16. Ken Russell
Fearless or just unfiltered? We report, you decide.
Russell’s misfortune is to hail from the merry ole England-the land of classical acting tradition, kitchen sink realism, and good manners. Were he from any other part of Europe, especially Eastern-he would have been mentioned in a same breath as Fellini, Paradjanov, or Kusturica, as a great visualist and an untamed talent. But he had to fight for his vision throughout his career.
As it is, Russell was able to leave behind a sizeable and unique filmography, and inspire generations of future Brit filmmakers.
“Women in Love” was his first notable work. It figures that a provocateur like Russell would to D.H. Lawrence material. The film is assured and has a fascinating look-and the scene of naked Oliver Reed and Alan Bates wrestling.
The success allowed Russell to make his dream project, a Tchaikovsky biopic. It’s fascinating to compare “The Music Lovers” to Soviet-made one that came out a year earlier. Talankin’s film is measured, assured, well-acted, and honest (on most accounts)-but often stodgy and monotonous. Russell, in his own words, made a “story of a homosexual who falls in love with a nymphomaniac.” But the delirious film is probably captures Tchaikovsky’s inner world much more closely.
Music was Russell’s domain-and he attacked the bios of famous composers with demented fervor. “Mahler” features Nazi nuns, crucifixions, and emergences from cocoon. In “Lisztomania,” Roger Daltrey gets a twelve-foot member, among other things. Russell would also turn his attention to more recent music, helming a Busby Berkely homage “The Boyfriend” and an adaptation of The Who’s “Tommy.”
In between, he also made an unforgettable “The Devils,” an adaptation of Whiting’s play, which got banned in director’s cut form. Sporting design from Derek Jarman and masturbating nuns, it brought critical fire and more success de scandale for Russell, who had to attack a more annoying critic with a rolled-up newspaper during a TV debate.
70’s were really Russell’s heyday. Although his later films, like “Altered States,” “Lair of the White Worm,” “The Rainbow” (another Lawrence adaptation) and Stoppard-penned “The Russia House” got cult status, he found it harder and harder to get to fight against critical whinery, especially in the atmosphere of Thatcherian neo-puritancy. 1991’s “The Whore” was his last true theatrical outing, and it got slammed-even though it’s a much truer depiction of the world’s oldest profession than “Pretty Woman.”
The undaunted Russell did have notable TV works after that, including the 1993’s “Lady Chatterley.” But he largely retreated to his New Forest studio/conservatory, making shorts with friends and dolls on a camcorder, as well as writing scandalous books on his favorite composers and organizing exhibitions of his 1950’s still photography.
Though Russell is gone, his imprint on British cinema remains large and prominent.
17. Mikhail Kobakhidze
Fought Soviet Union-and outlasted it.
For a director who only made 6 shorts in his career, totaling about 80 minutes, Kobakhidze is enormously influential. The humor, atmosphere, and tragicomedy of his Georgian works influenced the republic’s cinema for decades to come. But he paid the price for having a unique style and a biting sense of humor.
His problems began with his diploma work. Particularly, with an episode where a voice from above asks the residents how their lives are going, and they respond with shaking heads and saying “So-so.” The authorities in Georgia forced him to have people reply with “Very well!” He changed audio, but kept the same “meh” imagery. The film ended up being destroyed.
“Wedding” and “Umbrella” made his name in Soviet Union. Rivaling Lamorisse and his “Red Balloon,” first tells the story of a romantic who daydreams his sweetheart away, while second is a lyrical tale of an umbrella that flies into the lives of a couple. Both are affecting, despite being practically silent (or, at least, dialogue-free).
Kobakhidze was ready to make his first feature, titled “Hop-lah!” But the cinema authorities forced him to change the title to “Musicians.” Kobakhidze was only able to make one of four planned novellas, when the work was stopped in the growingly stifling climate of 1969 USSR. Aleksey Romanov, then-minister of cinema, who we also must thank for banning “Andrei Rublev” and many other masterpieces, demoted Kobakhidze to assistant director rank for “low professional level,” forgetting that in 1966 he rewarded the same director for “exemplary artistic and ideological achievement.”
Kobakhidze proceeded to, essentially, declare war on USSR, to the point of removing his children from school and teaching them himself. He also bombarded Brezhnev’s government with letters and petitions. Eventually, he was reinstated as a director, but the state simply refused his scripts, forcing him to make a living by writing screenplays for animated shorts in Georgia.
