Cranky Hanke’s Screening Room: Ken Russell: The Right Filmmaker at the Right Time (for me)

Cranky Hanke’s Screening Room: Ken Russell: The Right Filmmaker at the Right Time (for me)-attachment0

It’s July 3. Of course, I’m going to write about Ken Russell—it’s his birthday. (It’s his 84th birthday, if you’re keeping track.) Anyone who’s been paying attention knows that three things will happen today. I’ll write something about Ken. I’ll call him up to offer birthday greetings. I’ll watch a Ken Russell movie—or two. It follows as the night follows the day. And as is often the case, I’ve grown reflective—that we may attribute to my own aging.

I “discovered” Ken Russell in June of 1975 when I was 20. Now, at that point, Ken had been making films for some considerable time. If you want to be technical about it and go all the way back to his amateur films, he’d been making films since I was two years old—starting with a short called Peepshow in 1956. (It’d be years before I saw it. Now, anyone can see Peepshow in three parts on You Tube. And it’s astonishing how everything—from the sense of nostalgia to the big close-ups to the feeling of melancholy to the aggressive editing techniques—is already there in incipient form.) Even when he’d broken into the international feauture film scene, movies like Women in Love (1969), The Music Lovers (1970), and The Devils (1971) didn’t penetrate the artistic wilderness of central Florida—and I wouldn’t have been old enough to see them anyway. The Boy Friend (1971) got as close as Tampa. I don’t recall Savage Messiah (1972) or Mahler (1974)  coming around at all.

It wasn’t until Tommy (1975) came along that my path crossed his. And it’s only fair to note that Ken’s name wasn’t the selling point—nor was the source album. My best friend had been very keen on the Who album and played it for me in 1970 when we were rooming together a USF. I wasn’t whelmed. (I’m still not that fond of the original album, but I’ve learned to like it—at least in parts.) But in 1975 I was very much an Elton John fan and his recording of “Pinball Wizard” on the radio sold me on seeing the movie. I’ve been over this before, but the point here is a little different since it’s grounded on where I was with movies at that time.

My guess is that it was just as well that I hadn’t seen the earlier films at that point. With the possible exception of The Boy Friend—the replication of Busby Berkeley numbers and the inclusion of bits of plot and dialogue from 42nd Street (1933) would have appealed to me—I don’t think I was ready for these movies until 1975. Having been self-taught in the realm of movies during the nostalgia boom of the 1960s and early 1970s, I was something of a classicist—though not a traditionalist. That simply means that I’d wandered through the classics more or less on my own, and found that very few of the movies I found to be great were even included in those “50 Great/Classic/Best” films books. Put another way, I’d be surprised if you could turn up another 17-year-old who washed dishes the summer after high school graduation to finance a 30 minute movie in the style of Ernst Lubitsch with an all Maurice Chevalier (1929-32 recordings) soundtrack.

While I had liked quite a few contemporary movies—mostly what I’d now call “British Invasion” films—I was much more at home with movies of the past. It wasn’t until late 1972 that I really started taking new or even newer movies into account. By 1975 I was ready for Ken Russell. Would that have been the case earlier? I’m not entirely sure it would have. Considering that the movies I liked best—the works of Lubitsch, Rouben Mamoulian, Josef von Sternberg, James Whale, early Hitchcock—were in a similarly stylish, flamboyant key, I might have responded positively. But it’s not a given by any means.

I might, of course, have gone back to them, but I’m not wholly convinced. In any case, I’m not sorry for the order in which all this played out. Seeing that stark main title with the words, “A Film by Ken Russell, Tommy by the Who,” followed by what is in my book one of the great images in cinema and seeing them cold with no idea of what they were announcing was the perfect introduction.

Yeah, it was a little like coming into the middle of the movie of Ken’s career. Of course, what I didn’t know—among a lot of other things I didn’t know (hey, I was 20 for Clapton’s sake)—was that I was coming in on artist at height of his powers, riding the crest of a wave that—artistically, if not always commercially—he’d been riding for some considerable time. I also didn’t know the impact this was going to have on my own future.

