Wednesday, December 31, 2014

#FreeTheDevils : Why Now Is the Time to Consider Reviving Ken Russell's Classic.

Okay, I'll just address the elephant in the room now and then we can get to The Devils. Yes, work here has fallen off in a big way since Halloween ended. This is due to a mix of work over at Moar Powah! As well as general employment. Things have settled, and I'm working on getting the backlog squared away to get next year off to a good start.

To that end, I'll be finishing the Gundam 35th anniversary writeups with the second half of this week, followed by the yearly punishment film, and the top ten to follow.

But this first, for reasons I will explain.

This last month has been an interesting one for film history. Regardless of how people may feel about the actual quality of the Seth Rogen/James Franco comedy The Interview (I still haven't seen it) there's no denying the movie's controversy has carved it out an unusual spot in film history.

The decision to pull the movie inspired a LOT of responses from people who were shocked that a movie would be shut down and removed from circulation for fear of offending a certain group of people. That people were willing to defend a movie, even one that many admitted they personally had no interest in, was encouraging in a strange way.

Around the same time this was happening, a smaller movement caught my eye. Like the former group, they have organized to lobby for the wider release of a film whose release has been hobbled by its distributors for fear of backlash over its content.

It's the efforts of this latter group that have inspired this article. Now that The Interview has seen a release, and is faring decently for an internet VOD, I ask all those who rallied for its release to consider putting their support behind the movement known as #FreeTheDevils.

I suspect a lot of people right now are probably going 'Wait, what?' Don't feel too bad if you're in this group, that covers a lot of people. Which is a shame, because it's a fascinating piece of film history.

Made in 1971, The Devils is Ken Russell's stylized telling of the hysteria that consumed the French town of Loudun in the 17th century. Taking elements of the Aldous Huxley non-fiction book The Devils of Loudun as well as the play The Devils by John Whiting, Russell combined elements of the two to make his own narrative of the events, focusing on the popular but divisive Urbain Grandier (Oliver Reed in one of his stronger performances), and how he was made into a scapegoat in the hysteria- all for daring to oppose the power plays of Cardinal Richelieu (Christopher Logue).

For an additional fun fact, that facial hair isn't a Ken Russell style choice. Grandier just knew how to rock a mustache was all.

The film is a curious mix of styles, blending personal character-focused stories for both Grandier and tormented nun Sister Jeanne (Vanessa Redgrave, in a role she considers to be one of her best), the larger political and religious situation in France at the time, as well as some elements of psychological horror as the madness begins to sweep Loudun. The resulting movie does an ample job of keeping all of these balls in the air while also keeping its overall messages towards organized religion and politics clear without feeling overwrought, and even offering some counterpoint.

"Show me the exact spot in the Bible where God says 'Thou shalt not hunt people for sport.' Is that really so unreasonable a request?"

These messages, of course, are part of why you may not have heard of this movie. The Devils has had a controversial reputation around it for years, thanks in no small part to its criticisms of the abuses of power by the church. From the beginning, the movie establishes how much of Richelieu's planning is ultimately running the Protestants out of France and rooting out any possible resistance to his bid for a theocracy with the king - including dismantling city walls like those of Loudun. More famously, the rather frank depictions of sexuality the movie features in several scenes have become the other pronounced aspect of the movie's legacy. Two in particular have further added to the movie's legend -one of these, the less talked about, is a grim epilogue to the movie involving Sister Jeanne and the burned femur of Grandier. This has been the more elusive of the two infamous scenes and one that some have even begun to suspect may not have survived. The other, more infamous of the two - in part because it has been found -is the sequence known as 'The Rape of Christ', in which several of the hysterical nuns in Loudun, in their frenzy, pull down and begin to mount a crucifix.

...this is about the point where you can already picture the executives at Warner Bros sweating bullets.

Somewhere, there's another timeline where John Lennon didn't get shot
Somewhere further still, there's another timeline where, as a result of that, his concerts got REALLY weird.

There is a shorter, R-rated edit of the movie out there that omits these two scenes. In fact, this past summer a print of that edition was screened at the Coolidge Corner Theater in Brookline MA, making it one of the few theaters in the US that can claim to have shown the movie since its initial release.

Of course, even that version is still seen as a great enough risk that Warner Bros has not released the movie on DVD or Blu-ray. Depending the size of your library network, you MIGHT be able to find a VHS copy of the R-rated version, but even that's no guarantee. Were it not for the internet, and its sometimes lamentable/sometimes commendable penchant for bootlegging and archiving the lesser known or unusual fare, there's a possibility this might have slid through the cracks.

Pictured - an artist's rendering of a Warner Bros executive delivering those rights.
...and for those who know this scene in context, yes the sarcasm is intentional.

As it is now, it's the one other movie that could be said to rival Disney's Song of the South in terms of demand for a film its studios are seemingly afraid to release.

Which is a shame, because beyond just the controversy and the question of the right to release a movie, it's honestly a good one. Not one to everyone's tastes, I'll admit, but still a very well acted, stylistic, and fascinating look at one of the more prominent of Europe's witch scares and the possible motivations behind it. Even if it doesn't do it for you, it's a movie where one can see the appeal it has for others, and why it's still a sought after title on the bootleg circuit.

If any of this has you curious, but you still wish to know a bit more before giving it a look, I'd recommend looking up the book Raising Hell: Ken Russell and the Unmaking of The Devils or the Mark Kermode documentary Hell on Earth: The Desecration and Resurrection of The Devils - the latter should still be up on YouTube [actually, it is! Fair warning now: some of the scenes from the movie featured in this aren't work safe] - for a more comprehensive look at this movie and the controversy surrounding it. Kermode is arguably one of the biggest champions of the movie, and his tribute does it justice.

Always remember, young Catholics - if you haven't been scared out of your minds yet, we're not doing our job well enough!

Hopefully this does have some of you curious, even better if it inspires some of you to seek the movie out. If that's all this article does, that will be enough for me. I know better than to believe this will be enough to wrest open the doors of WB's vaults, but all the same, I don't imagine it will hurt to get the word out there about those who have been trying to spread the word about this movie. And in light of all the turmoil and later hype over this year's own entry to controversial cinema, what better way to celebrate than by trying to bring another exiled film back into the limelight?

You can't say you've ever truly seen an exorcism until you've seen one performed by a priest of the church of the Macho Man.
Randy Savage bless us all

Sorry, waxed a little needlessly poetic there.

Anyway, as I said at the start of this, we're back up and running here to get caught up. Rest assured, this year's punishment movie is going to suitably pay back for the past few months.

Till then.

For more information on the group mentioned above, feel free to check out their Facebook page here
Again, it's a relatively small group, but growing.

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