The spirit of protest he instilled in his children had a surprisingly tragic result. In November of 1983, his son Gherman, together with some other radically-inclined children of high-ranking Georgians, attempted to hijack a plane and flee West. The midair attempt resulted in 7 deaths (including 2 of the perpetrators), and 12 people being wounded. Gherman Kobakhidze was one of the three terrorists in the group who received a death penalty, and was executed in 1984.
But unlike USSR, Mikhail Kobakhidze is still alive. Finding conditions in Georgia not altogether conducive, he moved to Paris in 1996, where made another award-short, “En chemin.” He also won a screenwriting contest, and was set to make his first feature, but studio problems spelled the end of that dream.
Kobakhidze remains unbent and unbroken. He proved it recently, when asked about deteriorating relationships between Russia and Georgia. Kobakhidze refused to succumb to Russophobic hysteria that affected so many prominent Georgians, and simply replied with-“The world is tiny. Storms, raging all around, can blow everything away. Let’s stick together.” Appropriate answer from the courageous Georgian, Artist, and Man.
18. Samuel Fuller
“Love, hate, action, violence, death. In one word: emotion.” That’s how Samuel Fuller defined cinema, and his work is a testament of that statement.
Fuller’s road to filmmaking was long and fascinating. A Depression-era freight train drifter, a crime reporter for “New York Journal,” and pulp novel writer-that’s how he got his schooling in gritty realism and intensity. He added to that with his experience as a rifleman in the 1st Infantry Division, seeing heavy fighting from Sicily to Normandy. He also cut his teeth as a cameraman, shooting unforgettable 16mm. footage after the liberation of one of the death camps.
One can argue that this taught him the gifts of pared-down dialogue and real outlook on life. His first films-“I Shot Jesse James,” “The Steel Helmet,” “Fixed Bayonets”-all bore the immediate spirit of war.
Fuller’s skill grew, despite often working on the outskirts of the studio system. “Pickup on South Street” and “House of Bamboo” show growing control of the storytelling process. As equally intense as his first war films, they show man’s struggle in seemingly overwhelming environs, be it the New York underworld or post-war Japan. In a sense, they can be seen as big-screen crime reports.
In the era when studios were more into complacency and political consensus, Fuller was not afraid to show conflict. He did it with disregard for prevalent official taste or critics, presenting challenging topics as they should be presented. “Run of the Arrow,” where the disgusted Confederate protagonist joins the Sioux nation, foreshadows the racial division to come in the US. Fuller would explore racism more in “The Crimson Kimono,” while “Merrill’s Marauders” presents war as a savage absurdity that it is.
Fuller continued his assault on the senses of American audience with a pair of unforgettable films that challenge the norms of society itself. “Shock Corridor” shows the reporter’s descent into mental abyss while seeking out a story in the asylum in a frenzied way, while in “The Naked Kiss,” a reformed hooker learns just how messed up “the normal society” is.
As his reputation grew overseas, particularly in France, Fuller had to take a long (1967 to 1980) break from filmmaking. But he finally was able to make his dream project, “The Big Red One,” a no-frill account of the 1st Infantry’s travails from North Africa to liberation of Falkenau concentration camp.
Fuller would make one more film in America, the excellent, thought-provoking, and controversial “The White Dog.” Surprisingly enough, distributors balked at his study of racism, all but shelving the film. Fuller bolted for France, where he made a few more features and enjoyed great acclaim.
Overall, Samuel Fuller emerged victorious on the battleground of filmmaking. His works aged surprisingly well, and he was able to inspire generations of filmmakers on both sides of the ocean.
19. Sam Peckinpah
A living embodiment of the pioneering spirit, and one of cinema’s bloodiest poets.
Peckinpah made films like a gun-slinger, firing at audience from both barrels. And he had to fight the studios and the hypocritical American society his whole life, which most likely contributed to his alcoholism and untimely demise.
John Ford glorified the bloom of the Western, while Peckinpah sang a powerful and bittersweet elegy of its autumn and inevitable demise.
His ranch upbringing and service in the Marines contributed to his stylistic outlook, further enhanced with cutting teeth under Don Siegel. Westerns would dominate early years of his work, with him creating “The Westerner” TV series. His first five features were Westerns, and it could be argued that the controversial “Straw Dogs” is one as well, just set in Cornwall.
