Ken Russell 1927-2011

What a sad day. Ken Russell the visionary director of The Devils (1971), Women in Love (1969) and Tommy (1975) has died at the age of 84. Michael Winner, the talentless hack who directed Death Wish and the remake of the The Big Sleep, is still around to give the BBC his thoughts on the passing of a great man. “He was very jovial. He wasn’t the sort of mad sadist which you might think from seeing some of the movies.”

Nicely put, Mr Winner. In a recent BBC Time Shift documentary Dear Censor, Winner poured scorn on BBFC President Stephen Murphy, who’d had the temerity to order cuts to Death Wish in the mid-70s. Far more interesting was the discussion about Russell’s The Devils, a truly incendiary mixture of religious fanaticism, transgressive sex and violence enacted on Derek Jarman’s pristine white sets. Simply perusing the list of plot keywords on IMDb is enough to make a nun blush. (Well, maybe not one of the libidinous hussies depicted in The Devils.)

These days you can judge the importance of a recently deceased artist by the number of articles that spring up in the Guardian Culture section. As of this evening, the Ken Russell microsite comprises no fewer than 16 articles, ranging from an obituary, to a collection of clips from his varied oeuvre — from his BBC Monitor documentary about Elgar (1962) to later works like Gothic (1986) and Whore (1991).

Words like nutter (yes, Winner again), eccentric and controversial have been bandied around today in the rush to put Russell into some sort of artistic context. Was he just a jolly, crazy-eyed iconoclast whose best films were made 40 years ago? Should he simply be ranked as one of Britain’s finest directors, or was he the equal of Fellini and Pasolini in terms of his ambition, his vision and his flair for stirring up trouble?

The enfant terrible of British cinema had obviously mellowed a bit during those all those years of critical mauling and funding difficulties. Interviewed by the BBC’s Mark Lawson in 2008, he was asked whether he ever got angry with the film business. “Well, there’s no point in getting angry, one just gets philosophical” replied the man who once struck critic Alexander Walker with a rolled-up newspaper.

I like to think Ken would be enjoying the ongoing debate today over that “fig” scene from Women in Love, in which Rupert (Alan Bates) conflates the proper enjoyment of soft fruit with the pleasures of the flesh. One outraged Guardian reader described it as a “blatant, misogynistic moment”, though the offending lines were taken from a Lawrence poem. Literate and provocative in equal measures, it’s the cinema of Ken Russell in a nutshell.

It’s a shame he won’t be around for January’s DVD release of The Devils, though he did record an audio commentary which is sure to be worth £11.99 all by itself. While apparently X-rated, this version of what the BFI calls Russell’s “bold and brilliant religious drama” still won’t include those outré scenes involving the wilful abuse of a crucifix and a charred bone. Long-time fan Mark Kermode explains it all here and tonight described Ken as “Somebody who never felt the need to apologise for his own genius.”

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