel sound, director Russell “illustrates”everything in the most garish hues possible—and that’s a good thing. This grotesque, excessive rock musical was clearly a predecessor to MTV, with its non-stop assault of insane imagery; Russell, not exactly the most subtle of filmmakers, is aided and abetted all the way through by an all-star cast. The Who’s lead singer, the great Roger Daltrey, inevitably plays Tommy with a vacant, blue-eyed stare, and belts every song to the back of the theater in the manner that made him famous (on the original “Tommy” album, his singing is much more low-key). Elton John, as the Pinball Wizard, parades around on stilts, while Tina Turner, as the Acid Queen, threatens to rip the screen apart with her intensity (although Paul Nicholas, as Tommy’s physically abusive Cousin Kevin, gives her a run for her money). Meanwhile, Eric Clapton as the Preacher, Keith Moon as the sexually abusive Uncle Ernie, Jack Nicholson (Ann-Margret’s old co-star from 1971’s “Carnal Knowledge”) as the Doctor, and Oliver Reed, as Tommy’s stepfather, are relatively subdued (and, yes, the last two are pretty terrible singers). Topping them all is Ann-Margret, in an unforgettable Oscar-nominated performance, as Tommy’s guilt-ridden mother. Obviously, Ann-Margret’s show tune-trained voice is really not suited to singing Pete Townshend’s music, but that only adds to the film’s strange appeal. Ann-Margret manages to be simultaneously brilliant and over-the-top (as she often is—see her Blanche Dubois in the 1984 version of Streetcar Named Desire), but when the part calls for her to roll around in baked beans and chocolate sauce, she doesn’t hold back. Then you have any number of frenzied images: Sally Simpson’s husband—a dead ringer for the Frankenstein monster, Tina Turner transformed into a giant hypodermic needle, Clapton preaching in a church filled with statues of Marilyn Monroe, Paul Nicholas burning Daltrey with a cigarette—this is a musical, all right, but it’s not exactly Meet Me in St. Louis. This version of Tommy may be bizarre to the point of self-parody, but anyone who’s ever seen the disastrous, but similar, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (produced, like Tommy, by Robert Stigwood), will understand the very special talents of the late Ken Russell.

Unfortunately, the Region 1 DVD (as well as the Blu-Ray) of Tommy has no extras, except for a paper insert describing the film’s “Quintaphonic” soundtrack. Luckily, the movie looks and sounds just fine.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Russell correctly doesn’t give a damn about the material he started with… he just goes ahead and gives us one glorious excess after another… Tommy’s odyssey through life is punctuated by encounters with all sorts of weird folks, of whom the most seductive is Tina Turner as the Acid Queen.”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (contemporaneous)

R.I.P. KEN RUSSELL (1927-2011)

Three-time (and counting) Certified Weird director Ken Russell died yesterday at the age of 84.  No cause of death was reported, but the auteur was known to have recently suffered a series a strokes and was not in good health.

The Ken Russell films that this site has already certified as among the best weird movies of all time are Altered States, Gothic, and The Lair of the White WormAlfred Eaker has also paid tribute to Russell with a review of the mad maestro’s Mahler (1974).  A large legacy of Russell movies remain for us to cover, including The Devils (1971) and Tommy (1975).

Whether bringing nun orgies, seven-horned crucified lambs, or breasts with eyes to the screen, Ken Russell was never afraid of going over-the-top.  In fact, he was afraid of not going over the top.  Where others saw a ceiling, he saw a floor. We were all privileged to witness his madness, and he will be missed by the weird movie community.

The BBC obituary is here.  Among the early tributes, we found Owen Gleiberman’s piece for Entertainment Weekly to be most impressive.  Many more are certain to come.

KEN RUSSELL’S MAHLER (1974)

This is Ken Russell‘s most personal film and he admirably does Gustav Mahler proud by refusing to treat the composer with phony reverence. Mahler is no plaster saint here. Instead, he is a neurotic, obsessive Jewish composer, a hen-pecked husband and an artist whose drive stems from the flesh.

Unknown to him at the time, actor Robert Powell’s role as the composer was his audition to play one Jesus of Nazareth for Franco Zeffirelli three years later. Powell’s Mahler is not the Mahler of a Mahler cult. Mahler’s writing is clearly an immense struggle, as is his relationship with his wife, family, colleagues and admirers.

