RIP Ken Russell

RIP Ken Russell.

Filmmaker Ken Russell died last night at 84. I was a huge fan of his weird wonderful films, including Lisztomania, The Music Lovers, overlooked gem The Lair of the White Worm, Altered States,  and my personal favorite, The Devils (based on Aldous Huxley’s The Devils of Loudon).

Russell’s films deeply divided critics, who alternately lauded his hyperbolic visual flair and dramatic staging or lashed out at the perceived bad taste of his films. Simply put, a Russell film is turned to 10 from the get go, a style that worked well for strange projects like Lisztomania and Tommy, based on The Who’s concept album.

Russell’s career began provocatively with an adaptation of D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Love; the film featured a nude wrestling match between Oliver Reed and Alan Bates. Russell was able to push the limits of good taste, narrative cohesion, and sensory overload throughout the 1970s, but his career faltered in the 1980s, due in part, perhaps, because mainstream culture eventually caught up with him. Despite the histrionics and camp that marks much of his work, Russell’s singular vision as a filmmaker undoubtedly influenced a generation of filmmakers who would go on to turn the music video into an art form.

While Russell’s sensational synesthesia is not for everyone (I distinctly remember friends asking me to turn off The Devils in college), his films hold up remarkably well—and not just as documentation of the strange, grand period of filmmaking that was the 1970s. They are still provocative, even today. Russell was a strange bird, a filmmaker blending high art with popular culture who constantly pushed his audience. Do yourself a favor and check out one of his mind twisting films.

Convicts and Sailors, Yagé and Nutmeg, Seeing Things from a Special Angle, and the Uncut Kick that Opens Out Instead of Narrowing Down: Don’t Try This at Home, Kids

Do you remember when you were like thirteen or fourteen and you read that bit in Naked Lunch about the supposed mind-expanding properties of nutmeg? Nutmeg! Like your mom baked with! Like, readily-available, no questions asked! And then you took it, just like Burroughs indicated, and it made your stomach hurt and gave you a headache (just like he said it would). And nothing else happened. No visions, no enlightenment, nada. Do you remember that? Oh, wait…that wasn’t you? That was someone else? Sorry…

From “Afterthoughts on a Deposition,” an index to Naked Lunch:

Convicts and sailors sometimes have recourse to nutmeg. About a tablespoon is swallowed with water. Results are vaguely similar to marijuana with side effects of headache and nausea. Death would probably supervene before addiction before addiction if such addiction is possible. I have only taken nutmeg once.

There you go, kids. Knock yourselves out. Actually, don’t. Just rent Altered States instead.

Burroughs, of course, was far more interested in yagé, or ayahuasca, a psychoactive preparation of a South American vine. At the end of his spare, funny, first novel Junky, Burroughs writes:

I decided to go down to Colombia and score for yage. … My wife and I are separated. I am ready to move on south and look for the uncut kick that opens out instead of narrowing down like junk.

Kick is seeing things from a special angle. Kick is momentary freedom from the claims of aging, cautious nagging, frightened flesh. Maybe I will find in yage what I was looking for in junk and weed and coke. Yage may be the final fix.

I’ve read Junky a few times and it seems that these lines are strangely half-hopeful and also deeply ironic. Burroughs’s stand-in, narrator William Lee doesn’t get what the writer William Burroughs seems to realize: there is no permanent solution, no “final fix.” Still, Burroughs sure did have some wacky adventures looking for it. Check out this clip from a documentary, apparently called Ayahuasca, narrated by Burroughs (if anyone out there knows anything about this movie, please let us know):