In keeping with the idea that this all came about when it should have come about, it’s interesting that it dovetailed with a year or two in which Ken’s earlier films—at least the theatrical ones—were turning up with felicitous frequency. Was it merely coincidence that this should happen just as I was trying to see them? After all, I kept very close tabs on what was at the rep houses and universities during those years, and these titles hadn’t shown up before. Coincidence? Oh, very probably. It probably had a lot to do with the fact that Tommy introduced a lot of younger viewers to his work and it was natural that the market was primed for more. Whatever the truth, it felt a lot like the movie gods were smiling down on me.

It may have been inevitable that I’d have gotten to Ken’s movies. He’d already done movies on two of my favorite composers—Tchaikovsky and Mahler—and was making one on another, Franz Liszt. I didn’t exactly know Liszt was a favorite composer at that time, because I was still puzzling out the composers used on the soundtrack of Edgar G. Ulmer’s The Black Cat at that point. It wouldn’t be long before Ken had me working out the scores on his films. That became an easier process when I could simply ask him (quite a few years down the road).

Then, too, a lot of the appeal in Ken’s work came from his ability to—no, his genius for matching music and image, and that’s one of my favorite things about movies in general. Combine that with his overall visual sense and you have me hooked. Throw in his sense of humor and the absurd and it’s an unbeatable combination. And, no, it probably didn’t hurt in the least that the films upset people. I like movies that shake people up a little—even a lot. And we are here talking about the man who in Lisztomania (1975) had Richard Wagner (Paul Nicholas) rise from the dead as a combination of Hitler and the Frankenstein monster, brandishing an electric-guitar-machine-gun with a power cord made of barbed wire. That certainly got a reaction. Perhaps this is where the amazing criticism that the film “suffers” from “excessive vision” comes from. Ironically, the seven hour German film Hitler: A Film from Germany (1977) opens with Hitler (in a toga) rising from Wagner’s grave, and I’ve never heard it accused of excessive vision.

 

But, you know, none of this is what has kept me as enthused as I’ve been for the past 36 years. And I sensed this pretty early on. Sure, Ken’s movies are flashy and outrageous and fun, but they’re a lot more than that. They’re also films with moments of subtle and quiet beauty. In this respect, they perhaps more resemble symphonies than what we think of as films. I don’t consider that a problem with the movies. I consider it a problem with how we tend to think of films. What I find especially interesting is that very often it’s the quiet moments that linger in my mind more than the big ones. Not to downplay the glorious recreations of Busby Berkeley, but perhaps my favorite thing in The Boy Friend is Twiggy singing “All I Do Is Dream of You” while watching Christopher Gable from the flies.

None of these things are really what’s at the very heart of my love for Ken’s films. It goes much deeper and is the thing that seems to me to be the most overlooked aspect of his work—and that’s the sense of a love of life and a love of the human spirit. When all is said and done, that’s the real selling point for me—that all the films, one way or another, are essentially about the indomitability of the human spirit. I noted this at the 2005 Asheville Film Festival when we gave him a Lifetime Achievement Award. That’s always there with whatever else there is That’s the real secret of Ken’s genius—and that’s what keeps me coming back to them again and again. I imagine that it always will. Then again, Ann-Margret in baked beans doesn’t hurt in the least.

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About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress since December 2000. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

51 thoughts on “Cranky Hanke’s Screening Room: Ken Russell: The Right Filmmaker at the Right Time (for me)

  1. Seeing that stark main title with the words, “A Film by Ken Russell, Tommy by the Who,”

    I’ve always had mixed feelings about that title. Aside from my issues with the whole ‘A Film by’ credit, it should really be ‘Tommy by Pete Townshend’. After all, a substantial portion of the soundtrack is performed by incomplete versions of the band or people who aren’t in the Who at all. But it’s still Townshend’s piece.

  2. Ken Hanke

    Setting aside your “film by” problem (which you know I don’t in the least share), I suspect that the “by the Who” was Townshend’s idea. Consider, he called his Broadwayified version The Who’s Tommy.

