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Ken Russell critics

Time kills critics my dear (Lisztomania)

I was once at an opera by Mozart and the programme book quoted sexual obscenities. The person I was with objected to this saying it had nothing to do with Mozart. I pointed out the obscenities were translations from Mozart's diaries. The person said it was irrelevant, it had nothing to do with Mozart. Ken Russell's films invoke the same reaction. 

It is as if Merchant-Ivory did Blade Runner or Ken Loach did Showgirls. No matter how good the film may be, the poor critic could not handle it.

Here is a collection of one-liners from criticism of one of Ken Russell's best films, The Devils. They are quoted in Diane Rosenfeldt´s excellent book:

film's only purpose is to let Russell indulge himself clanking silly melodramatic effects a headless freak
the subtlety is entirely lacking a sickening display of depravity and cruelty barbarous and silly disgusting, completely decadent confuses rather than clarifies witless exhibitionism all the taste and restraint of a three day gangbang forsaking analysis of socio-political motivations for naked nuns and kinky sex there is no human decency, Russell has wasted his rare gift on this film violent vulgar wilful and hysterical overwhelmed by the grotesque lurid and depraved beyond extravagance to obscenity

And as a refresher

a frighteningly effective glimpse of hell flawed but filled with energy the film succeeds because of its emotional impact the films is stunning but weakened by Russell's inconsistencies tasteless touching hysterical a mixture of revolting excess and genius the film is gorgeous to look at but soon becomes perverse the ability to invoke the audience visually weakened by some of the secondary players and its disregard for Sister Jeanne's problems his ideal subject

There are many good critics around.  Many like some or all of Russell's work, many like none of it.  But their criticism is based on understanding and judgement.  Specific examples are given to support their case, comparisons are made and even film theory can be used.

The Virgin Encyclopedia of Film, James Monaco: "For him aesthetics, sexuality, and the imagination are inseparable: the films are, in effect, the cinematic equivalent of a musical fantasia... Russell consciously refuses to make movies in the genteel British tradition, and he readily admits that, because of its subject and style, his work often makes viewers uncomfortable."

The International Film Encyclopedia, Ephraim Katz: "Russell's films are often coarse, symbol-ridden, pretentious and confusing, but there is always a sense of excitement about them and a creative energy that makes the release of each an event eagerly awaited with curious anticipation."

Unfortunately there are also lots of poor critics around.  Here are some tips for the shoddy reviewer:

  • A cliché saves time.  Outrageous.  Over-the-top.  Excessive. Out-of-control.  Such phrases can save you the effort of thinking

  • Don't bother to watch the film.  The films are about sex and nuns so no need to waste your time

  • Don't check the facts.  Nobody reads reviews so why bother taking the effort

  • Just be insulting.  Who cares

Some examples (more examples are welcome- please mail me):

New York Times:  Reviewing Women in Love the reviewer starts by calling Russell's previous film Women in Love "a fairly gaudy movie" establishing his bias early on.  One of his objections "“Even though Mme. Von Meck was probably the most important woman in Tchaikovsky's adult life, the film allots much more time (almost, in fact, as much as it allots to Tchaikovsky) to Nina, the neurotic, sluttish girl he married, lived with for several weeks and then left. Even if Tchaikovsky effectively put Nina out of his mind, the movie doesn't”- the reviewer never mentions that important as Von Meck was, she and Tchaikovsky never met. The Encyclopedia Britannica entry for Tchaikovsky devotes one paragraph to Nina and one to Von Meck.  The review continues later “the concerto becomes a repository of such fulsome flashbacks (suggesting an incestuous relationship with his sister) that it's impossible to hear the music, and to respond to it, without focusing your eyes slightly off-screen, as you might do when you're seasick and don't want to throw up”.  From On Screen: Ken Russell's Study of Tchaikovsky Opens, Vincent Canby, New York Times, 25 Jan 1971.

An anonymous review from a New Zealand library: "As if all this isn't enough that old master of the over the top and the out of control, British film maker Ken Russell, is having his go at Poe. His new film, titled The fall of the louse of Usher ­ yes, it is "louse"! ­ is an updated amalgam of six or seven Poe stories. It's been described as a horror/drama/musical comedy and is made on a lower budget than Russell enjoyed in his peak times in the 60s and 70s. The film stars Russell himself and a group of semi-underground types with names like Tulip Junkie and Emma Millions, along with an eight-woman rock group called Medieval Babes. Russell hopes it will be a cult film and, as anything that trades on excess usually appeals to groups of people who like to feel they've discovered what others have rejected, it will be."

