Tag Archives: Ken Russell

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 composing is clearly an immense struggle, as are his relationships 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 she embraces and kisses. This dream imagery is explained by a terminally ill Mahler to Alma, who is not amused, and misinterprets the dream as symbolic of a marital power struggle. Mahler himself fatalistically interprets it as signifying her birth, made possible by his inevitable, impending death. The entire film takes place on Mahler’s final train ride and is interwoven with dreams and flashbacks, piling one existential layer upon another.

Mahler is returning home to Vienna after a disastrous season in at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. The conductor was ousted for his unorthodox ways by a Big Apple accustomed to the literalism of a Toscanini. Mahler, however, is not about to publicly go into the reasons for his return home, especially with a meddlesome reporter who takes the composer’s answers strictly at face value. “Why is everyone so literal these days?” Mahler retorts, dismissing the hack interviewer.

Instead of focusing on documentary points, Russell probes the visions and a past idiosyncratically filtered through Mahlerian hues which are, in turn, filtered through Russell’s equally eccentric interpretations.

Mahler espoused big ideas and when asked his religion, he answers defiantly, “composer.” Indeed, Russell (himself a convert) probes Mahler’s sell-out conversion to Catholicism; clearly, this was strictly a career move on the composer’s part in a blatantly anti-Semitic society. Russell does not shy away from criticism in this sequence (filmed with silent film aesthetics). The cross of Christ and the star of David are placed with the Nazi swastika in an enshrined cave. Mahler bows before money, and Cosima Wagner (Antonia Ellis, dressed as an S & M Nazi she-devil) rewards his rejection of Judaism with a roasted (non-kosher) pig, which Mahler bites into with wild abandon. Predictably, Mahler proves to be as agitated a Christian as he was the agitated Jew.

No suffragist, Mahler is as demanding on his wife as he is on orchestra, insisting that she forgo her own aspirations as a composer and slave in silent servitude to his art, himself, and their children (in that order). This is a hard thing for Alma to forgive; but she also feels her husband’s composition of “Kindertotenlieder” (“Songs on the Death of Children”) is an unforgivable case of tempting fate that leads to the death of their beloved daughter. Alma is consistently tormented by the image of herself as shadow of the genius Gustav. She is left at the bottom of the stairwell as fans adore her returning husband, emphasized by a funeral march movement straight out of Poe. Alma rewards Gustav for all this with an impassioned affair (one of many). It is a feverishly ill, insecure, humiliated and desperate Mahler here who is trying to win back his wife. Powell and Hale are superb in their roles. Hale is delightfully fickle, icy, frustrated, wayward, and conveys every fiber of a woman loved by artisans. Powell looks the image of terminal sickness, especially in a symbolic vignette with the reaper facing him in the form of a female African passenger (in voodoo dress) who likens his music to a dance with death. In one sequence Mahler is depicted as a (Stan Laurel-like) clown. Russell spares no one in the funeral nightmare, fittingly choreographed to what many consider Mahler’s most surreal work: the Seventh Symphony.

Russell’s film mirrors much in the Seventh. It is a five movement work which begins with an allegro that is part kitsch Viennese waltz, part grotesque military march, energetic and, finally, bittersweet. This opening is followed by the first night music: a child-like walk through the night, replete with cowbells, a giddy dance, and ending with silence. The third movement is the phantasmagoric scherzo; essentially, another night movement that is, by turns, amusing and frightening. Yet another night movement follows the scherzo, this one amorous. The Rondo finale is a psychedelic pageant which many critics feel dissipates into complete banality; it can be a fitful assertion of life, or a dance-til-your-death frenzy.

