Cranky Hanke’s Screening Room: Happy Birthday Ken Russell

This was originally going to be a column about great opening scenes in movies, but the more I played with that idea the more I found myself thinking about the fact that any such list of mine was going to include at least four openings from Ken Russell pictures (I’ll save what those are for the column in question). And since today Ken Russell turns 83—making him longest-lived enfant terrible in the history of cinema—I’ve opted for this instead.

I do not use the term enfant terrible loosely, flippantly or with any hint of disrespect. It’s simply a statement of fact. That is what he is and there’s no getting around it. Whether he courted it or not, controversy has followed him his entire professional life. In fact, I once suggested he legally change his name to Controversial Ken Russell. Rarely do you encounter a mention of him that doesn’t start off by calling him “Controversial filmmaker Ken Russell” or “Ken Russell, Britain’s perennial enfant terrible.” The only other filmmaker I can think of who has ever gone an entire career in that light is Orson Welles—and that’s pretty good company.

There’s an irony here, though, because Ken didn’t become a truly international figure in the film scene until 1969 with Women in Love—at which time he was 42 years old, which is getting a bit long in the tooth for an enfant of any kind. And while that film did startle the moviegoing world with its nudity—particularly the male frontal nudity of Oliver Reed and Alan Bates in the famous wrestling scene—it didn’t outrage most viewers or critics. (True, Rex Reed did suggest it be called Women in Heat, but then that’s Rex Reed, and it typically suggests a complete misreading of them film.) Indeed, it garnered Ken a Best Director Oscar nomination and won a Best Actress Oscar for Glenda Jackson. This would all change the next year when he made his last film for the BBC, Dance of the Seven Veils: A Comic Strip in 7 Episodes on the Life of Richard Strauss, and his theatrical film on Tchaikovsky, The Music Lovers. Here we find controversy and outrage aplenty.

The two films are, in my opinion, among Russell’s greatest works. It was not seen that way in 1970. Both were condemned with unusual fervor. The Music Lovers was called—among other things—“overwrought.” I can think of no other appropriate approach to a film on the man who wrote—and was often damned for writing—some of the most overwrought music of all time. A friend of mine once said that listening to Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony was “like being electrocuted.” That seems a fair description—and it appears that was the feeling many had about The Music Lovers. It didn’t help, of course, that the film openly dealt with Tchaikovsky’s homosexuality. This, of course, frightened the horses—even though it was pretty openly ackknowledged in music circles—because old style Hollywood biopics would never have gotten near such a topic.

But there was so much more here that went unnoticed. There were moments of quiet beauty—something that exists in Tchaikovsky’s music, too, no matter what his detractors say. What was taken as a sensationalized view of Tchaikovsky’s life was really nothing of the kind. In the rush to attack the film, people missed the fact that this was no condemnation of Tchaikovsky, but was instead a celebration of the man and his work. Russell himself once remarked that few among us could have lived Tchaikovsky’s life and that fewer still would have “had the balls” to express that life in music. I think that’s pretty much spot on.

Even that doesn’t get to the core of the matter, because it’s also the first musical biography—even counting Russell’s own earlier TV films—that is completely driven by the music. The music isn’t dropped into the film, it propels the film. It is the film—that and Russell’s own reaction to the music. Russell is like a conductor from the old school of conductors like Leopold Stokowski who truly interpreted the music, and what he did with The Music Lovers is create something that might best be described as cinematic symphony of and on Tchaikovsky.

More misunderstood still is Dance of the Seven Veils—not in the least because it’s legally only been shown once. That was in its original transmission by the BBC in 1970. The furor commenced immediately—and such a furor it was! Questions were even raised about it in Parliament and the indefatigable Mary Whitehouse (Britain’s “watchdog for morality”) went sofar as to try to sue the BBC. She failed, but the Strauss family succeeded in keeping the film from being shown again by placing an embargo on the Strauss music on its soundtrack, some of which was (and apparently is) still under copyright. And they have been tenacious in enforcing it, even to tracking down and squelching public showings at film festivals. Such a thing happened during the summer of 2005, which is why when we ran the film at the Asheville Film Festival that fall—as part of our tribute to Lifetime Achievement honoree Ken Russell—it was merely listed as a “special surprise film.” What the Strausses didn’t know didn’t stop the screening.

So why all the fuss? Well, mostly because the film—as its title might suggest—is a rather irreverent look at Richard Strauss. Worse, although this is historically documented, the film linked Strauss with Hitler and the Nazis. As such, the film has always been viewed—even by many of its admirers—as an attack on the composer. The BBC knew what they had, too. The film is prefaced with a disclaimer by a very proper BBC announcement, “Omnibus now presents a new film by Ken Russell, Dance of the Sevel Veils. It’s been described as a harsh and sometimes violent caricature of the life of the composer Richard Strauss. This is personal interpretation by Ken Russell of certain real and many imaginary events in the composer’s life, among them are dramatized sequences about the war and the Nazi persecution of the Jews, which include scenes of considerable violence and horror.” So there.

