Tuesday, December 6, 2011

"I have nothing to worry about. Except Ken Russell."

It was early Monday morning (what would have been SPR time), on the computer, answering a letter to my friend David Fontana, when I clicked on the IMDB page and saw the news "Ken Russell dead at 84."  Four hours ago...

Surprise and sadness to see that this person who had influenced my antenna was gone.  My last blog, "Reasons To Be Cheerful, Part 3," had included him in the Fantastic Five: Fellini, Bunuel, Antonioni, himself and Roeg--now the only remaining name on the fungfmeisters.

Russell and Roeg were major early influences on my Seventies mindset, and even earlier with Ken.  I saw his BBC Isadora Duncan biography on PBS on initial airing, probably before I saw Cammel and Roeg's Performance.  Billion Dollar Brain, the third Michael Caine Harry Palmer espionage film, I saw in a Westwood theatre.  I dug Women in Love and The Music Lovers, but The Devils blew me away.  For over a decade I thought The Devils and Performance were the two best films I had seen.  I would debate with film students from UCSB that Russell and Roeg were in the calibre of Fellini and Bunuel.  They snickered at me as if I had said Russ Meyer was as good as Eisenstein.

I loved Ken Russell because he embraced being both intelligent and outrageous.  Like the Goons (he had done a BBC piece on Spike Milligan, Portrait of a Goon, which I still haven't seen), Ken was smart, silly and surreal.  And sexy.

Russell popped up in my stuff all the time.  My short play, Void in Wisconsin, seems like Russell meets Kovacs with Zappa's 200 Motels.  On Space Pirate Radio, Ken Russell and Federico Fellini wrestled in a pre-Monty Python bit for the title of Most Surrealist Director.  And in the play Casanova's Lips, a pre-Amadeus Mozart shows up at a seance, worried only that Ken Russell might film his life story.

I never met Ken Russell but I met a lot of people who had worked with him.  Georgina Hale and Glenda Jackson in London.  Amanda Donohoe in Santa Barbara.  My wife has met Kenneth Colley in her Star Wars universe.  Most of these actors have worked with Russell and Roeg, and often.

When Space Pirate Radio co-promoted a Rick Wakeman concert in Ventura, the wife and I plus friends had a lovely chat with the man post-show.  Wakeman's involvement with the man in Lizstomania was a first question, having done double duty as actor and composer.

Ironically, I purchased not far back, the Ken Russell BBC Collection, released only in the States.  I rewatched the Isadora Duncan one and saw for the first time, the Debussy biopic with Oliver Reed.  Rossetti, Delius, Elgar and Rousseau still call out.  And not too long ago, I bought the Warners Archive release of Savage Messiah.  Like Orson Welles, he's not long out of radar.

And did I say Ken Russell's films are sexy?  Very sexy.  And scandalous.  Pan-Sexual.  He got Richard Chamberlain out of the closet with the Music Lovers and a smashing performance.  He brought Oscar Wilde back to film.  Louis XIII says in The Devils, "Women. Some men love them."  And oh, how we loved those women.

Talking to Georgina Hale in her dressing room (her wearing an amazing dressing gown that I'm sure was designed by Ken's wife, costumer Shirley Russell), did I ever go into Third Person and realize this was that outrageously daring, powderfaced nymphet from The Devils, the woman who danced naked with a classic phonograph player, fondled by SS Gestapo men on Gustav Mahler's coffin?  Or Amanda Donohoe (pictured) being the vampiric snake woman, biting into the intimate bits of a young boy scout in Lair of the White Worm?  She would rejoin Ken again in his version of D.H. Lawrence's The Rainbow.

Glenda Jackson, Labour Member of Parliament, writhing nude on a train to a horrified Tchaikovsky?  Helen Mirren as Nude Descending Staircase in Savage Messiah?  Twiggy in The Boyfriend?  Twiggy and her boyfriend in The Devils?  The Devil and her boyfriend in Twiggy?  Sorry, seized by a moment of Russellmania.  How about Ann Margaret in an orgy of baked beans, a flood of fecal fiber in Tommy?

Rest in Peace, Ken Russell. I would have loved to thank you in person for all the passion, philosophy, photography and pinching at the petticoats of the petite bourgeoisie.  Much appreciated.

And I'm sure you hated it all.  How a great work by Aldous Huxley, The Devils of Loudon, that JFK conspiracy of 17th Century France, and the play adapted from it, which was the basis of your most important film...

That from all of this would come the genre known as Nunsploitation.  From the solitude of my monastic cell, I salute you.

Bye, Bye Blackbird.

"For his sake, I hope he lives forever."