Last Sunday, one of the wildest, most iconoclastic visionaries the world of cinema has known passed away at the age of 84. Ken Russell broke the rules from the start. His early documentary work for the BBC eschewed realism and stiff-necked adherence to veracity, moving beyond mere fictionalization to the flamboyant and outrageous. In the late 1960s, Russell scored his first major success with Women in Love, a visually striking adaptation of D.H. Lawrence’s novel, notorious for a scene in which Oliver Reed and Alan Bates tussle in the raw by a roaring fireplace.
The 1970s saw Russell enlarge and expand upon the biopic genre, as well as his obsession with the private lives of artists (especially composers), in a string of innovative films: The Music Lovers (with Richard Chamberlain as Tchaikovsky), Savage Messiah, Mahler, and Lisztomania (Roger Daltrey starred as Franz Liszt). He also filmed The Who’s rock opera Tommy, a trippy fan favorite to this day. And then there’s The Devils, Russell’s still-controversial (and still censored) vision of religious hypocrisy and excess starring Oliver Reed and Vanessa Redgrave.
Russell opened the 1980s with another mindbender: Altered States, based on a novel by Paddy Chayefsky. Russell visualized drug-induced hallucinations with an intensity unparalled in so-called “head movies,” bringing to mind, as its only true rival, the work of Alejandro Jodorowsky. Russell then unleashed Crimes of Passion, a kinky erotic thriller starring Anthony Perkins and Kathleen Turner, which single-handedly put paid to any long-term association with Hollywood filmmaking (luckily for us all), followed in quick succession by a string of wild (and wildly variable, if always fascinating) films: Gothic, a phantasmagoric account of the poets Byron and Shelley’s “haunted summer” at the Villa Diodati, with Gabriel Byrne and Natasha Richardson as Mary Shelley; Salome’s Last Dance, a decadent, self-reflexive version of Oscar Wilde’s notorious play; Lair of the White Worm, a gothic horror update based on a lesser-known Bram Stoker story and featuring a young Hugh Grant; and ended the decade with The Rainbow, a sequel (actually, a prequel) to Women in Love.
Unkle Ken, as he was known to friends and fans alike, spent the three decades after the release of his last major film, Whore (1991), back working in television and making smaller, experimental movies with titles like The Fall of the Louse of Usher and Revenge of the Elephant Man. In his latter years, he toured America, turning up at festivals and retrospectives.
In Altered States, Emily Jessup (Blair Brown) alludes to her husband Eddie’s (William Hurt) reputation for being “an unmitigated madman,” and she doesn’t mean it pejoratively. It’s a fitting enough phrase to describe its director as well. Farewell, Unkle Ken. Your bravery and bravura filmmaking will be sorely missed in an age of focus groups and art by consensus.