All that is true—and a good deal more, since it doesn’t take into account the film’s sexuality, nor does it touch on elements of religion in the film that could be—and were in some cases—viewed as blasphemous. (I’d argue that they aren’t blasphemous in the least, but that they depict blasphemy.) Fair enough, I suppose, but this misses part of the point of the film and misrepresents other aspects completely. There’s no denying that Russell meant the film to be shocking—and for more than one reason.

First, it was a reaction to the strandard approach to biopics with their stock period detail being used as little more than a smokescreen for the sanitized content therein. Russell wanted a film that went for the truth in a manner that was completely unrealistic and yet contained more actual truth than any Hollywood biopic ever had. Second, he wanted to shock complacent TV viewers out of their complacency. And let’s not overlook the fact that it was his last film for the BBC—which he’d found both nurturing and confining—and he wanted to go out with a bang. He succeeded beyond his wildest imaginings on all counts. That it was a farewell to the BBC is evident in the final shot over his producer-director credit, which shows him in his cameo role as conductor of the imaginary orchestra in Strauss’ bedroom (conducting the orchestra to match the composer sexual antics). Russell turns, bows and steps down from the podium—goodbye “Auntie Beeb.”

In his 1989 autobiographical TV film A British Picture: Portrait of an Enfant Terrible he included clips—minus the Richard Strauss music, of course—from the film and commented that he felt that any composer who wrote a symphony “about bathing a baby wanted taking down a peg or two.” The statement is a little over the top only because Strauss’ Domestic Symphony—egotistical as it is—is about a bit more than bathing a baby (which Russell illustrates), but he has a point. And he does take Strauss down a peg or two or even more, but there’s something else at work here because there’s a cockeyed, good-humored fondness to the fun being had at Strauss’s expense. And Russell’s having fun with it—whether he’s dressing Strauss (Christopher Gable) up as Erich von Stoheim in Foolish Wives (1922), incorporating elements from the Marx Brothers in A Night at the Opera (1935), or poking fun at the often considerable heft of opera stars of the era. In these areas, the film is more playful than not.

Plus, there’s the scene where Strauss vanquishes his critics. It’s deliberately over-the-top—most everything in the film is, but for one telling moment that is usually overlooked or misread—it’s hard to deny that as a fellow artist, Ken Russell is firmly on Strauss’s side. Russell admitted—in a talk after the 2005 screening—that he had completely delighted in tackling the critics in this manner with Strauss, his characters and his orchestra sending the critical populace literally running into the woods, cornering them with gigantic brass sections, showing Strauss happily banging away on their heads encased in drums, and finally standing triumphant over their fallen bodies. The point is made—Strauss’s music will outlive its critics. It already has. I think the same will be said of Russell’s films.

Yes, but what about the Nazi angle? What indeed. OK, let’s be blunt about it—Strauss did curry favor with Hitler. That’s history. His reasons for it are mixed, but appear to have been a mix of expedience and a somewhat naive hope that Hitler would somehow promote German art and culture. Russell shows this and he doesn’t hold back—notably in a birthday part sequence where Hitler (Kenneth Colley), Goebbels (Vladek Sheybal) and Goering (James Mellors) are honored guests. Strauss literally dances (atop a piano) to Hitler’s tune and generally frolics with the head Nazis—even giving Hitler his latest recording (apparently on the Swastika label). This is pretty damning, as is a grisly sequence where Strauss urges the orchestra to play louder in order to drown out the screams of a Jewish man (Otto Diamant) while stormtroopers in the audience carve a Star of David on the man’s chest.

However, this isn’t the whole of the film—merely a part of it. It doesn’t take into account Strauss’s fall from grace with the Nazis by writing a letter to the Jewish Stefan Zweig, in which he committed to paper, “Do you believe I am ever, in any of my actions, guided by the thought that I am ‘German’? Do you suppose Mozart was consciously ‘Aryan’ when he composed? I recognise only two types of people: those who have talent and those who have none.” Having already angered the Nazis for insisting on putting Zweig’s name on the billing for an opera, and it was Strauss’s misfortune that it fell into the hands of the Gestapo and made its way Hitler. This lost him his position as head of the State Music Bureau and he was forced to write a very damning letter to Hitler avowing his loyalty. And the film depicts this. Moreover, it shows his wife (Judith Paris) affixing an old age mask to him at the writing of that letter, expressing something of the toll this took on him. I asked Ken point blank how he felt about this whole thing and was told that he didn’t blame Strauss—that the man “was up against the wall.”

That scene and that comment leads me to the film’s final scene, which is, in essence, a replay of the film’s opening—and refers back to another scene using the same setting, music and approach with Hitler—where Strauss climbs up a very tall, stylized structure to take his place at the podium as conductor of Also Sprach Zarathustra. In the opening scene, he’s a young man. In the closing, he’s an unsteady old man, who starts conducting very tentatively, but as the music takes hold, he rips off the mask of old age and is reborn as his youthful self. Personally, I find the scene intensely moving as expressing Strauss’s rebirth through his art, throwing off the shackles of the Nazis. However, others—and these are supporters of the film, mind you—have expressed their reading of it as the revelation of the “crypto fascist” still lurking underneath the frail old man. I completely disagree with this reading. It’s at odds with the film and it’s at odds with Russell’s usual worldview. I do wish the Strauss family would take another look at the film with my reading in mind and reconsider their stance on Dance of the Seven Veils.

