Saturday, October 10, 2009

On Ken Russell, and Re-Viewing England's Last Mannerist

Recently, I mentioned here on the blog that I contributed an essay to a new Scarecrow Press anthology on the films of director Ken Russell (Altered States [1980], Lair of The White Worm [1988]).

This was a great joy for me because I've always been drawn to Russell's cinematic work, particularly his dazzling, often-incendiary visuals. I've also been fascinated on his commentary about religion, and Christianity in particular. As you can probably tell by my affection for De Palma, Carpenter and Friedkin, I prefer the expressionist form of film making, and in particular directors who can reflect their daring content with powerful visuals. Russell fits that bill perfectly.

Well, since my first report on the book, I've had the opportunity to chat with the editor of Ken Russell: Re-Viewing England's Last Mannerist, Kevin Flanagan, about Russell, his career and this project.

JKM: Kevin, can you tell us about how you first personally "discovered" the films of Ken Russell, and why they stuck with you?

KF: I first consciously discovered Ken Russell in 2000, but my first experience with a Ken Russell film was in 1999. In those days, the cable channel Bravo had a series of films which they called “Five Star Cinema,” often shown in prime time, especially on Friday nights (this before their nose-dive into cooking shows, fashion shows, and other “reality” programming). Typical, repeat titles included Patton (1970) and Monty Python's Meaning of Life (1983).

ne night, I stumbled upon a remarkable film, which featured what to my mind was one of the most striking sequences I had ever seen: a man, in profile, with a look of contemplative agony, as the rhythmic shadows cast by a speeding train undulated across his face. I recall a few other sequences, none of which (removed of context, title, or who the principle people were, made much sense): a woman dancing a can-can on the coffin of a man about to be buried alive, children on a row boat in the middle of a lake asking about angels. For some reason I had to go meet friends that night, so I didn't get to finish watching the film. Also, this being the time before reliable “programming channels” on cable itself (that interactive “whats-on-what” channel that cable users are now tied to), I consulted the listings in my local iteration of TV guide, to no avail (just a generic listing for “Five Star Cinema”).

Anyway, it took me over a year—during which time I got a job at a video store and saw Russell's acknowledged masterpiece The Devils (1971) for the first time—to do enough sleuthing in order to figure out that the film in question was Russell's biopic Mahler (1974), which to this day remains one of the films I most admire.

JKM: What, in your eyes, makes Russell such a unique artist, and one worthy of book-length study?

KF: Well, there are two main reasons, each equally valid, though each of which positions him slightly differently vis a vis other directors. On the one hand, he has the most striking visual sensibility. In a cursory comparison to other (I'll stick with British) directors, he is justifiably paired with Nic Roeg, though I think that Roeg attains his best effects mainly through a combination of painterly camerawork and analytical montage (which is to say, Roeg's best films tend to work based on how they string their shots together). Russell's stuff has more to do, for me, with his taste in framing. He is able to use fantastic, often symmetrical, but also often off-beat, framing to isolate his subjects in the pictorial frame.

In the introduction to Ken Russell: Re-Viewing England's Last Mannerist, as the title of the book implies, I situate this within the Italian Mannerist painterly tradition. Russell works within a classicist's vocabulary, to an extent, but his content and the types of stories he seeks to tell usually verge into the weird, off-beat, and sometimes the horrific. Other comparisons might be made to celebrated British directors like Peter Greenaway and Derek Jarman (a Russell protege, having worked on The Devils and Savage Messiah [1972] well before his own films), whose work tends to be understood primarily by notions of a painterly, “art film” tradition, over and above narrative concerns.

So, outside of the kind of stock answer—that Russell's films have a “vision,” that he is a maverick, etc, though these sentiments are starting to feel like shopworn cliches—I had always felt that Russell's work had been done a great disservice because of how it was talked about, either in praise (the praise usually coming for the same set of reasons, and usually only in relation to his Monitor films and The Devils), or in dismissal. Russell has made an extraordinary variety of films, on subjects ranging from a man who paints agricultural steam engines (Mr. Chesher's Traction Engines [1962]) to an illicit staging of an Oscar Wilde play in a Victorian brothel (Salome's Last Dance [1988—incidentally, available for free viewing here:, yet he tends to only be celebrated in a few ways.

