The Criterion Channel recently added a movie of utter notoriety to its lineup: Ken Russell's The Devils. I knew going on that the movie's trouble with censors has left it in less-than-ideal shape, but I wanted to have some idea of why the movie commanded such furor then and now. One hour and forty-five minutes later, I'm wondering why I ever bothered.
I've liked many of Ken Russell's movies. I thought Women In Love was a good reduction of a far windier and less effective story (D.H. Lawrence is a great novelist but a terrible writer), and Tommy is the best kind of camp, the kind with a sterling soundtrack. But the worst thing about The Devils is not the sacrilegious imagery or the lurid excess; it's that the movie is so shallow on every level you could barely drown an ant face-down in it. Am I really supposed to be gobsmacked at the revelation that, wow, religious institutions and political power are evil bedfellows and corruptive influences? The worst crime of the film is not that it's blasphemous, or obscene, but that it's just faintly dumb. It plays like a Monty Python project where all that's missing are the deliberate laughs.
I'm also not convinced the edits had anything to do with the basic quality of the film. All the details I've turned up about one major deleted sequence (the "Rape of Christ") don't change the plot in any measurable way. The fact that Warner Brothers has blocked release of a proper director's cut is a shame -- yes, I say that even for a movie where I held my nose all the way through. It would be nice to have such a thing more readily available; I just remain dubious how much better a movie we'd end up with.
Something of the same caliber happened to me with Michael Cimino's Heaven's Gate. I waited for a decent home-video version for that widely reviled film to turn up before watching it, the better to give it the best possible chances. Sure enough, it was Criterion that brought it to us. And again, I spent the entire time either scratching my head or snickering. Right from the start they made it hard for me to take the movie seriously in any form, when they show us the Gothic spires of Oxford and super the title "HARVARD" over it. (That's like what Kentucky Fried Movie did when it showed us the Statue of Liberty and labeled it "HONG KONG", except Heaven's Gate wasn't trying for laughs.) It just got dumber and uglier from there on out, and to no clear purpose, either.
On the other hand, there was Pasolini's Salò. I can't call myself a fan of the movie (can anyone really say that?), but I can say it had the intended effect: it left me queasy to the core for days afterwards. It was not one I could bring myself to snicker at, or find foolish.
Big ambitions always carry big risks, and the biggest risk is embodied by something Yukio Mishima once said, about how he came out on stage expecting applause and got only laughter. Maybe the only way to survive that is to find a way to laugh at yourself, too. Explains why Russell went on as he did, since the last thing Cimino was ever able to do was laugh at himself.
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