As announced last week when I indulged myself by fobbing off bits of sarcasm from old reviews as a column (the idea was to save time, but it didn’t), I spent a couple days this past weekend in Orlando and Winter Park (that’s Orlando with attitude) at the Florida Film Festival. I was curious to see the event and compare it to our own Asheville Film Festival, though everyone knows I went primarily to spend time with this year’s honoree, Ken Russell (the AFF honoree in 2005) and his wife Lisi.
So armed with a rental car, Mapquest directions and a lot of CDs, I set out at 4 a.m. on Friday morning, and after a drive I’ve decided I’m too old for anymore, landed at my hotel around 2 p.m. I would’ve been there a half hour sooner except—as Mapquest directions are wont to do—the fine details of the last bit of instructions contained a turn that gave me a 50-50 chance of going the right way. I got the bum side of the 50-50, of course. I settled into my room and gave the Russells a call at their hotel. (Yes, I could have stayed at their hotel, The Grand Bohemian, for $200 a night—special festival rate—but I’m more of a Days Inn $54.95 a night—special festival rate—kind of guy. And what is very La Vie de Boheme about a $200 a night hotel anyway?)
It was decided that since I’d been driving some considerable time—not to mention that the Orlando I knew from 20-odd years ago (the last time I was there was to see Ken’s Gothic in 1987) bears little relation to the Orlando of today—I should ride along to the opening night festivities with them. Thankfully, they had a very accomodating—and delightfully smart-assed—driver by the name of Chris and she didn’t object to ferrying me around with them. In less time than it took me to decompress from the drive, I found myself reunited with Ken and Lisi for the first time since 2005 and on my way to a press conference at the Enzian Cinema in Winter Park. No, the press conference wasn’t for me even though I was mistaken for Ken Russell once, and later mistaken for screenwriter Barry Sandler, despite resembling neither one. (At no point was I mistaken for George Romero, who I do resemble, but that only happens in Pittsburgh.)
Now, if you don’t know Ken Russell (and if you don’t, you haven’t been reading these columns very long), you should at least realize that at the age of 81, he’s still the enfant terrible of British cinema. This has manifested itself in films that are among the boldest and most controversial ever made, which I consider a good thing. It can also manifest itself in Ken being a bit of a devil, which I also consider a good thing. He can—and often does—delight in…how shall I put this…f**king with interviewers just a little. I’m sure they know this in many cases, since he takes no pains to hide it. The fact that he’d say something on the outrageous side and then wink at me made such moments a tiny bit obvious. I only wish I could have heard the on-camera interview he gave, but I was slightly out of range. However, to judge by the huge grin on the sound man’s face throughout the whole thing, I’d wager that he was in what we call “Full KR mode.”
We were then whisked away to some restaurant where, we were told, they did amazing things with artichokes. I was hoping for something extrovert and Karen Finley-like, but it involved eating artichokes—a practice I find amazing in itself. I missed most of this because I had to nip out into the parking lot to do my weekly radio gig with Matt Mittan via cell phone. I returned in time to find a pile of artichoke leaves and some vodka-based concoction awaiting me, but soon found we were due back at the Enzian for the opening night film.
For those unfamiliar with Orlando, the Enzian is kind of the area’s Fine Arts Theatre, but not quite. It’s an art theater, yes, but it’s more in the style of an elaborate mugs ‘n’ movies set-up. It was the up-and-coming venue for non-mainstream fare at about the same time I left the area (my old Orlando movie haunt was the Great Southern Music Hall) and I’d never been there. It’s a pleasant theater all told. The opening night film was somewhat less pleasant—something called Management starring Jennifer Aniston and Steve Zahn.
I didn’t object to the story or the acting especially, even if the story contained its share of the preposterous and clung too strongly to the basic rom-com formula with a penultimate “gloomy” reel that felt at least two reels long. What bothered me was the fact that I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie so completely devoid of style. It was as if the whole thing had been run through the de-styling machine. (In fairness, it was the director’s first film.) Alright, I confess to having taken a short nap during it—which likely had something to do with having been up since 3 a.m., driving 600 miles and having had a couple drinks. In any case, the company more than made up for it.
I could recite the highlights of the second day—including our trip to a mall where Lisi wanted to go to “the goth store” (a Hot Topic)—but let’s jump ahead to the evening’s festivities, which started with one of those fancy dinners I only ever attend if I’m on the comp list, which in this case I was. For some reason, the menu was based on the film A River Runs Through It, which had the downside of being a movie no one at our table had ever sat through the entirity of. “Have you ever seen it?” Barry Sandler asked me. “I saw part of it once and I wasn’t encouraged to see more.” And so it went, meaning of course that the cleverness of the menu was lost on us. Ken was served an oyster and quickly noted, “I had an oyster 55 years ago and haven’t recovered from the experience yet.” If that didn’t undermine the poshness of the multi-course meal, our driver’s announcement that the lemon ice cream on the dessert tasted like Lemon Pledge, followed by my tasting it and blurting out, “Jesus! She’s right. It tastes like my rental car smells!” did. I can only conclude that all in all we make for lousy gourmets.
But enough of this. I sound unappreciative, which I wasn’t, and like I wasn’t having a great time, which I was. And what was about to happen sent that great time into stratosphere mode. The centerpiece of the evening was a showing of Ken’s Crimes of Passion, which he made from Barry Sandler’s screenplay back in 1984. The film was shown at a Regal Cinema in one of their large stadium houses, and the print was Barry’s own 35mm copy, which may be the only complete 35mm copy there is.
