Friday, July 30, 2010

Ken Russellmania


July 30-August 5, 2010
Walter Reade Theater, 70 Lincoln Center Plaza
(West 65th St between Broadway and Amsterdam)

“Russellmania” was never as widespread as “Beatlemania,” but director Ken Russell wouldn’t care. The “bad boy” of British filmmaking began in the 60s with a series of artist biographies about the likes of composer Frederick Delius that only hinted at where his feature-film career would go when he exploded onto the international scene with Women in Love.

The Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Russellmania! is not a complete retrospective of Russell’s films—it only collects nine of his major productions from 1969-77, when he was arguably at his peak, both in prolificness and quality—but Russell’s 80s and 90s output is pretty much diminishing returns anyway, so why not stop here? (Actually, the series should stop before the overwrought 1977 biopic Valentino, in which a fatally miscast Rudolf Nureyev is outclassed by Michelle Phillips, of all people, who looks like she’s about to devour him in their unintentionally funny nude scene.)

If Russell began with the biopic, it was the biopic to which he would return, each more gleefully outrageous and factually inconsistent than the last. The Music Lovers (1970) posits Tchaikovsky as a tormented swish, Savage Messiah (1972) presents a gaudy version of sculptor Henri Gaudier’s life, Mahler (1974) spins incredible yarns about the composer, and Lisztomania (1975) sees Franz Liszt as the first rock star. Sticklers for realism need not apply: part of the fun of these movies is seeing, in every frame, that Russell just doesn’t give a hoot what anyone thinks. So what if he makes up personalities, situations and relationships out of whole cloth and puts them onscreen? These aren’t merely chronological, conventional biographies: this is art! (That’s also debatable, but it gives these movies a sense of adventurousness and danger.)

Russell also made several adaptations, beginning with his D. H. Lawrence film, Women in Love (1969), which won Glenda Jackson a Best Actress Oscar and garnered Russell his only Best Director nomination. If Russell’s take on Lawrence’s homosexual novel was decidedly adult, it again only hinted at what was to come. In 1971, he made two films: the deliberately banal and fluffy musical The Boy Friend, starring the irrepressible Twiggy; and the infamous The Devils, based on John Whiting’s play about Catholic sexual repression in the 17th century, proving that, at the very least, he was eclectic in his choices. (The Devils saga is far from over: the U.S. version—which is what we’re seeing at the Walter Reade, apparently—is several minutes shorter than the uncut British version, and it doesn’t seem as if Warner Brothers is in any hurry to let us see it as Russell originally intended.)

When his psychedelic version of The Who’s rock opera Tommy burst onto the screen in 1975—starring Ann-Margret in an exhilarating, Oscar-nominated performance—it was the closest Russell would get to the mainstream, thanks to top-notch musical numbers by Tina Turner, Elton John and Eric Clapton.

Russell would keep working, going on to make Altered States, Crimes of Passion, Gothic, Salome, The Lair of the White Worm, The Rainbow and Whore—none of which are screaming to be revived. (He’s also continued to make films based on composers’ lives, including one on Arnold Bax: it would be instructive to see how he treats these artists much later in his own career.) So Russell’s reputation, such as it is, rests on the Russellmania! films, which show that, even in his wrongheadedness, Russell could whip up a frenzy of outrage that we sorely need in today’s CGI and dumb-guy dominated movies.

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