Ken Russell’s films

Altered States

Saturday, 12:30 – 2:30 a.m.
Fine Arts Theatre, lower
103 minutes

Ken Russell’s first Hollywood movie, Altered States, also marked his debut attempt at a full-fledged horror film. There’d been elements of horror in both The Devils and Lisztomania, though neither film could properly be called horror pictures. Altered States can’t be called anything else. And to this day, it remains one of the best “modern” horror films ever made.

Adapted by the legendary Paddy Chayefsky from his own novel, Altered States tells the story of scientist Eddie Jessup (William Hurt in his screen debut) who experiments with a combination of sensory-deprivation tanks and hallucinogenic drugs in an effort to get back to “the first thought,” which he believes is buried in man’s genetic structure. Unfortunately, the experiments cause his body to regress.

On the surface, the story isn’t especially Russellesque, but the similarities between Jessup’s “driven scientist” and Russell’s creatively-driven heroes are easily apparent. To Russell’s delight, the studios gave him what seemed like an unlimited budget, which unleashed his ability to create cinematic images. The hallucinatory set-pieces were amazing (and still are even by today’s CGI standards), which made the film an immediate cult hit with the late-night crowd. Their effects are enhanced by Russell’s use of sound and John Corigliano’s score. These are not, however, just brilliant visuals, they convey the mood, tone and theme of the story more effectively than would a traditional approach, such as one dictated by a close interpretation of the novel.

Beautiful cinematography by Jordan Cronenweth and gorgeous Charles Rennie Mackintosh-inspired production design by Richard MacDonald help to realize Russell’s unique vision of Chayefksy’s book.

This film contains adult content.

Director: Ken Russell Producer: Howard Gottfried Writer: Paddy Chayefsky (as Sidney Aaron) Editor: Eric Jenkins Cinematography: Jordan Cronenweth Music: John Corigliano Production Company: Warner Bros. Cast: William Hurt, Blair Brown, Bob Balaban, Charles Haid

Crimes of Passion

Friday, 12:15 – 2:15 a.m.
Fine Arts Theatre, lower
110 minutes

On his way back to England from a meeting that had caused him to resign from the film version of Evita, Russell read Barry Sandler’s screenplay Crimes of Passion — and knew he’d found his next film. When he returned to Hollywood to make it, he said the film would be controversial. He wasn’t wrong.

Sandler had written the unabashedly sexually-charged screenplay when he was struggling to understand what was going on around him as he watched his friends’ marriages disintegrate. Reading the screenplay, Russell grasped this and something more – that the story could offer a commentary on American culture, materialism and the success-ethic. It was not by accident that he chose Antonin Dvorak’s Ninth Symphony, “From the New World,” as the basis from which rock musician Rick Wakeman would create the film’s score. It was partly a joke – the film being made by New World Pictures – and partly a joining of artistic statements: the symphony being Dvorak’s musical impression of the “New World” and the movie offering Russell’s unflinching, uncompromising, yet ultimately hopeful cinematic impression.

The film follows the intertwined fates of three major characters: Joanna Crane (Kathleen Turner), a cold fashion designer who spends her evenings as “China Blue,” a fifty-buck hooker; the Rev. Peter Shayne (Anthony Perkins), a mentally-unbalanced, sex-obsessed street preacher who sees something of himself in “China Blue”; and Bobby Grady (John Laughlin), a not very successful businessman, age 30, who is afraid to admit to himself that his marriage has fallen apart.

Crimes of Passion took such a frank look at sexuality that despite the film being submitted several times to the MPAA – it kept coming back with an X rating. Finally, trimmed from 107 minutes down to 101 (with significant dialogue cuts and overdubbings), the film was released to some of the best reviews of Russell’s career. Kathleen Turner’s brilliant performance was considered a cinch for an Oscar, but ultimately the film was too controversial for the Academy. It went on, however, to become New World’s

biggest-selling video (restored to 107 minutes).

Sandler’s script is at once penetrating, disturbing and blasphemously funny. Turner gives the performance of her career, while Perkins nearly tops his trademark role of Norman Bates. Shot in glaring neon colors by ace Russell cinematographer Dick Bush, and beautifully designed by an uncredited Richard MacDonald, it remains one of Russell’s most trenchant works – though not one for the easily shocked. The print being run at the festival includes three scenes that were restored only a few years ago, adding another three minutes.

