‘Reality is a dirty word’: A Eulogy for Ken Russell

'Reality is a dirty word': A Eulogy for Ken Russell
'Reality is dirty word': Eulogy Ken Russell

To recognize the passing of filmmaker Ken Russell, we contacted Shade Rupe, a writer, film consultant and rabid Russell fan. They first met at the Seattle International Film Festival premiere of Russell’s 1988 film, “Salome’s Last Dance.” Per Rupe, “[My] hand went unwashed for a full year.”

Later, Rupe met Russell’s wife, Lisl Tribble, and in 2010 the couple finally accepted Rupe’s invitation to take on a North American tour. It began in Montreal with a Lifetime Achievement Award presentation at the Fantasia Film Festival, followed by an exhibition of his films and photograph at the Cinematheque Quebecois, and sold-out screening series at both Lincoln Center and the American Cinematheque.

Today, Shade, along with UK film writer Mark Kermode, continue to fight for the release the full-length version of Russell’s “The Devils.” Rupe says he’s happy that Warner Brothers allowed the original X-certificate 1971 UK release of “The Devils” to be released on DVD as of March 19, 2012.

“Reality is a dirty word for me. I know it isn’t for most people, but I am not interested. There’s too much of it about.” – Ken Russell

Henry Kenneth Alfred Russell entered Earth on July 3, 1927, in Southampton, England and quickly found his way to the cinema, citing Milton Rosmer’s 1934 picture “The Secret of the Loch” as his first bout at the flickers. The story of a loonish Scottish academic trying to convince everyone the Loch Ness Monster was a real beast would find a new home in Russell’s skull in his hypersexual “The Lair of the White Worm.”

Quite easily one of the boldest filmmakers ever to have danced with a motion picture camera, Ken’s oeuvre was strong from the first frame throughout his visionary life. A massive amount of television work preceded and followed his entry into full-length motion pictures, including many top-quality mini-epics for the BBC. Never one to settle on his haunches, Russell’s biopic of composer Richard Strauss, “The Dance of the Seven Veils,” painted the composer as an outright member of the Nazi party; it was pulled from distribution by the musician’s family. During this same period, through fortuitous means, the lording actor Oliver Reed and Mr. Russell enjoined their talents, creating sustaining unequaled entertainments that forever reverberate through cinemagoer’s collective souls.

While the fine “Billion Dollar Brain” marked his theatrical entry point, the stunning D.H. Lawrence adaptation “Women in Love” joined multiple talents in a top-form cinematic endeavor, shooting the strong director to the top of the cinema history charts. Oliver Reed and Alan Bates’ fiery nude wrestling scene breathed sexual longing and the pathos of platonic male love into viewers’ minds. Glenda Jackson offered her talents to the mix, creating a perpetually devastating tale of true love unfulfilled, an eternal folly of man.

Russell’s deft hand turned to darker fare, and an even more brutal examination of the pains of human longing in his strongest masterwork, “The Devils,” a tour de force of outrageous visual imagery and Oliver Reed at his most beautifu (contrasted with the lovely Vanessa Redgrave’s diabolic performance as a hunchbacked love-and-sex-starved nun). And although Russell’s feature continues to reverberate throughout global film-lovers’ hearts and minds, a similar fate to his Strauss biopic befell his film, with Warner Brothers first excising three minutes for the original 1971 UK release and further truncation for the US version, rendering parts of the film almost meaningless. Though maestro Ken Russell, man of men, would never, ever back down.

A series of outstanding films followed, each received with love, confusion, disdain, and passion. Twiggy got her star in “The Boy Friend” with the illustrious Tommy Tune and Ken’s most personal film, “Savage Messiah” (financed largely by himself), is a searing portrait of any true artist as a young man.

Ken’s biopics grew grander, and stranger, with the Nazified dream sequence in “Mahler” and the over-the-top-of-the-top psychedlifabulous visuals of The Who’s concept album, “Tommy.” Tina Turner’s Acid Queen and Ann-Margret’s propulsive bathing in an avalanche of baked beans and chocolate are part of the multiple high points of the musical extravaganza. Roger Daltrey returned for the megasexed overamping of the director’s grandiosity in “Lisztomania,” imagining the composer as a rock star competing with a vampiric Gustav Wagner, complete with a Golem-like monstrous Nazi destroyer.

Russell continued to astound throughout his career with the mind-bending antics of his adventure in Hollywood, “Altered States,” and the bizarre never ceased with “Crimes of Passion,” “Gothic,” “Salome’s Last Dance” and Amanda Donohoe’s transformations in “The Lair of the White Worm.”

Ken Russell was married four times, including a 22-year marriage to Shirley Ann Kingdon who created costumes for many of his films including “Women in Love,” “The Devils” and “Tommy.” Lisi Tribble, aka Elize Russell, met the director more than two decades before their marriage; they married in 2001. She performed in his final feature, “The Fall of the Louse of Usher.”

Ken is survived by five children (Alex, James, Xavier, Toby, and Victoria) with his first wife Shirley Russell (née Kingdon), two children (Molly and Rupert) with his second wife Vivian Russell (née Jolly), one son, Rex, with his third wife Hetty Baynes, his fourth wife, the beautiful and talented musician Lisi Tribble (aka Elize Russell), the perpetual work of his good friend Mark Kermode, and the many many hearts and minds of cinema lovers around the globe.

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