film director Ken Russell has died, aged 84.
A visionary and an innovator in a nation of creative
pygmies, Russell’s films were at worst fascinating
failures and at best unparalleled works of genius.
He began his film career in the 1950s, making
a series of short movies before graduating to
television, where he moved from straight documentary
production to a series of increasingly artistic
and fictionalised biographies of major composers
with the likes of Dance of the Seven Veils
and Song of Summer: Frederick Delius.
His feature film debut came in 1964 with low-key
comedy French Dressing, and he
followed this with the spy movie Billion
Dollar Brain, before breaking through
with the groundbreaking Women in Love
in 1969 – noted as the first (mainstream)
film to feature male nudity. Russell followed
this with the equally impressive The Music
Lovers, and would then make The
Devils, a film so incendiary that even
now, Warner Brothers
refuse to allow it to be released uncut.
He followed The Devils with a
complete change of pace in musical comedy The
Boy Friend, and went on to make Savage
Messiah, Mahler, Lisztomania,
Valentino and the film version
of The Who’s Tommy, proving
himself just as comfortable with rock music as
1980, he took over and saved the troubled production
of Altered States, but would
struggle to find financing for projects after
this. His last real mainstream film was Whore,
and his other Eighties films are a fascinating
collection of oddities: Crimes of Passion,
Last Dance and Lair of the White
Worm are all gloriously mad, visually
exciting works of excess, while The Rainbow
is a highly underrated D.H. Lawrence adaptation,
a late follow-up to Women in Love.
Lawrence would also inspire his most significant
work of the 1990’s, a 4-part BBC adaptation
of Lady Chatterley. During the
rest of the decade, Russell couldn’t get
film projects off the ground at all, and would
only work in television. In 2002, he decided to
stop trying to keep track of the whims of mainstream
financiers, always happy to hand money to prosaic,
tedious ‘realist’ filmmakers but unwilling
to support innovation and imagination, and shot
The Fall of the Louse of Usher
on domestic video equipment with friends and family,
releasing the film online and later on DVD, where
it bewildered fans and critics alike.
As well as his films, Russell authored an amusing,
self-deprecating autobiography and made some great
documentaries for The South Bank Show.
Oh, and he briefly appeared on Big Brother,
rapidly hounded out by the shrieking idiocy of
Jade Goody and her horrible family – as
apt a metaphor for modern British culture as you
could hope for.
That Russell found it such a struggle to find
financing for his work for so long is a shocking
indictment of the British film industry, and something
all involved should feel eternal shame for. A
unique talent and cinematic rascal par excellence,
he will be very much missed.