Monday, July 11, 2011

Ken Russell's Indecent Exposure

He can sing too!

 "And Ken Russell really did it this time. He stripped the lid of respectability off the Ursuline convent in Loudon, France. He exposed Cardinal Richelieu as a political schemer. He destroyed our illusions about Louis XIII. We are filled with righteous indignation as we bear witness to the violation of the helpless nuns, which is all the more horrendous because, as Russell fearlessly reveals, all the nuns, without exception were young and stacked."  - Roger Ebert's review of The Devils, 1971


Oh Roger, you wrote how many Russ Meyer film scripts? Besides as proven in my last post, we all know that Ken Russell is not a big breast fetishist like you and your best friend Russ. Furthermore a few pauses on the VCR (The Devils is hard to find on DVD) reveals that Ken's Ursuline convent nuns comprise a wondrous assortment of  breasts in ALL sizes and shapes.

To paraphrase the great historian Martin Duberman, a biographer's job is to tell the truth to the extent that inevitable gaps in the evidence and subjective distortion will allow for it. The biographer is not responsible for how others manipulate that truth to serve agendas of their own. So it is safe to state that those who despise Ken Russell for exposing in blazing glorious colour, the more unsavoury sides of European high art, religion and history will always manage to find grounds for justifying their hostility and worse not giving him the credit he so justly deserves as an artist.


I was fortunate to take courses from a well respected film professor whom never mentioned Russell once amongst the many world class directors he introduced us to. When I mentioned the subject of "Ken Russell the stylist" he made little more than exasperated sounds. The world's top film critics have uttered far worse.

Yet even some Brits who feel deeply impressed by Ken's homages to England and who give kudos to his genius experience discomfort over his unwillingness during the Altered States era to become a commercial giant, making money hand over fist. Like the trustafarians who now come out in droves to Columbia Road, Hoxton, Brick Lane and Spitalfields each weekend and then whisk home to Belgravia, Chelsea and Kensington, they want the "street cred" that Ken brings but don't want to look at his truth.  This same attitude can be found in many big show biz names and most of the Young British Artists for whom amassing money and social climbing- not sexual, racial, artistic or gender liberation- remains the ultimate pursuit.

This discomfort needs to be directly addressed, along with the underlying assumption that feeds it: namely, that all big budget films about European history-actually anything Western European in general- should be ultimately positive and comforting, for everyone. Should they dare point out racism, barbarism and/or sexism it has to have a redemptive factor (even if the hero croaks) because that makes money and feeds the myth. You get paid and then you are safely part of the club. The credits can't simply roll as the Christian old bill fries ala The Wicker Man. (Hence Hollywood's unbearably bad remake of Robin Hardy's cult classic featuring Nic Cage as a secular police investigator.) I got this same vibe from the recent April 28th Stuart Jeffries piece on Ken in The Guardian. Jeffries may be a lovely bloke but within the piece he came off just a tad too patronizing for my comfort level. But Jeffries did at least bring up the fact that film critic for the Evening Standard Alexander Walker, called The Devils "monstrously indecent."

"But how much sex is too much sex? Does the answer hinge on the number of different partners involved, the number of encounters with the same partner, particular configurations (three-way or group sex, say) or particular sexual acts (anal intercourse, say, or sadomasochism)? The answers will hinge on individual assumptions about what is "normal," "healthy" or "moral." In this country (The United States) numbers alone are likely to settle the argument: The higher the figure, the more brows start to furrow-even when we are talking about consenting adults." - Martin Duberman, 1998

We need to take a closer look at what most people in our culture mean when using the designation "indecent" (the charge Russell's detractors most often aim at him that is, when they are not denouncing the "excessiveness" of his work). Three definitions currently predominate: "Indecent" is something offensive to good taste; offensive to public moral values and, someone who acts exploitative, nasty and unlawful, especially in sexual matters. Hence the term "indecent exposure."

None of those definitions, I strongly feel, apply to Ken Russell. Firstly, what is "offensive to good taste" and what are the examples? Has Ken Russell stuck a Barbie doll or a hot wheels car up his bum for a live audience? Has he dropped racial or homophobic slurs in the press? Beaten people to a pulp? And as far as "public morals" are concerned, are we talking about The Festival Of Light? The Catholic Church? The Socialist Worker?  The BBC?  The Royal Family?  Jackass?  Who makes the rules of what constitutes public morality? Mostly heterosexual white males review (as well as direct) films, and if you read between the lines of nearly SIXTY years of popular film review and film-making, monogamous white, female to male pair-bonding is the optimal path to human happiness and "public morality." Ken's films show that great artists, misfits and women as a whole are not drones for the aforementioned corporate myth.

As far as Ken Russell's films being "nasty" and "grotesquely indecent" I've found nothing in his films that resembles this because his work, while occasionally very campy is never exploitative. In fact given the subject matter (and the beautiful women he casts) many of his films actually hold back on what could have been very explicit portrayals of sex-be they for art or simply if he wanted to make money.  Russell believes in sexual mystery, sensuality as well as not playing his actors AND audience for fools. Women, Gays, Lesbians and people of colour are not stupid nor are they exploited in Ken's films as they are Adrian Lyne, Oliver Stone and Alan Parker's work.

Fainting couch al fresco.
I argue often about the fact that grown women in cupcake costumes, sucking on lollipops and attaching sex to small children's motifs in music videos is indecent. I'm always accused of being a "prude" , "jealous" and even of "slut shaming" because many can't simply see that "fun and quirky" doesn't  apply when you attach sexuality to children's imagery or when raunchy behaviour comes to define a female public figure's persona. Taking advantage of cheap, guttersnipe culture shots via his imagery is something Russell has never done (even in his recent low budget films) but which is now out of control in the media under the guise of "female empowerment."  Granted a naked or raunchy women in public IS very, very powerful even a plain one -at least in regards to how much attention she can attract-her exploitative exhibitionism will gain more of a reaction  (and therefore an "appraisal from society")  even if it is wholly neagtive. The plain or even stunningly beautiful woman doctor who saved a life at her local hospital that same day will be ignored and unknown. Russell knows the inherent power in a naked woman's body like the back of his hand and yet does not exploit it in a creepy fashion. By the time Ken Russell has shocked you, you're either laughing too hard, too dazzled with beauty or simply asking yourself "what the hell was that?" to feel cheated. Quite decent a fellow if you ask me.


With Ann-Margaret on the set of Tommy.

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2 Comments:

Blogger par.nordstrom said...

Morn , mandy !/ Just a few random observations on yer post:1. I Nevva did have any illusions abt Louis XIII ( wrote a looong paper abt him in high school) . Da dude was a freudian nut case+ he delegated all power to manipulative soooper crook cardinal Richelieu . 2.´The Devils´..as I recall it , was in part inspired by a work by Swede Nobel Prize winner Eyvind Johnson ; ´Dreams of Roses & Fire ´. ´Dreams´ is a MUST READ ! Tis 50 % sheer beaut , 50 % sheer horror . I shall rewatch ´Devils´tonite & ye go look for a copy of ´Dreams..´, deal ? !/ P.S. ye know Ann Margret is a Swede, right ?/D.S. Ha ha ..I sure recall Nic Cage not exactly bein yer all time fav actor ! (:

6:56 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I did six films with Ken [inc Gothic, Liar & Rainbow] and I can honestly say there was NEVER a dull moment. He had a wicked sense of humour and over the years we shot a lot of breeze - but, most exciting of all, we had some terrific arguments, always next to the camera & in front of the whole crew: Happy Days!
x Steve

10:51 AM  

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