Russell pays Mahler homage in not succumbing to the type of pedestrian biopic cultists tend to favor. That type of bio treatment can be seen in Richard Attenborough’s Chaplin (1992), the kind of well-intentioned but hopelessly unimaginative film one expects from a “fan.” Julie Taymor‘s Across the Universe (2007) takes the opposite approach in her stubborn insistence that the Beatles are not sacred and, thus, aptly produced a film as experimental as were the Beatles themselves (she did Stravinsky and Shakespeare the same honors with Oedipus Rex in 1993 and Titus in 1999).
Still from Mahler (1974)
Ever the renegade spirit, Russell, like Taymor, digs into his highly personal interpretation of the artist’s core. Mahler (1974) opens to the first movement of the existential Third Symphony (conducted by Bernard Haitink) juxtaposed against the composer’s hut on a lake bursting into Promethean flames. Mahler’s mummified wife, Alma (the resplendent Georgina Hale) emerges from a cocoon on the beach and crawls on jagged rocks, struggling to free herself of her bindings. Atop a rock is a bust of her husband, which Continue reading KEN RUSSELL’S MAHLER (1974)

62. ALTERED STATES (1980)

Recommended

“You don’t have to tell me how weird you are. I know how weird you are… Even sex is a mystical experience for you. You carry on like a flagellant, which can be very nice, but I sometimes wonder if it’s me that’s being made love to. I feel like I’m being harpooned by some raging monk in the act of receiving God.”–Blair Brown to William Hurt in Altered States

DIRECTED BY: Ken Russell

FEATURING: William Hurt, , Charles Haid, Bob Balaban

PLOT: Dr. Eddie Jessup is a Harvard physiologist who used to experience religious visions as a teenager and is now studying the phenomenon of hallucinations caused by sensory deprivation in isolation tanks.  His inquiries into the nature of consciousness eventually take him to an isolated tribe in Mexico who use a powerful psychedelic mushroom in ancient Toltec religious rituals.  When he combines the magic mushrooms and the isolation tank, he finds that the mixture causes him to regress to an earlier evolutionary state.

Still from Altered States (1980)

BACKGROUND:

  • The character of Dr. Jessup was based on the real life Dr. John Lilly, who invented the isolation tank and experimented with using hallucinogens in combination with it before moving on to research on communicating with dolphins.
  • Lilly tells the tale of a fellow researcher who took the drug ketamine and believed that he had turned into a “pre-hominid” and was being stalked by a leopard, which was presumably the kernel for the the idea of genetic regression.
  • This was William Hurt’s first starring role.
  • A young Drew Barrymore, in her film debut, briefly appears as one of Jessup’s children.
  • Paddy (Network) Chayefsky, the three-time Oscar winning screenwriter, adapted his own novel for the screen; he was so displeased with the final results that he had his name removed from the credits.  Chayefsky had originally written the story as a satire of the pretensions of the scientific community.  The original director, Arthur Penn, resigned after disputes with the writer.  Russell and Chayefsky reportedly argued on the set over the actors’ line readings and performances.  Chayefsky’s original novel is long out of print.
  • The seven-eyed lamb that appears in Jessup’s first vision comes straight from the Book of Revelations: “…in the midst of the elders, stood a Lamb as it had been slain, having seven horns and seven eyes…” (Rev 5:6).

INDELIBLE IMAGE:  One of the two major trip sequences (you can take your pick).  The crucified seven-eyed, seven-horned lamb from the first  is a popular favorite. In a sense, however, the quick-cut surrealistic montages play as a whole images that can’t be chopped up into constituent parts.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Ken Russell makes it weird. There’s no director more eager or better suited to make a science fiction movie about hallucinogenic drugs that bring about religious visions.  With its long, intense episodes of druggy delirium, Altered States may well be the greatest trip movie ever made (and it’s certainly the most expensive). Put it this way: you know the movie’s weird when the sight of a naked, simian William Hurt gnawing on a bloody gazelle is one of the film’s more humdrum visions.

Original trailer for Altered States

COMMENTS: There are fishes swimming in the sky behind William Hurt’s head.  He offers his Continue reading 62. ALTERED STATES (1980)

50. GOTHIC (1986)

“I passed the summer of 1816 in the environs of Geneva. The season was cold and rainy, and in the evenings we crowded around a blazing wood fire, and occasionally amused ourselves with some German stories of ghosts, which happened to fall into our hands. These tales excited in us a playful desire of imitation. Two other friends (a tale from the pen of one of whom would be far more acceptable to the public than anything I can ever hope to produce) and myself agreed to write each a story founded on some supernatural occurrence.  The weather, however, suddenly became serene; and my two friends left me on a journey among the Alps, and lost, in the magnificent scenes which they present, all memory of their ghostly visions. The following tale is the only one which has been completed.”–Mary Shelley, preface to Frankenstein

DIRECTED BY: Ken Russell

FEATURING: Natasha Richardson, Gabriel Byrne, Julian Sands, Myriam Cyr, Timothy Spall

PLOT: Romantic poet Percy Shelley takes his lover, Mary, and her stepsister Claire to visit Lord Byron and his biographer, Dr. Polidori, at the poet’s sprawling Swiss estate.  The fivesome spend the evening playing games and drinking laudanum, until the topic of conversation turns to ghost stories.  They decide to hold a seance to materialize their worst fear, with unanticipated success: or, are they just having a group hallucination?

