A Desecrating Mirth: Ken Russell (1927-2011)
‘We don’t want to disrupt taxpayers from the benefit of cultural democracy, do we?’
(Museum Guard in Savage Messiah)
British cinema lost with Ken Russell a vital antibody to its gangrenous pragmatism and aesthetic sclerosis. Russell’s imaginative exuberance has represented a refreshing if erratic presence within the parochial insularity of the British Cinematic Complex.
Coincidentally enough, he left just before the puritanical condescension of the British Board of Film Classification will release his Devils uncut for the first time, after a sanitizing quarantine as long-lived as Gaddafi’s dictatorship. This former dancer from Southampton had in fact discovered the importance of desire, the dangers of a chastening morality, and was never afraid to let his visions roll unbridled on the silver screen. His provocative nature was as needed as air in a country that hides itself behind elaborate social codes while marshalling creativity at the service of a stifling class system. Russell was the exception to the ruling self-flattery of British eccentricity, where appearances are irrelevant to essence; his very artistic irregularity vouches for his determination not to please nor comply. Not reconciled with the smarmy demands of (economic) censorship he pursued a career where visionary instinct did not give in to commercial imperatives, from the sumptuous beginnings at the BBC to the campiest drifts, Ken Russell never compromised.
He had to quickly get used to the prescriptive inanity of film critics whose response to his films was hostile in most instances, and very much prurient one is prone to suspect. For sexual impulses, abundant is Russell’s work, are better off repressed in ‘the native land of the hypocrite’ (Oscar Wilde), and of the emotionally constipated, we shall append.
Much to the embarrassed discomfort of prudish scrutinizers, his films explored the pleasures as well as the turbid creases of the flesh with no shame, hence with utmost intellectual integrity. Disobedient child of the empire who recognized real perversion in Her Majesty’s sexual austerity and the fascistic frigidity of Iron Ladies; thus favouring the vertigo of pleasure over liberal fetishes.
The Rabelaisian impudence proper to Russell’s modus operandi is exemplified in one of his lesser-known films, Savage Messiah (1972).
Delirious fling on the wings of creation, Savage Messiah sweats expressive frenzy out of every frame. It tells the story of young French sculptor Henri Gaudier, played with convincing impetus by the unknown Scott Antony, and his platonic love story with an aspiring Polish novelist, Sophie Brzeska (Dorothy Tutin), during the run-up to WWI.
The British director turns a potentially introverted subject into a boisterous ride with lush strokes of creative contentiousness, proving that his ability to shock audiences into life was not only due to ‘indelicate’ subjects. Here Russell masters his extroverted vitality in painting a devastating romance where the absence of eros enhances the pathos to uncontrollable extents. Creativity is a scoffing thrust that knows no boundaries, aroused by the sex appeal of desperate lives – incompatible with the pandering rituals of the ‘art world’. An enthralling Scott Antony sweeps up everything around him and turns it into art; wiggling out of the encumbrance of the establishment he refuses the distinction between art and life. Unable to sexually consume the devouring passion for Sophie the young Henri penetrates life to fecundate it with creative flair. The camera follows the incessant movements of the restless sculptor and only occasionally slows down as when for instance Henri’s and Sophie’s hands meet and a new inner temporality emerges. Now the director’s eye dwells on the serene lines of their hands as they draw a loving complicity in front of the audience. Even when running reckless, the story is never deprived of its tenderness, their relationship transfigures the monochromatic routine of the couple yet retaining its exclusivity. ‘Love it or hate it, but don’t worship it!’ shouts Henri Gaudier referring to art.
So he dabbles between the chaste love for his sweetest half and the delights of the flesh Sophie cannot satisfy. A Helen Mirren of almost Fellinian sinuosity appears here at the height of her sexual splendour as a futuristic suffragette salaciously rivalling Antony’s impetuosity; her breasts the closest one can get to artistic perfection. Henri will quench in her statuesque enchantment his thirst for carnal joy but love will draw him back to Sophie.
Art, the film insinuates, is nothing but the courage of abandoning oneself to the daring pleasure of an incautious existence where, like in the sexual act, action and desire blissfully match. Yet emotional completion remains unachievable condemning the wo/man to a destiny of perpetual craving, regenerating insofar as it propels life into movement.
Only museums and the folly of war can kill the ecstasy of love; Gaudier’s retrospective respectability comes as soon as he is drafted into war. As he dies in the trenches his work is aseptically exhibited in a museum, the criminal order of things is restored by means of cultural institutionalization via its devastating infertility. Museums as the graveyard of art, war as that of the spirit.
We like to think of this little gem as Russell’s existential and professional manifesto, a heartfelt testament to the necessity of a cinema bigger than life, able to drag us out into the painful beauty of existence, ‘til death do us apart.
Celluloid Liberation Front is a multi-use(r) name, an ‘open reputation’ informally adopted and shared by a desiring multitude of insurgent cinephiles, transmedial terrorists, aesthetic dynamyters and random deviants.