Film: Pomp and Controversy

A new biography tackles the visionary career of filmmaker Ken Russell

Aug 7, 2007 at 2:06 pm
The poster from Ken Russell's Salome's Last Dance, starring Imogen Millais-Scott, serves as the cover of Joseph Lanza's Phallic Frenzy.

The author's notes on Joseph Lanza state that he "specializes in speculative nonfiction." This might be euphemistic, one supposes, of a historian who doesn't bother to sort colorful gossip from verifiable fact, and who doesn't mind blurring the lines between his own interpretations and his subject's own express intentions.

Lanza's latest book is a critical biography of British film director Ken Russell, the very soul of pomp and controversy, best known for his D.H. Lawrence adaptations Women in Love, The Rainbow and Lady Chatterly; his X-rated exposé of 17th-century church and state liaisons, The Devils; the movie version of The Who's Tommy; the cult films Altered States, Crimes of Passion and Lair of the White Worm; and a brace of increasingly hallucinatory biopics about great classical composers: The Music Lovers, Mahler and Lisztomania.

All of these films were made between 1969 and 1993, the years since having been devoted to homemade video projects by Russell, whom the Hollywood establishment has long considered "unbankable."

Yet he was arguably the most important and visionary British director of the 1970s, a kind of one-man Powell & Pressburger on acid (though he professes to have done nothing stronger than champagne prior to some mushroom research for Altered States), and still valid through much of the 1980s. As can be discerned from the book's deliberately startling title and cover image (from the obscure Wildean pastiche Salome's Last Dance), Lanza approaches Russell's filmography with the idea that it is penis-obsessed.

Yet a less penis-obsessed writer could, and often has, made the case that Russell is far more obsessed with matters of Catholicism, war, pop culture, relationships, dance and turpentining the whitewash of accepted history. (In a recent issue of Sight & Sound, Russell admitted to a lifelong obsession with women's breasts while posing for a photo between great looming plaster ones.)

The problem with Lanza's snaky approach to Russell's oeuvre is not that it's homosexual — a serious gay reading of such flamboyant and gay-friendly films would indeed be valuable — but that the buck generally stops there. This means that Lanza's discussion of the famous male nude wrestling scene from Women in Love (between Alan Bates and Oliver Reed) largely concerns gay love and willies and off-camera wanking to maintain continuity, though the real theme of the novel and film is the need felt by early 20th-century man, at the dawn of a dehumanizing Industrial Age, to balance one's increasingly "mental" lifestyle with the sanity of sweat, exertion and oneness with all living things.

In quotes, Russell humors the phallocentricity of this fellow who's doing him the favor of writing a book about him, even though he has heretofore laughed on the record about how a censored Argentinian print excised the nude wrestling, so that Reed's suggestion of stripping down cut directly to the two exhausted men locked in an embrace, thus giving rise to a local legend about the film's "Great Buggering Scene." Lanza accuses all contrary readings of Women in Love of being simultaneously "homo-hostile" and "threatened" by its gay message, but he offers nothing of substance to support what he takes for granted.

Russell's films were never shy in their acknowledgement of all sorts of sexual behavior, but in his insatiable quest for phallic symbolism, Lanza is barking up the wrong shaft, or at least a short one. In due course, he manages to overlook some of the most moving friendships ever delineated in the British cinema and, amazingly, fails even to acknowledge Helen Mirren's popcorn-dropping nude appearance in Savage Messiah — the one thing about that picture everyone (but Lanza) seems to remember.

Even if one finds Lanza's readings of Russell limited by agenda (and, let's face it, all biographers have agendas), it would be very wrong not to acknowledge his impressive gifts as a stylist and colorist of language. At his best, as in his chapters on Lisztomania and Salome's Last Dance, Lanza writes about these hard-to-read pictures with humor, piquancy and inviting clarity. He also obtains quotes from Russell that offer fresh insights to imagery from some of his films: The bizarre sight of chorus girls wearing gas masks in the early part of Tommy, for example, turns out to be something he actually saw during the Blitz.

As books on Russell go, Phallic Frenzy isn't up to the groundbreaking or insightful standards of Ken Russell by Joseph Gomez or John Baxter's An Appalling Talent: Ken Russell, but those key works have been out of print for decades. Lanza does a reasonable job of cherry-picking their choicest details, which makes the first half of his book a trifle redundant for anyone already well-read in this area.

The second half, which carries on from where those books generally left off, performs the important service of bringing Russell's career more or less up to date in book form, although a good deal of that half is spent chronicling the major works that didn't get made and skimming over the minor ones that did.

Ultimately, Phallic Frenzy might have proved a valuable, contemporary, one-stop introduction to Britain's grand-père terrible, but despite its obvious familiarity with the subject of Ken Russell, it manages to underestimate him in the very act of lauding him and imitating his well-known ways of rollicking, bollocking overstatement. Grade: B-