On the 27th of November film director Ken Russell (1927 – 2011) passed away, and to mark that I decided to sit myself down on Sunday night and watch a couple of his films. It would have been more, but although I’ve watched many it seems only a couple made it into my DVD collection, which is why you get to hear about these two rather than The Devils or The Lair of the White Worm.
Crimes of Passion (1984)
This film is pretty much mental, and that’s a big part of why I love it. Kathleen Turner is fashion designer Joanna Crane, who feels emotionally disconnected and is unable to trust men, and so at night she books into a seedy hotel, pulls on a blonde wig and slinky dress, then goes out touting for business as hooker China Blue. As China she is totally in control, telling the men what to do and helping them to realise their wildest fantasies (most of which are pretty tame). John Laughlin is Bobby, the family man who gets hung up on her, after admitting to himself that his marriage is a sham. He doesn’t want a fantasy, he wants the real thing, whatever that is. When he has sex with China, they make a connection, something she feels as well, and so the seeds of a relationship are planted, needing only for her to get past feelings of distrust and for him to overcome any lingering loyalty to wife Amy, who makes a last ditch effort to resurrect their marriage. And then there is Anthony Perkins as Rev Peter Shayne, who talks a lot about faith and redemption, but has fantasies of murdering strippers that he enacts with the aid of a blow-up doll. He endlessly strokes a silver vibrator that looks more like a weapon than a sex toy, and fixates on China, claiming that he will save her and thus himself. And so it all bubbles along nicely to a demented ending in which Perkins reprises elements of his Psycho role as Norman Bates.
Sex is pretty much central here, though at the end it comes with the message that love is what makes it all worthwhile. Everyone is telling lies, to themselves and each other, and playing roles, and it’s only when they stop doing that and deal with their emotions that they stand a chance for happiness. Bobby and Joanna come out the other side, because ultimately there is more to their relationship than fucking. Bobby finds with Joanna the sexual ecstasy missing from his relationship with Amy,but that in turn leads to a greater, more honest emotional connection. As China Blue, Joanna is empowered because she doesn’t care about any of the men she services, and yet the lifestyle appears to be tearing her apart psychologically. It’s only when she accepts her feelings for Bobby, the dependence and vulnerability that entails, that she becomes whole again. For Rev Shayne though, sex is sin and yet at the same time it fascinates him – he carries a bag filled with sex toys, has porn images pasted to his walls, hangs round strip joints – and there is the strong suggestion that he is impotent, something he sublimates by distorting it into a warped version of faith. He wants to ‘save’ China Blue, but what he needs is for her to give him an erection, and when that doesn’t happen he makes her the scapegoat for his failure (the subtext here is Biblical). Similarly with all the other men who visit China – in the main their fantasies are banal (dressing up as a policeman, wearing handcuffs, pretending she’s an air hostess), and what keeps them from happiness is the lack of honesty in whatever other relationships they have.
The film is further enriched by some wonderfully lurid imagery, a gonzo soundtrack and ‘intermission’ style breaks in the narrative, when we bear witness to the disintegration of the happily married couple (a bride and groom transforming into skeletons). These trimmings bestow on the story a manic energy that drives it to its grand guignol climax, and then a coda in which Bobby revisits the marital help group with which the film opened. He admits all the problems he denied before, and tells of how Joanna has helped him resolve these, but his last words are ‘And then we fucked each other’s brains out’, delivered with a big, shit eating grin of happiness on his face. Sex isn’t separate from love, but its reification.
Altered States (1980)
Based on a Paddy Chayefsky novel, this is my favourite Russell film, though Lair might beat it when I’m in the right mood. William Hurt is academic and scientist Eddie Jessup, whose research into schizophrenia leads him into experimenting with altered states of consciousness. He pairs an isolation tank with an unknown drug used by Mexican indians to have group experiences, and the results are spectacular. As well as visions of the birth of the universe, Jessup finds that his body begins to physically alter, transforming into an apelike hominid that stalks the city streets. A dedicated scientist he wants to push on, despite the risk to his own metabolism, but at the end it all proves untenable, with a vision that is too terrible for the human mind to encompass.
Fascinating as it is, the plot is simply a thread. The real appeal of the film for me is in the psychedelic and surreal imagery Russell throws at the screen in a relentless barrage. Visions of a many eyed and goat headed Christ upon a cross. A field of burning crosses. Bodies that seem to morph in and out of existence. Blair Brown transforming into a lizard, and then turning to dust that is blown away on the wind. Juxtaposed pictures of stellar fields and molecular biology, the collision of macro and micro. Magritte-esque scenes of dining alfresco (paintings by Magritte also featured in Crimes of Passion). The fiery vistas of Hell. There’s a feast for the eyes here, and I’ve only touched the tip of the iceberg.
As with China Blue, it’s love that saves Jessup. At the end he has a vision of the abyss, one that totally eclipses his sense of worth and identity. It’s only by clinging onto his partner Emily (Blair Brown), like a drowning man with a straw, that Jessup can be pulled back from the brink, and with this save comes the realisation that he has something of far more value than the double edged sword of knowledge, that there are things more important than his research. For the first time he can tell Emily that he loves her.
I suspect that, despite his reputation as an enfant terrible, Ken Russell was an old softie at heart, using unconventional narratives to reaffirm conventional values.