Too often, people’s concept of motion pictures involves heated discussions over totally disposable information such as which movie will be, fleetingly, #1 at the box-office. You know what? Who cares! Let us never forget that cinema, however entertaining, is an art form. And like any art form, it has its Masters.
The world has just lost an undisputed Master of Cinema, English director Ken Russell. He was born in Southampton, England in 1927 and died Sunday in his sleep in the port town of Lymington, at the age of 84. You’ve never met such a character! Or, if you have, you’ll never forget him. I have, last year at L.A.’s Academy Theatre, and under the auspices of the American Cinematheque, at Hollywood’s Egyptian Theatre, and Santa Monica’s Aero Theatre. A whole bunch of us got together and celebrated some of the astounding works of the visionary Mr. Russell: Tommy! The Devils! Women in Love! The Music Lovers! Lisztomania! Gothic! Altered States, even!
Ken Russell, Santa Monica, 2010
Truly, it’s hard to believe — in our current, corporate, cookie-cutter age of cinema — that one man was responsible for so many outrageous and outstanding motion-picture experiences. Key word: Experiences! For when “Unkle Ken” (as he was known to his latter-day Facebook friends) went to work, the results were usually life-altering. Come on: Oliver Reed, Ann-Margret and Tina Turner belting the songs of Pete Townshend and The Who along with Roger Daltrey in Tommy? Transcendent! It’s sitting right here on my shelf as I type this, and I watch it about twice a year, and it reminds me that cinema (note: even Western, commercial cinema) can be, literally, “a sensation.” Or Gothic? Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe and Mary Shelley spending the night together in a Swiss villa with funky-strange music by Thomas Dolby? Find me a cooler movie from the ’80s. Dare ya.
And then let us go back, back to the films that followed Mr. Russell’s BBC documentaries on classical composers, which gradually made the man a legend. His docs for the Beeb (from ’59-’70, on Debussy, Delius, Strauss, etc.) crystalized his vision, and meanwhile he broke out into features, first with the lesser French Dressing (1963), and then the bizarre and kind of wonderful Cold War spy flick, Billion Dollar Brain, with Michael Caine and Karl Malden (1967).
Then came the Earth-shaking stuff. Nowadays it’s de rigueur for film journalists (or any journalists) to cite the nude male wrestling sequence in Russell’s adaptation of D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Love (1969), but upon release it raised plenty of eyebrows, and scored Russell a Best Director nomination on American shores.
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