Phallic Frenzy: Ken Russell and His Films

Joseph Lanza

Chicago Review Press — Hardcover 2007 / 378 pages / ISBN-10: 1556526695 — ISBN-13: 978-1556526695 / $26.95

IN BRIEF: A biography of iconoclastic filmmaker Ken Russell, who directed The Devils, Women in Love, and Tommy.


Maverick filmmaker Ken Russell (Women in Love, The Devils, Tommy) has found an ideal biographer and critic in Joseph Lanza. Phallic Frenzy: Ken Russell and His Films is the first comprehensive study of perhaps the most underrated, not to mention notorious, postwar British director. With erudition and wit, Lanza illuminates not only Russell’s twenty feature films, but his dozens of television and opera productions, spanning 1956 to 2006. The range of Russell’s subjects is awe-inspiring, encompassing such musical and literary titans as Debussy, Tchaikovsky, Richard Strauss, Mahler, Liszt, Bruckner; the Rossettis, the Wordsworths, D.H. Lawrence, the Shelleys, Byron, Coleridge, Oscar Wilde; as well as such iconic pop cultural figures as Isadora Duncan and Rudolph Valentino. Even more astonishing than his eclectic taste in subjects is the often eye-popping visual style that Russell uses to explore, and expose, his subjects — and, as we learn in Phallic Frenzy, himself as well. His body of work includes, as Lanza points out, some of the most daring, unsettling, and beautifully photographed films of all time.

Few directors have produced such a concentrated flow of masterpieces as Russell did between 1969 and 1971, when in rapid succession he made Women in Love (from D.H. Lawrence’s novel, this is one of the great literary adaptations; it was written and produced by gay rights pioneer Larry Kramer, then a Hollywood executive); The Music Lovers, an openly homoerotic, and surreal, biopic about Tchaikovsky (starring then-closeted Richard Chamberlain); The Devils — arguably Russell’s single greatest work, and worth every page of the two chapters that Lanza devotes to it — from Aldous Huxley’s book The Devils of Loudun (its depiction of Nuns Gone Wild is embodied in the title of this biography); and The Boy Friend, one of the most brilliantly innovative film musicals, with equal parts merciless deconstruction and fabulous fun. (One must ask in August 2007, so where are the DVDs of these last three titles?)

Lanza’s insights into Russell are girded by extensive research and enriched by his sharp wit. Like Russell, Lanza is no stranger to impressionistic takes on history; he specializes in film and popular culture, in such acclaimed studies as Elevator Music: A Surreal History of Muzak, Easy Listening, and Other Moodsong, Vanilla Pop: Sweet Sounds from Frankie Avalon to ABBA, and Gravity: Tilted Perspectives on Rocketships, Rollercoasters, Earthquakes, and Angel Food. His previous work on a contemporary filmmaker is Fragile Geometry: The Films, Philosophy, and Misadventures of Nicolas Roeg, that the British Film Institute hailed as “by common consent, the best book” on Roeg (Walkabout, Don’t Look Now, The Man Who Fell to Earth).

Phallic Frenzy: Ken Russell and His Films encompasses all one hundred of Russell’s credits in film, television, stage, and publishing; it also includes an exhaustive bibliography. Lanza analyzes not only the films’ biographical and historical context but, more importantly, the maze-like layers of paradox — from the playful to the demonic, philosophical to frenzied — that make Russell unique. Even more than a comprehensive overview, this is an engrossing portrait of the artist and the wild ride that continues to be his life.

Lanza includes concise portraits of key Russell collaborators, including actress Glenda Jackson (who won her first Oscar for Women in Love, and with whom he’s had a stormy working relationship), actor Oliver Reed (infamous for his penis-measuring competition with fellow actor Alan Bates, prior to their groundbreaking nude wrestling scene in Women in Love), and artist Derek Jarman (who designed The Devils, as well as Russell’s surreal staging of Stravinsky’s opera The Rake’s Progress, and more).

This lucid study also provides context for the dozens of historical figures that have received the Russell treatment, from those frenzied seventeenth century Ursuline nuns through seemingly every major Romantic and post-Romantic composer, and many more. Besides this seamlessly integrated background information, Lanza details the reception of each major film, drawing on contemporary reviews, statements by actors, box office or broadcast statistics, and Russell’s own inimitable comments. Lanza draws on the long out-of-print Altered States: The Autobiography of Ken Russell (1991), and his other writings and interviews, as well as recent personal contact with the artist.