I think the film is central to Ken Russell’s work, though it is. It plays like a 57 minute preview of what is to come. There are intimations of so very much that was to happen in Ken’s films over the next few years. There are elements of The Devils (1971), The Boy Friend (1971), Mahler (1974), Tommy (1975) and certainly Lisztomania (1975). Take one simple edit from Strauss as Zarathustra exalting in coming into the sunlight to a shot of the sun. In Tommy those two images will find their one into a single image—possibly the most powerfully iconic image in Russell’s entire career. Plus, I take the view that the film takes the most well-known piece of Strauss’s music—thanks to Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)—puts it back into context and then makes it its own. But even more, I think the film is a brilliant, personal look at Strauss—one that’s a hell of a lot more sympathetic than is generally perceived. (If you’ll look to your right you’ll see Lisi and Ken Russell, some wayward movie critic, and screenwriter Barry Sandler at the Florida Film Festival, March 2009.)

I really didn’t intend this to end up as a dissertation on Dance of the Seven Veils, but that’s alright. I’m good with it having taken that route. It’s a pretty reasonable little tribute to a great filmmaker on his birthday and I don’t think Ken would object. I made my usual happy birthday call to him in the middle of writing this, and was delighted to find him bright and cheerful and having a good day. He did admit that being 83 didn’t feel very much different than being 82, but that’s fine with me. I hope there will be many more birthdays where he feels exactly the same. Now, if everybody will raise a glass of Mumm’s Cordon Rouge and take the time to pop in the Ken Russell movie of choice (though there’s a shameful paucity of them on DVD), it’ll make for a perfect day. And with a final “happy birthday” to T’other Ken (as we call each other to differentiate), I think I’ll watch Dance of the Seven Veils again. (On the right Ken Russell on his 83rd birthday.)

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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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67 thoughts on “Cranky Hanke’s Screening Room: Happy Birthday Ken Russell

  1. Steve O'Rourke

    Hi, T’other Ken. Although it’s now the 4th, I still want to wish Ken a Happy 83rd Birthday.

    If you remember, I’m the guy that asked you to make a copy of “Dance”, and other films, for me. I’d still like to see them some day, but you have a job and I’m retired, so I understand this might not be possible.

    I did finally get to see “Dance” thanks to some kind soul who put it on a Very Popular Video Website in several parts. The color quality was poor, kind of a yellowish cast overall, but it was still watchable. I enjoyed it. Vladek Sheybal was particularly menacing as Goebbels.

  2. Ken Hanke

    If you remember, I’m the guy that asked you to make a copy of “Dance”, and other films, for me. I’d still like to see them some day, but you have a job and I’m retired, so I understand this might not be possible.

    Actually, the real reason has less to do with my job(s) than a computer crash that lost your mailing address and near as I can tell e-mail address. If you’d care to send them again, I’ll see what I can do.

    The color quality was poor, kind of a yellowish cast overall, but it was still watchable

    Mine may not be much better — look at the frame grabs as a guide. I’m very much afraid the source print was badly faded by the time it was transferred to tape.

  3. Chip Kaufmann

    I celebrated KR’s 83rd by watching BILLION DOLLAR BRAIN at the Carolina Cinema’s upstairs lounge. It just keeps getting better and better with Ed Begley sounding more and more like certain people today.

    You really do need to see KR’s movies on a big screen to get the full scope of his visual palette. I noticed more little details this time around than I ever have before and I’ve seen the film a number of times.

    There were few people there (it wasn’t really advertised as it was shown in connection with HARRY BROWN) but we traded comments during and after the film (Ed Begley reminded one woman of Strom Thurmond). A good time was had by all.

    Maybe the Asheville Film Society can work in “mini-tributes” so that we can see more of KR’s films and other directors of note like Orson Welles (since he was already mentioned).

  4. Ken Hanke

    You really do need to see KR’s movies on a big screen to get the full scope of his visual palette. I noticed more little details this time around than I ever have before and I’ve seen the film a number of times.

    Wish I’d had time to come see it on the screen, because I’ve never seen it that way. I know it’s a much better and more interesting movie than is generally allowed. Oscar Homolka is a lot of fun and it’s nice to see Vladek Sheybal show up. The real treat, though, is Ed Begley’s General Midwinter. Of course, Begley’s rant is the scene where Ken really gets his Russell on full-scale.

    There were few people there (it wasn’t really advertised as it was shown in connection with HARRY BROWN) but we traded comments during and after the film (Ed Begley reminded one woman of Strom Thurmond). A good time was had by all

    I’m glad to hear that and that anybody at all showed up. There really wasn’t any way to advertise it, though I mentioned the three Michael Caine movies in the “Weekly Reeler.” We perhaps need to come up with a small movie calendar thing that lists all the free movies that are showing in the course of the week.

