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Book Review: Six English Filmmakers

Recognize anybody?

Six English Filmmakers by Paul Sutton

(with additional material by Kevin Brownlow, Brian Cox, Bernard Cribbins, Philip Harrison, Jocelyn Herbert, Murray Melvin, Brian Pettifer, Vivian Pickles, Brian Simmons, and Rupert Webster)

Cambridge, UK: Buffalo Books, 2014

Paul Sutton’s Six English Filmmakers is full of stories, and reads as an extended love-letter to a group of directors whose reputations have suffered periodic neglect. While Mike Hodges is still alive (though seemingly retired), most of the filmmakers discussed are now dead. And, while most will agree that Charlie Chaplin is a major figure of world-historical importance, not everyone will recognize the shifting fortunes of directors like Lindsay Anderson, Clive Donner, Ken Russell, and Michael Winner. But, for those of us who have been paying attention to such filmmakers–indeed, to anybody with a specific interest in 1960s and 1970s cinema–Six English Filmmakers will be a welcome addition to the bookshelf.

It should be mentioned from the outset that this isn’t the type of film book that one often sees. Six English Filmmakers isn’t a critical study (after reading it, I don’t think it had given me any strong reasons to change my evaluations of the films discussed). It isn’t a history of the industry, though it does shed plenty of light on the production contexts of specific films, on issues of film censorship, and on the reception of films around the world. It doesn’t offer “close readings” of films, or the kind of shot-by-shot formal analysis that prevails in the age of screen capture (though it does feature plenty of still images, many with choice compositions). It certainly isn’t a work of film theory. Instead, the book focuses on bringing to light new, previously unpublished, obscure, or otherwise unknown facts, images, battles, tales, and anecdotes about many of the films made by the directors in question. Most of this material is revealed in conversations with the collaborators or friends of these directors (or from discussions with the directors themselves) and much is supported by choice primary source documentation. The book’s biggest hurdle is the barrier of entry for the contextual appreciation of its strengths. While never condescending, the book addresses the reader as if they have some knowledge of the life and careers of the featured directors. This probably won’t be anybody’s first book on Chaplin or Anderson. But, for those interested in something new, it will fit the bill. Read more

Book Review: Becoming Ken Russell: The Authorised Biography of Ken Russell, Volume One

Becoming Ken Russell: The Authorised Biography of Ken Russell, Volume One
Paul Sutton
Bear Claw Books, Cambridge, UK
$20

My own interest in director Ken Russell was partially instigated by the spotty record of publications about him. Between 1984 and 2008, the only books written about Ken were written by the man himself. With Joseph Lanza’s career assessment Phallic Frenzy: Ken Russell and His Films and my own book Ken Russell: Re-Viewing England’s Last Mannerist (2009), the tables seemed to be turning. My book was an attempt at organizing more academic interest in Russell, while Lanza’s was a narrative of Russell’s life, as told by his films. Taken together, my book and Lanza’s book have some flaws. His treatment of Russell’s films is largely limited to speculation on secondary sources (though amusing, entertaining, and sometimes profoundly funny speculation it turns out to be), while my collection of essays has all the strengths and limitations that go along with the word “academic.” Depending on who utters it and how, “academic” can be a profoundly positive word, or, at the other end of the spectrum, a slyly pejorative insult. When people call my work academic, I hope they’re being nice to me. I think that the essays in the book remain insightful and useful!

The most recent book solely focused on Ken Russell is scholarly without being hermetically “academic,” and speculative while still staying grounded in (sometimes astonishing) evidence. Paul Sutton’s Becoming Ken Russell is accomplished because it has so many relevant things to say about a period in the filmmaker’s life that has heretofore been shrouded by an historical smog, part of it lost to memory (our previous accounts of this time come almost totally from Russell, who loved to play with his autobiographical self-image, and in later years might have lost a part of his past to the natural process of aging) and the other part undiscovered because scholars, myself included, didn’t necessarily learn the right lessons from the right people.

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