Showcase: The king of kitsch

Posted on December 3, 2011


Ken Russell, who passed away this week, is being regarded in the obituaries as a cinematic provocateur. He wasn’t the only one, of course. Russ Meyers and John Waters, for instance, were no slouches when it came to sticking a gleeful pin into the balloon of artistic propriety. But while they reveled in the merely earthy, Russell strove mightily to drag the ethereal down to mud-splattered earth. In film after provocative film, especially the purported bio-pics of greats like Liszt and Tchaikovsky, he trained a magnifying glass on the foibles that prevent men from becoming gods. And as wallpaper, he plastered on foibles of his own – a reckless fondness for kitsch, compounded with hysterical staging.

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But that shouldn’t trouble us – we are, after all, weaned on a cinema of kitsch and hysteria. And we recommend, this week, that you remember Russell with the 1975 musical Tommy, the delirious film version of the Who’s expansive rock opera. If your idea of a rock musical begins and ends with Alan Parker’s diligently dour imagining of Pink Floyd’s The Wall, you’ll be happy to learn that rock isn’t just a conduit for middle-aged angst – it can also be an explosion of exuberance. Has there been a greater rock performance committed to cinema than when Elton John, on stilts, looking like a cross between a Christmas ornament and a Technicolor wasp, unleashes Pinball Wizard? Russell directs John to not so much sing the song as spit it out, with a fury most uncharacteristic of his music of the period. It’s pure adrenalin – there’s very little fear of the audience curling up comfortably numb.

Tommy tells the story – as expressed in the lyrics of Pinball Wizard – of “that deaf, dumb and blind kid [who] sure plays a mean pinball.” The film is packed with big names – Roger Daltrey, of course, but also Tina Turner, Eric Clapton, Keith Moon, and actors Jack Nicholson, Ann-Margret and Oliver Reed – but its biggest star is undoubtedly Russell. He found in this over-the-top material a perfect outlet for his over-the-top aesthetic. Listen to the album, watch the film, and see why the New York Times said, in all earnestness, “Ken Russell makes movies the way another man might design a ride through a funhouse.”

Viewers with weaker stomachs could opt, instead, for Russell’s richly atmospheric adaptation of DH Lawrence’s Women in Love. This is not the easiest of authors to claim for the cinema (how do you transfer the exquisite interiority of a phrase like “lambent reality of her for ever invisible flesh” into exterior action?), but Russell managed to bridge the two worlds with a singular grace that he eventually abandoned. Note, especially, the lurid visions conjured up in the mind when we hear about the infamous nude-wrestling scene, and how gently it plays out on screen, like an inevitable rite of passage of male friendships. Without tagging it with a tacky label, Russell shows us what Lawrence told us – that, despite the title, this is equally the story of men in love.

An edited version of this piece can be found here.

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Posted in: Cinema: English