A Who’s-Who of the Ken Russell canon

Ken Hanke and Ken Russell
A tale of two Kens: Xpress’ Hanke, left, a biographer of Asheville Film Festival 2005 honoree Ken Russell.

This year’s Asheville Film Festival brings something very special with its guest of honor, British filmmaker Ken Russell, who will receive the Lifetime Achievement Award during festival weekend.

A legendary name in world cinema, Russell is responsible for some of the most daring cinema ever crafted — works like Women in Love, The Music Lovers, The Devils, Tommy, Altered States and Crimes of Passion. This is art that helped shape its respective eras — in the form of films that have never been out of circulation. Russell’s movies have been the subject of no less than five full-length books (including one I wrote) — with two more currently en route to publication.

His work has been celebrated at film festivals from Los Angeles to Tokyo, from Helsinki to Telluride — and now it will be recognized in Asheville with a selection of some of his finest work, starting with his landmark film version of the Who’s rock opera Tommy, which is celebrating its own 30th anniversary.

See him, feel him

Tommy is a special film for me, because it’s the work that first introduced me to the Russell canon — and it’s fair to say that, just as the ad campaign promised, my senses were never again the same. I first saw it on a Thursday. I was back again on Friday, and had chalked up 16 viewings by the time it ended its run two months later — at a theater that thanked its more than 150,000 patrons for keeping it there that long.

It’s also a film that has aged surprisingly well — one of those works that never fully gives up its mysteries. Its allegorical story of universal salvation — a deaf, dumb and blind boy topples false religions and becomes a corrupted messiah himself — was, in its time, seen as a major departure for Russell, who’d more often made biographical films about historical figures. But not very long ago, I ran the film for a friend, and was surprised to realize that the story also works as a fantasticated biography of its composer, Pete Townshend — another aspect revealing itself after 30 years.

Tommy is a fitting film to kick off the retrospective at the festival’s “Evening with Ken Russell” (6:30 p.m. Friday, Oct. 28, at Diana Wortham Theatre). But viewers might want to hasten down the street to the Fine Arts Theatre afterward to catch The Music Lovers (9:45 p.m.), Russell’s groundbreaking 1970 film about Peter Illyich Tchaikovsky starring Richard Chamberlain and Glenda Jackson (fresh from her Oscar-winning performance in Russell’s Women in Love). It’s a film that changed the way biopics were made. Not only did it openly address Tchaikovsky’s homosexuality for the first time and expand what was permissible in even an R-rated movie (to a degree that’s still startling today), it was a film that allowed the composer’s music to actually drive the narrative. Noted conductor Andre Previn called it “the best film ever made about a composer,” and that was no overstatement about this rich, beautiful and finally shattering work.

After Lovers comes a different, appropriately late-night side of Russell’s filmography (12:15 a.m.). An odyssey for the truly adventurous, the controversial 1984 movie Crimes of Passion is a blisteringly sexual work that truly put censors to the test — and one that suffered a loss of six minutes of footage (along with much overdubbed and softened dialogue) before it was granted an R rating for its original release. At the time, the MPAA told Russell and screenwriter/producer Barry Sandler (after they’d submitted a third version of the film), “It’s not any one specific thing — the material itself is X-rated.” Well, all that material has subsequently been restored — plus three minutes of other footage — to the version of this amazing psycho-sexual thriller.

Yet, Crimes of Passion isn’t just a thriller. It’s a serious examination of the human condition — especially the human condition in America at that time — featuring crackling brilliant dialogue and the most compelling performance of Kathleen Turner’s career (it is the actress’ own personal favorite). Not last of its charms is a sinister but oddly moving (and blasphemously funny) performance from Anthony Perkins.

The film that rocketed Russell to international fame in 1969, Women in Love plays on Saturday afternoon (2:30 p.m. at Fine Arts). Unabashedly sensual (the nude wrestling scene between Alan Bates and Oliver Reed set everyone talking), this film version of D.H. Lawrence’s novel made it an immediate hit with critics and lay viewers alike, earning Oscar nominations for Best Picture and Best Director, and winning Glenda Jackson her first Academy Award. Time has not lessened the power or appeal of this remarkable — and remarkably beautiful — film, which not only captured the essence of its source novel, but expanded on biographical aspects of Lawrence (played by Alan Bates) and offered a critique of the material. It is, quite possibly, the best film adaptation of a novel ever made.

In 1980, Russell came out with his first Hollywood movie — the film version of Paddy Chayefsky’s horror-sci-fi novel Altered States, which also marked the screen debut of William Hurt as scientist Eddie Jessup, who’s out to return to the the birth of the “first thought” through sensory deprivation and drugs. (More fodder for trivia buffs: The movie also contains the first appearance of the four-year-old Drew Barrymore as Jessup’s daughter.)

Controversy ensued: The film’s astonishingly intense fantasy sequences were said to be causing actual physical reactions in some viewers, who complained they found themselves unable to rise from their seats at film’s end. In fact, some theaters had to add extra time between shows to deal with this unprecedented problem. The film became an instant cult classic and a perennial on the late-night movie circuit. Appropriately, it’s being screened at 12:30 a.m. (Saturday night at Fine Arts).