This film contains adult content.

Director: Ken Russell Producer: Donald P. Borchers, Barry Sandler Writer: Barry Sandler Editor: Brian Tagg Cinematographer: Dick Bush Music: Rick Wakeman (from Dvorak’s Ninth Symphony) Production Company: New World Pictures Cast: Kathleen Turner, Anthony Perkins, John Laughlin, Annie Potts, Bruce Davison, Gerald S. O’Loughlin

The Lair of the White Worm

Sunday, 7:00 – 8:40 p.m.
Fine Arts Theatre, lower
93 minutes

In the late 1980s, Ken Russell got a three-picture deal with the fledgling Vestron Pictures. Easily the most popular (and Russell’s personal favorite of the trio) is his very unorthodox adaptation of The Lair of the White Worm, the final novel by Bram Stoker (who also penned Dracula). White Worm introduced a new generation of moviegoers to Russell’s work. (Ask any Russell admirer 30 or younger what film got them started, and it’s likely to be this one.)

A deceptively simple – even oddly charming – work, the film walks a fine line between a horror picture and a parody of one. Most of the horror scenes are played straight, yet the overall tone is deliberately light. Beyond this tension, there’s Russell’s campy pitting of Christianity against paganism (not to mention his out-of-nowhere homoerotic ending), which makes the film one of his more subversive works and a good introduction to his more serious films.

The Stoker story – about a vampiric high priestess who serves a pagan snake god – is set in a kind of dreamlike, isolated English countryside. The often leather-clad vampire, Lady Sylvia Marsh (Amanda Donohoe), tools around in search of victims in a 1960s E-type Jaguar, like The Avengers‘ Emma Peel gone very wrong, while the stalwart hero, Lord James d’Ampton (a very young Hugh Grant), travels about in a very British, very Edwardian Morgan motor car. The damsels in distress (Catherine Oxenberg and Sammi Davis) are so rural that they only have an old farm truck, which apparently doesn’t run. The overall tone is that of a slightly perverse fairy tale that’s both funny and effective, as Lord d’Ampton attempts to rid the vicinity of the evil Lady Sylvia.

The film gives a nod to earlier Russell films with the inclusion in the cast of such Russell regulars as Christopher Gable and Imogen Claire. Cinematographer Dick Bush is once again on hand to help Russell capture just the right tone. And if you look closely, you’ll glimpse Russell himself walking through the background of the opening scene (he also provides the offscreen voice of an unseen policeman). It’s a fun film with a great, and infectious, pop song.

This film contains adult content.

Director/Writer/Producer: Ken Russell Editor: Peter Davies Cinematographer: Dick Bush Music: Stanislas Syrewicz Production Company: Vestron Pictures Cast: Hugh Grant, Amanda Donohoe, Peter Capaldi, Sammi Davis, Stratford Johns, Christopher Gable, Imogen Claire, Paul Brooke


Sunday, 9 p.m.- 12:30 a.m.
Fine Arts Theatre, lower
115 minutes

Made for almost no money (about $320,000), Ken Russell’s biopic on composer Gustav Mahler is one the filmmaker’s finest – and most beautiful – films. The lack of money (which didn’t keep the film from snagging the Technical Grand Prize and being nominated for the Palme d’Or at Cannes, and securing Russell a Best Screenplay award from the Writer’s Guild of Great Britain) may actually have been a plus.

It forced Russell and cinematographer Dick Bush to work almost exclusively with natural light or very simple lighting, which lends itself perfectly to this largely pastoral look at the life of a composer who tried to capture nature in his symphonies.

Russell’s approach to Mahler is to examine the man through his music, while Mahler (Robert Powell) and his wife, Alma (Georgina Hale), examine their own past on a train journey back to Vienna. The film is structured as a series of flashbacks and fantasies that take place during that journey, creating an intricately layered work. While the movie outlines Mahler’s life, it’s also about Ken Russell and his reactions to Mahler and his music.

