“There really is no difference between nuns with no clothes on and tap dancers in goggles. It is all material,” said Ken Russell. For the (now-eightysomething) filmmaker in his prime, art and history were carnival grounds for exhilarating spectacle and Romantic mania. A nine-film series at the Film Society of Lincoln Center showcases the British director during his most brightly blazing streak, both heady highs and interchangeable lows.
A childhood fan of musicals (and, later, The Red Shoes), and a failed but enthusiastic dancer, Southampton-born Russell cut his teeth first on photography and then on a BBC arts program. Taking over from John Schlesinger on the show Monitor, he quietly made often riotously imaginative biographies of composers such as Sir Edward Elgar and Debussy. Later on, he portrayed Richard Strauss in a Nazi-filled “comic strip in 7 episodes,” causing a rift—albeit after getting safely established with a theatrical success, Women in Love. “Russellmania” regrettably skips these key small-screen triumphs, but that don’t-touch-that-dial eagerness is apparent in the often bravura openings of his features, including that well-spoken 1969 D.H. Lawrence adaptation. Russell begins by elegantly rendering the novelist’s surging ruminations and observations, as sisters Gudrun (Glenda Jackson, in exquisite colors) and Ursula (Jennie Linden) wittily bat about opinions on marriage within sight of a wedding. Despite the acrobatic nude wrestling scene between Oliver Reed and Alan Bates, or Bates’s delirious flight into forest and fields earlier, the film keeps one foot on the ground: Lawrence’s characters still feel like they are negotiating new ways of loving rather than exploding outward as in Russell’s subsequent work.
Case in point: The Music Lovers, an extended 1970 fever dream on Tchaikovsky’s sexual torment that opens in medias res with a wordless scene of lushly scored winter revelry. In a favored Russell technique, single events—like a public recital wracked with excitement and insecurity—are elongated by long fantasy sequences, and whole stretches of images seem pushed and pulled along before our eyes by projected desires and anxieties. Cutting himself off from a secret relationship with a count, Tchaikovsky convinces himself to accept the fanaticism of an admirer (Jackson, a Russell axiom), and weds to pursue a new fantasy. As the composer-conductor, Richard Chamberlain looks like he might shiver into pieces.
It’s not all agony: Savage Messiah, about early Russell muse Henri Gaudier and Sophie Brzeska, is as intoxicated with folly as fun. Intransigent, vulnerable, and a true original, Polish-accented Brzeska (fascinating, small-featured Dorothy Tutin) sticks with sculptor Gaudier through his goofy iconoclasm (clambering atop statues, tweaking George Bernard Shaw) and his whoring (which she pays for). For once, the attachment is credible, the countercultural nostalgia bearable because of Tutin alone. Derek Jarman’s sets (whether for grotty ateliers or Helen Mirren’s naughty suffragette cabaret act) underline an important factor that cultic Russell auteurists might note: the production teams who made his mad orchestrations pop, including then-wife Shirley, costume designer.
In fact, The Boy Friend, a candy-colored wide-screen musical for MGM/EMI, makes one rue a missed career churning out confections. In a rundown Portsmouth theater abuzz with the surprise visit by a Hollywood mogul, Twiggy plays a droopy-eyed understudy ingenue, and the sheer number of numbers delights—Busby Berkeley pinwheels (on a turntable set!), art deco tableaux, Tommy Tune one-man-showmanship. The musical’s joys shouldn’t be too surprising, given that editorial free association and flights of fancy were second nature to the director of Lisztomania. The demented singsong patter throughout The Boy Friend also reflects the vital vocal conviction among Russell’s actors. Witness Vanessa Redgrave, a scoliotic mother superior in The Devils, as she still manages to surprise with a queer chuckle or well-timed “Cock!” Or Russell regular Reed as a seductive priest scolding his besieged town to overcome its all too useful hysteria.
Russell fatigue—Mahler, Valentino—is just as real as Russellmania, but his finer moments outlast the noise of admirers and detractors alike. And it’s hard to resist the spirit of a filmmaker who responded to one film critic simply by whapping him with a newspaper on TV.