Ken Russell had very little patience for the idea that one should honor tradition, and that is a major factor that mobilized his work. His best films were fascinated by the subject of tradition, namely a need to deconstruct of them. Russell subverted, parodied, critiqued and tore apart everything from classical music to the Catholic Church to British aristocracy, and did so with notable flare, fervor and dedication – biting deeply into those things that we are supposed to hold in most sacred reverence.
Russell also had little patience for traditions of British filmmaking. As Mark Kermode pointed out, he rejected “kitchen sink realism” in favor of something more heightened in order to explore the tragicomic depths of human absurdity. Many of his films are about nobles and royalty, but Russell rarely followed the British classical tradition as well, instead representing the lives of elites as a farce. His inimitable visual style imbued a variety of films from horror to science fiction to his numerous and inventive biopics of classical composers. He was, thoroughly, one of a kind.
So here is a bit of free film school (for fans and filmmakers alike) from the guy who cast Ringo Starr as the pope.
Where other filmmakers use dreams or literature or art or other films as inspiration, Russell turned to music – a subject at the center of much of his work – as both a cinematic device and a creative muse. Through music, he saw images, fashioned narratives and experienced feelings he sought to reproduce.
Music has a unique power to skip over our intellectualizing, rationalizing capacities and hit something more raw and difficult to articulate. Russell’s films (many of which are very intelligent) attempted to tap into that unique experience derived from music. Thus, not only are Russell’s musicals unique (Tommy, The Boy Friend), but his portrayal of the lives of musicians are as well, demonstrated by his trilogy of composer biopics that included The Music Lovers, Mahler, and Lizstomania.
Music can affect people personally and specifically, and can thus produce rather particularized cinematic applications. Stanley Kubrick’s relationship to classical music was very different than Russell’s for example, but both played key roles in inspiring their sensibilities as filmmakers.
Never Underestimate the Importance of a Good Location
“I think if a location is good enough to use once, it’s good enough to use again. American directors kept using the Mojave Desert for their westerns so why not use the Isle of Wight over and over.”
Give Period Pieces a Contemporary Feeling
In this documentary about the making of Russell’s most controversial film, The Devils, the director discusses why he employed future filmmaker Derek Jarman to design the sets and production, citing that he wanted the architecture to evoke the sense of modernity that must have been experienced by the people of Loudon (the film’s setting) historically.
In Russell’s period pieces, he never aspired to a clinical sense of period accuracy (see Lisztomania, for example) – instead, he sought to bring the past into the present, to dust it off and give audiences the feeling of immediacy that its characters would experience. Thus, while he walls of Loudon in The Devils might be technically inaccurate, the feeling that they are meant to evoke is its own powerful kind of historical honesty and verisimilitude.
Defend Your Film
Never one to bite his tongue, Russell shows how you get into a feud with a critic.
Censorship Often Affirms the Intentions of the Filmmaker
Many of Russell’s films were subject to censorship – The Devils arguably chief among them, with its notorious “Rape of Christ” sequence (which you can glimpse above if you rewind a bit, but fair warning, it’s very NSFW) never being restored to any commercial version of this brilliant but still-largely-unavailable film. However, The Devils was never meant as a blasphemous attempt at shock; it’s a serious indictment and evergreen cautionary tale about the ways that politics corrupts religion. It is thus a movie about blasphemy and a critique of religious organizations that serve powerful institutions in place of the people.
The Devils follows a flawed priest who finds his purpose with an opportunity against corrupt powers, a character who made waves against conventional wisdom. The Devils perhaps encapsulates Russell’s full-throated investment in difficult subjects and their extremities. As a film about making a fuss, Russell’s film inevitably did the same, bucking up against a system that wanted nothing to do with the events depicted, much less what they represented
The scissors of the censor have unfortunately compromised many great films, but censorship also has an ironic affirmative power, as proof that antiauthoritarian filmmaking accomplished exactly what it set out to.
As Russell expounds to Mark Kermode, the cut did weaken the film in his eyes, but he also understands entirely why it was cut, which is testimony to the film’s power.
Final Thoughts: Invent on Set
“I had immersed myself in the book and worked on the script, so that by the time I went on the floor to shoot the film I knew what I wanted. Nevertheless I am a great believer in inventing things on the set. Working in TV you learn how to cut costs and prune down the project to essentials. When you work fast you get a certain spontaneity from your cast and crew and they make suggestions about how to improve a scene during shooting.”
Here, Russell speaks in pragmatic terms about how his instincts work when filming, citing his propensity for spontaneous invention as something he had learned from his days working on television. But it speaks more broadly to his philosophy as a filmmaker.
He was interested in feelings, especially as it brushes up against logic or conventional wisdom or tradition. He was devoted to feeling as a filmmaker through music, invested in depicting a range of extreme feelings and experiences beset by his characters, and in order to manifest all of the above, he used feelings as a guiding tool when filmmaking.
Intellect can sometimes get in the way of feeling, but the two are not polar opposites. Instead, Russell used feelings as his mobilizing force for making films, something that he harnessed and explored through the creative process. In more conventional films, raw feelings are either lessened or explained. One aspect that makes Russell’s work so powerful is that feelings in his films are never inhibited, made light of, or made accessible. They are confusing, silly, and horrifying, sometimes all at once.