His second, “Ride the High Country,” already showed great promise, but “Major Dundee” saw great interference from studio. Peckinpah’s drinking and abuse of cast didn’t help matters. But he continued exploring the end of the Wild West, and in 1969 unleashed his mesmerizing, violent masterpiece-“The Wild Bunch.”
It was heavily criticized at the time for the seemingly unrestrained carnage and gore, but Peckinpah was doing what any good artist should-portray the spirit of times. With escalating violence in Vietnam and society being divided into confrontational sides, with riots and bloodshed reaching home shores, “Wild Bunch” is phenomenally timely, and its influence on action cinema is tremendous.
And then, Peckinpah defied expectations of many. “The Ballad of Cable Hogue” (1970) and “Junior Bonner” (1972) are comical and largely non-violent, while still retaining the artistic vision and personal touch. But they do sandwich “Straw Dogs,” a still-controversial rape-revenge tale.
Peckinpah then opted to officially bury his beloved West with “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.” As autumnal as Ford’s “The Searchers” and “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” are, neither are as full of lament. Sadly, the studio stepped in and hacked it.
Adding cocaine addiction to his alcoholism, Peckinpah began to deteriorate. But had some powder left-“Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia” (1974) was banned in many countries, and reviled in others, but is extremely candid and raw. And 1977’s “Cross of Iron” is unforgettable in portraying war as a gory ballet.
Bizarrely, Peckinpah’s last works, after unfairly critically panned and studio-butchered thriller “The Osterman Weekend,” were musical videos for Julian Lennon. Talent can’t be drunk away-they received acclaim and got Lennon a nomination for an MTV Video Music Award.
In a sense, Peckinpah’s life was a continuous fight-against time, studios, societal norms, and, most importantly, himself. He died at 59, and it may be considered a surprise that he lasted as long as he did.
20. Rouben Mamoulian
A director with the capital “D!”
In a way, it was easier for Mamoulian to battle studios than it was for other directors. He didn’t need cinema as much as it needed him. His sky-high place in the history of arts is assured even were he never actually have shot a single frame. Having staged “Porgy and Bess,” “Oklahoma!” and “Carousel,” Mamoulian literally transformed the American stage. And he brought his iron will and directorial touch to cinema.
It’s appropriate that an Armenian emigre from Tiflis achieved that-he was taught by the best. His mentor was none other than the legendary Konstantin Stanislavsky, the creator of “the Method.” Mamoulian’s cinematic talents were apparent from his debut, “Applause.”
Phenomenally enough for a theatre director, Mamoulian here rose above the mediocrity of the original material, a backstage musical, and showed incredible command of technical elements, including bravura camerawork and an inspiring soundtrack.
Mamoulian showed that he was never afraid to try and to master new technology. “City Streets” is a proto-noir gangster movie with the first use of audio flashbacks, while 1935’s “Becky Sharp” was the first Hollywood feature movie shot in three-color Technicolor.
30’s were really his finest decade. Mamoulian flew between the genres with dazzling ease. “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” is a kaleidoscope of wipes and POV cinematography, as well as of double and triple-exposures. “Love Me Tonight” is one of the best musicals of all time, while “Queen Christiana” is a high costumed drama where Mamoulian deftly utilizes the mystique of Greta Garbo.
But the decade brought him more than purely artistic challenges. Mamoulian went face-to-face against Hollywood establishment, with his spearheading efforts in creating and establishing the Directors Guild of America. American directors owe him and King Vidor an eternal debt of gratitude for creating such a powerful bargaining organization, but Mamoulian got stuck with the later blacklisting for his efforts.
But he never stopped in his efforts or experiments. “The Gay Desperado” and “High, Wide and Handsome” are both excellent musicals, the latter a fascinating operetta-Western hybrid. Tyrone Power-led action vehicles, “The Mask of Zorro” and “Blood and Sand” are highly entertaining.
Mamoulian would make only two more features, including “Silk Stockings,” another musical masterpiece, featuring a highly skilled used of Cinemascope (and parodying it in “Stereophonic Sound” number). He was let go from “Porgy and Bess,” and resigned from the disastrous “Cleopatra,” resulting in both coming up severely short of expectations. The bosses were able to blacklist him, but they were never able to stop him, and neither did the traditions and limitations of either theatre or film.