So I commissioned essays and worked with a number of film scholars on fleshing out the great variety of Russell's career. Not only did I want people to write about Russell in ways beyond what was already out there, but I hoped for a mix of pieces that at once gave due credit to some of Russell's lesser known films and provided justifiable criticism. Russell himself has at times been a harsh critic of his subjects within his films—in his biopics, especially, he has been unafraid to show limitations, flaws, miscalculations—and I feel that he deserves nothing less than this mutual sense of respect from those writing about him.

JKM: When did you know that you wanted to write/edit a book about Russell, and how did you get the project off the ground?

KF: This is a long story, so I'll tell a condensed version. Many years ago, while doing work on a quickly ballooning honor's thesis that was partially to do with Russell, I realized that I had enough material, had accumulated enough of Russell's obscure films, and had enough of a differing perspective from the prevailing critical winds to write my own book on the filmmaker. I had envisioned something along the lines of a critical filmography that delved into areas that previous books did not. This was before Joseph Lanza's Phallic Frenzy: Ken Russell and His Films (2007), when the most recent book on Russell that was not written by the man himself was Ken Hanke's book Ken Russell's Films (1984).

Anyway, with this project in the back of my mind, I kept doing research. I came across John C. Tibbetts's excellent book Composers in the Movies: Studies in Musical Biography (Yale University Press, 2005) soon after its publication. John, who had been studying composer biopics for years, did a very substantial chapter on Ken Russell, which covered his earliest composer films for the BBC arts programmes Monitor and Omnibus, including the oft-mythologized and controversial Dance of the Seven Veils (1970), a film which elicited a vitriolic response from some viewers and critics for its treatment of the life of Richard Strauss in caricatured, comic-strip form. Anyway, Tibbetts was essentially the first person to have written about that film since its long-obscured broadcast date of February 1970 (the earliest writers on Russell, namely John Baxter and Joseph A. Gomez, had seen the film closer to its premiere: since then, it had languished in obscurity in the National Film and Television Archive). Thus inspired, I got in touch with John and discussed my own project, asked him about how/where he saw the film, mentioned some films I had which he didn't, etc.

We became friends and I was invited to contribute to a book that he and Jim Welsh—founder of the journal Literature/Film Quarterly — had been planning on Russell, to be published by Scarecrow Press.

Because of my research into Russell's recent—which is to say, post 1990—career, I was to write the last section of what was to be a 3 section book detailing Russell's career more-or-less chronologically. However, in 2007, I was invited to present at the Literature/Film Association conference in Lawrence, KS, partially in honor of Russell's 80th birthday. In addition to screening Russell's early short film Amelia and the Angels (1957), I presented on Russell's recent work. At the conference, I learned that John was bogged down by other projects, especially his book on director Tony Palmer and that Jim was likewise in the midst of several things (he has most recently done The Literature/Film Reader and a book on adapting No Country for Old Men . Anyway, to make an already long story short, I was asked to continue our project, but as an edited collection.

JKM: I believe you've met Mr. Russell on several occasions. Is he different in person than you might have expected, after seeing films like The Devils? What were/are your impressions of him?

KF: Yes, I've met Russell on two separate occasions. At first I was a bit worried. My friend Ken Hanke—critic at the Asheville Mountain Xpress and author of a formative biography on Russell—gave me Russell's phone number when I visited the UK for a summer. My first call was pretty disastrous: I had clearly called at a bad time, all of my questions were met with snappy answers. In short, it was initially disheartening. Anyway, through friend Paul Sutton (another Russell expert), I learned that Russell was to be at the Clerkenwell Film and Video Festival in London in a few days. Despite the fact that I was taking summer classes, I managed to rope a friend into an impromptu trip down to London to attend the festival. Turns out, Russell was very nice in person! The atmosphere was casual, and I had a chance to chat with him a bit (not a ton—he was the celebrity judge for the festival's contest).

