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Arts & Culture

Rants And Raves: Ken Russell

Alan Bates and Oliver Reed in Ken Russell's "Women in Love."
United Artists
Alan Bates and Oliver Reed in Ken Russell's "Women in Love."

Audacious British Director Passed Away Sunday

Ken Russell defined an era of trippy, hallucinogenic, envelope-pushing filmmaking in the 70s. The 84-year-old British director passed away on Sunday after a series of strokes.

Ken Russell made films that seemed to shock audiences. And that was a good thing. He defied expectations, challenged taboos, and refused to deliver conventional films. He wanted to shake viewers up and jolt them out of their complacency in order to show them what filmmaking could be like if you removed restrictions. For Russell those restrictions rarely came from himself but rather from outside. But that never stopped him.

Women in Love (Ken Russell, 1969)

Russell began as a still photographer, moved on to shorts and documentaries, and made his first feature in 1967 (stepping in for the last film in the Harry Palmer spy franchise, "Billion Dollar Brain"). But that was the last time he made anything that smacked of a studio film. His next film, "Women in Love" (1969) gained notoriety as one of the first to show full frontal male nudity. Oliver Reed and Alan Bates participated in the infamous nude wrestling scene while actress Glenda Jackson walked away with a Best Actress Oscar.

The Devils (1971) Trailer

Three years later Russell ran into censorship problems with his adaptation of "The Devils." The film, which dealt critically with the Catholic Church, was banned in Italy, and its stars, Oliver Reed and Vanessa Redgrave, were threatened with jail if they entered the country. The film, even today, is provocative and magnificent. It is by far Oliver Reed's best performance. It also boasts stunning sets by future director Derek Jarman.

Age would not tame Russell's wild spirit. In the 70s he gave us "Tommy," "Mahler," "Savage Messiah," and "Valentino." In the 80s, "Altered States," "Crimes of Passion," "Salome's Last Dance," and "The Lair of the White Worm." And in the 90s, "Whore" and an segment in "Tales of Erotica." His work sadly slowed to a trickle in the new millennium but nothing could dim or dull all the audacious creativity that came before.

Ken Russell rarely made perfect films because perfection is too neat and clean. Russell made something so much more exciting and memorable -- he made films that jolted you with the possibilities of the medium and could change not only your expectations about film but even about how you looked out into the world.

Ken Russell will be missed and there is no one quite like him to fill the void left by his passing. No one with his unique mix of passion, daring, and sheer determination to not deliver anything mundane. I imagine he's not resting in peace wherever he's at but is already setting about to cause trouble and raise a ruckus.