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.