Lanza also reveals that, as intriguing as Russell’s best films is his tumultuous private life — presented in Technicolor and Dolby Surround — including his four marriages (the first three of which include melodramatic moments), and his five children. Born on July 3, 1927, we follow Russell from being an imaginative son of a shoe salesman, to a (straight-identified) lad with aspirations for ballet, to his meteoric rise in the ’60s from bad boy of the BBC — with his increasingly controversial, and highly-rated, dramatizations of composers’ lives (including Elgar, Bartók, Debussy, and Delius) — to his first theatrical features. For his second picture, James Bond producer Harry Saltzman gave him the coveted Len Deighton spy film, Billion Dollar Brain (1967), starring Michael Caine.

And then came the quartet of masterpieces, between 1969 and 1971, noted above. Somehow between Women in Love and The Music Lovers, Russell found time to direct his most scandalous television film, The Dance of the Seven Veils: A Comic Strip in Seven Episodes on the Life of Richard Strauss (he was the only great composer — has the twentieth century produced a more perfect comic opera than Der Rosenkavalier? — who remained in Nazi Germany). We’re indebted for Lanza’s detailed description of this delirious film, with its intimations of “Springtime for Hitler” in The Producers, and its possible influence on the finale of Fassbinder’s epic Berlin Alexanderplatz, since it will remain virtually impossible to see until 2019, when the enraged Strauss family’s copyright expires. It cost Russell his job at the BBC, but fortunately it pushed him headlong into theatrical features, even as it paved the way for such equally over-the-top surreal biopics as Mahler, Lisztomania, and Valentino.

There seems a noticeable falling off in Russell’s inspiration after The Boy Friend, the most impossibly brilliant of all film musicals — based on a ’50s pastiche stage show with ersatz ’20s tunes, best remembered for giving teenage Julie Andrews her big break. When I read Lanza’s description of the all-but-cursed behind the scenes horrors, I began to see how it knocked the wind out of Russell’s sails. His next picture, Savage Messiah, about the sculptor Henri Gaudier who was killed at age 24 in World War I, is so tame and unrevealing that it seems the work of a ho-hum Russell imitator. Arguably Russell doesn’t re-scale the heights of his own imagination until the pyrotechnics of The Who’s rock opera Tommy, his most commercially successful film. Lanza offers an exemplary interpretation of this “violently cathartic” film, that — like so much of Russell at his best — “feels artificial and primal at the same time.” Exactly.

After Tommy, the only Russell film that approaches his greatest works is Gothic, with its skin-crawling brilliance, as internal and external states of desire, and horror, merge in ways that are at least as effective as in Verhoeven’s The 4th Man (1983). Still, Lanza’s book has made me want to see the Russell films I’ve missed, including virtually all of his landmark television productions, and re-see some of the films I initially found wanting — especially Salome’s Last Dance and Crimes of Passion — and reevaluate them. I’d also like to see his works from the last few years, many made in digital video at his home, that have been all too easy to miss. Russell, who turned 80 on July 3, 2007, will soon return to big screen direction with his episode in the horror anthology feature, Trapped Ashes. Let’s hope he’s finally able to make the film he’s been planning for over two decades, currently listed as in pre-production, his take on DeFoe’s picaresque Moll Flanders.

One of the most remarkable aspects of this book is how it brings to life Russell’s major unrealized films. Thanks to Lanza’s scholarship, and vivid writing, you can almost see — in your mind’s projection room — Russell’s comic epic of Rabelais’s ribald Gargantua and Pantagruel (designed by Jarman); or Barbra Streisand in what might have been a signature role, as legendary actress Sarah Bernhardt; or Liza Minnelli (long before Madonna) in Evita.

Another of the book’s many strengths is how Lanza connects the dots between Russell’s key themes and motifs. To take just one example, there are the comical yet eerie mannequins that keep popping up, from his first theatrical feature (the low-budget 1963 farce, French Dressing), to the erotic automatons of Gothic (although they also bring to mind the Clockwork Wizards, from Robert Fuest’s 1971 cult classic The Abominable Dr. Phibes), to his later films, and even his satirical science fiction novel, Mike & Gaby’s Space Gospel (1999). We can also imagine the connections between this motif and Delibes’s ballet Coppélia, in which young Russell once danced a lead role, as the mad scientist Dr. Coppelius, in a provincial British production in 1949. (This ballet is from the same novella, “The Sandman” by E.T.A. Hoffmann, dramatized in Offenbach’s 1881 opera Tales of Hoffmann, that was filmed in 1951 by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, and that seems as least as great an influence on Russell as their classic The Red Shoes.)

For people interested in GLBT Cinema, Lanza details Russell’s pioneering work in depicting same-sex relationships, from the not-so-hidden homoerotic subtext of Women in Love (Russell admitted that the film, and Lawrence’s novel, could also be called Men in Love), to the intimacy of poets Byron and Shelley in Gothic (their kiss literally blows the roof off), to the sexually ambiguous yet sweet ending of Lair of the White Worm, and many more.

