I was saddened to hear of Ken Russell’s death last week. He was a particular hero of mine. I saw my first Ken Russell film at boarding school. It was introduced by a wimpy teacher, wringing his hands and describing the intense, moralistic debate the school board had just had about whether it was appropriate to screen this movie. After 10 minutes of this gentle, concerned bleating, he finally left the stage. The projector cranked up and a hall full of schoolboys got their first exposure to a work by The Master: it was The Devils.
Wow ! What a movie. Like a fusion between The Exorcist and The Crucible. Based on The Devils of Loudun by Aldous Huxley it is set in Cardinal Richelieu’s France and tells the true story of the nuns in Loudun Convent being ‘possessed’ by devils. Starring Oliver Reid and Vanessa Redgrave, the film is visually stunning and delivers a knockout blow around themes of hypocrisy, religion, kinky sex, torture, authority and the abuse of power. Nothing here that public school boys don’t already know about, so the concerns of the teachers were clearly groundless.
The film caused a huge furore on its release in 1971. It had to be heavily cut even to get an X rating. It was banned by 17 local authorities in the UK and in many countries, and could only get released in the USA after further substantial cuts. Astonishingly, it is still unavailable on DVD and rumours of the release of a Directors Cut version have been repeatedly postponed.
It’s a wonderful movie. The combination of its gorgeous visuals and its powerful message had a big impact on me as a teenager. I felt that my eyes had been opened and I had witnessed “The Truth” for the first time. More importantly, it was a non-verbal truth. I was not really able to properly articulate my thoughts about it later because I had absorbed it at a level beneath the verbal.
All good movies are like that. When people try to describe them to you they normally tail off with a rather weak “….well, you really ought to see it yourself”. Stories are a verbal medium but movies are a visual one; you have to experience them.
The Italian proverb traduttore, traditore meaning “translator, traitor” meaning the act of translation is an act of distortion or betrayal. In a similar vein, to tell someone the story of a movie verbally is a gross distortion. It is a catataxic error. Sound and visuals are the language of emotions that belong on level one. Prose and the spoken word belong on level two language: precise, grammatical and rule bound. Rock journalists sometimes explain the conundrum like this: Writing about music is as impossible as explaining architecture through the medium of expressive dance.
Cinematic filmmakers like Ken Russell, Nic Roeg and Terrence Malick are the masters of a form of inarticulate veracity in which words are lies and images are the truth. Appropriately, the best example of inarticulate veracity is in a scene from a movie: Taxi Driver. It’s the speech by The Wizard (Peter Boyle) where he attempts to explain the meaning of life to De Niro and fails utterly, tailing off with “I’m a cabbie. What do I know?” . But in his very inarticulateness, he is in fact expressing a great truth. See the clip below. There is no better exposition of one of my favourite catataxic maxims: The truth is that which can not be put in words
See a transcript here