“Your senses will never be the same.”
– Absolute truth in advertising, from Ken Russell’s Tommy (1975)
The press is now reporting the untimely passing of legendary English film director, Ken Russell, one of the greatest visual artists in the history of the medium. As U.S.A. Today writes, “Russell was a fiercely original director whose vision occasionally brought mainstream success, but often tested the patience of audiences and critics.”
If audiences and critics were indeed tested, it so because Russell knowingly, brilliantly, and persistently pushed the boundaries of decorum and convention in narrative film.
With films such as 1971’s classic, The Devils, Russell demonstrated his seemingly unquenchable penchant for coupling incendiary story content (involving religion) with blazing, unforgettable imagery.
Not everyone was amused. U.S.A. Today is correct that many critics dismissed Russell’s canon as somehow being excessively visual (or “stylish”), a ridiculous complaint of a director toiling in a visual medium.
Although he did not consider himself a horror director, Russell very much set the path of 1980s genre cinema with early and distinctive “rubber reality” efforts such as Altered States (1980), as well as Gothic (1986) and the satirical The Lair of the White Worm (1988).
Altered States, in particular, remains something of an unheralded masterpiece, one which Roger Ebert termed “the movie that Ken Russell was born to direct.” It’s a tale laden with symbolic dream sequences and bizarre but memorable Christian-based hallucinations. In this case, Russell utilizes such strange and unsettling imagery to portray a psychedelic, metaphysical quest: one man’s spiritual chase after life’s great truths.
Outside the genre, Russell also directed arguably the greatest rock opera of the disco decade, 1975’s Tommy, another project that succeeds almost entirely based on Russell’s ability to convey a story in terms of sound and visual fury, without aid of conventional dialogue.
Some of the set-pieces in Tommy — namely one involving sultry Ann Margret in chain mail writhing on the floor in an ocean of baked beans — remain unsurpassed so far as imaginative visualization.
Among Russell’s other films are Women in Love (1969), the utterly crazy Lisztomania (1975), the wicked Crimes of Passion (1984), which starred a mad, mad, mad Anthony Perkins, and last but not least, the bracing Whore (1991).
With Russell’s passing at the age of 84, let the re-examination of this singular film talent begin in earnest. This remains the finest way to remember his unique work in film, and to celebrate an artist’s life.