Monday, November 28, 2011

Ken Russell: Maverick artist behind THE DEVILS has died at 84

The controversial, artful and always iconic filmmaker Ken Russell died peacefully in his sleep yesterday, aged 84.
Just last week I was enjoying the girlish feeling of giggling to myself over the fact that filmmaker Ken Russell was my Facebook friend. After he accepted my friend request I wrote to him, "Sir, I love you." His page was actually quite active (he called himself "Unkle Ken Russell") and I imagine he had an assistant or two help him with it. An "event" page was created for the highly-anticipated DVD release of his 1971 film The Devils, which was announced barely two weeks ago. Do join and show your support so that this amazing film can find a new generation of appreciative viewers; it has been unavailable except in poor copies for decades now, partly due to its controversial content. Upon its release it was given a special award in Italy, even as it was banned from being shown in theatres there, due to its damning view of catholicism. This recent interview with Russell from The Guardian looks at the film 40 years later.
Perhaps more than any other, it is this film, about the execution of French priest Urbain Grandier (Oliver Reed in one of his most memorable roles), accused as a heretic, which roils colorfully in the minds of occult film buffs. With its depraved nuns (one of them the glorious Vanessa Redgrave, in a terrifying role as the lovesick, hunchbacked Mother Superior), its hippie-esque witchfinder, and its eclectic, anachronistic design (with sets by a very young Derek Jarman, himself a legendary filmmaker who died tragically young), this unforgettable film relates the fact-based story of an arrogant man wrongly accused of trafficking with the devil. In the late 17th century, of course, this was a sure path to the stake.
Because it is layered with fragments of contemporary iconography, music, morality and cultural references, it is of particular interest to audiences familiar with the contemporary occult revival, which was in full swing by 1971, and certainly influenced Russell's treatment of the story (based on Aldous Huxley's 1952 book The Devils of Loudun).
Russell's work was an acquired taste, some said. And although many of his films were widely admired (like Women in Love(1969), an Oscar nominee), or the rock musical Tommy(1975), or Altered States, or one of my favorites, Mahler(1974), about the reclusive composer, Russell's insistence on utilizing shocking imagery to the point of oversaturation did repel some viewers, just as his use of anachronistic music confused others (as with the decadent Salome's Last Dance(1988), or Gothic(1986), a dark, imaginative look at the creation of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein).
Not content to sit behind the camera, Russell also appeared in front of it, acting in over two dozen films (sometimes appearing as himself). I particularly enjoyed a brief cameo of him in the stunning 206 pseudo-documentary Brothers of the Head, in which he played a tongue-in-cheek version of himself, an elderly filmmaker unable to finish his project due to lack of funding and other difficulties, situations not unfamiliar to Russell in his later years.

It is a sad reality that many artists do not enjoy proper respect in their autumn years, even those who continue to work as Russell did. I trust Unkle Ken's extraordinary legacy will be a potent reminder of the need to appreciate and honor such artists during their lifetimes.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Macabre AND Educational!

Indiewire reports that the gruesome and oddly amusing claymation film T IS FOR TOILET has been named the winner of the "Next Great Horror Filmmaker" for its creator Lee Hardcastle. The film was submitted along with many others to a competition sponsored by Drafthouse Films, Magnet Pictures, and Timpson Films, which will produce a film "anthology" of 26 segments by different filmmakers called "The ABCs of Death" which was inspired...are you ready? children's education books! Each letter of the alphabet is represented.

I doubt the film anthology is intended for children but you never know. This sounds like a fascinating project. You can watch T IS FOR TOILET In its entirety at the linked page.