The news came out yesterday that director Ken Russell died. He was, to put it mildly, one of the great madmen of film and for a time a much-debated character. David Thomson wrote about a decade ago that Russell was "oblivious of his own vulgarity and the triteness of his morbid misanthropy" and that, even in his seventies, Russell "showed no signs of moderation or being reasonable." Thomson, with the bit clamped in his teeth, also said that in some of Russell's work had "self-induced maniar, where visual grotesqueness has swamped intellect or feelings." The somewhat more restrained and admiring "Film Encyclopedia" nonetheless noted "his reputation for flamboyance, unpredictability and excesses" and that his films "are often coarse, symbol-ridden, pretentious, and confusing."
Indeed, when you look at his film credits, you are repeatedly smacked by excess: "Lair of the White Worm," "Whore," "Tommy" (a ruinous attempt at making a film of the Who's rock opera), "The Devils." And yet there are moments that hold up. "Women in Love," from the D.H. Lawrence novel, was rich in sexual currents, especially in contrast to other films from 40 years ago. The movie had its dull stretches -- lingering memories from when I saw it in college include a lot of talking -- but it was still a serious, even thoughtful work and one that does indeed linger all these years later.
Then there is "Altered States," Russell's battle with writer Paddy Chayefsky. The story goes that Chayefsky had a deal requiring that his dialogue be performed exactly as written. (Chayefsky was not unique in this demand; I remember a TV actor telling me of one script by a famous playwright whose conditions included rendering his dialogue precisely right down to the scripted ums and oohs.) Russell, not inclined to bend to anyone, rendered the dialogue -- but had the actors talk over each other, or talk with food in their mouths, thus presenting an extended onscreen "Stick it" to Chayefsky.
The writer had his name removed from the movie (the script was credited to Sidney Aaron, Chayefsky's first and middle names). But the movie itself is a memorable ride, with a more than able cast and Russell's direction making something significant out of a piece that might have seemed arid and silly in other hands.
All right, it still seems silly in Russell's. Probably sillier than many another director would have made it. But, even you are willing to take the ride with Russell, it's a movie that keeps pulling you in, toying with you, demanding your attention with no immediate promise of reward. There may be a lot of drek on Russell's resume, but "Altered States" is not part of it.
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