Have you ever been to a restaurant where you were given the wrong food and when you complained, the waiter just gave you some advice? Well, I have. I know it sounds bad, but when it comes to art, it may very well be the best thing. Think about it. A waiter looking at you with patience and understanding, saying: “I know what you wanted honey, but this is what you should have.”
This was one of Ken Russell’s talents, always knowing what you should have better than you. He was so convinced that we didn’t know what the hell we were doing to such an extent that he has spent his entire career analyzing such circumstances.
His other talent was no less striking. Always giving much more than you bargained for. Many works of art are so polished on the outside that they lose their integrity. They are hollow. When it comes to the accomplished artists, on the other hand, it’s the other way around.
Usually when we go to a movie, we expect what is shown on the poster or in the trailer. If there are monsters on the poster, we feel bad if we see one and good if we see twenty. What can you do as an artist if you know you are faced with lazy viewers? Usually, an artist takes that presupposition and then, makes fools of us just to help us go through a dark passage, our initiation so to speak, to make us think of the other possibilities of existence.
Some say when you get what you were hoping for, like seeing these twenty monsters, it’s a good thing. You are getting your money’s worth. Russell, on the other hand, would say otherwise. Because when all you get is what you already know, what is right in front of your eyes, then your world will always be the same and each day life will become more and more boring. You are at the end of your life’s journey. You are dead to the world.
If we take a look at Russell’s films in that regard, we will see that they are the pieces of the same puzzle, stages of one man’s thoughts trying to figure out the meaning of our existence. Although this is not a new approach, it is new in a sense that Russell incorporated pop culture to his otherwise complex thinking.
As a result, the results were often more amusing and accessible to teenagers. Because of this fact, I felt like I was in the same neighborhood when he was directing these movies. That we grew up together.
1. Billion Dollar Brain (1967)
When We Lose Our Way, We Cannot Know It.
“When God is on our side, how can we lose?” shouts the man with the billion dollar brain. Is this the good guy in the story or the villain? Up to this point how many people with any redeeming value have we seen in the movie? Yet they all seem in control. They all act as if they have clear and meaningful goals. People around them are even worse.
Attracted to the strength of the will of the good guy (or the villain) they follow him to everywhere like moths following fire and in the process, they destroy themselves along with him. This movie shows us that to not to lose our grip with reality, we need outsiders and commentators with alternate sets of presuppositions. If we take ourselves too seriously, we will eventually fail.
2. The Music Lovers (1970)
How Can We Spend Our Entire Lives By Faking It?
Upon hearing beautiful Tchaikovsky melodies one might get the false impression that this was a guy who lived on the edge of his desires. Nothing can be further from the truth.
What you hear is just his hopes and dreams. I remember a friend’s confession when we were talking about the circumstances that required guts. He said that what I was doing at the time was right and he agreed with me. Then he added: “I think about these things all the time, but I never act on them.” Regardless of what you feel about your friends, this is a coward’s position.
On the other hand, a coward may dream beautifully. So, when we are exposed to these dreams later on as strangers, they may move us. As a result, one may argue that the result is the same. The artifacts produced by heroes and cowards may have the same effect when you are ignorant of their past. However, when you are ignorant of the past, acting on your thoughts when necessary ceases to be your biggest problem. You no longer have meaningful grounds for thinking or living for that matter.
3. The Devils (1971)
Can You Redeem Yourself On Your Own?
“All are making for the same goal, from the sage to the lowest robber, only by different roads. It’s an old truth, but this is what is new: I can never lose my way.” says Dostoevsky in his short story The Dream of a Ridiculous Man (1877). Similarly Urbain Grandier is faced with the same dilemma. While being a master at exploiting life’s very earthly rewards, he cannot silence his conscience any better than a moral man. This acknowledgement brings his downfall and finally, his redemption.
Understanding the moral responsibility of the situation and doing what has to be done is the only way to undo one’s past and provide hope for the future. All of a sudden, while still considering yourself unworthy, you become worthy. When Grandier and his passionate admirer Sister Jeanne of the Angels are compared, who is the moral figure? Is it the nun who sometimes have a hard time controlling her natural urges and by trying to control them, getting more and more delusional each time?
Russell once again shows us that the one who does not deny what he’s/she’s is the one closer to redemption, closer to truth. At the very end, when Sister Jeanne masturbates with the remains of Grandier (a piece of bone) to gain access to his essence after he has been burnt alive at the stake, we see that heaven and hell are both on earth and very real.
4. Lisztomania (1975)
“To Thine Own Self Be True”
As it is the case with the masters, they tend to go over the same questions in different settings. Lisztomania may be regarded as the easy, hip-hop version of The Devils. It asks the same question: What is real and what is fake? On one hand, we have Franz Liszt portrayed as someone with extraordinary talents when it comes to music. And that’s all he is, nothing more.
On the other hand, we have Richard Wagner portrayed as someone who has extraordinary dreams but being impotent talent wise, he cannot realize them. When these dreams (compositions) are handed to Liszt, he can not only realize them, but changes them to make them his.
In addition to Wagner, we see other composers, love interests and envious husbands all circling around Liszt. They all sense something genuine and honest in him. No matter what their life styles are, they are all turned on by him. Without knowing explicitly, they understand that he is the genuine article. Despite all their efforts, the genuine hero only despises them. He either insults them or temporarily grants them access to his chambers for sexual favors.
Russell points out that regardless of being true or fake, we all have faults. None of us is complete and we all need each other’s company to better ourselves. While having dreams you cannot accomplish can poison you, having dreams you can accomplish can have the same effect.
5. Valentino (1977)
Is Goodness Its Own Reward?
They say that Russell considered this movie the biggest mistake of his career. I have a hard time believing he really said that. Because this movie is about someone who has accepted the consequences of being a true mensch.
As Joe Marasco puts it, a mensch is someone who impacts a particular culture deeply and leaves a good influence on people even after he has been long gone. So, Russell being a mensch himself may have meant that expressing what he meant without concealing it with extravagant tricks as usual was a mistake.
I don’t think it was a mistake, on the other hand. When someone accepts the consequences of an honorable act, he/she also becomes truly free. In this movie we see Valentino as someone who is not very well understood or appreciated. Even worse, he is only ‘understood’ by what he can provide to satisfy others.
Despite the overexcited fans, he stands alone. When he dies, one cannot help but wonder who has won or who has lost? Once again, we understand that a gem doesn’t lose its luster even if it spends its entire life in the mud. It gives us hope to master whatever we are good at and stand tall regardless of the situations we face. Perhaps, at that stage in his career Russell himself needed this advice.