    Maybe the Asheville Film Society can work in “mini-tributes” so that we can see more of KR’s films and other directors of note like Orson Welles (since he was already mentioned).

    We’re still trying to figure out how to do that. If I had nothing else to do and it was practical, I’d be real happy running two movies a night every night, but I suspect audience burnout would soon result.

    Speaking of Michael Caine, do you happen to know if that Region 2 UK release (not the earlier Spanish one) of The Wrong Box is letterboxed and anamorphic? Amazon UK doesn’t indicate anything.

  5. Chip Kaufmann

    I think this will answer your question (June 23 review from amazon.uk) although this reviewer didn’t like the movie…

    …”That being said, the picture quality is superb and the print is in anamorphic wide screen. From the director of “Seance On A Wet Afternoon”… maybe comedy wasn’t his forte”…

  6. Ken Hanke

    …“That being said, the picture quality is superb and the print is in anamorphic wide screen.

    Looks like I’ll be buying it then.

  7. Chip Kaufmann

    Regarding the idea of mini-tributes to directors, perhaps they could be scheduled in the lounge on Wednesday nights with one director highlighted each month. It could be done similar to how previous movies were shown at Pack Library.

    I’m willing to participate in such an arrangement and I think that other local movie critics would do the same. That way no one person would have to be there every week and I’m sure the Carolina wouldn’t mind selling a few extra concessions.

    The movies could be promoted on Tuesdays and Thursdays and if no one comes (which I don’t think will happen with publicity) then it can always be discontinued. The series could start next month or in September.

  8. Ken Hanke

    Regarding the idea of mini-tributes to directors, perhaps they could be scheduled in the lounge on Wednesday nights with one director highlighted each month.

    This certainly merits considertation and discussion. Are you going to be at any of this week’s showings? You have three choices since we have City of Lost Children on Wednesday to gear up for Micmacs opening on Friday.

  9. Chip Kaufmann

    I have a concert on Tuesday and can’t make Wednesday but I’ll be there on Thursday to see DR. PHIBES.

  10. lisi russell

    OMG, Young Cineaste, our Savage Messiah is gonna flip! Thank you! A great birthday present.

  11. Terry D

    Hi guys, if I may put my 2 cents in I thoroughly adore Ken Russell & have recently purchased some of his early work at the BBC which is out on DVD.
    As for his full length films-and I have seen alot of shocking cinema in my lifetime-but there was something so gobsmacking about the nuns casting off their habits (& sexual repression,I suppose)
    and resorting to such a frenzied attack in The Devils.It will stand as a major moment for me re: the impact of the visual medium. What’s even more amazing is that it was viewed on a television screen before cable completely uncut thanks to one of the metromedia channels beaming in the NY,NJ,area. Also Women in Love, so fraught with imagery & metaphor-oh let’s not forget Salome.
    But yes, The Music Lovers will stand the test of time & Madame Tchaikovsky’s stark sad fate at the end is truly horrifying.

  12. Ken Hanke

    Young Cineaste, our Savage Messiah is gonna flip! Thank you! A great birthday present.

    I told him yesterday that he might find this week’s column more interesting than usual.

  13. Ken Hanke

    Hi guys, if I may put my 2 cents in I thoroughly adore Ken Russell

    Anyone who types those last five words can put in 2 cents or more.

    I would like to do a really serious, in-depth retrospective with the Asheville Film Society — and probably will do as much of one as possible. (I don’t know if you’re local, so I don’t know how much good that will do you.)

    Chip is right — the films belong on a movie screen. Oddly, even the ones made for TV belong on a movie screen. Isadora on the big screen is astonishing. The problem is that there’s so little available and even less that’s available in a good copy. Even Women in Love has the drawback of still being a typical cheap MGM transfer that’s not anamorphically enhanced, making projecting it debatable. While there are lovely letterboxed laser releases of The Music Lovers and The Boy Friend, you’re right back to the anamorphic problem. The new DVD-R of Valentino is anamorphic and would work. I think Altered States is anamorphic, but Salome isn’t. Crimes of Passion, on the other hand is. The Devils doesn’t exist in any form that can be run currently. I’m not sure about the anamorphic status on the Region 2 Lisztomania, but that comes with the region issue, which I can defeat at home, though I’m not so sure about the theater. And so on. But I’m working on it.

  14. Terry D

    Yes I think true lovers of film really need to come together to view & discuss.I hate that I became ill on the last night of the Asheville Film Fest & therefore never had the chance to interact with Ken Russell when he was here, but it was so great to see The Music Lovers on the big screen.I love his Isadora,too.One thing about his films-they really stay with you your whole life. The images are so compelling & often surreal.Like the skeletel & broken bodies on the wheels as you enter Loudon for the very first time.Astounding. If anyone has come close to reproducing Hieronymous Bosch on the movie screen-its Ken Russell! Thanks for letting me share.

  15. Ken Hanke

    Yes I think true lovers of film really need to come together to view & discuss.

    Well, keep your eyes peeled for developments Russellian with the Asheville Film Society.

