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  • Appallingly Carnivalesque
  • Cynthia Miller
Joseph Lanza . Phallic Frenzy: Ken Russell and His Films. Chicago Review Press, 2007. 327 pages; $26.95.

With any subject, an author must ask “What makes this interesting?” In the best analyses, the answer to that question becomes obvious, and the interest in the subject emerges naturally and powerfully; in other cases, so much energy is spent on creating and promoting interest that the subject itself—in this case, Ken Russell— seems artificially important and thus shrinks to insignificance.

The problem with Phallic Frenzy is not that the career of Ken Russell is not that of a master. From one phase of his cinematic output to the next, his work has been provoking, visually stunning, deeply moving, and intriguingly (sometimes appallingly) carnivalesque—often, all at the same time. From his years as the “Wild Man of the BBC” through the psychosocial maze of films such as The Devils (1971), Tommy (1975), Lizstomania (1975), Salome’s Last Dance (1988), and The Fall of the House of Usher (2001), Russell’s enigmatic life and works have often been brazenly disturbing observations of the human condition, so much so, in fact, that they are done a disservice by Phallic Frenzy’s further sensationalism, which offers up a caricature rather than a penetrating analytical study.

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Lanza’s volume seeks to capitalize on the more highly sexualized aspects of Russell’s work, promising to illuminate threads of voyeurism, obsession, and sexual angst that the author suggests are the defining elements in the director’s creative output. In the introductory chapter, suggestively titled “Pinocchio’s Pecker,” Lanza constructs a Freudian device for explaining Russell’s erotic worldview, citing two seminal events, if you will, that would shape Russell’s vision for many decades to come—the first, a childhood fright over an image of the Loch Ness monster (complete with a “jutting head” and “dangling testicular neck skin”) in The Secret of the Loch (1934), shown in a [End Page 84] local movie house, and, the second, a movie-house fright of a different kind, as the young Russell found himself being groped in a darkened theater (1).

According to Phallic Frenzy, those early jolts of sex and cinema left an inescapable mark on Russell’s psyche, and the pairing is thus indicted as the touchstone of Russell’s life and work, suggesting that all else—art, love, hate, religion, death, etc. —were merely brightly-colored streamers wrapped around the “thematic maypole” of the filmmaker’s “willie” (2). The suggestion of reducing the complexities of Russell’s worldview to a single, externally-imposed explanatory device oversimplifies his inner world and his creative output, severely limiting the framework of understanding for the volume’s readers.

Readers enticed by the volume’s premise may be disappointed to discover that the work quickly lapses into a standard chronological overview of Russell’s biography and career. The chapters that follow Lanza’s salacious introduction provide a detailed, and often comical, map of the relationships, projects, detours, and roadblocks of the filmmaker’s work in photography, dance, television, and film over more than 50 years. After an exploration of the filmmaker’s early years, the succeeding chapters focus, in particular, on Russell’s most well-known work: The Devils (1971), The Lair of the White Worm (1988), Salome’s Last Dance (1988), Lisztomania (1975), Tommy (1975), Altered States (1980), Valentino (1977) and Women in Love (1969). Throughout these chapters, Lanza’s volume largely makes use of secondary authorities—Russell’s interviewers and colleagues—as his guides rather than Russell himself.

Interviews with Sight and Sound, independent interviewers, and the BBC, as well as Russell’s own writings and audio commentary accompanying his projects, provide contextualization, as do countless film reviews and other Russell scholars, but Russell’s own voice in the present moment remains silent. This is unfortunate, since the filmmaker is alive, well, still productive, and accessible. To complicate matters, Lanza’s method of citation makes follow-up research on any of these secondary sources challenging. His endnotes for each chapter cite sources generally but never include actual page references, even in the case of direct quotations. With a...


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