Finishing this compelling, and at times riotously enjoyable, book, I was nagged by the title. Phallic Frenzy turns out to be a bit of a tease, although there are quite a few highlighted, if sometimes subtle, instances throughout Russell’s work, of this most popular of Freudian canards. The title leads one to expect either a psychoanalytical reading (it’s not) or a lark (this study is more than that, for all of the author’s, and his subject’s, wit). Russell’s fondness for phallic imagery rears its head on page one and continues to pop up, every few pages, throughout the book, but it never seems sufficiently all-encompassing a motif, let alone psychological revelation, to justify the title. Perhaps better to have called the book after the wonderful term Lanza coined, Russellscopic, since “-scopic” (‘target’ or ‘look out’) implies both a view — of life and cinema — as seen through Russell’s eyes, as well as the author’s explication of that vision.

Speaking of Russell’s vision, I wish that Lanza provided more close readings of Russell’s visual strategies, focused on individual shots and scenes, and editorial rhythms. In Russell, as in all ambitious artists, the style is the theme, and the theme is the style; and there is much brilliantly inspired method behind his madness. Lanza perceptively analyzes the ideas, that glimmer between the frames, and their context in both history and Russell’s life: To paraphrase Gertrude Stein, there’s a lot more “there there” in Russell than meets the eye. But to allow the reader to understand how much more than a showman Russell is, ideally we would have had more analyses of how Russell uses composition, color, editing and, yes, music and sound, to transform his vision of life and cinema into, at his best as in The Devils, works of genius. The instances of such close readings are often culled from Russell’s own writings or interviews, and are as suggestive as you’d expect from the source. Of course, Lanza — whose book provides a rich context for Russell’s works — may have purposely left this final analytical level for each one of us to complete ourselves.

On a less rarefied plane, here is my brief wish list of items to include in the second edition. Tell us more about Russell’s two most distinctive, and intriguing, featured actors: the impossibly handsome Christopher Gable, and the actress who seems archetypically ‘Russellian,’ Georgina Hale, who has brilliantly morphed Joan Fontaine into the deadpan of Tex Avery’s Droopy. (No one else could pronounce Mahler’s name to make it sound like a cross between chalk on a blackboard and a tritone.) I’d also like to learn more about two of the musicians, both gay, with whom Russell worked, who are now regarded as among the greatest living composers: Peter Maxwell Davies and John Corigliano, whose music for Altered States is on my short list of the all-time greatest film scores. Russell may have turned Paddy Chayevsky’s sow’s ear of a sci-fi script into a rayon, if not silk, purse, but Corigliano managed to create a musical kaleidoscope of astonishing power, even when divorced from the film. This book is lavishly illustrated, but ideally subsequent editions should include production shots from Russell’s groundbreaking opera stagings. Happily, photos are available online; and Russell videotaped some of his productions, which we can hope will come to DVD. (On a purely personal musical note, the only comment in the entire book that riled me was, on page 38, when Lanza states too matter of factly that Elgar is “[c]onsidered second to Henry Purcell as England’s greatest composer…” — so where does that leave Benjamin Britten, about whom Russell uttered some ill-chosen words in his 1988 documentary Ken Russell’s ABC of British Music (while dipping a French fry in champagne), with such sublime masterpieces as the War Requiem and opera Peter Grimes?)

There are also a couple of factual errors that need to be corrected: On page 105, “Playwright Ned Rorem” is more accurately ‘composer and diarist Ned Rorem;’ on page 234, at the Academy Awards Altered States was nominated for, but did not win, Best Sound and Best Music, Original Score; on page 256, it’s Sandler (with an “l”), and that screenwriter in his quotation has the facts wrong: D.C. Comics, not Marvel, owns Superman.

These minor suggestions in no way diminish the excellence and importance of Lanza’s lucid book, that reveals so much about an artist whose work is simultaneously in-your-face and private, gaudy and subtle, frenzied and philosophical. Any filmmaker who had made even one of Russell’s greatest works would be due a place in cinema’s pantheon; but it’s astonishing that a single artist has made pictures as diverse but unmistakably his own as Women in Love, The Music Lovers, The Boy Friend, Gothic and what is on the very short list of greatest British films, The Devils.

As Russell notes, “This is not the age of manners. This is the age of kicking people in the crotch and telling them something and getting a reaction. I want to shock people into awareness.” That he does, even as he creates works of riotous beauty — while taking cinematic language in undreamed of directions. His pictures lay bare the paradoxes of his own heart and, by extension, those of our times.

LGBTQ+ Literature
Jim’s Book Reviews / LGBTQ+ Literature

Reviewed August 1, 2007 / Updated 27, 2022

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