Sorry for the delay in getting this post up. It's been in the hopper for awhile; I was just never really that pleased with it….so I'm just getting it out here so I can kickstart this retrospective (which will run all month). Expect regular blogging from now until January. Yay. I hope you enjoy. See ya in the comments.
Ken Russell is a filmmaker who marches to the beat of his own drum; this is a trait that all auteurs have, and Russell is no different. Here is a man who makes the films he wants to make; critics and audience tastes be damned. There's something refreshing about this considering that in 2010 we're in the midst of what is possibly the stalest, most predictable and benign crop of "prestige" films an awards seasons has ever offered. However, there's also something maddening about doing a retrospective on a filmmaker who can all at once – sometimes within a 20 minute span – make you throw up your hands in praise of the visual artistry on display or make you throw up your hands in frustration at the lack of character development and coherent aesthetic. It makes for a viewing experience that is never dull, though, and if there is one thing that became abundantly clear after my first viewing of Russell's early crop of films is that I will not be short on material to talk about. Russell may be maddening because he seems a bit distracted at times by aesthetic in lieu of story, but one thing is for certain: Russell is never boring.
Russell parlayed his early success with British television into a job directing the rather ordinary (albeit good) spy film Billion Dollar Brain. However, Russell's first real theatrical success (and my jumping off point for this retrospective) was his interpretation of D.H. Lawrence's controversial Women in Love; it would also be the first and only time one of his films would garner mass critical acclaim.
During my undergrad, I had a professor who quipped that every English Literature major goes through a phase where they fall in love with D.H. Lawrence. It's true. Lawrence's writing is seductive and easy to digest; he writes in a style that not only romanticizes an ever changing, dehumanized industrial England, but he writes about the very things – sex, vibrancy, lust for life, etc. – that so many 18-20 year-old college students feel. Even though I preferred Lawrence's short stories to his novels, I could see what my professor was saying about Lawrence, and it's no wonder that Russell was attracted to the material, for he is a vibrant and exciting personality (he would later direct another film based on a Lawrence novel).
The story of Women in Love swirls around the industrialization of England pre-World War I as two sisters (the central characters to the novel's prequel, The Rainbow) named Gudrun (Glenda Jackson in an Oscar winning role), a sculptor, and Ursula (Jennie Linden), a school teacher, meet two men with whom they fall in love, explore England with, and eventually take a holiday to the Alps with where all four central characters clash in typical melodramatic Lawrence fashion. The men are Rupert (Alan Bates who is a perfect doppelganger for the author Lawrence), a school inspector, and Gerald (Oliver Reed), an industrialist and heir to a wealthy coal fortune. Sounds basic enough considering that this is a British "prestige" film made in 1969. However, Russell injects life into what would otherwise be a rather bland, ordinary British film from the 60's.
One way that Russell injects life into this story is by understanding the themes of Lawrence, especially in regards to the relationship between the two men that the sisters date. Much of the film captures the alluring dialogue and romanticized ideology that Rupert spews (again, views that the author himself shares) – in particular a speech about how to eat a fig…I'll let you make the obvious connection – and does a wonderful job of showing just how insufferable Rupert is. This is precisely the type of pretentious dialogue one would come to expect from a British film of this era, and you can't help but think that Russell is smirking behind the camera as he is about to put these society types through a kind of turmoil and emotional hell rarely visualized in British cinema at the time. Adding to the complexities and intricacies of the foursome is the underlying theme of homosexuality (a favorite of Lawrence), as Rupert and Gerald have an unsaid affection for one another which culminates in a scene that has made the film notorious. After a naked wrestling match by a fireplace, both Gerald and Rupert talk about how they have so much in common intellectually why they shouldn't physically be the same, too. This comes right before Gerald is to make an important decision that will certainly repress even further any feelings he may have for Rupert.
The opening of the film wonderfully juxtaposes the society that the sisters live in. As Russell opens his film – which feels very 60's British by the way – we see the sisters stepping out of their nice house and onto the coal-laden streets; they move further along onto a tram where they sit among a horde of faces caked in coal. It's a great bit of exposition, and shows how exciting Russell can be as the opening credits role over the actors, the camera sweeps through the ever-changing streets of Britain's industrial Midland.
Back to the main characters: The foursome – coupled off with Rupert and Ursula dating and Gerald and Gudrun forming their own relationship – is free and easy (it's easy to see why the film resonated with the free-love, bohemian crowd of the 60's) for awhile, but when tragedy twice strikes Gerald's life he sees the events as a catalyst to risk the good thing he has going with Gudrun, and asks her to marry him. Of course, this is a terrible idea as anyone who knows how these melodramas play out can clearly see that Gerald will soon feel suffocated, and even though Rupert and Ursula's love flourishes, Gudrun and Gerald suffer through nasty rows, stormy love affairs, and, in a horrifying moment in the film's dénouement, attempted murder.
