CRAZY GENIUS (a defense of ken russell)

When I use the word “crazy” I do not intend to imply a mental illness of any sort. I think we all know that “crazy” is not an applicable or appropriate word to use when describing any individual we feel is mentally unstable. No. “Crazy” doesn’t have to be a bad thing, but it does seem to get in the way.

I’ve always enjoyed art that is extreme.

And, Ken Russell is one of my favorite filmmakers — not because his work is always great (or even “good” or “well made” by cinematic definition) but because he takes his love, passion, obsessions and amazing talent and churns them together to create film images, sounds, ideas and emotion into works that are completely unique and to his own self true. A genius who can know no better than to put his frentic ideas on to film in the only way he can: without restraint or care/fear of what others might think. A genius set free with all his crayons with no interest in staying within the boundaries of lines. This sort of talent can create brilliant work. It can also create brilliant curiosities and fascinating mistakes.

I think of an example of a film genius who never went into the realm of “crazy” — Ingmar Bergman. Bergman was able to channel his passions into films which were often near perfect.

I would be suspicious of anyone who watched a Ken Russell or Ingmar Bergman movie and walked away saying that either film was “ok” — I think people either tend to love or hate films by Russell and Bergman. For some reason, in my head, this is one of the greatest compliments that can be paid to an artist. Work which engages a viewer to love or hate it is work that touches a nerve. Strikes a chord.

I finally was able to see some of Ken Russell’s earliest works thanks to the recent release of his “BBC Monitor” documentaries. The term “documentary” does not fit these early television films. In fact, I had always been so curious to see what a Ken Russell documentary might look like that I felt like a sugar starved child unleashed at the Hershey Chocolate Factory with the blessing to eat all he can fit into his mouth.

The earliest documentary included in the collection is ELGAR. It is almost an actual documentary. A bit dry at times for something made by Ken Russell, but by the second half it feels like Russell is inspired and the interesting story of Britain’s famous composer seems to come to live as the documentary brings us to his death. It is my understanding that this early 60’s television special was a huge hit and Russell then had the freedom to push the envelope more and more: to get around the fact that the BBC did not want actors involved in the documentaries, Russell re-imagined a documentary by creating it within the confines of a frustrated filmmaker making a movie about the subject. …Actors playing actors chatting with a director about the subject and motivation. This was also a hit and then one can see Russell really start to take off.

His first passion being music, second being dance, third being nature and fourth being the impossibility of organized religion and society to coexist without horror — start to emerge throughout the corner of this little films. And, of course, in the world of Ken Russell sex plays a part in all that humans do. (a view that I think is actually quite accurate) …This is especially true in what I feel is the most interesting of the Russell BBC docu-dramas, ISADORA.

Isadora Duncan had always been one of his favorite topics: a rebelious dancer who was fearless, uninterested in sticking to any rules of formal dance instruction, passionate and romantic beyond reason and unwavered by the fact that she was always a bit overweight. He had been quite troubled when he saw the feature film of the same name staring the great Vanessa Redgrave because she was far too thin, beautiful and grace-filled in her movements to actually play Duncan. (He was correct!) He also must have been frustrated by the film’s ignorance to Duncan’s own naive devotion to communism and her politics. (Mainstream films shy away from these things anyway)

And, the fact that the BBC had planned to delay the showing of his “documentary” because the British feature film of the same name was due to be released that same year. According to an interview with Russell on one of the three discs, his first wife intervened and convinced the BBC producer that since Russell’s film had been conceived prior to the big budget film and was completely different from it — it was unfair to hold it back. She won out – and Russell’s little film screened to the UK first.

As I watched all of the Russell BBC work on the discs I could see the seeds that would later grow out into WOMEN IN LOVE, THE BOYFRIEND, THE SAVAGE MESSIAH, THE DEVILS, TOMMY, SALOME’S LAST DANCE, CRIMES OF PASSION, GOTHIC, MAHLER, LAIR OF THE WHITE WORM and LISZTOMANIA.

