Saturday, July 23, 2011

Ken Russell: Crimes of Passion

Yes, I’m still doing this. Real life things like buying a home, finishing my masters degree, and getting a full-time job have derailed the momentum I had during the winter, but I am determined to finish this retrospective in the next couple of weeks. Enjoy.

One of the traits I’ve really come to admire about Ken Russell throughout this retrospective is that the man – who follows his own trajectory, studios be damned – seems like he wants to just make a movie, be done with it, and then move on to the next project. I don’t mean to suggest that Russell doesn’t have a personal investment in any of his films (although, some are obviously more personal than others), but I actually liken him to one of my favorite bands. Follow me here for a moment: the band I’m speaking of is called Portugal. The Man. They have a general philosophy about music and it goes something like this: the members of this Portland, OR band feel that time spent in the studio tinkering with an album can lead to stagnation – it can lead to a process where they, as musicians, begin to over-think things to the point where they don’t release anything at all. They embrace the idea that music is not perfect, and that they will always evolve (in ability, sound, influences, etc.) as musicians. I’ve read articles where the members of the band talk about how when they tour is the time they tinker with their material (I’ve seen them many times and they don’t adhere to any set list, and their songs always sound different live). Essentially, they believe that they should always be releasing and creating because the real work comes on the road (up until this year, they had released an album a year for their first four albums), and that once their album is done…it’s done; it’s time to move onto the next thing.

Okay, what does this have to do with Ken Russell? I thought of this example during my viewing of Crimes of Passion – Russell’s second, and final, American film. Here’s a film that’s less interesting than most Russell films tend to be; the film, as a whole, doesn’t come off as anything that is singularly Russell or important; it’s just a movie. This is Russell just creating something and then moving on from it towards his next project. That doesn’t make certain aspects of Crimes of Passion any more uninteresting than his previous American endeavor Altered States, and it also doesn’t mean that the film isn’t made with any less effort than his more “personal” films like Savage Messiah or Mahler (just like I can’t claim that one Portugal. The Man album is any less “personal” than the other just because they release one a year). Crimes of Passion seems like just another film for Russell; it reeks of a filmmaker just going through the motions. But that’s not to say that the film isn’t without the trademark Russell moments: ridiculous and insane visual charms that only a filmmaker like Russell can conjure up.

Russell doesn’t strike me as a filmmaker who over-thinks things – sure he’s a bit rowdy on set, and his films are almost always some kind of experimental mind-trip – but I don’t think Russell’s over-thinking things with his post-Tommy films: Valentino seems like just a movie, Altered States seems like just a movie (Russell cut out a lot of the “thinking” parts of Chayefsky’s script), and Crimes of Passion seems like just a movie. What I mean is that they don’t seem to be the Russell of the early ‘70s who’s really trying to say something profound about his society or tackling some big issue like organized religion. This is evidenced by the DVD commentary where throughout Russell can be heard stating that (paraphrase): “I don’t know what that is, or why it is there…but obviously there was a good reason for putting that in there!” This is heard on more than one occasion during the commentary, and even though the film is filled with bizarre imagery, music video montages, and all of the typical Russell-isms, Crimes of Passion feels like just a movie – a movie at time that I kind of liked in a guilty-pleasure kind of way in spite of its silliness (but what Russell film isn’t somewhat silly) – another sign post in Russell’s oeuvre showing a filmmaker who was willing to make anything and everything, and that maybe we can’t read too much into his later films; maybe the man just wanted to create.

Even with the title of “guilty pleasure,” one cannot overlook how painfully stupid the film’s plot is, and in order for me to kinda, sorta praise this movie (what the hell is wrong with me), I have to not even think about the plot or the wasted talents of its two stars. The plot, as is the case with most of Russell’s films, is secondary and kind of beside the point, but we’ll give it a quick go: Kathleen Turner plays China Blue, a prostitute with a heart of gold (of course) who is actually an intellectual business woman by day (of course) and parades around as a call girl at night just because she wants to feel some urgency in her life (of course). One night, China runs into a crazed sidewalk preacher played by Anthony Perkins (of course) who seeks to change her wicked ways (of course). And that’s just part of the plot…there’s another thread to the film’s plot that involves the film’s “normal” relationship between the Gray’s (played by John Laughlin and Annie Potts) who are having marital problems (they don’t even eat in the same room together and often converse from their separate rooms) that is stemming from their sexual problems (of course) which of course the icy wife (of course) doesn’t recognize as a problem.  So, the husband has to seek excitement in the seedy Red Light district of Los Angeles (of course) where he runs into China Blue and falls in love with her (of course) thinking that he can change her lifestyle because they are destined to be with each other (of course) due to the one night they spent together and the magic he felt between the two as they had dirty, Red Light District sex…a natural place to find true love, of course.  

