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30 July, 2010

Ken Russell: Love Or Hate But Can't Ignore


by Sandy Mandelberger, North American Editor

There a few film directors whose appeal splits people right down the middle. Some hate the work and some are devoted groupies. However, if the response to a director bridges the entire spectrum, then they clearly are a talented artist whose sensibility that cannot be ignored. For myself, always a sucker for the sweeping operatic gesture in film, I find myself to be a disciple of the British director Ken Russell.

Russell did not think small in his films.......making him a bit of an outsider in the cinema of the 1960s and 1970s that favored more naturalism and realism. However, the director was never afraid to flirt with the outrageous, the subversive or the downright crazy...and that gave him a great cache with the counterculture of those years. Russell developed a reputation for being fearlessly uninterested in the mass appeal of his films and who invited you into his harrowing and often difficult to interpret worlds as a dare to your own sense of humanity. If you connected with the many damaged characters he excelled in portraying, then the theater became a kind of cathartic cathedral for the release of one's own fears, desires and even nightmares.

Such a film artist is open to renewed interpretation and that is one of the goals of New York's Film Society of Lincoln Center, which is presenting a selective retrospective of his work. There is an exceptional bonus as well....the esteemed director himself will be present at all of the screenings!!! What a fantastic opportunity to hear from a visionary filmmaker whose reputation as a stylist overshadows his gifts as a storyteller. The 9-film series, which opens which opens today and runs through August 5, will be screened at the Walter Reade Theater, the flagship of the Film Society of Lincoln Center (which will open two more screens in 2011).

Russell became an international superstar for his 1969 screen adaptation of the controversial DH Lawrence novel WOMEN IN LOVE. The films starred Glenda Jackson (who won her first Oscar), Alan Bates and Oliver Reed. The nude wrestling match between the two was a milestone of suggestive sexuality in the then rapidly expanding commercial cinema of the late 1960s. For some strange reason, the film is rarely revived, so this is a rare opportunity to appreciate it in its big screen glory.

Russell tried his hand at many genres, but was most adept in his handling of the psychobio, a mixture of historical epic drama with dark psychological overtones. In THE MUSIC LOVERS, Richard Chamberlain (Doctor Kildare himself) had the role of his career as the psychologically unstable Russian composer Tchaikovsky, whose repressed homosexuality put him out of step with his life and times. In the psychedelic LISZTOMANIA, Roger Daltrey, the lead singer of The Who, played the pianist/composer Franz Liszt as an 19th century rock star. British actor Robert Powell portrayed Gustav Mahler in MAHLER, the director's irreverent biopic of the great composer.

And let's not forget Russell's own fore into the musical world, directing the only film version of the 1920s sex farce musical THE BOYFRIEND (with the model-turned-actress Twiggy in an iconic role) and TOMMY, the impossibly creative adaptation of the famed rock opera by The Who, featuring an all-star cast of musicians including Elton John, Eric Clapton and Tina Turner, and one of the pull-out-all-the-stops camp performance by Ann-Margaret.

Two films that never show up on repertory cinema schedules (and maybe not even available on dvd) are two exotic films of very different style and vintage. THE DEVILS is a brilliantly macabre hothouse of nerves, sexual longings and religious extremism set in a convent in 16th century France, with powerful dueling performances between leads Vanessa Redgrave and Oliver Reed. The silent film era of 1920s Hollywood is recreated, with all its demented licentiousness, in VALENTINO, with the divinely beautiful dancer Rudolph Nureyev starring as the silent film icon Rudolph Valentino......the dashing "latin lover" who women wanted and men wanted to be.

Russell was drawn to real historical figures, many of them tortured artists, that reflected his own ambivalence about creative expression and the demands of a life in the arts. Through his unique artistry, he was able to combine the then fashionable contempt for authority with a lush sense of the order that these artists upended with their hungry ambition and their encyclopedia of emotions. For more information on this and other series, visit: www.filmlinc.com

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