I love Ken Russell. It is becoming rarer and rarer to find such a bold and fiercely opinionated, yet artistically gifted filmmaker - say auteur - in modern cinema. Every time I weary of the hordes of remakes and might-as-well-be remakes, I turn to someone like Russell, Derek Jarman, Alex Cox, Chris Marker - someone whose vision and sensibilities are so unique they run almost parallel to cinema itself and seem at times to be a different branch of art form altogether. Lately, I've been feeling kind of burnt-out on movies - perhaps because I watched 31 films in January (yes, I was keeping count) or perhaps because of the general lack of originality, of truth, of ANYTHING THAT NEEDS TO BE SAID in modern cinema.
So, last night I was feeling much like this - having started and been unable to finish watching various movies over the past few weeks, I popped in Ken Russell's Crimes of Passion and all of a sudden - WHOOSH - all notions of what I felt was becoming a tedious medium were ripped away and I was blitzkrieged with a delirious series series of images that I almost felt like Alex in the prised-open eyes torture sequence from A Clockwork Orange - except this was far too much fun. The film's plot is simple - a "priest" (Anthony Perkins?!) fixates upon the idea of saving a lost soul in Kathleen Turner's hooker, China Blue, who is also pursued by an unhappy father (John Laughlin) in order to "really connect" because his dead-fish wife won't talk to him.
Salvador Dali famously said, "I don't do drugs; I am drugs", and the same could be said about Crimes of Passion - just replace"drugs" with "sex". Every single frame in the movie exudes sex, whether overtly or subconsciously, but always intentionally, and often, hilariously. The opening 10 minutes alone are so ridiculously over-the-top and pure, pure '80s, that the rest of the film almost felt tame by comparison. It is a rare film that has a fish-netted, bewigged hooker riding furiously on top of a handcuffed on-duty policeman, all the while shoving his nightstick brutally into his - well, for the rest, you'll have to watch it yourself. But the point is, by the time this scene showed up, it didn't come across as shocking or titillating or even overly gratuitous - it just showed Russell's mastery at sending very purposeful reminders that China Blue and the people swirling in and out of her life are doing anything they can just to FEEL something - love, hate, pain, disgust, pleasure - ANYTHING.
The absolute best performance certainly has to go to the sorely underrated Tony Perkins (who really seems to be warming up for his oddly similar-in-many-ways turn, two years later, in his own directorial effort of Psycho III - an absolutely superb film in its own right, and one that is often overshadowed by its famous forefather.....but I digress....), who plays the mad monk Rev. Peter Shayne. Perkins invests Shayne with vein-popping, manic sexual psychosis and repression, but also a heart-rending sadness and a great loneliness; his scenes are truly a treat to watch. In particular, the sequence where he comes to perform the "last rites" on China Blue then proceeds to play "Get Happy" at the piano is so batshit crazy it really just has to be seen to be believed. Kathleen Turner is also excellent in what must have been a VERY difficult dual role.
The film is shocking not for its sexual subject matter - which, much like the Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), is certainly less gratuitous than people seem to remember (i.e. you really don't "see" all that much) - but for its very open lambasting of the hypocrisy of the church, of the great lie that is marriage, and of the utter vacuity of the the '80s, full of glamour and excess, but paradoxically devoid of feeling or emotion. Everyone here is trying to connect, to get off, to communicate, to feel - but in the end, no one wins. One might look at Perkins' character as the real winner, which is odd, since he gets FUCKING MURDERED, but such is the way of the decade, and of Russell's awesome vision.
Radical score, courtesy of Rick Wakeman (not a word) is the perfect symbiotic twin to the story of these pathologically fucked lives. This is a love story that has the guts to treat its characters as human beings, with all their flaws, and not shy away from some of the hard truths. But it's also comedy, exploitation, sleaze, melodrama, pop art come to glorious life on the screen. The film contains such a strange melding of various genre conventions that it is as impossible to categorize at it is to ignore. This film demands to be seen. The fact that it was made in 1984, not 2004, is all important, because automatically, the film has veracity rather than verisimilitude. This is a straight-shot from the whore's mouth, not bogged down by the post-ironic, wink-wink nudge-nudge-nessity that pervades so many films ABOUT the '80s made today. This film IS the '80s, but it is also RIGHT NOW as well, which says a lot about the film's universality. Because at the core of it all, the movie is about human relationships, however twisted, and those really never change.
I am so thankful that people like Ken Russell are still around, kicking against the pricks. Now, please, please, whoever is in charge, release a proper, extras-laden edition of The Devils....for that, I would be truly grateful.