The film, despite being an extremely involving story of love and the evolution of society, is notorious for its visual adaptation of Lawrence's novel; however, I would like to state that Women in Love is probably the one Russell film that contains the best acting and the best mix of narrative coherence and aesthetic beauty. For a short time, Russell was spoken in the same way that a young Stanley Kubrick was, and it's easy to see why he was so revered (and even referred to as the British Orson Welles in the 60's) at the time. Russell's dream like aesthetic is one of the things that I find so endearing about the auteur, and the aesthetic and visual metaphors in Women in Love perfectly capture the themes of Lawrence's novel (wrestling naked; frolicking naked through nature; skipping through nature by the lake – like most everything Lawrence a direct and overt contrast to the industrialization of the early 1900's).
The aforementioned "naked frolic through nature" shows Rupert, having just told his girlfriend about his love affair with Ursula, being knocked in the head, causing him to run through the fields naked. It's a bizarre scene notorious for being one of the first to show male nudity in a film; however, the scene is precursor to what would be a staple in all of Russell's biopics that would follow (especially The Music Lovers): an uninhibited, wild approach to art. This is definitely what draws Russell to the figures he likes to make movies about, but in Women in Love he establishes his modus operandi for how to film a scene that is wild and uninhibited. The scene begins with wild music and then winds down into silence as all we here are the sounds of nature and the panting of Rupert – who is bloodied a bit from his excursion – as he rubs a tree. Bizarre, no doubt, but precisely the correct tone for what Lawrence was going for with his themes dehumanization in his novel: Rupert is a romantic, and desperately seeks to get back to nature before industry takes it away.
Russell was audacious and flamboyant with his style as Fellini. Multiple scenes are set to music, and he just lets them play out; this was something not often seen in film – especially British film – in the 60's. These scenes range from hypnotic to maddening to ambient and dreamlike to viscerally invigorating; it's all in how Russell edits the music with the visuals (something that would become even more prominent in his experimental films like Mahler) as his actors seem to be simpatico with the filmmaker and his vision (and in what would become even more apparent with Russell's later films, he is definitely the father of the Rock film). There's a great scene where Glenda Jackson dances by a river, and at first the scene seems superfluous until we realize that Russell is showing us just why Gerald is so madly in love with her. However, Russell was not just adept at shooting or blocking a scene that was merely radical (the nude scenes…especially the famous "fireplace wrestling" match) or style for the sake of style; no, Russell was one of the best at pastiche (he borrowed from the best) and shows great command of his mise-en-scene as he directs as flawless a "prestige" picture one can conjure up. In one scene in particular on a boat at Gerald's estate (where Kubrick would later shoot Barry Lyndon), it's easy to see why Russell and his cinematographer Billy Williams were nominated for Oscars; it's a gorgeously lit scene that perfectly evokes the feeling of a late-summer party by a lake.
When the film's story tragically wraps-up in the Alps, I was surprised to find that I was so enthralled with the film. It's a perfect balance of Russell the auteur and great source material that isn't trumped by the visuals (a constant problem with a lot of Russell's films). The performances in Women in Love, which I have not talked a lot about, are all great. Bates is just the right amount of pretentious as Rupert; Reed, always fantastic at emoting with his facials, is perfect as the tortured Gerald; Linden is serviceable as Ursula; and Glenda Jackson is fantastic as the complex and demanding Gudrun – a role that rightfully earned her an Oscar. But the real star here is Russell who has made a film that makes me understand why so many of you voted for him in the retrospective poll. I had never seen a thing by Russell, and I'm glad I've started this journey because as controversial and inconsistent as he may be, he's still an important filmmaker that needs to be talked about.
Women in Love is one of his best films, and it's easy to see why so many people referred to it as his "prestige" film; however, that's not what makes it resonate with me. I'm all for style over substance and auterism (which is abundant in Russell's following films), but I've always maintained that any great film must have two things working for it: narrative and aesthetic. It's clear that Russell was a burgeoning force at the time in the film industry; an artist who I would dare say was a lot like Fellini. Russell was a visionary who marched to the beat of his own drum (much like Fellini, in case you wondering why I made that connection), and with Women in Love he made what is arguably his best film; a film that is both visually striking and rich in narrative. Perhaps the more apt comparison is to Orson Welles, a fellow auteur who started his career in the good graces of the critics and then began making more challenging films that were interested in stretching the medium.
Russell would take advantage of his fame in the British film industry to finance a handful of films about two of his favorite topics: the theater and composers. What followed were films that were all labors of love for the filmmaker, but were for the most part universally panned by the critical and commercial masses. But first, Russell decided to make one of the most controversial films ever made.
(Editor's note: I am going to talk about The Devils next even though it was released after the film that Russell would make after Women in Love, The Music Lovers, therefore causing me to discuss these films out of order. The reason for this is that I am planning on doing a mass post on all of Russell's 70's film about music/the theater.)