  3. lisi russell

    Thanks for the birthday column and call. T’Other Ken sends you his gratitude and love. He woke up saying, “Where’s my birthday call?” I like Savage Messiah (first film I saw), Tommy (first time I met him – in NYC, not Charlotte), Music Lovers, Women in Love and Song of Summer for my first five but who could possibly stop there? Mahler! Boy Friend! Devils! Lisztomania! Crimes of Passion! Altered States! Salome’s Last Dance! Thank God for Chapel Hill’s Variety, which had the foresight to hire me and Randy Jones from the Village People to sell tickets and popcorn and get into Ken Russell movies freeeee. The indomitability of the human spirit. You said it exactly.

  4. Ken Hanke

    If I had to list my top five, it would be Tommy, Mahler, Lisztomania, The Music Lovers, and Savage Messiah. Then the next five would be…That’s the problem — now I feel like I’ve left things out.

  5. lisi russell

    That’s what I’m talking about. What about Prisoner of Honour? Ken dislikes it and groans audibly when it’s mentioned but there’s things about it I like. Then there’s Gothic, Lair, Dante’s Inferno, Biggest Dancer in the World, Debussy, Martinu, Dance of the 7 Veils, Aria! Ah, well.

  6. lisi russell

    I meant “T’other Ken groans. . .” (Keeping the Kens properly referenced.)

  7. Ken Hanke

    What about Prisoner of Honour? Ken dislikes it and groans audibly when it’s mentioned but there’s things about it I like.

    I have to admit I don’t dislike it — and I certainly like seeing Oliver Reed and Lindsay Anderson and Ken Colley and Imogen and Judith and Paul Dufficey and Christopher Logue. I know Ken’s problem is the lead — and the second edit it got in Hollywood. But his fingerprints are all over the thing in the casting alone!

  8. Ken Hanke

    I meant “T’other Ken groans. . .” (Keeping the Kens properly referenced.)

    I’ve certainly been confused for worse!

  9. keonard pollack

    what a wonderful piece you wrote. Thank you. Wish you had been in NYC last summer.At the end of THE MUSIC LOVERS he was given a standing ocvatio that lasted five minutes at least.
    I had to leave the theater crying due to him sitting next to me. I did not want him to see me lose it. It was one of the most emotional moments of my life.
    So long in coming.

  10. Steven

    After 39 comments, I’ll be the first to actually discuss the film.

    I liked it a lot more than you did, but I do have a question regarding the ending.

    Spoilers ahead.

    The whole portion involving Penn’s character at the end, I was under the impression that he was in heaven, what with him hesitating crossing into that “door” and all. I ended up getting into a discussion with a friend of mine after the movie, and he was under the impression that this was all in Penn’s head. He came to this conclusion due to the fact that every other character looked the same (as we saw them) in this “heaven.” The father looked the same as we had seen him as well, though we were given indication that he was still alive (not so sure about the mother), so he would have looked a lot older.

    Any take on this?

  11. Ken Hanke

    what a wonderful piece you wrote

    Thank you.

    Wish you had been in NYC last summer.At the end of THE MUSIC LOVERS he was given a standing ocvatio that lasted five minutes at least.

    I wanted to come, believe me, but it just wasn’t possible. At least I got to experience something like it at Tommy here in 2005.

  12. Ken Hanke

    After 39 comments, I’ll be the first to actually discuss the film.

    I somehow think you meant to post this in the comments on The Tree of Life.

  13. Ken Hanke

    Has Ken ever talked Derek Jarman with you Ken?

    If he has — other than in passing — it would have been nearly 30 years ago and probably mostly in connection with Jarman doing production design on The Devils or Savage Messiah.

  14. My connection with Mr. Russell came during the video store age. I was lucky to have an older friend that went off to Georgia Tech and brought back films like CRIMES OF PASSION and GOTHIC. The one that hooked me though was LAIR OF THE WHITE WORM. Thanks to a book that Mr. Hanke contributed, to me and my college friends worshiped THE DEVILS.

