No one knew the feeling of soaring or imprisonment quite like Ken Russell. He worked with every kind of budget and was always himself, always ready to one up everyone, including himself. His string of movies from 1967 to 1977 are some of the greatest pieces of post-modern irreverence ever committed to film. Some, like "The Devils," "Savage Messiah," "Mahler," "The Music Lovers," and this month's unloved, "Lisztomania," his own "Nibelungen," ought to be called classics. Others (such as "Lair of the White Worm," "The Rainbow," "Altered States" and "Billion Dollar Brain") can still be enjoyed if you have no scruples or just a very blinkered sense of humor.
I love everything he ever did. He mixed 60s psychedelia and historical reverence with mad abandon, concocting wholly original works with his razor-sharp mind and unhinged creativity. He was run out of both Hollywood and the British film industry for his sins. He was weird, hypersexual, uber-liberal, and he made no attempt to hide it. He bristled at producer's interfering with his art, so naturally much of it is hard to find in good condition or unedited. Like Russ Meyer with a degree from Oxford, or Frank Tashlin directing Monty Python sketches, he was unafraid of how his crooked take on the great composers would appear. He directed naked bodies with the glee of an 18th century painter and the ferocity of a conductor.
His completely unselfconscious mode of filmmaking is exactly what the world needs right now. Artists who do not lower their voice because the wrong person might be in the audience. As long as I've been alive, I've relied on directors like Ken Russell to show me the outer reaches of cinematic form and introduce me to art and history not taught in school. Russell's films were like history books smuggled in a copy of Mad Magazine, and we'd be wise to take his lessons and his rebellious spirit to heart. The world is about to change for the worse. It's time to get loud.