The ‘Establishment’ never knew how to deal with Ken Russell, right up to the day he died, he just didn’t – wouldn’t – fit into any box they could use to contain and understand him.
He was a fiercely intelligent film maker, with a gleefully mischevious sense of humour. He was an emotive director, his films were passionately felt, dangerously conceived and impudent in their willingness to be vulgar.
That willingness to pin his heart on his sleeve confounded many critics I think – overwhelmed them. He felt his films with such intensity and he was so determined that an audience be anything other than bored, that, in combination, critics and sometimes audiences were dumbfounded into silence or shocked into anger. They felt attacked; provoked. And indeed, Ken’s films could be a slap across the face, but always in an effort to get you to ‘wake up!’ and ‘FEEL SOMETHING!’.
Polite society often cringes at those who lay their feelings out for all to see; who value the truth of emotion and experience above all and want to share it. For some this ‘isn’t done’, it ‘isn’t proper’. I still feel like that’s the attitude of an awful lot of the ‘establishment’ critics, especially in the UK (perhaps, as in the rest of UK journalism there is a predominant similarity of background that conspires to agree that some things ‘just aren’t done’?).
There is value in artifice and stylisation. But the deadening hand of ‘realism’ infects much of popular arts (how I cackle when people talk about the ‘realistic’ effects of a Transformers or the latest movies from Marvel or DC).
The age old refrain of style over content is often levelled at film makers like Ken Russell or Brian De Palma, for instance, but only – I think – because it is still the predominant norm to approach ‘content’ as a literary idea. As if the very stylisation and presentation of image and action is not speaking itself. Russell and De Palma both are visual film makers who want to make you think and feel via images. The light, the colour, the framing, the use of lenses, the movement of the camera in relation to actors, ALL combine to elicit a response. To provoke a reaction, a thought, a feeling, an idea…
I wonder if the problem today is that too few people still understand or are open to a genuinely cinematic, artistic language/experience. Like music, which is one of Ken’s greatest inspirations in life and in his art, the language of cinema has the ability to bypass the concious and connect directly with the emotive, the unconcious, the visceral, experiential… why then do so many films now conform to a single ‘style’ of presentation? A deadening rhythm of shots and cuts in which dialogue, that most concious aspect of the cinematic experience, becomes the key to understanding?
Such films, and such a style, has little chance of overwhelming us. And perhaps that’s no longer what an audience wants… to be moved to feelings we don’t understand, to revelations in ourselves that we did not see coming. That does, after all, require a willingness to ‘Go There’ (as Harlan Ellison might have put it).
There is little of true surprise in today’s cinematic product – certainly not from the studios. People do not go to movies to be surprised, shocked, awed or overwhelmed by the experience. I’m not even sure they really go to be moved… audiences en masse (and I hope I’m wrong, and it’ll swing back some day) go to a movie knowing what they’re going to get. Looking for a given experience. Looking for a film to conform. And perhaps, in a world where much in life has become unpredictable and unpleasant, that’s what they need – or feel they need: a guarantee of equilibrium. A good, none threatening time where things are okay in the end and someone else will do the right thing and sort the world out.
Artists like Ken Russell (and I use the word because I believe that it applies), we’re genetically unable to provide such succour and reassurance. Russell wants you on your feet. He wants you climbing up the walls. He wants to shake you up, excite you, appal you, shock you, make you giggle and wince and cry. He wants a reaction. He’s willing – and brave enough – to risk making a fool of himself, and wants you to be willing too, because he wants you to FEEL. Something genuine. Something new. Something to inspire you. Ken Russell wants to set your soul on fire.
That in itself is an act of wild rebellion. It is a dangerous act. Because a soul ignited, is a soul set free. It will act according to its own wild impulses, unencumbered by social grace and free of the shackles of ‘politeness’. It will seek truth. And that can be shocking.
To be open to such an experience and by extension such a possibility requires – demands – a lack of vanity that is frequently missing today. It demands a bravery from it’s audience to engage and react.
Be brave. Be willing. Art can take you places that you never dreamed…
‘Never Be Afraid To Go There.’*
*With thanks to Harlan Ellison.