  15. Ken Hanke

    Thanks to a book that Mr. Hanke contributed to, me and my college friends worshiped THE DEVILS

    Helping to shape young minds for over 20 years!

  16. Helping to shape young minds for over 20 years!

    “Shape” would be a kind way of saying it. I think I watched it three times in one day.

  17. SuperAmanda

    Great writing and a pleasure to read Mr. Hanke. You catch what many other film historians/journalists miss about Ken Russell, namely that, like it or not, all viewers come away from his work enriched with new names, “new” history they’d been unaware of and a less tight- ass (but not less intelligent) way of looking at life and art. The few directors walking the earth today with Ken’s level of talent simply place too much need on having the audience “like them” which for me is understandable but ultimately a cop out. (I love Russ Meyer and Lindsay Anderson for this same reason as well) I’m blogging about Ken’s glorious life and work every single day for an entire year. I come away learning something new with each film I revisit and discover and want to share. All fans and detractors can visit at “Ken Russell University: Fullfrontalnus Illuminatio Mea” on blogger. Look forward to reading more of your work. Cheers!

  18. Ken Hanke

    “Shape” would be a kind way of saying it.

    I didn’t specify what shape, now did I?

  19. Ken Hanke

    Great writing and a pleasure to read Mr. Hanke.

    Well, thank you.

    All fans and detractors can visit at “Ken Russell University: Fullfrontalnus Illuminatio Mea” on blogger.

    I shall have to check that out.

    Look forward to reading more of your work.

    There’s quite a backlog of my stuff on KR.

  20. SuperAmanda

    “Backlog?” I have 362 days of Ken Russell writing to go so I’m there!

  21. I didn’t specify what shape, now did I?

    You didn’t put the acid on my tongue, so you have that going for you.

  22. Ken Hanke

    “Backlog?” I have 362 days of Ken Russell writing to go so I’m there!

    If you turn up a copy of the issue of Alternative Cinema with my article on the Vestron pictures, let me know.

  23. Ken Hanke

    You didn’t put the acid on my tongue, so you have that going for you.

    I probably didn’t do anything to encourage you to lose it either.

  24. Ken Hanke

    By the way, the Mahler screening had a packed house — at least at the beginning. We lost five or six viewers over the course of the movie. Some who stayed didn’t like it, but most seemed to — and in a few cases, we made brand new Russellphiles. I’m good with that — even if I had to watch the movie standing up.

  25. SuperAmanda

    “If you turn up a copy of the issue of Alternative Cinema with my article on the Vestron pictures, let me know.”

    I definitely will as I plan on finding it.I enjoyed your piece on Ken’s Lake District Poet films.

  26. Jeffrey DeCristofaro

    My own Happy Birthday wishes to Master Ken – I’m catching up with his works – ALTERED STATES still remains my personal favorite, followed by THE DEVILS (a work of sheer, stark genius that I was fortunate to come across on DVD from the video rental on Lexington Ave.) – and the hopes that I can meet him in person one day!

  27. Ken Hanke

    I enjoyed your piece on Ken’s Lake District Poet films.

    Thanks. I think the obscurity of those is a major shame, especially Rime of the Ancient Mariner. I also suspect that that’s not going to change because of music rights.

  28. Ken Hanke

    I’m catching up with his works

    We’re tentatively down to screen The Music Lovers on Sept. 20. If only there was a good anamorphic transfer of Lisztomania, but at present all there is the UK DVD, which is not anamorphic and is pretty much a crap transfer (if you’ve seen the laserdisc, you know just how crap).

  29. Ken Hanke

    Derek wasn’t a bad director himself

    Jarman is definitely not bad, but he’s very much for very specialized tastes.

  30. SuperAmanda

    I’m starting to really like Lisztomania after watching it in sections on You Tube. Like many diehard Ken fans, I’d rented it and made it through 15 minutes before saying “This is Rick Wakeman’s happening and it freaks me out!!!” Yet I love “Phantom of The Paradise” and other out there 70’s cult films along with Ken’s Tommy imagery.

