Every conference is a curate’s egg, and you always hope that the good parts make up (and more) for those that are less so. A two-day gathering in Brussels this week dedicated to the films of Ken Russell (above, on the set of Tommy, 1975) had a very decent tally of the good, and at the same time was curiouser than most such events. Taking part in Imagining the Past: Ken Russell, Biography and the Art of Making History were scholars and academics along with some like editor Roger Crittenden who had worked with Ken Russell in the 1960s and ’70s. Present too was Russell’s indefatigable biographer Paul Sutton, who is one book into a projected five-volume ‘Life’ (he it was who suggested the comparison with James Boswell’s life of the good Dr Johnson). And then there was the filmmaker’s widow, the delightful Lisi Tribble Russell (@awhitetable). All of which made for a significantly more diverse discourse than academia usually accommodates.
One aspect of the Russell oeuvre that several of us identified was the intensely personal way in which some aspect of it had first spoken to us. My life with Ken began one Saturday afternoon in 1970 when I was still at school and I saw The Music Lovers at the Canterbury Odeon . As I’ve testified elsewhere, that day’s epiphany was what made me want to work in the film and television industry. After that I twice consumed with an addict’s fervour Women in Love, 1969 in a double bill with The Music Lovers (again, again) at the lamented London Pavilion. Then there was The Devils, 1971 (at the Cambridge Arts Theatre), and Savage Messiah, 1972 (Empire Leicester Square, for the very first public screening) , and Mahler, 1974 (can’t recall where), and um, Tommy, 1975, and… by the time of Lisztomania, 1975, I was disillusioned with the movies.
By this point, however, I had started to watch – thanks to viewing copies at the BFI – the ‘documentaries’ that Russell made at the BBC between 1959 and 1970. (See Michael Brooke’s excellent BFI ScreenOnline piece for details.) It’s simply scandalous that none of these are currently available on DVD in this country and only a selection is on a BBC Region 1 box set released in the States (although a good number can be seen for free at the BFI Southbank’s Mediatheque). There are riches indeed in this output, including the celebrated Elgar, 1962 and Song of Summer, 1968 as well as lesser-known films like The Debussy Film, 1965 and Isadora, 1966.
Among my favourites of Russell’s BBC films is the exuberant, youthful, sexy nouvelle vague-influenced Pop Goes the Easel, 1962, about which I presented a paper in Brussels. This is a glorious profile of the four young artists Peter Blake, Peter Phillips, Derek Boshier and Pauline Boty, and it’s a Pop collage of found footage, artworks, fantasy sequences and a breathless, immersive, kinaesthetic four-minute-long wordless sequence of its subjects and their friends at a party doing the Twist.
For all the undoubted interest of the increasingly elaborate and self-referential dramatisations in The Debussy Film and Always on a Sunday, 1965, Pop Goes the Easel increasingly seems to me perhaps the most significant of Russell’s early films. It’s with this Monitor production that Russell first integrates high art and popular or ‘folk’ culture – and this idea was to be central in all of his subsequent work. Given that it’s not available legally, you’ll have to search your own consciences about whether you might want to hunt it down on a well-known video sharing site.
(For more on the film and on the poignant appearance in it of Pauline Boty, who died just over four years after it was made, see my blog post The only blonde in the world about a recent show at Pallant House Gallery of Boty’s work and also Adam Curtis’ remarkable online essay Dream On from 2011 about Boty, her husband Clive Goodwin and the left in the 1960s and ’70s. My recommendation of that should not, however, be taken to suggest approval of all of its analysis.)
Back in Brussels, the conference featured excellent presentations by, amongst others, John Hill, who discussed the BBC films against the background of the Corporation’s concerns in the 1960s about fact, fiction, objectivity and balance; from Jack Post, who spun a wonderful exploration of the title sequence of Russell’s movie Altered States, 1980; from Kevin Flanagan, who teased out the ideas behind wartime imagery across Russell’s film and television work; and from the conference’s indefatigible organiser Christophe van Eecke, who offered a compelling analysis of the Baroque world of The Devils, the film to which the conference returned over and over.
Beyond these papers and related viewings,organised with the Offscreen festival of cult cinema, the conference staged its own little drama that circled around the question of who owns Ken Russell. Not in any legalistic sense, of course, but in terms of who can speak and how and with what authority about Russell – and by extension, any creative figure.
Central to the unfolding of the conference were the multiple contributions from both podium and floor of biographer Paul Sutton, who has assembled a mountain of research from encounters with Russell’s colleagues, production files and many days spent with the late filmmaker before his death in 2011. Another person who had a close personal relationship with Ken Russell was Lisi, who offered a lovely and loving tribute to her late husband at the conclusion of the conference. There were those, too, who had worked with Russell, and others like me who had only the most glancing encounter with him (mine was a lunch in 1980 when I interviewed him for a Time Out cover feature). Others, of course, knew him only from his films.
What became apparent was a tension, often productive and for the most part expressed politely, over how this range of people could speak about the films. How, for example, could we best move the discussion beyond Russell as an individual genius? How could we think about the creative contributions of his many collaborators in a huge variety of production contexts? What impact did those contexts have on the films? Could we question his celebration of sexuality at the heart of so many of his films? Might we suggest that his use of the imagery of fascism, and specifically Nazi symbols, is trivialising? Most generally, can the films have multiple meanings and effects beyond those intended by their director?
Just in case you might doubt this, the answer to this last question is unequivocally yes. But I have rarely been in a context that made me think so carefully about the varied and sometimes conflicting investments that different people in different contexts have in a filmmaker’s work. For that, and for some stimulating conversation and excellent beers, my two days in Brussels were most definitely worthwhile.