If you don’t know Crimes, it was a film that plagued by the MPAA constantly slapping an X rating on it every time Ken and Barry submitted it. The MPAA said that it wasn’t so much any single scene or shot that was the problem. The feeling was that the material itself was inherently X-rated. They even argued that the film should be released with the X rating (this was pre-NC-17) rather than be compromised. (They also were hoping that such a move would re-legitimize the rating, which had not been seen on a mainstream film for 10 years at the time.) Unfortunately, New World Pictures demanded an R-rated version. This resulted in six minutes of cuts and a good deal of toned-down or deleted dialogue.
Though the complete version has long been available on video, Crimes of Passion has rarely been shown theatrically in the cut that Ken handed in. (We ran it at the 2005 festival—at midnight—and, in keeping with its legendary controversial nature, two people stalked out of that screening in high dudgeon, even though they’d been warned.) Seeing it as intended in 35mm (Barry’s print has held up remarkably well) in a packed theater was a revelatory experience. I don’t mean so much from my perspective on the film, because I’ve known it for 25 years, have seen it probably 30 times and am used to it. Even so, seeing it on the big screen gave me new appreciation for the lighting, composition and editing.
But more to the point was the audience reaction. There’s always a vibe with any audience, and this was a good one. The impact—the mix of shock and laughter (Barry’s script is often hysterically funny) and the sense of a true appreciation for the artistry of it all—was palpable. Beyond this, was the simple fact that you could sense that most of the viewers had quite simply never encountered this kind of white-hot intensity in a theater before. The effect was stunning.
And it didn’t stop there. There was a Q&A afterwards with Ken and Barry. At first, I wasn’t sure how this was going to play out when the question was posed, “You used Dvorak throughout the film, then right at the very end you use the ‘Dies Irae.’ Was there some reason for that?” It seemed a strange question to me, not in the least because Rick Wakeman’s adaptations of Dvorak’s “New World” Symphony make up the film’s musical track, while the “Dies Irae” is source music (that is, Tony Perkins plays it on the piano in the film). There’s also the simple fact that it fits the action. Ken took the latter tack, “Well, it’s the song for the dead, isn’t it? The reason for the choice is obvious. You’re just showing off that you know the ‘Dies Irae.’” (The questioner responded that had he been showing off, it would have been that he knew the Dvorak, which in all fairness is probably true.) From that moment on, Ken was in rare form—enjoying his abilities as a raconteur far more than he probably lets on.
For me the highlight came when someone said, “My parents saw Tommy when it first came out and they still talk about Ann-Margret in the baked beans. What was the inspiration behind this?” Well, I knew the right answer, and Lisi new the right answer. In fact, she tried to prompt Ken (who was only a few feet from us). He didn’t need it, because he had a better answer than the right one. Pausing just the right length of time, he simply responded, “Genius.” The minute he said it, I realized that it wasn’t just a better answer than the fact, but it was also true in its own right. No one who has seen Tommy has ever forgotten A-M in the baked beans.
Just when I thought the evening was over and the last question had been answered, the audience queued up with things for Ken to sign—and they’d come prepared. Some had his book on directing film, which seemed to be in heavy demand, but others had obviously long-prized pieces of Russelliana, like the original LP soundtrack of Tommy and a VHS copy of Mahler. There was obviously a great deal of love in that theater Saturday night.
I think a great barometer of just how well the whole thing went is told in the fact that Crimes started at 9 p.m. and runs 107 minutes. But it was well after 12:30 when we finally walked out of the theater. On the way out, something occurred to me—“You know, Ken, somewhere at home—safely in a box that I probably couldn’t find if I had to—there’s a postcard you sent me that concludes with the lines, ‘I’m off to Hollywoodland to make a picture called Crimes of Passion. It ought to be controversial.’ That just might be one of the few times in your life when you’ve been guilty of understatement.”
I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that there was an extra kick for me—one that proves that I’m still a hardcore fan at heart. This wasn’t the first time I’d sat next to Ken Russell at a screening. It had happened once before when I sat next to him at Tommy in 2005. It didn’t take long for the personal enormity of this to sink in. I was immediately drawn back to 1975 when my 20-year-old self sat transfixed and utterly blown away by my first viewing of Tommy—an event that changed my life forever. The idea that I would one day be sitting in a moviehouse next to the man who made these remarkable films would have seemed like the most outrageous science fiction level daydream then. (And I can hear T’other Ken in my mind’s ear saying, “Yes, well, it ought to have done,” to me.) That this has become part of my reality is as mind-blowing to me now as Tommy was then. I guess I’ll always be a big fanboy. At least I hope so.
Unfortunately, that was the end of the festival for me—and while a higher note probably couldn’t have been reached, I was sorry to go. Ken was showing his newest film—Boudica Bites Back, made with his students at the University of Wales—to Barry’s screenwriting class at the University of Central Florida on Monday. And even though I’m supposed to be receiving a copy of this, I’d have loved to see it with an audience. I’m told by Barry that the film and Ken and an hour long clip reel of highlights from other Ken Russell pictures went over with a bang—and that the students haven’t stopped talking about it. That’s as it should be.
Well, I’m back in Asheville and the Russells are by now back in England working on a new project. I hope they had as much fun as I did—and I hope they did get a photo of Ken with Jesus at the Holy Land theme park in Orlando (and that they send me a copy). But one of these days—not this year, but maybe next—I’m determined to have Ken back at the Asheville Film Festival.