LISZTOMANIA is my personal fave Ken Russell movie. Not because it is the best, but because it is sush a totally unique work and a completely gorgeous wreck of a film musical brimming with amazing ideas about everything from sex addiction, to pop stardom to the place of art in politics.

I’m not sure why I am writing this except I was so inspired after watching the BBC collection and then so enjoyed a conversation I had with B (who can’t stand Ken Russell) that I felt the need to somehow to defend him.

He is a genius. …A crazy genius of the likes we probably will never see again. Extreme, controversial and uncompromising in his visions. I bow in respect.

love and kisses from a perfect san francisco day,


October 11, 2008. Tags: , . Uncategorized.


  1. ing replied:

    Nicely done! I’m not a Ken Russell fan myself – but then again, I probably haven’t watched enough of his movies to have formed a true opinion. His movies are visually pretty fun, though. I guess I’ve found the story-part lacking. I do love Bergman, though.

  2. joe replied:

    back when my friends and I were teenagers trying to save the British film industry, we watched a lot of Ken Russell films…. but the one that was most memorable was Lair of the White Worm. I vaguely recall wondering if was supposed to be a comedy. Ken Russell rocks!

  3. matty03 replied:

    Ing! Yeah, I think you’ve only seen TOMMY, right? WOMEN IN LOVE and THE DEVILS are examples of his work where the screenplays are strong — but his obsessive behavior and views are in full glory in both.

  4. matty03 replied:

    Joe! I miss hearing from you! Yeah, he rocks. I think all of his films are vested with a good deal of humor. I think that humor is intentional — especially with LAIR OF THE WHITE WORM — silly, but stylish and very entertaining on a tight budget! Amanda O’Donahue was so cool!

  5. ing replied:

    I seem to remember seeing Lair of the white Worm when I was in college? But I can’t remember it! Maybe I just liked the title. . .

    Hey, I found out that Women in Love and The Devils are both based on books, so maybe that explains the good plotting! Which one do you think I should see? I loved the book version of Women in Love. Maybe I’ll rent a movie tonight. Or should I buy the new Deerhoof CD? Matty, please advise!!

  6. matty03 replied:

    Ing! I don’t think THE DEVILS is available in the US on DVD, but I do have an unedited DVD version. It is a great film, but deviates from historical fact to focus on Russell’s interests in showing how vile the Catholic Church can be — which is A-OK in my book. And, Vanessa Redgrave so totally rocks in it! And, I think it might have been one of Derek Jarman’s first cinematic works — as set designer. The sets in THE DEVILS are amazing and surreal.

    So, go with WOMEN IN LOVE which was Russell’s break-out film and a great adaptation of a great novel — adapted, I believe, by Larry Kramer! Glenda Jackson and Alan Bates are remarkable in this film!

  7. ginab replied:

    Gosh yes grand this. I know someone who would thoroughly appreciate what you’ve pieced together. the completeness and the energy of your work and the images, really you’re in the wrong field dove. own your own opinion editorial on fine arts, pop, and all. relay. find it. you got to have it. relay.

  8. matty03 replied:

    Gina! I’ve had “one of those days” — you helped make the sunshine outside seem a bit more real.

  9. Old Cheeser replied:

    Belatedly! I didn’t know you were into Ken Russell, Matty, but good on you… I remember watching “Women in Love” years back and loving it … especially the fabulous Glenda Jackson. The nude wrestling scene is … interesting!

    The above novel kind of suits Ken R’s very “bizarre” directorial style (hope you don’t mind me saying that, but I’m sure you will concede old Ken is very off the wall…) However “Women” is high art in comparison with “Lair of the White Worm”!! Have you seen that one (I notice you name check it above)? It’s so bad it’s good – Amanda Donohue giving a boy scout a blow job – a pre “4 Weddings” Hugh Grant being desperately English and hoity toity – Amanda from “Dynasty” with an eeeh bah gum accent …. hilarious!!

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