Russellmania

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By Armond White

Why isn’t Whore, the 1991 Theresa Russell vehicle directed by Ken Russell, part of “Russellmania,” the long overdue Ken Russell retrospective at Film Society of ? Although Russell’s provocative filmography deserves re-consideration, this series (July 30-Aug. 5) concentrates only on his infamous 1970s films, which does a disservice to the arc of his idiosyncratic career. Russell’s ’70s output—outrageous celebrity biographies, audacious musicals and adventurous literary adaptations—gave him a madman reputation that’s almost forgotten, and that he couldn’t live down.

But he also couldn’t keep up with it. His projects shrunk in scale, if not luridness: The 1983 hit Crimes of Passion, with Kathleen Turner and Anthony Perkins, had short-lived controversy, but its hooker/serial killer plot ran second to De Palma’s elegant satirical shocker Dressed to Kill. Russell had created a template for surrealistic psychodrama and cinematic extravagance that was never well-understood—until the little-seen Whore offered a revelatory, late-in-life cri de coeur. Whore (and the past two decades of unaccomplished amateur-auteurs like Baz Luhrmann) reminds one how much Russell’s ingenuity is missed.

Combining his unique interest in musical/cultural history and an inherent, sexually obsessed iconoclastic vision, Russell expressed a distinctly British ribaldry. He was the bad boy whose naughty doodling in the margins of D.H. Lawrence, Aldous Huxley and The Who took over the frame. Russell created a freaky palimpsest over the official biographies of Tchaikovsky, Liszt, Mahler and Valentino. His impudence sprouted from the extraordinary series of expressionist Great Artist biopics (on Delius, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Isadora Duncan) commissioned by the BBC in the 1960s that announced the full-blown arrival of a naturally gifted, genuinely original filmmaker.

On the big screen, Russell’s audacity and flamboyance rivaled the more serious, challenging kinkiness in Stanley Kubrick’s misanthropic satires. Russell’s 1971 version of Huxley’s The Devils pairs well with A Clockwork Orange of the same year—and though similarly repellent, is also funnier. Russell’s far-gone humor made his frequently rude jests compelling.

Russell’s remarkable vision was inextricable from his bad taste. The hyperbolic passages of Women in Love didn’t adapt Lawrence’s great psychosexual explorations so much as offer a corresponding cinematic version of “purple prose”—visual extravagance that was its own startling justification, whether a 45-degree-angle hetero gambol in an open field to the fire-lit homo grappling between Oliver Reed and Alan Bates that forced mainstream cinema to accept the moral challenges Warhol only played with. Russell’s subversive tropes were genuine to his era’s counterculture spirit, but his movies were superficially “visionary”—all wrought-up with the contradictions of heretical irreverence and classical mastery. And Russell was in his way a master.

The 1971 musical The Boy Friend, which introduced the model Twiggy to the screen, is wrecked by Russell’s ambivalence. Working as fast and creatively as his peers Robert Altman and Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Russell adapted Sandy Wilson’s stage musical and turned it into multi-leveled pastiche that spoofed both British music hall and Hollywood musicals. David Watkins’ vivid photography clashed with the literally sour notes of Peter Maxwell Davies’ orchestrations. Except for a Hellenic dream sequence where the stage performers become anarchic Dionysian figures (one of the most beautiful and disturbing passages in all Russell), The Boy Friend is an unpleasant experience on almost every level.

Strangely, The Boy Friend represents Russell’s inability to come to grips with the camp aspects of his approach. Keith Gardner pinpointed how The Boy Friend’s choreographer and male lead Christopher Gable, a toothy blond, “looked like David Bowie and Lou Reed had mated”—an on-point remark that indicates Russell’s prescient, pre-Glam Rock instincts which eventually exploded in his masterpiece, 1975’s Tommy (only screening Aug. 5).

Russell probably could not have achieved such unruly, non-stop perfection without the misstep of The Boy Friend. Critic John Demetry’s definitive Tommy essay notes: “When Russell really cranks up the hysteria, he’s actually raising his postmodern agenda to ecstasy.” It truly is the most protean rock ‘n’ roll movie (until Prince’s 1997 Sign O the Times). Each song sequence shows Russell is at new peaks of outrageous inventiveness. He commands rhythm and scale as Fritz Lang might have done had Hollywood ever let him loose on a musical.

Yet, Russell’s biopics weren’t just rebellious or impolite but sometimes were troublingly disrespectful. His extraordinary 1977 Valentino, a dreamlike self-conscious illusion of Hollywood history, became an ugly denouncement of its subject (elegantly played by Rudolph Nureyev). Simultaneously inspired and repelled, Russell couldn’t control his own psychological and moral critique—especially regarding the allegations about Rudolph Valentino’s sexuality. Russell’s view becomes punitive—which is unaccountable given the faggy redolence of all Russell’s work—as if he were still stuck in the shame Tchaikovsky (Richard Chamberlain) suffered in the 1970 The Music Lovers.

“Russellmania” underscores Russell’s dilemma by the series’ emphasis on only his ’70s films. After his busiest period, Russell began to slowly work through his sexual-imaginative block. It’s Russell’s later films that prove how outré and inventive he truly was—not a bad taste artiste but a genuine freakazoid auteur. And that ultimate, nearly ideal film is Whore (belatedly re-titled If You’re Afraid to Say It… Just See It). Based on a play by David Hines and produced by the talented indie-filmmaker Dan Ireland, Whore takes Russell from his 1990s horror-movie side-trips (Gothic, Lair of the White Worm) to a modern modern-gothic, phallocentric world. Theresa Russell’s Liz, a toothsome, shapely hooker who adduces our craven society but never succumbs to its degradation of women or men, traverses its sexual archetypes.

Whore’s vividness and simplicity suggests an at-long-last resolution of Russell’s rampaging aesthetics. The film’s concept is plain, almost Beckett-like in its abstraction, yet the boldly confronted issues of social hypocrisy remain turbulent—and hilariously cinematic, as when an All-American Boy type hits on Liz and then upchucks at the audience. It’s brilliant sexual/social satire. Ken Russell was a genuinely gifted, essentially cinematic filmmaker who, in spite of his excesses, displayed a vision that now is especially appreciable after the gaudy abominations of a director like Baz Luhrmann.
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Russellmania
Director Ken Russell Retrospective
At Film Society of Lincoln Center July 30-Aug. 5

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