A good mixture of clichés, prejudice (semi-underground types) and ignorance ("made on a lower budget than Russell enjoyed in his peak times"- a bit of an understatement). And of course the reviewer at no point makes a specific point as to why he/she does not like the film.  In fact he/she hasn't seen the film.

An e-bay seller: "Ken Russell's film about kinky sex."  This refers to Savage Messiah.  Hard to be more wrong.

Another e-bay seller also about Savage Messiah: "over-the-top director Ken Russell... There's sex and nudity..."

Another: HOT HOT HOT HOT.  Helen Mirren is in all her naked glory in this film."

On The Devils: "Russell’s semi-historical splatter film" from a thesis A Short History of Film by Wheeler Winston Dixon and Gwendolyn Audrey Foster, 2008.  Collins Dictionary define a splatter film as  "a film in which the main feature is the graphic and gory murder of numerous victims".  Compare with the British Film Institute's description "The Devils stands as a profound and sincere commentary on religious hysteria, political persecution and the corrupt marriage of church and state" (from here).

And another about The Devils: "Debauchery and hedonism are rife as The Devil rides out in a 17th century nunnery. Vanessa Redgrave and Oliver Reed turn in powerful performances as characters driven by unworldly forces. Ken Russell goes beyond the bounds of accepted morality with this journey into the depth of depravity. Prepare to be outraged and challenged."

On a newsgroup about The Devils by Denise (click here): "I hear the aldous huxley book is very sober.  huxley cool, russell fool."

Someone who hasn't read The Devils of Loudun by Huxley still feels qualified to comment on the book and the film.  What other books hasn't he read?

"Wilde, Salome- plays in production" book by William Tydeman and Steven Price: Salome's Last Dance "reputedly made... for less than a million pounds for a bet."  Does anyone make a film for a bet?  Can Russell bet with a million pounds?

The rest of the book (on the stage performances) is thorough, why can't this section be?  The authors go on to accuse Russell of homophobia.  A strange accusation against the film maker who brought homo-erotic imagery to mainstream cinema in Women in Love, and certainly worth dwelling on.

The authors seem unaware of this and plough on.  And of course the writing goes into auto-pilot: "self-indulgence", "the witless bad taste which is so often close to the surface of his films", "As usual, Russell had come not to praise the artist, but to bury him".

Sounds clever, means nothing.  A pity that the integrity of their writing on theatre is abandoned when they stray from their home territory.

Review of Salome's Last Dance by Lawrence Alster (Films and Filming, July 1988): The reviewer dismisses Wilde´s play as "severe, often obsessively repetitive and bereft of the pithy exchanges that make Wilde´s more successful plays so delightful" but two paragraphs later the play seems to have become a subtle masterpiece, as Ken "in customary overwrought style.,. retains much of the original text but little, if any, of the play's subtlety".  Plus the usual string of clichés "filmic overkill... crudest visual... long devalued themes... merely the power to shock."

The cover of Dante's Inferno (Graiai Media): "The decidedly twisted Ken Russell directed this somewhat conventional dramatic biography..."

A problem for the shoddy reviewer, a film which doesn't fit the cliché.  Someone who has difficulty following the film- hardly conventional- and hasn't really seen many Russell films.

Ken's house on fire (Xan Brooks, The Guardian 5 April 2006): When Ken's house was destroyed by fire, Xan Brooks decided to impersonate Ken's style in a film script.  This is part of his humorous satire "DAMSEL: "Oh my! Snakes! See how they writhe about my naked limbs. Oh, and it seems that the house is on fire too... KEN: "My house aflame! My beautiful lady naked in the bath! Oh, that so calamitous an irony should befall a man known for...".

I don't think Xan Brooks gets out much.  I think I know why.

Ken's Faust: (ezekiel3427402 at http://db2.cardlesspay.com/newwp/ezekiel3427402): "... there are some symbolic sets, costumes, and scenes that will strike many viewers as rather bizarre and sometimes offensive. To prepare the viewer, here are a few examples of why this production was very controversial. Instead of an radiant vision of Marguerite in front of a spinning wheel, we ogle a rather unalluring image of a woman sending a cryptic message by intention of brand language–probably not the kind of image that would have prompted the aging Faust to trace a contract with the devil. In the well-known and romantic garden scene, Marguerite appears fully dressed as a nun, and her garden is paved in stone rather than plants..."


Russell in Vaughan Williams says that the composer's prolific output put critics off. The same could be applied to Russell. He could have had a career as a television documentary maker, every five years producing an acclaimed film. Or he could have stuck to filming DH Lawrence, Huxley and others, again gaining praise from people too tired to read the originals. Or he could have stayed in America doing science fiction. But Russell continually moves on, sometimes successfully, sometimes not.

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