Russell uses different styles in each of the film’s segments, to communicate different perspectives. Scenes such as the opening shot and the sequence where Alma tries to quiet the countryside are among the great triumphs of Russell’s career, while the more overt fantasies — Mahler envisioning his own funeral and a silent movie parody of Mahler converting from Judaism to Catholicism for social gain — are among Russell’s most daring. Yet it’s often the smaller touches — young Gustav’s (Gary Rich) nocturnal foray into the woods, the sense of fatigue on the journey, Alma giving up her aspirations as a composer — that stick in the mind. Moving, magical and endlessly creative, Mahler is one of Russell’s most enduring films.

This film contains adult content.

Writer/Director: Ken Russell Producer: Roy Baird, David Putnam, Sandy Lierberson Editor: Stuart Baird Cinematographer: Dick Bush Music: Gustav Mahler (conducted by Bernard Haitink) Production Company: Goodtimes Enterprises Cast: Robert Powell, Georgina Hale, Lee Montague, Dana Gillespie, Antonia Ellis, Otto Diamant, Rosalie Crutchley

The Music Lovers

Friday, 9:45 p.m. – midnight
Fine Arts Theatre, lower
122 minutes

Conductor Andre Previn called The Music Lovers “the best film ever made about a composer.” But in 1970, when Ken Russell presented his biographical film on Peter Illyich Tchaikovsky to the world, it seemed that many people — including critics — only saw the film’s supposed excesses. Yet it would be hard to find anyone who composed classical music more “over the top” than Tchaikovsky — which is reflected in the boldly operatic approach taken by Russell in this film.

But The Music Lovers has more than one mood. Like Tchaikovsky’s own music, the big — even garish — moments are offset by moments of incredible beauty and delicacy. Central to Russell’s approach was to allow this biography to be driven by the music, letting its ambiance illuminate both the man and the filmmaker’s reactions to the man. Russell believed (and still does) that a man may lie, but his art doesn’t.

Much of all this was lost on 1970 audiences, who (forgetting that the same charges of excess had originally been leveled against the music) only saw the sensationalism, not in the least because Russell dared to openly address the composer’s homosexuality.

Russell convinced United Artists to undertake the risky proposition of a movie about a classical composer by telling them, “It’s about a homosexual who marries a nymphomaniac.” While this was not an unfair assessment, it was also an oversimplification – for the film, at bottom, examines the consequences of sublimating one’s nature, an act that both destroyed Tchaikovsky and made his music what it is.

Centered on two strong performances – Richard Chamberlain as Tchaikovsky and Glenda Jackson (fresh from her Oscar win for Russell’s Women in Love) as his hapless wife – Russell crafted a film of immense beauty and raw power. It was unlike anything seen at the time – and in many ways, it still is.

This film contains adult content.

Director/Producer: Ken Russell Writer: Melvyn Bragg (based on the book Beloved Friend by Catherine Drinker Bown and Barbara von Meck) Editor: Michael Bradsell Cinematography: Douglas Slocombe Music: Peter Illyich Tchaikovsky Production Company: Russ-Arts, United Artists Cast: Richard Chamberlain, Glenda Jackson, Kenneth Colley, Isabella Telezynska, Max Adrian, Maureen Pryor


Friday, 6:30 – 10 p.m.
Diana Wortham Theatre presented by Sonopress
111 minutes

It’s the 30th anniversary of Ken Russell’s film of The Who’s rock opera, Tommy, and while the film has withstood the test of time on its own merits, the immensity of its achievement as a startlingly fresh approach to filmmaking is more apparent when considered in the context of 1975. Thirty years ago, there’d simply been nothing like it. There was no such thing as MTV – in fact, the immense debt owed to Russell’s film by the music-video form is incalculable. It’s also worth noting that Tommy was the first film to use the Dolby recording system, and the first film to be made in Surround Sound, albeit in an experimental form called “Quintophonic” sound. Everything about the film was new, fresh, shining.