Naturally, Russell utilizes the scherzo for Mahler’s overheated funeral, brought on by the composer’s heart attack, but the structure of the Seventh could be seen as a blueprint for Russell’s film. Alma mockingly spreads her legs before her dead husband’s coffin and follows that with a nude, coarse grinding striptease with Teutonic beefcakes. Her beau, Max (Richard Morant), represents all of her lovers, and he is decked from head to toe as a stormtrooper. Gustav has been buried alive, but this is of no concern to Alma, who is lusted after and sensuously pawed over only now, after she has emerged from her husband’s domineering shadow. Mahler is cremated in an oven, but his eyes remain untouched to witness her having the time of her life after his demise, climaxing with Alma having sex with a gramophone. High art, low camp, sex and death. How better to serve up Gustav Mahler? Mahler’s epic works can be tantalizing, self-absorbed, seemingly disparate mixes of banality and nobility, the profound and the asinine, the intimate and the boisterous, sincere seeking drenched with equally sincere cynicism, and, finally, insatiable curiosity permeated with a whiff of pathos, or, often, deadly bathos.

Composer Arnold Schoenberg hailed the Seventh as the death of romanticism, but he was only half correct. Mahler was still the romantic, and Russell is equally vivid in that depiction as well. Mahler truly loves his wife above all, and he casts a slight smile when he silently looks away from the train (as he often and tellingly does) to observe a couple deep in love at the terminal.

Despite our knowledge of Mahler’s imminent fate; his tumultuous relationship with his wife and his obsession with her many infidelities; his fear of his own mortality; his hallucinatory, self-indulgent expressions; his pathos-laden memories of the past; his insincere conversion; his child-like questioning of existential themes; and his fevered, zealous drive, it is the composer’s buoyant embrace of life that encapsulates Russell’s wonderfully symbolic, baroque vision of an undeniably great and influential artist.

This article was originally published in a slightly different form at Raging Bull Movie Reviews.

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


Trailer for Gothic

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

23. THE LAIR OF THE WHITE WORM (1988)

“This fearful worm would often feed on cows and lamb and sheep,
And swallow little babes alive when they lay down to sleep.
So John set out and got the beast and cut it into halves,
And that soon stopped it eating babes and sheep and lambs and calves.”

–Lyrics to “The D’Ampton Worm” from Lair of the White Worm
Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Ken Russell

FEATURING: Amanda Donohoe, Hugh Grant, Catherine Oxenberg, Peter Capaldi, Sammi Davis, Stratford Johns

PLOT:  An archeology student visiting the British countryside digs up an elongated skull he assumes belongs to an dinosaur while excavating the site of a buried convent, now an English bed-and-breakfast run by two young sisters.  Lord James D’Ampton is the boyfriend of one of the sisters, and also the descendant of a legendary D’Ampton who reputedly slew a dragon (the “D’Ampton Worm”) that had terrorized the countryside.  After wintering in climes unknown, slinky and regal Lady March returns to her mansion and discovers the skull, after which strange events begin to transpire…

Still from Lair of the White Worm (1988)

BACKGROUND:

  • Russell’s script was very loosely based on Bram (“Dracula”) Stoker’s 1911 novel, although the similarity almost ends with the shared title.
  • This was Russell’s second horror film in three years after Gothic (1986).
  • Hugh Grant had roles in six films released in 1988, including portrayals of Chopin and Lord Byron.
  • This was Amanda Donohoe’s second starring role in a feature film.  She went on to greater fame when she joined the cast of the hit T.V. show “L.A. Law” in 1990.  Catherine Oxenberg, on the other hand, had made a name for herself on the hit T.V. show “Dynasty,” and this was her first feature role in a theatrical release.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: A 30 second hallucination sequence featuring Roman soldiers raping nuns before a cross on which a monstrous worm slithers over a crucified Jesus while a topless blue vampire woman looks on joyfully, waggling her tongue.  The scene is dressed up in lurid colors and performed in front of a deliberately cheesy looking blue-screen inferno.  So over-the-top and parodic that it’s not nearly as offensive as it sounds.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD:  Ken Russell throws a handful of his typically excessive hallucination/dream sequences into what is otherwise a subtle horror parody, creating a minor masterpiece of deliberate camp blooming with ridiculously memorable scenes.

Original trailer for Lair of the White Worm

COMMENTS:  The one word that immediately comes to mind to describe Ken Russell’s The Continue reading 23. THE LAIR OF THE WHITE WORM (1988)