At the end of the 1980s, Russell’s work found a new audience with the release of his film of Bram Stoker’s (Dracula) final novel, The Lair of the White Worm — a horror film (with a healthy dose of comedy) starring a very young Hugh Grant and Amanda Donohoe. Rolling Stone‘s Peter Travers called it “a hoot of a horror film,” and that it was, creeping a fine line between traditional horror and campy fun. It’s lightweight Russell — but with some seriously subversive elements along the way — and a great deal of pure fun with its tale of a snake god, a vampire high priestess (Donohoe), a gallant knight hero (Grant), and an odd star turn from Dynasty‘s Catherine Oxenberg. (Thanks to a no-nudity clause in Oxenberg’s contract, her character, threatened with being sacrificed to the titular worm at the hands of the decidedly nude priestess, faces her fate wearing industrial-strength underclothes.) Worm initiates the final evening of Russell films at 7 p.m. (Fine Arts) on Sunday.

A double feature of Mahler and a “surprise Ken Russell film” cap off the Sunday-night retrospective (9 p.m., Fine Arts). Russell’s 1974 work about Gustav Mahler starring Robert Powell (perhaps best known as Jesus Christ in Zeffirelli’s Jesus of Nazareth) as the Austrian composer is one of the director’s greatest works — and, if anything, is an even better musical biography than The Music Lovers. Almost unbearably rich, this heavily layered film presents the composer and his music in a series of a striking — sometimes startling — scenes that illuminate both, as well as offering Russell’s own responses to the man and his work. Though shot on an almost non-existent budget, the film took the Technical Grand Prize at Cannes and was nominated for the Golden Palm, as well as winning Russell the Best Original Screenplay award from the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain, and picking up a BAFTA award for Georgina Hale (playing Mahler’s wife, Alma) as Best Newcomer. It’s a film not to be missed.

About that “surprise Ken Russell film” … well, my lips are sealed. But I hope to see you there.

Feature films in competition: a short preview

Having been so involved with the Ken Russell aspects of this year’s Asheville Film Festival, I’ve had less time than usual to get a peek at the festival’s feature films in competition. I did, however, get to screen most of the entries, and it’s safe to say that, once again, the films are getting better and better as the festival matures. This is far and away the strongest group of contenders I’ve seen — and they’re certainly worth a look. Here’s a glimpse:

Almost Normal is a playfully thought-provoking work that might remind you of Peggy Sue Got Married or Back to the Future, but with a very remarkable twist — its gay protagonist travels back in time only to find that he’s no longer gay, but the rest of the world is. By turns comic and moving, the film falters occasionally by being a little too obvious, but it’s an intriguing work marked by solid production values and some engaging performances.

(2 p.m. Friday and 5 p.m. Saturday at the Fine Arts Theatre)

At Last, from filmmaker Tom Anton and starring Martin Donovan and Kelly Lynch, is a partly autobiographical movie about young lovers unfairly separated by an overprotective mother, causing a years-long estrangement when she prevents the pair from receiving one another’s letters. Those letters and the truth come to light when the characters are in their 40s, and the discovery changes their lives. Beautifully acted and photographed (by Finding Neverland‘s Roberto Schaefer), this is an especially strong entry with the added interest of nicely used New Orleans locations.

(1:30 p.m. Friday and 6:15 p.m. Saturday at Diana Wortham Theatre)

Fall to Grace is an accomplished — and intricately plotted — drama about Georgian immigrants trying to assimilate in America. Rich in detail and character, the film manages to create a persuasive picture of the interconnections of small-town life.

(11:30 a.m. Friday and 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the Fine Arts Theatre)

Hooray for Mr. Touchdown was very popular with the pre-selection committee, and it’s easy to understand why. It’s an ambitious period piece (1932) that mixes comedy and music and mostly gets it right. The soundtrack of ’30s music is dead on, the period nicely evoked (on a very low budget), and the story involving a football hero, bookmaking, prohibition and a Bing Crosby-ish minister is engaging. A little precious, perhaps, but remarkably well done.

(12 Noon Friday and 6:30 p.m. Saturday at the Fine Arts Theatre)

Novem also performed strongly with the committee, though its appeal was a little less apparent to me. It’s a clever work that attempts — and mostly succeeds — in creating a kind of Blair Witch Project-style “reality” myth about the discovery of a cache of songs and film by a 1973 rock band whose members were killed in a car crash right after they made the tapes. Clever and persuasive — and worth a look for its sheer audacity.

(4 p.m. Friday and 11:15 p.m. Saturday at Diana Wortham Theatre; 4 p.m. Sunday at the Fine Arts Theatre)

The Tenants, an adaptation of the Bernard Malamud novel, stars Dylan McDermott as a Jewish writer who strikes up an unlikely friendship with a black would-be writer (a surprising performance by Snoop Dogg) squatting in the otherwise empty apartment building that the landlord (Seymour Cassel) is trying to sell. A stark, disturbing character study with a strong ending. It could prove a breakthrough for director Danny Green and Snoop Dogg.

(7 p.m. Friday and 8:45 p.m. Saturday at the Fine Arts Theatre)

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. 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."

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