Making odd or even wrong choices in life, as in art, becomes an aesthetic. – R.B. Kitaj
One makes room in Heaven for all sorts of souls … who are not confidently expected to be there by many excellent people – Stephen Crane
Los Angeles, May 1995 – Dinner tonight with Ken Russell at Mexico City restaurant in Los Feliz, around the corner from home. Chatted genially about his recent projects: the unbelievably dire Yuri Geller TV biopic Mindbender (not one of Ken’s favorites, sucked into it because of an old connection from Robert Stigwood and Tommy days); plus his upcoming version of Treasure Island, to be shot with a camcorder and starring his new wife Hetty Baynes as Long Jane Silver. Wandered onto various topics: Old Master paintings sunk on the Lusitania (apparently works by Rembrandt, Rubens, Titian and Monet went down with the ship) … the great civil engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel, builder of the Great Eastern and the Clifton Suspension Bridge spanning the Avon Gorge in Bristol … the explosion of tourists in the Lake District which ironically he helped to popularize in The Devils, Women In Love and Tommy. Talked about a project he’s trying to set up with The South Bank Show on the English composer Albert Ketèlbey (1875 – 1959), whose works were tremendously popular in Ken’s youth in the 1930s and 1940s, especially Oriental-themed mini-epics like “In A Persian Market” and “In A Monastery Garden” and the local favorite “ ‘Appy ‘Amstead.”
On the way back to Ken’s hotel we raced through Hollywood in my beat-up Triumph Spitfire with the top down and Ken’s white hair whipping in the night air. He suddenly burst into song, warbling the vocal chorus to “In A Persian Market” at the top of his lungs, for his own delight. God knows what people on the street thought of this mad Englishman, madly chanting “baksheesh … baksheesh!!” Truly this is why I love Ken.
In the Desert, even more than upon the ocean, there is present death: hardship is there, and piracies, and shipwreck, solitary, not in crowds, where, as the Persians say, ‘Death is a festival’; — and this sense of danger, never absent, invests the scene of travel with an interest not its own.
The sons of Great Britain are model barbarians – Sir Richard Francis Burton
South Downs, England, May 1995 – Climbed to the top of Chanctonbury Ring this morning; I’m in nearby Findon for the wedding of my high school friend Vincent to his English sweetheart Fiona. Chanctonbury and nearby Cissbury Rings are remains of Iron Age hilltop fortresses: both command overpowering views of the rolling West Sussex countryside, although Cissbury is slightly more spectacular because of its sheer size, enclosing nearly 65 acres. I tore my pants unnecessarily climbing over a barbed wire fence to get inside Cissbury, without realizing there was an access gate just around the curve of the hill. The massive size of the double ramparts at the top had me confused into thinking they were natural earthenworks, not man made. I spent most of my walk searching for “Roman era ruins” that I’d heard were near the Ring. Finally bumped into a local redheaded girl having a smoke and exercising her large dogs and asked her where the ruins were. “You’re standing on them,” she replied and then trotted off with her hounds, leaving me to my Yankee stupidity. Chanctonbury is accessible only by a brutally steep climb through the wood: the area inside the ramparts is now off-limits and overgrown, although supposedly still used by a local witches’ coven according to a waitress at the inn I’m staying at. Cissbury, on the other hand, is still open to the winds and the joggers and the dog-walkers and the local cattle which graze along the slopes. On a clear day, I’m told, you can see to the Isle of Wight.
Overheard in a second-hand bookshop in nearby Chichester: the young owner and his mates arguing passionately about censorship in England of Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, and commenting about the scene in Ridley Scott’s Black Rain where Andy Garcia loses his head as “a beautiful piece of editing.” “It couldn’t happen to a better man,” someone chimed in sarcastically. English second-hand booksellers appear not to be Andy Garcia fans.