  16. Ken

    I first encountered Ken Russell films when I took Dr. Joe Gomez’ class on subversive film at NCSU. I guess that was 1989 or 1990. I just loved The Devils, which I watched on VHS. About the same time, I watched all of the KR films I could find (VHS, also). I did get to see The Lair of the White Worm in a mostly empty theatre. Such fun.
    There was something about that film (and Crimes of Passion, too) which communicated to me that Ken Russell was great, even when the film before me was apparently not.

    And there are folks out there protesting Harry Potter because of wizardry and so forth. I’d like them to all sit down and watch The Devils.

    Ken, do you know if The Devils has ever been released in the USA on DVD?

  17. Ken Hanke

    Sharp-eyed observers take note that a photo from the 2009 Florida Film Festival has been added and the bottom photo from The Music Lovers has been replaced with a photo of Ken on his birthday yesterday. Both are thanks to Lisi.

  18. Steve O'Rourke

    @ Ken 7:03 PM

    To the best of my knowledge, “The Devils” has never been on a US DVD. There are rumors going around that is going to be one REAL SOON – but that rumor has risen from the dead every year for at least the last 6 years.

  19. Ken Hanke

    How does this compare to the quality of your copy, Ken?

    I’d say mine is slightly better (and doesn’t have the time-code on it), but the sources are both prints that are rapidly fading to red.

  20. Ken Hanke

    To the best of my knowledge, “The Devils” has never been on a US DVD. There are rumors going around that is going to be one REAL SOON – but that rumor has risen from the dead every year for at least the last 6 years.

    Steve’s pretty much got it down. The legitimate commercial release of any DVD — 109 minute US cut, 111 minute UK cut, UK cut with retored “Rape of Christ” — is something I’ll believe in when I hold it in my hands.

  21. Steve O'Rourke

    If you want to risk it, there are downloads of “The Devils” with the restored ‘Rape of Christ’ scene floating around on the Internet, as well as the related documentary, “Hell on Earth”, hosted by Mark Kermode. Georgina Hale has a very funny story about the scene where Phillipe has her last time as Grandier’s lover.

  22. the indefatigable Mary Whitehouse
    That’s one word for her. Batty bint.

    And a very Happy Birthday to the incomperable Mr. Russell! Are we ever to see another KR feature film? There’s a peverse side of me that wants to see him take on the TWINKLIGHT movies…

    Co-incidentally, I was discussing Mr Russell with country singer-songwriter Jim Lauderdale (who seems to have heard of you, Ken H), briefly debating which was the master’s best film. He was pulling for WOMEN IN LOVE, I went for TOMMY.

  23. Ken Hanke

    If you want to risk it, there are downloads of “The Devils” with the restored ‘Rape of Christ’ scene floating around on the Internet, as well as the related documentary, “Hell on Earth”, hosted by Mark Kermode.

    There’s a version — sold remarkably openly — of the film that combines a cropped (about 1.85:1) VHS copy of a BBC transmission of the UK print with the “Rape” (taken from “Hell on Earth) in full 2.35:1. This is probably the same thing. It’s not awful — better than any commercial release ever has been — but the VHS is on the watery side and cropping it (presumably for 16X9 TVs) is annoying.

  24. Ken Hanke

    That’s one word for her. Batty bint

    Oh, expand my slang. I’ve never encountered “bint” before.

    Co-incidentally, I was discussing Mr Russell with country singer-songwriter Jim Lauderdale (who seems to have heard of you, Ken H)

    Does this mean I’m going to have to…like a country singer-songwriter?

    briefly debating which was the master’s best film. He was pulling for WOMEN IN LOVE, I went for TOMMY.

    I’m on your side.

  25. I’ve never encountered “bint” before.
    Oh, I’m sure you have. I’m fairly certain it pops up in Python a few times, not least of which:
    ‘If I went around saying I was an emperor because some moistened bint lobbed a scimitar at me they’d put me away!’

  26. Ken Hanke

    I’ll tell him Cranky Hanke’s in my corner.

    That may not be an iron-clad winning argument.

  27. Me

    Ken your not so big of a fan you watched Celebrity Big Brother are you?

  28. RayAllen43

    You may be interested to know that I was at a public showing of the film at MOMI in Queens at the Ken Russell retrospective season in 2004. This was the showing mentioned in Lanza’s book ‘Phallic Frenzy.’ I was on holiday in NY from my home in Brighton, UK and viewed several Ken’s films including ‘Lisztomania’ which received a standing ovation from the audience. As I remember it, the print on that occasion was also very sepia.

  29. Ken Hanke

    Ken your not so big of a fan you watched Celebrity Big Brother are you?

    I might have done had it been easily available to me, but so far as I know it wasn’t. I followed it. I saw some clips from it. I understood his reasons for taking them up on the offer.

  30. Ken Hanke

    You may be interested to know that I was at a public showing of the film at MOMI in Queens at the Ken Russell retrospective season in 2004.

    I spoke with someone from that retrospective in 2005, because we weren’t sure of getting a copy and were looking for a back-up. After talking to them I’m pretty sure we were working from the same source print.

