Monday, November 28, 2011

R.I.P. KEN RUSSELL. I can't leave his death unmentioned. A lot of people couldn't stand him -- John Simon, perhaps most prominently; on the subject of Russell, Simon was like an evangelist on Satan; after viewing a stage production Russell mounted of Madame Butterfly, which apparently ended with a sea of neon American corporate logos blotting out the Japanese landscape, Simon ended his review, "Russell should be forcibly restrained."

Well, it's been years since Russell's heyday, and we've had since then many lurid spectacles, but nothing like his. Compare Baz Luhrmann 's Moulin Rouge with, oh, I don't know, Lisztomania. While Jim Broadbent singing "Like a Virgin" is, I grant you, in admirably bad taste, it's nothing compared to Richard Wagner as Frankenstein Hitler, Rick Wakeman as Thor, or Roger Daltrey as someone who could possibly compose a symphony.

I think the difference is that Russell was a more serious filmmaker, in the way we used to understand filmmakers to be serious. Luhrmann's film, for all its frenzy, is a depressingly calculated gesture -- sure, Belle Epoque, American Pop, that's like chocolate-covered caviar, they'll eat it up. When Russell tickled the crowd, it wasn't because he was pandering -- he actually seemed to think Ann Margret straddling a phallic pillow while covered in baked beans made a great statement, and if it was only the stoners who swooned, well, so much the better for the stoners. It just happened that Russell's rise coincided with a baroque period in popular film, and so there was nothing to stop him -- certainly he wasn't going to stop himself. I can see how the idea occurred to John Simon.

If you want to see him in a slightly lower gear, try the early biographies he made for British television of Dante Rossetti, Isadora Duncan, et alia. I understand some of his late films are interesting, but I'm not familiar with those; maybe some of my readers can speak up for them.

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