The ad campaign claimed, without characteristic hyperbole, “Your senses will never be the same.” More than a movie, Tommy was an experience. And it remains so. It still offers a brilliant, unabated assault on the senses – there are more than 150 cuts in the “Pinball Wizard” sequence alone. Russell’s movie was also the first interpretation of Pete Townshend’s rock opera to place its Eastern-based mysticism in a Western, Judeo-Christian context.

Remaining true to Townshend’s basic story and themes, Russell crafted a film that was personal and relevant to him – a Catholic allegory that detailed the malaise of postwar Britain. Its dim view of modern times ultimately gives way to a hopeful belief in redemption, even universal salvation. And while these themes were inherent in the source material, Russell’s interpretation presented them in a more suggestive manner, allowing his audience to decipher them on their own terms.

The Christian imagery is inescapable: Tommy’s father (Robert Powell) is crucified on a WWII airplane. Roger Daltrey’s Tommy, a smasher of false religion, is envisioned as Christ with a crown of thorns made of Remembrance Day poppies. The nonstop baptism imagery includes the notorious baked-bean scene in which Tommy’s mother (Ann-Margret, nominated for an Oscar) wallows in a cascade of soap suds, beans and chocolate spewed into her bedroom through a TV screen. Her consecration amounts to a complete immersion in the world of materialist consumerism. But this profane episode is countered by at least five spiritually cleansing baptisms, making it clear that Tommy is essentially about redemption. A cinematic experience like no other.

Director: Ken Russell Producer: Robert Stigwood, Ken Russell Writer: Ken Russell (based upon the rock opera by Pete Townshed) Editor: Stuart Baird Cinematographer: Dick Bush, Ronnie Taylor Music: Pete Townshend, John Enwistle, Keith Moon, “Sonny Boy” Williamson Production Company: Robert Stigwood Organisation, Columbia Pictures Cast: Oliver Reed, Ann-Margret, Roger Daltrey, Elton John, Eric Clapton, Jack Nicholson, Tina Turner

Women in Love

Saturday, 2:30 – 4:30 p.m.
Fine Arts Theatre, lower
129 minutes

Ken Russell’s film version of the D.H. Lawrence novel, Women in Love, is the film that established Russell’s status as a world-class filmmaker. The year was 1969 – the ratings system was only a year old – and nothing that had been made up to that time had prepared audiences for this no-holds-barred adaptation of Lawrence’s overtly sexual novel. It is still somewhat shocking today – particularly the famous nude wrestling match between Oliver Reed and Alan Bates, because full-frontal male nudity is still pretty rare, let alone scenes with male homoerotic overtones.

Yet the film offers considerably more. It’s a philosophical examination of sex, uses of sex, and sexual identity. Lawrence’s novel is loosely autobiographical in nature, with Rupert Birkin (played in the film by Alan Bates) personifying the Lawrence character. In essence, the film tells the story of Birkin’s search for a relationship with a man that’s on even footing with the relationship he has with Ursula Brangwen (Jennie Linden) – and how that search impacts the object of his interest, Gerald Crich (Oliver Reed), and Crich’s paramour, Gudrun Brangwen (Glenda Jackson).

Russell manages, at times, to enhance the author’s own narrative by adding source material, such as having Birkin recite a Lawrence poem in the scene in which Birkin rudely demonstrates how to eat a fig. The film works as an adaptation of the novel, and as a biographical examination of Lawrence and his circle. It’s also a vehicle for Russell’s critique of Lawrence’s novel and his beliefs. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the film’s devastating final shot. (It’s worth noting that Russell today is far less certain of his own earlier views.)

Unbelievably beautiful – aided by brilliant cinematography by Billy Williams – and powerfully acted (Jackson won an Oscar for her performance), Women in Love is a rich film, one of Russell’s best. And it’s certainly one of the most intelligent translations of a book to a movie ever made.

This film contains adult content.

Director: Ken Russell Producer: Larry Kramer, Martin Rosen Writer: Larry Kramer, Ken Russell (uncredited), based on the book by D.H. Lawrence Editor: Michael Bradsell Cinematographer: Billy Williams Music: Georges Delerue Production Company: Brandywine Productions, United Artists Cast: Alan Bates, Oliver Reed, Glenda Jackson, Jennie Linden, Alun Webb, Catherine Wilmer, Vladek Sheybal


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