I was next able to meet him at the Asheville Film Festival the following year, 2005, when he was guest of honor. He and his wife Lisi were very nice, supportive, and gracious. Russell even sat through a short interview, a portion of which appears in Mr. J.K. Muir's excellent book Horror Films of the 1980s! Since then, our contact has mainly been in writing. But Russell's a major celebrity again—thanks to his stint on Celebrity Big Brother, his newspaper column, his teaching appointments, etc...—so I try not to bother him too often.

JKM: Ken Russell: Re-Viewing England's Last Mannerist -- which you edited -- was just published by Scarecrow Press . What can you tell the readers about this project? What, in your mind, does it attempt to achieve? And how does it go about achieving it?

KF: As mentioned above, I saw the project as a chance to bring a lot of articulate people together to write about Russell in ways that had previously been ignored, or not even thought of. My own personal goal was to combine my long-time study in Russell's films with a number of complimentary academic interests. I wanted to frame Russell's films in debates that had been complimentary, but generally relegated to other spheres, such as a larger discourse over governmental structures as potentially repressive cultural technologies, or the multi- and inter-disciplinary conversation about Britain's economic dependency on showcasing and exporting its cultural heritage. Personal goals aside, I wanted to showcase a few pieces of exemplary scholarship on Russell that already existed—I settled on Barry Keith Grant's fantastic essay on Russell in the 1980s, and on a largely archival and interview-driven essay by John Tibbetts on The Debussy Film (1965) as reprints—but otherwise wanted the book to consist of new work.

My introduction gives a very brief career overview and otherwise frames Russell as a mannerist, but that is not a guiding theme for the whole book. Rather, the authors come up with a number of different interpretive frameworks for talking about Russell, his films, and in at least one case, his entire career.

JKM: The book includes thirteen essays, covering all aspects of Russell's film career. Can you tell us, in broad terms about the essays and about some of the contributors?

KF: Of interest to your readers is your essay, which discusses Russell as an auteur in the tradition of 1980s horror (so feel free to say more about that yourself)! I won't spoil all of the surprises but: Tom Wallis has done a great job writing about Tommy (1975); Tom Prasch has written a highly informed piece on Salome's Last Dance (1988) which questions a lot of the iffy things that have been said about the film in the past; and Paul Sutton has provided the largest scale account of Russell's pre-1970 television films yet. The contributors range from younger to seasoned veterans. I think between us all, the authors of the various essays have written or edited over 50 books. Some are full professors. All, I think it is safe to say, are passionate about film!

JKM: Russell has been a biographer, a maker of horror films, a provocateur, and more. In what mode to most prefer Russell? Where do you think he's flourished, and where has he faced pitfalls?

KF: Well, I think that Russell has done some amazing things in all those areas you mention, but has also occasionally faltered in said areas. His greatest critical success, Women in Love (1969) means that many think of him most specifically as someone who does literary adaptations, esp. of D.H. Lawrence (those also, as you know, of Bram Stoker, Oscar Wilde, Paddy Chayefsky, etc). If one is inclined to rock and pop modes, he's the man behind Pop Goes the Easel (1962), Tommy, Lisztomania (1975), and The Fall of the Louse of Usher (2001), a gonzo pastiche of Poe which also stars a rock-star (James Johnston).

Organizational clusters aside, I'll go with a safe answer overall: Russell is at his best when working with friends or constant collaborators, when he is given more-or-less free creative reign (yet, I'll qualify this: free creative reign that is mediated by close collaborators like editor Michael Bradsell or cinematographer Dick Bush, who worked with Russell in constructive ways and arguably brought as much to the table as Russell did), and when the topic of the film is something that he is interested in. His work-for-hire jobs, while occasionally wonderful, tend to be less interesting simply because Russell best directs his own material, from his own sustained research.

JKM: What about your essay, "Television, Contested Culture and Social Control: Cultural Studies and Pop Goes The Easel?" What did it crystallize for you about Russell as an artist?

KF: Again, I don't want to give too much away (where's the fun in that??), but that essay of mine seeks to help people work toward rethinking Russell's cultural contribution during his early BBC years. The conventional wisdom—commentators, critics, and Russell himself—casts his Monitor and Omnibus career as a kind of struggle with the documentary form and Huw Wheldon, one that was ultimately beneficial both to the programmes in question and to Russell's own method.