    ‘Lisztomania’ which received a standing ovation from the audience

    And it damn well deserved to.

  31. Barry Clarke

    I’ve never encountered “bint” before.

    This was a word used in the early 70’s especially in my area of Yorkshire – not sure which came first the Monty Python reference or our use of it ?
    Also, I pull more towards ‘Women in Love’ which is my 3rd favourite Ken Russell film – indeed any film as my top 3/ 4 are all Ken Russell films.
    Re: Big Brother – I was in Jamaica when I found out and only saw clips on youtube but in a way I am glad Ken went on it even though I can’t tell you how much I hate the programme but ‘purple passion’ describes it every well ?

  32. Barry Clarke

    I am not a Lisztomania fan even though I can take out scenes which are genius but overall it ain’t up there for me….

  33. Barry Clarke

    Well, my take on hin doing BB is to get himslef noticed again – there aren’t enough Ken Russell missionaries (like me) out there to keep the flame raging only alight…..

  34. Ken Hanke

    I am not a Lisztomania fan even though I can take out scenes which are genius but overall it ain’t up there for me….

    For me, it’s one of his finest works — easily in the top three or four. I fully believe it will one day be recognized as a truly great film. I also believe it will always be controversial and divisive. I like that.

  35. Ken Hanke

    Can you divulge some of his reasons?

    It’s pretty simple actually. He felt it was the cultural phenomenon of the time and that it would have been wrong to ignore it and the offer. Does it actually need justifying, though?

  36. lisi russell

    Yes, true, Ken, re Big Brother. I might add that losing his house and all his possessions in a fire and being homeless for a few months, camping out in a pub with a borrowed toothbrush, gave Mr Russell a “what the heck” bravado that winter. (Thanks again to Mr Hanke for airlifting in emergency DVDs and CDs during that post-traumatic period.) T’Other Ken and I had just made a short film in Bradford called “Charlotte Bronte Enters the Big Brother House” and when he got the phone call to do the same, it seemed to T’Other Ken that he’d somehow conjured it up; he felt compelled to follow through.

  37. Barry Clarke

    And, he had you Lisi…and I would have flown in DVDs and CDs if I could have ?
    And, I didn’t realise the Haworth/ Bradford film came before BB until now.

  38. Ken Hanke

    He also, if I recall, had daffodils and put great stock in everything being alright as long as there were daffodils.

  39. DrSerizawa

    For someone who has seen only a couple of Russell’s works.. namely Lair of the WW, Gothica and Altered State.. which of his works would you recommend to get the best of Russell?

  40. lisi russell

    Thanks, Barry. Yes, Ken! The daffodils meant everything was all right, T’Other Ken said. Thank you for reminding me of that moment. I’d recommend Tommy, Music Lovers, Song of Summer, Savage Messiah, Women in Love and Mahler in a best of list, or alternately, whichever one you happen to be watching at the moment.

  41. Steve O'Rourke

    DrSerizawa:

    For me, his greatest artistic triumph would be “The Devils”; for a more accessible, commercial film, “Altered States”.

  42. Ken Hanke

    For someone who has seen only a couple of Russell’s works.. namely Lair of the WW, Gothica and Altered State.. which of his works would you recommend to get the best of Russell?

    The answer is so constrained by the miserable state of KR DVDs in this country. What you have are:

    Billion Dollar Brain
    Women in Love
    Mahler
    Tommy
    Valentino
    Altered States
    Crimes of Passion
    Gothic
    Lair of the White Worm

    and there’s the BBC set, which is a must-see, since it contains Elgar, The Debussy Film, Always on Sunday, Isadora, Dante’s Inferno, and Song of Summer — all of which are essential.

    My knee-jerk response is always going to be Tommy, but that’s my favorite film of all time, so it would be. And it might to some degree not be to your liking if you don’t like the material or, possibly, if you like it too much and feel that the original Who album is sacred.

    If you have a region-free player, you can add Lisztomania and The Rainbow to the list.

    Do not accept watching The Music Lovers or The Boy Friend on VHS — nor Lisztomania, nor The Devils if it comes to that. All of them are full widescreen and suffer badly. Seeing Savage Messiah on VHS is acceptable as an alternative to not seeing it. Occasionally, TCM runs The Boy Friend.

    Some of the DVDs are imperfect. Women in Love is not anamorphic. Mahler and Gothic are both full-frame, but they appear to me to offer more top-to-bottom information as opposed to losing side-to-side. The same is true of Salome’s Last Dance, though it’s long of out of print.

  43. Ken Hanke

    For me, his greatest artistic triumph would be “The Devils”;

    A lot of people would agree with that. Its greatness I don’t question — its greatestness doesn’t hold true for me, though. In any case, the best you can do with it at the moment is pick up that bootleg, imperfect though it certainly is.

  44. Barry Clarke

    I can’t really add to the recommendations above because every KR film has something to offer – my favourite being ‘The Devils’ but as Ken H says no official DVD yet…..I, by default say ‘The Devils’ – I probably mention it every day of my life in some way ?