  31. SuperAmanda

    “I think the obscurity of those is a major shame”

    Agreed. Rainbow as well which is a stunning film. All women’s film studies classes should show it.

  32. Ken Hanke

    Like many diehard Ken fans, I’d rented it and made it through 15 minutes before saying “This is Rick Wakeman’s happening and it freaks me out!!!”

    Well, frankly, you are the first diehard Rusellite I’ve ever heard of having that reaction.

  33. SuperAmanda

    Well I was only 14 years old and knew known of the references. People grow and change just like Liszt/Roger’s appendage in said film.

  34. bengi

    The Music Lovers and Salome’s Last Dance are available on Netflix streaming but apparently not on DVD.

  35. Ken Hanke

    The Music Lovers and Salome’s Last Dance are available on Netflix streaming but apparently not on DVD.

    I don’t do streaming so the point is moot for me, though I’m always curious about things like format and anamorphically-enhanced or not. It’s not really a huge issue on Salome, but it’s a major one on The Music Lovers. In other words, if it ain’t 2.35:1 and anamorphic, hold out till there’s a way to see it that is.

    Also, for those of us who insist on having the actual disc in our possession, you can get The Music Lovers — 2.35:1 and enhanced (it sez) — on Region 2 from Amazon UK. I think they have Salome as an import, but since it’s OOP most places, it might be stupidly pricey.

  36. bengi

    On my widescreen HD TV, The Music Lovers is in widescreen with narrow black bars at the top and bottom which decrease a little when I have the TV automatically scan for the correct picture size.

  37. Tonberry

    Sure it’s belated, but Happy Birthday to Mr. Ken Russell. His films have become a bit of that snowball effect with me. My first exposure was to “Altered States” which has some great sequences but didn’t push me into the ‘I love the director category.’ The film that did so was “The Music Lovers.” And after that I managed to catch a lovely screening of “The Savage Messiah” which had that life changing proponent and what I consider my personal favorite film of all time right now. Then there was “Tommy,” which was simply beautiful. After all that I tracked some I couldn’t find on DVD on youtube (“Mahler”) and bought the Ken Russell at the BBC set. There are certainly more gems out there for me to find, which makes the future most exciting.

  38. Ken Hanke

    There are certainly more gems out there for me to find, which makes the future most exciting.

    Oh, there are a number of fine things awaiting you. Oh, yes.

  39. Chris Lambert

    I saw my first KR film last week, thanks to KH screening “Mahler”. I was dazzled. The intensity of the train car scenes contrasted by the fantastic daydreams…the rhythm as we swung between these two worlds… Awesome. The experience has changed how I view film. But not just film, art as well. “Mahler”, like the novel “Catch-22″, strikes many upon many different chords: love, identity, glory, friendship, responsibility, death… Both Yossarian and Russel’s Mahler give us more than just a story: they explore life’s multifoliate nature. And thus broaden our own understanding. This is what art should do. Can do. And “Mahler”‘s the first movie I’ve seen achieve this with such incredible breadth. Thank you.

  40. Ken Hanke

    The experience has changed how I view film.

    Of course, it did.

    This is what art should do. Can do. And “Mahler”‘s the first movie I’ve seen achieve this with such incredible breadth.

    You realize you came to the wrong guy to get an argument, don’t you.

    We ran Mahler for T’other Ken’s birthday — and because a long-time AFS member requested it. Now, we’ve got The Music Lovers down for my birthday on Sept. 20. (Yes, the new Region 2 disc is anamorphic and 2.35:1, despite the case claiming it’s 1.33:1.) Mark your calendar now.

  41. Ken Hanke

    I like the way you Kens celebrate birthdays.

    Ah, back in the old days, you’d have certainly enjoyed the Ken Russell Birthday Party dinners we used to have (back when I gave dinner parties, mind you), especially the dress-up ones. One person took that so seriously that he made himself a perfect Cosima Wagner (Mahler version) outifit, right down to the leather (well, faux Naugahyde probably) miniskirt with the swastika. He learned a valuable lesson that evening — quantities of alcohol and goose-stepping on rooftops are a bad mix.

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