Okay, the plot is pretty much boring and typical of these kinds of adult-themed films about sex and relationships. The acting, outside of the hammy performance from Perkins and Turner – bless her heart – trying to make something out of this asinine role, is universally stilted and awful. Laughlin is so wooden and unlikeable I didn’t care what happened to his character throughout the film. And I’m guessing that Russell didn’t really care, either.

Crimes of Passion was the last American film Russell made, and it like he did with Altered States, it seems that Russell is just trying to get the hell out of here and back to the comforts of home. As the opening credits roll, Russell tries to offend the viewer immediately before we even see any of the actors. Don’t expect the frank sexual dialogue to mean that Crimes of Passion is some kind of ironic expose on sexual mores a la Eyes Wide Shut (interestingly enough, Russell’s film ends as Laughlin turns to the camera and delivers with a smirk a line very similar in tone to the one Kubrick used at the end of his film); no, Crimes of Passion is just another in a long line of batshit crazy films from Russell where he uses the thinnest of plots to act as the foundation for his bombastic imagery and insane visual flare. And like all of Russell’s films, Crimes of Passion is incredibly in(s)ane, yet it’s never boring and always interesting to look at.

There are few standout moments (read: images) that are great examples of Russell’s élan – the kind of stuff that I’ve been talking about nonstop with this retrospective. I loved the insane music video (inspired, no doubt, by the film’s composer and former Yes band member, Rick Wakeman) with its typical Russell energy and hit-you-over-the-head metaphors for marriage as prison (especially since it’s being watched by the always-arguing Gray’s). I also love the way the Red Light district is lit throughout the film. Russell is obviously having a great time painting his film in bright neon colors (utilizing the signs from the set/location), especially in the great shot of Perkins’ preacher standing underneath a neon halo. And what would a Russell film be without some ridiculous, laugh-out-loud moment, and Crimes of Passion has one of his most eye-rolling, awesomely ridiculous moments. No, I’m talking about the fact that Perkins’ street preacher threatens China with his a weapon of choice: a silver vibrator. Or, the scene where he imagines himself killing a woman with said vibrator, but in reality he’s just vibrating the hell out of a blow-up doll. No, I’m talking about the scene where Laughlin attaches two basketballs to his ankles, dons a shower cap, and re-enacts for friends an ejaculating penis (complete with milk spraying out of his mouth). It’s one of those moments that reminded me of the awful Lisztomania that seemed more at home on an episode of Benny Hill. These are just a few moments and images that never let you forget that you’re watching a Ken Russell film.

Judged out of the context of this retrospective, I would have panned Crimes of Passion; however, having the context of Russell’s previous films has helped me not be totally frustrated by the ridiculous nature of the film and to be able to, in a way, succumb to its weird, outré charms. The minute China Blue is introduced with a big smile on her face while being given oral pleasure (Kathleen Turner prayed, at the time of the film’s release, that this movie wouldn’t sink her newfound success that stemmed from Romancing the Stone) all I could do was shake my head and laugh and say, “Oh, Ken, you cheeky bastard.” It’s one of the craziest ways I’ve seen a character introduced in a film, and I find myself saying that a lot with his films. No matter how bad or frustrating Russell’s narratives may be, his arresting visuals always have my attention.  

After the film’s failure, Russell went back to England to make small horror films that would act as a pleasant change of pace for the filmmaker.

A random assortment of screen-grabs:


  1. "No, I’m talking about the scene where Laughlin attaches two basketballs to his ankles, dons a shower cap, and re-enacts for friends an ejaculating penis (complete with milk spraying out of his mouth)."

    Looks like I have my Halloween costume picked out...

    Also, one of those screencaps makes it looks like Perkins once again gets to don a wig to look like an old lady. In fact, he just looks generally crazy in all those pictures.

  2. Yes, Russell gives Perkins nothing to do so he's simply typecast (yet again) and rehashes cliche after cliche. It's too bad, because Perkins is obviously trying to make the most out of the role, and his performance is something that actually makes the movie a guilty's just so crazy (as the screengrabs show), and he has A LOT of fun playing crazy.

  3. "Looks like I have my Halloween costume picked out..."

    Kevin, that's a fantastic post. But Troy gets the laugh of the week.

  4. This seemed like it would be a good movie at first, it's got an interesting plot, good actors, and it starts out good, but it disappoints in the end. Overall, it's just okay.