  45. lisi russell

    Ken, thanks for the very useful information about which DVDs are out and the quality of each. Director’s cut or UK Boy Friend has made me resistant to edited version, and the Devils bootleg quality is sub-par but all’s well that’s better than nothing. (Mixed platitudes.) Me: Celebrity Big Brother is very different in the UK. (It’s banned, now, actually, then was restored and burned and crashed.) It was framed as anthropological study in the mainstream press, due largely to Germaine Greer’s iconic participation and the intellectual bias of the better periodicals here! I thought the Devils was removed from iTunes a week later? The case of the Movie That Is Mysteriously Considered
    Too Hot to Handle.

  46. Ken Hanke

    I know i mentioned it in another post and i know its not the ideal format but The Devils finally got released in the US recently on itunes

    Has anyone determined if it’s still there? The story I read had an update saying it had disappeared.

  47. Ken Hanke

    Director’s cut or UK Boy Friend has made me resistant to edited version

    At least even the VHS is the UK 137 minute cut, but only the musical numbers are letterboxed. The rest of pan-and-scan.

    I thought the Devils was removed from iTunes a week later? The case of the Movie That Is Mysteriously Considered Too Hot to Handle

    That was my information, but possibly it’s back? I still think it’s somewhere beyond appalling that this film — a major work of cinematic art — is being treated in this shabby manner.

  48. Me

    I don’t see it anymore on itunes. I haven’t seen the Devils but could it have been filtered some how through that itunes porn thing that ive been hearing a lot about in the news.

  49. Steve O'Rourke

    “In the closing, he’s an unsteady old man, who starts conducting very tentatively, but as the music takes hold, he rips off the mask of old age and is reborn as his youthful self. Personally, I find the scene intensely moving as expressing Strauss’s rebirth through his art, throwing off the shackles of the Nazis. However, others—and these are supporters of the film, mind you—have expressed their reading of it as the revelation of the “crypto fascist” still lurking underneath the frail old man. I completely disagree with this reading. It’s at odds with the film and it’s at odds with Russell’s usual worldview.”

    “At this point I have his wife put on him the mask of an old man, for Strauss has finally admitted his weakness and dependence on Hitler’s favor. Later, after the war, when he is conducting the Zarathustra in London after he has been completely exonerated by the allies of having endorsed the Nazi regime, the music swells to a crescendo and I have Strauss rip off the mask of the old man; he is still the crypto Nazi with the superman fantasy underneath the facade of the distinguished elderly composer.”

    Interview with Ken Russell, Film Comment, Fall 1970

  50. Ken Hanke

    I don’t for a moment doubt he said that in 1970. I would be very surprised if he holds that same opinion 40 years later. And I’m not saying that glibly or lightly, but based on conversations we’ve had and on his remarks after the 2005 screening.

  51. Steve O'Rourke

    I agree with your take on that scene. But what Ken said in the interview probably didn’t soften the Strauss family’s hostility to the film. And for the people who got the idea of the crypto-Nazi interpretation from Ken himself, once rung, it’s impossible to unring a bell.

  52. Ken Hanke

    I agree with your take on that scene. But what Ken said in the interview probably didn’t soften the Strauss family’s hostility to the film.

    And the comment was, in turn, very likely made because Ken was pissed off with the Strauss family and it escalates from there.

    And for the people who got the idea of the crypto-Nazi interpretation from Ken himself, once rung, it’s impossible to unring a bell.

    Oh, undoubtedly, especially if it suited them. I saw someone cite the fact that Ken had called Lisztomania a failure as proof that it is. Fine — except since then he’s twice called the film the best thing he ever made. And don’t even get me started on Women in Love is not a “gay film” and Rupert isn’t making a “homosexual pass at Gerald,” because that was palpable nonsense even when Ken said that — and I’m pretty sure he knew it. I don’t always see these films the same way and I don’t always rank them in the same order (except Tommy will always be the masterpiece for me), so I see no reason to expect Ken to.

  53. Steve O'Rourke

    Ken has a funny story to tell in the two-part BBC doc, “Empire of the Censors”. Apparently, the Brazilian censors cut so much of the nude wrestling scene that there was a bigger uproar than elsewhere, because audiences thought that homosexual intercourse HAD taken place!

    “Tommy ” was the first Ken Russell film I saw, with some, er, chemical enhancement, shall we say? It’s still a great film (and despite what some people have said, Pete Townsend likes it), but some of the special effects, i.e., the bluescreen scenes, have long since shown their age. But that was the state of the art for that time.

  54. Steve O'Rourke

    By the way, are you going to get to the retrospective at Lincoln Center? If I can work out the money and the logistics of traveling by train from Connecticut, I’m going to try to make the evening showing, with Ken in attendance.

  55. Ken Hanke

    It’s still a great film (and despite what some people have said, Pete Townsend likes it

    Considering that Townshend sent Ken a three page letter of admiration on the occasion of the May 21 screening of the restored print, I’d say the claim that he doesn’t is hard to support.

    but some of the special effects, i.e., the bluescreen scenes, have long since shown their age. But that was the state of the art for that time.