Drove out to have lunch with Ken Russell at his country house, Old Tinsley, in the New Forest – so-called “new” because it was planted only a thousand years ago by William the Conqueror, according to Ken. I found him sitting in the greenhouse wearing a straw hat and working on the script for Treasure Island; he writes everything out longhand. Old Tinsley is a 16th century thatched house: Ken bought it in 1972 and says he’s done all of his screenwriting there since. While he was in the kitchen boiling up spaghetti, he explained to me the difficulties of having an old house in England: when he wanted to add the greenhouse on beside the kitchen, to give the place more light and space, he contacted the local council – who sent an “unbearable woman” out to see him. After poking into too much of Ken’s business for his liking, she finally gave him clearance to build the greenhouse – but, some time later, a second, even more odious woman, came to visit him from the council. In the course of conversation, Ken mentioned the house wasn’t “listed” – i.e., historically protected under British law. “Well, it should be,” she promptly replied. By the time Ken received the notice of listing – which meant absolutely no changes could be made to the house from a historical preservation point of view – he’d already poured the foundation and paid the non-refundable balance for the greenhouse. He quickly phoned the local supervisor and explained that unless he was allowed to continue, he’d sue the council for the 17,000-pound balance. After a short pause, the supervisor noted the listing papers had been signed by “the wrong person” and so were not legally in effect. Said supervisor quietly asked how long it would take to get the greenhouse up. “About a week,” Ken replied. “Then I’ll get you the correct listing papers in a week,” the supervisor said, and hung up. The papers never actually arrived as it turned out – and now we sit in Ken’s magnificent little greenhouse with two wooden church angels in the corner, and an ultra high tech sound system that he has to cover with a cloth to keep the sun from melting.
During lunch, Ken quizzed me about the American Civil War, asking if it still meant anything to most Americans. He observed that the radicals responsible for the recent bombing in Oklahoma City seemed to share a common motive with the Confederate States – both objected to being told what to do by the Federal government – and he wondered out loud if America would have another civil war. He also mentioned that the British, in his opinion, seemed to have little sympathy for America over the Oklahoma City tragedy since they’d been experiencing IRA attacks for decades while most Americans seemed to side with the IRA.
After lunch, we took a short walk around the garden. The sundial in back was a gift when he married his most recent wife Hetty. He read the time for me, which turned out to be an hour early because sundials don’t correct for daylight savings time.
That afternoon: climbed up to Cissbury Ring again for a late afternoon farewell to the green English hills and ran into an agitated cow and her calf, apparently separated from the small herd that grazes there. Followed after them until the cow charged up onto the embankment and confronted me. After a minute we both went our separate peaceful ways.
And they led the most pleasurable of lives and the most delectable, till there came to them the Destroyer of delights and the Sunderer of societies and they became as they had never been. – Sir Richard Francis Burton, The Arabian Nights
Los Angeles, late 2006 – It’s several months since Ken and I worked together on his “The Girl With The Golden Breasts” episode of the anthology film Trapped Ashes, which he directed and I wrote & produced. At the end of the episode, to everyone’s surprise, Ken appeared as one of the mad scientists who flash their vampiric female breasts to the camera; he kept the fact that he was playing one of the doctors a secret until we actually shot. During editing he took to calling me “Dennis Scissorhands” for cutting his segment down (the full-length cut was eventually released on the DVD, to Ken’s grudging satisfaction.)
I received word that Ken had suddenly been left homeless: a fire had gutted his beautiful thatched cottage, Old Tinsley, nearly killing his lovely fourth wife, Elize, who managed to escape at the last moment. Later I learn he decided not to rebuild.
Nay, more annoying than the fear which they inspired was the odious extravagance of their equipment, with their gilded sails, and purple awnings, and silvered oars – Plutarch describing the Cilician Pirates
Los Angeles, late November 2011 – I just received word that Ken has passed away. We’d been in touch recently when I helped attach him to direct a planned remake of the 1976 film Alice In Wonderland: An X-Rated Musical Fantasy, which he was quite excited about.
Although my Triumph Spitfire is long gone, sometimes driving through Hollywood at night with the windows down, when I pass a certain point I can still hear echoes of a mad Englishman chanting “baksheesh … baksheesh!!” for his own wild pleasure.
Dennis Bartok is a writer-producer and former programmer at the American Cinematheque in Hollywood.