In this account, Russell's legacy with these films was the successful integration of dramatic elements into what was seen as a documentary form (i.e. his early films on artists were originally supposed to use talking head/still image visuals, were to have been purely told in voice-over, etc, whereas he fought to be able to use actors to portray dead artists, wanted to recreate key sequences in that person's life, etc).

While this contribution is certainly important—think of how mainstreamed this approach is now on the History Channel!--I also located at this early point in Russell's career a different contribution. The short of it is that, whereas films previous to Russell's (specifically Pop Goes the Easel, from 1962) tended to talk about art in purely venerable terms, idolized the isolated artistic individual as someone above most forces of social strife, and tended to approach the television audience in an explicitly educational, some would say patronizing way, Pop Goes the Easel showcases a more democratic understanding of what art is, who it was for, and how it could be used and enjoyed. It showcased 4 pop artists, who worked as a group and benefited from the dynamic interplay of their peers, and showed how they negotiated popular and commercial culture in the creation of their artworks.

I frame my discussion of the film using many key historical texts in the field of British Cultural Studies, some of which were explicitly contemporaneous to the moment that Russell captures. In some ways, the film is the actualized embodiment of that rarest of things: an autonomous text (in this case a creative documentary) that visualizes much of the emergent thought and theory of the day.

JKM: How do you contextualize Russell in terms of cinema history. Do you see him as an auteur? A part of a specific movement? A pioneer? An artist shunned by his own country, to some extent?

KF: Well, all of those things...but also none of them. He is an auteur, but not in the strictest terms or in the most waterproof way. As I think the book makes clear, it simply isn't that interesting to only thing about his work in those terms, when there are so many other ways of thinking about his films and their status in a wider world. As a maverick, he has peers but no exact parallels. In fact, he was recently chosen as one of Sight & Sound's “Wild Bunch” of cine-mavericks who continue to shock, thrill, and provoke. But beyond that level of sensation (remember, Russell took great care with Tommy's credo of “I'm a Sensation”--the phrase applies as much to the director and his career as to the film in question), his works constitute a great contribution to 1980s horror, British cultural history, the biopic genre, and the personalized documentary.

JKM: What are the reasons, do you think, that Russell isn't making films for Hollywood right now?

KF: His films have basically been absent from the mainstream of first-run cinemas since Whore (1991). There are a number of factors, many of which Russell discusses in his autobiographical books and films: his theatrical films of the 1980s were slightly fringe, made for Vestron, who went out of business at the end of the decade; the vogues for his types of films had waned by the end of the 1970s, a decade when chances were taken on a great many strange films, most of which could not have been made under the more conservative production slates of Hollywood in the post-Star Wars blockbuster era. Remember, as great as films like Jaws and Star Wars are, their success changed the entire paradigm of US film production. While Russell's films, despite their bombast and their appeal to a number of audiences (for the most part), worked better through word of mouth, as gradual roll-out art films. Moreover, despite the fact that Russell is still active as a filmmaker—see his strong contribution of the recent horror anthology Trapped Ashes (2006)--he is getting on in years. Older directors can't get as easy of a break. Cinephile audiences tend to get screwed over because of the hesitations of the money-men.

JKM: Tell us where readers can find the book...

KF: Ken Russell: Re-Viewing England's Last Mannerist is published by Scarecrow Press. It is available on their website, (where it is currently being offered at a discount!), Barnes and Noble, and wherever fine books are sold—or, more appropriately, can be special ordered, since this is something of a niche title. The book is being sold worldwide, so check the Amazon site that services your country or region!


  1. Wonderful interview, JKM. And Ken Russell and his films is a fascinating subject for exploration. I have to check out this book. Thanks, John.

  2. Many thanks for this - Ken is a genius, a British original and an 'appalling talent' as one of the early books on him puts it. He's long overdue this kind of reassessment. A favorite anecdote is Fellini telling Ken that people called him 'the Italian Ken Russell' - I imagine Jodorowsky might say something similar.