Still from Gothic (1986)

BACKGROUND:

  • The meeting in the film between Percy Shelley, Byron, Mary Godwin Shelley, Dr. Polidori and Claire Clairmont did take place, though the party actually spent the entire summer of 1816 together, not just a single night.  Mary Shelley (then Mary Godwin) did conceive the idea for her novel Frankenstein there, after Byron suggested that each member of the party write their own supernatural tale.  Many other details of the character’s backstories are accurate: Byron did impregnate Claire, and Mary did bear a stillborn child by Percy.
  • The story of Frankenstein‘s genesis was mentioned in the prologue to The Bride of Frankenstein, and similar stories of the meeting between Byron and the Shelleys were told in the movies The Haunted Summer (1988) and Rowing in the Wind (1988).
  • The painting which hangs over the mantelpiece in the guest bedroom, which is recreated in live action in a dream sequence, in is based on John Henry Fuseli’s “The Nightmare.”
  • The movie was the first major feature produced by a division of Virgin Media (known for producing and distributing their pop music).  Many of the technical crew had a music video background.  Virgin shut down its motion picture production and distribution operations after 1990.
  • Julian Sands came to Gothic fresh off a prominent role in Merchant-Ivory’s Oscar-winning A Room with a View.  After this role he wound up specializing in horror films like Warlock (1989) and its sequels.

INDELIBLE IMAGE:  Breasts with eyes.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD:  After setting up its premise, Gothic becomes a series of


Trailer for Gothic

phantasmagorical set pieces that allow Ken Russell to indulge his penchant for perverse visuals and excessive Freudian symbolism.

COMMENTS: For better and worse, Gothic‘s hallucinatory structure allows director Ken Continue reading 50. GOTHIC (1986)

AVANT OPERA ON FILM, PART 3

In 1987, producer Don Boyd brought his labor of love, Aria, to the screen.  The concept was to have ten directors, each with a distinguished style, visually interpret ten arias.  Jean-Luc Godard, Robert Altman, Nicolas Roeg and Ken Russell were among the directors.  Predictably, many less than erudite American critics put their working class hero noses to work, sniffed it out like the gold old boy guardians of true blue Americana, and immediately pounced on it, pretentiously charging high pretension as they are usually apt to do.  Whenever the subjects of opera or classical music are involved in film, rest assured American critics are going to become engaged in loudly espousing anti-pretension pretensions. Actually, Aria is a stylishly, irreverent and satirical, if uneven, treat.

ariaroddamFranc Roddam’s “Liebestod” from Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” is set in Las Vegas with Bridget Fonda and James Mathers excellently capturing the pathos of the doomed pair.

Ken Russell, an expert eccentric at this sort of thing, memorably tackles Puccini’s “Turandot” with hallucinatory model Linzi Drew, inlaid rubies and diamonds, and an operating table in a typically heady Russellesque mix of bizarre, mystical excess and eros.

Godard, tongue delightfully in cheek, sets Jean Baptiste Lully in a work-out gym as two women contend with narcissistic male body builders.

Charles Sturridge’s interpretation of Verdi’s “La Forza Del Destino” subtly grows brighter upon repeated viewings. Sturridge’s “Destino” aptly paints troubled youth on a joy ride through an apathetic adult world in a lament to the Virgin.

Bruce Beresford’s film of Korngold’s “Die Tote Stadt,” starring a young Elizabeth Hurley, captures the music’s superficial sheen.

Nicholas Roeg, Robert Altman, Derek Jarman, Julian Temple, and Bill Bryden interpret Verdi, Rameau, Charpentier, and Leoncavallo to lesser effect, but even the slight failures here are far preferable to the bulk of Hollywood drek.

Ken Russell has had an ongoing obsession with composers: Tchaikovsky in The Music Lovers, the justifiably infamous Lisztomania, and Elgar, but his most hallucinatory and, oddly enough, Continue reading AVANT OPERA ON FILM, PART 3