    The bluescreen stuff is blessedly only the last little bit of “I’m Free.” The other effects in “Amazing Journey” and “Acid Queen” still look pretty good. And the opening and closing shots haven’t — for me — lost their power.

    By the way, are you going to get to the retrospective at Lincoln Center?

    I’ve been invited. I even have an offer to stay with Ken and Lisi. Much as I’d love to, finances and my compromised respiratory system (tromping about the streets of the city are a thing of the past for me) are probably prohibiting it. I take some solace in the announcement below:

    http://www.ashevillefilm.org/

  56. Steve O'Rourke

    I should have mentioned that I’m going to try to make the evening showing of “The Devils” on the 30th. I hope there’s an autograph session, so I can get Ken to sign my movie tie-in copy of Aldous Huxley’s book.

    I wasn’t saying that people were saying Townsend didn’t like the film – although I have read that The Who were dubious about Ken’s vision for the film at first, but eventually came around – I was making mention of the fact for the benefit of those who hate the film, or anything of Russell’s as a knee-jerk reaction. (On the very day that the BBC set became available on Netflix, there were already 60+ negative reviews – before anyone could even have rented it.)

    The only reason I don’t own a copy of the DVD is that I’m concerned that the transfer is as bad as the VHS – specifically the train station scene, where Captain and Mrs. Walker are running through a cloud of steam. In the film, you’ll remember, we see them to the end of their run; in the VHS, they disappear almost immediately.

  57. Ken Hanke

    I hope there’s an autograph session, so I can get Ken to sign my movie tie-in copy of Aldous Huxley’s book.

    I have no idea, but do bear in mind that Ken is 83.

    I wasn’t saying that people were saying Townsend didn’t like the film – although I have read that The Who were dubious about Ken’s vision for the film at first, but eventually came around

    I knew you weren’t. I was merely backing you up. Much of what has been written is and always has been projection. Did Ken and Townshend always agree? No. (My favorite was Townshend’s notion to have Tiny Tim do “Pinball Wizard” on the idea that it would be great to hear the song played on a hundred ukuleles.) But Ken was Townshend’s choice to make the film. There was a certain amount of after-the-fact resentment, but that had more to do with being annoyed with Daltrey for causing a postponement of a Who project by signing on to do Lisztomania than with the film of Tommy.

    The only reason I don’t own a copy of the DVD is that I’m concerned that the transfer is as bad as the VHS – specifically the train station scene, where Captain and Mrs. Walker are running through a cloud of steam. In the film, you’ll remember, we see them to the end of their run; in the VHS, they disappear almost immediately.

    Nothing has ever been as bad as the VHS, though the first laserdisc was nothing to brag about. The DVD — both the original and the “Superbit” — is very good. And, yes, you can seen them all the way through the steam, though it does (always has) get pretty thick just before the cut to the medium shot. We ran the non-Superbit DVD in 2005 at the Asheville Film Festival (an archival print was out of the question because of restrictions on the projection of archival prints*) and I happened to notice the other day that Ken called the image “pristine” in his Q&A after the screening. That said, this version will soon be replaced by a Blu-ray of the remastered and restored version.

    *Archival prints can only be run on a two projector set-up. They cannot be spliced together into a single film on a platter. The problem is that outside of certain theaters in LA, NY and probably Chicago, two projector set-ups are non-existent. In fact, I know only one person who has ever run a two projector system — and that’s me 36 years ago at a drive-in.

  58. lisi russell

    Ken, T’Other Ken still extends the invitation to sleep on his couch and share an oxygen tank or two. But we will settle for phone calls. Steve, Ken will certainly sign your book if you say I’m Steve, the one from Connecticut. Ken, you are very right about your acute insights, especially about Strauss and Townshend. And yes, Ken knew Women in Love was homo-erotic and homo-emotional. I just saw it in Montreal in 35 mm on the big screen with T’Other Ken and I must say that, given that I’ve seen it too many times, it is an impeccably realized work of art on so many levels. Tommy and Savage Messiah are my favorites, but Women in Love is perfect, especially if you’re interested in Lawrence and Otteline Morrell and Catherine Mansfield and the characters he was writing about, or the transition of the coal mining industry.

  59. Ken Hanke

    Ken, T’Other Ken still extends the invitation to sleep on his couch and share an oxygen tank or two.

    You’ve no idea how tempted I am, but I’m still doubting it happening — even with oxygen offer.

    but Women in Love is perfect, especially if you’re interested in Lawrence and Otteline Morrell and Catherine Mansfield and the characters he was writing about, or the transition of the coal mining industry.

    How ’bout three out of four? I just can’t say that transition of the coal mining industry is something that squats on my brain like a octopus so that I think about it all that much.

    By the way, by the bye and by the pound, I’m making headway and should have all those discs for the Museum of B’casting on their way by Monday. (Also bonus of T’other Ken and me at the 2005 Tommy Q&A and the awards ceremony.)

  60. Steve O'Rourke

    I hate to use KH’s Screening Room as a social network, but I have one last (I swear!) question for Lisi: should I introduce myself before or after the film?

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