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The Bottom Shelf by Adam Jahnke

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Ken Russell, 1927 - 2011

If you had asked me back in the late 1980s who my least favorite filmmakers were, odds are one of the first names out of my mouth would have been Ken Russell. I'd seen only a handful of his movies at that point. Of these, the only one I really liked was Altered States. I'd also seen Gothic, The Lair Of The White Worm and Salome's Last Dance, all of which I'd hated with a passion. I watched Crimes Of Passion on something of a dare and found it to be one of the most howlingly awful films I'd ever seen. Back then, I didn't even like Tommy, although part of my distaste for that one had to do with the fact that I was so stupid that I didn't even appreciate The Who yet.

I've never been one to judge a filmmaker, writer, actor or musician based solely on one work. But in those days, if I'd given someone as many chances as I'd given Ken Russell, I'd have been done. You've had your shot, now let me move on to the next one. But for whatever reason, Ken Russell wouldn't leave me alone. I felt like there was something I wasn't seeing, something that would help me understand why this man was important. So I kept looking.

At some point in the mid-90s, I found it. Actually, I found two movies, both made by Russell in 1971 that couldn't have been more different. It was a one-two punch that completely changed the way I thought about Ken Russell. The first was The Boy Friend, an amazingly entertaining musical starring, of all people, Twiggy. It's probably Russell's most accessible and most purely enjoyable movie. I was thoroughly unprepared for a Ken Russell movie that was just sheer fun. The movie is now available through the Warner Archive Collection and I can't recommend it highly enough.

Even more important was The Devils. Oliver Reed stars as a Catholic priest who is accused of being a warlock in charge of a convent full of sexually insatiable nuns. I'd never seen anything quite like it before and still haven't since. It's a bold, dazzling and intense film, still incendiary even today. If you live in the US, don't bother looking for it on DVD. Warner Home Video had it on their release schedule years ago, then decided against it and it still remains in limbo. I'd argue that it's Ken Russell's best film. I've been calling for its release on the Jahnke's Electric Theater Facebook page for a long time now.

For some reason, The Boy Friend and The Devils clicked for me. I was now on Ken Russell's wavelength, or at least, as much as anyone could be. Russell's wavelength was always nobody's but his own. The best you could hope for was to intermittently tune into it. I proceeded to watch movies like Women In Love and The Music Lovers. I revisited Tommy and The Lair Of The White Worm and discovered I now liked them very much indeed. Even at his worst, you could never describe a Ken Russell movie as just generically bad. He was as flamboyant and extravagant a filmmaker as ever lived.

In later years, Russell focused mainly on television and extremely low-budget, avant-garde films that were often difficult to track down. Even the movies he made during the 70s and 80s have been ill-served by home video, many only now coming out via various MOD programs. It'd be a shame if this discourages future generations from discovering his work. His unique visual style deserves to be seen in the best available quality.

There's never been another filmmaker quite like Ken Russell and you can bet your life that we won't see his like again. It's nothing short of astonishing that he was able to make the movies he made, the way he wanted to make them. An acquired taste? Most assuredly. But I'm so glad I took the time to cultivate it. Thank you for all the amazing sights and sounds, Mr. Russell. Sorry it took me so long to catch up.

Dr. Adam Jahnke
ajahnke@thedigitalbits.com


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