Banned Books Week: Richard Crouse raises a little hell

October 1, 2012 by · Leave a Comment 

It’s Banned Books Week in the United States, which seems an appropriate occasion to highlight Toronto film critic Richard Crouse’s new volume, Raising Hell: Ken Russell and the Unmaking of the Devils. Crouse’s book has itself not been banned (at least, not yet), but it deals with one of the most notorious cases of censorship in film history.

Ken Russell’s 1971 film The Devils, loosely based on Aldous Huxley’s novel The Devils of Loudon and John Whiting’s play The Devils, focuses on a series of alleged demonic possessions of Ursuline nuns that took place in the French town of Loudon in 1634. Starring Oliver Reed and Vanessa Redgrave, the film immediately ran afoul of both British censors and Warner Brothers, the American studio that financed it. (Crouse points out that this is one of the only times in history a studio has actively suppressed one of its own properties.)

The lethal combination of violence, sex, and religion made the film a target for queasy censors, who subjected the movie to an increasingly invasive series of cuts and deletions. (Film director Joe Dante called The Devils “the incredible shrinking movie,” because every time it was shown, something else went missing.) Specific bones of contention included Sister Jeanne, played by Vanessa Redgrave, uttering the word “cunt” (Crouse quotes John Trevelyan, one of the more progressive members of the British Board of Film Censors in 1971, as telling Russell, “It’s taken me ten years of fighting just to get [the word] ‘fuck’ accepted. The British public isn’t ready yet for cunt”); the climactic torture and burning at the stake of the Oliver Reed character, Father Urbain Grandier; and – most infamously – an orgy scene featuring a group of very naked nuns and a life-size Catholic crucifix. Of that scene, Crouse writes that a preview screening in Mayfair “made many of the censors want to wash their eyes out with soap.”

What made this all the more remarkable was that Russell was not some hack exploitation director: by 1970, he had already had a storied career at the BBC, and had been nominated for an Oscar for his adaptation of D.H. Lawrence’s novel Women in Love. But Russell, who died in 2011, had a cinematic sensibility that was sui generis, combining baroque elements with an undeniable affinity for trash. (Other Russell films of note include an adaptation of the Who’s Tommy, the William Hurt sci-fi vehicle Altered States, and the late-period genre pieces The Lair of the White Worm and Gothic.) And while the years 1970–’71 saw the release of two other X-rated Warner Brothers picutres – the crime drama Performance, co-directed by Nicholas Roeg and starring a debut film actor named Mick Jagger, and Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of the Anthony Burgess novel A Clockwork Orange – the studio refused to release The Devils uncut.

Indeed, Warner Brothers was so skittish that it took out ads in a number of American publications warning the public about the content of even the heavily censored domestic release. Crouse writes:

The Devils is not a film for everyone,” screamed the header of a July 19, 1971, quarter-page ad in New York magazine. “It is a true story, carefully documented, historically accurate – a serious work by a distinguished filmmaker. As such it is likely to be hailed as a masterpiece by many. But because it is explicit and highly graphic in depicting the bizarre events that occurred in France in 1634, others will find it visually shocking and deeply disturbing.

“We feel a responsibility to alert you to this. It is our hope that only the audience that will appreciate The Devils will come to see it.”

So nervous was Warner Brothers about the film’s content that – in what must be a unique moment in film history – it actively campaigned to limit the audience that saw the film.

Crouse details the making of The Devils, including its writing, casting, and shooting, and includes comment from editor Michael Bradsell and quotes from the film’s designer, a then-unknown named Derek Jarman.

But Raising Hell is perhaps most valuable in putting The Devils in context, and attempting to explain, to the greatest extent possible, why it came in for censure when other boundary-pushing fare of the time – from upscale Oscar-nominated films such as Rosemary’s Baby, A Clockwork Orange, and The Exorcist to low-budget exploitation such as I Spit on Your Grave – did not. (The answer, unsurprisingly, has much to do with the attitude of The Devils toward the institution of the Catholic Church.) But despite quoting an online rumour that the social conservatism of current Warner Brothers president and CEO Alan Horn is responsible for the continued suppression of the film’s most controversial content, Crouse stops short of explaining why the director’s cut of The Devils remains locked in a studio vault, while other, equally incendiary films (Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom, for example, or Takeshi Miike’s Visitor Q, or Nagisa Oshima’s In the Realm of the Senses) are widely available on DVD.

Nevertheless, Crouse’s book is a fascinating look at a film that very few people have seen, and even fewer have seen as its director intended. Raising Hell is a case study in what transpires when religion and art collide, and it should be read as a cautionary tale in the current climate of culture wars and clashes of civilizations.


Anyone in Toronto who would like to hear the author talk about Raising Hell and the controversy surrounding The Devils should come out to the book’s official launch tonight, beginning at 7:00 p.m. at No One Writes to the Colonel.

Spring cleaning: UPDATED

April 4, 2011 by · 1 Comment 

Anyone who has had occasion to pass by TSR of late has probably noticed that it looks somewhat abandoned: vines are drooping over the verandas, the lawn is overgrown, and the roof of the garage has caved in. This state of disrepair is the fault of the author, who has succumbed of late to a kind of lethargy that makes matters of daily upkeep seem close to impossible. However, with temperatures creeping ever upward, the robins returning, and the tulips doing their best to poke up out of the ground, it might be a good time to clear out the cobwebs, slap on a new coat of paint, and get the old homestead looking respectable again.

To that end, we’ve lined up a busy couple of months at TSR. April is jam-packed with goodies for the literary minded:

  • The Toronto Public Library is hosting the Keep Toronto Reading Festival 2011. The program includes a series of events throughout the month, including appearances by 2010 Man Booker Prize winner Howard Jacobson, Alissa York, Shaughnessy Bishop-Stall, and Judy Fong Bates, whose novel Midnight at the Dragon Café is TPL’s One Book for the year.
  • In conjunction with TPL’s initiative, Jen Knoch’s Keepin’ It Real Book Club is spotlighting videos of public figures recommending a book that has changed their lives. You can hear, among others, Richard Crouse on Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Terry Fallis on Three Cheers for Me, Jessica Westhead on Bats or Swallows, and Iain Reid on The Beggar’s Garden. There are more to come, including, just maybe, one from yr. humble correspondent.
  • April is also National Poetry Month, which is a chance to celebrate a genre that TSR has historically neglected. We’ll try to talk poetry around these parts in the coming days and weeks, and we’ll also try to inveigle a few guests to come aboard to do likewise.
  • There are a couple of blog tours stopping by here in the next few weeks. Stop by on Friday for Antanas Sileika, author of the newly published novel Underground, and on April 30 for Sarah Selecky, author of the Scotiabank Giller Prize–shortlisted collection This Cake Is for the Party.

Selecky’s appearance on TSR leads nicely into May, which is Short Story Month. This year, Selecky, along with Canadian authors Jessica Westhead (And Also Sharks) and Matthew J. Trafford (The Divinity Gene) have inaugurated a project they’re calling YOSS: The Year of the Short Story. Their manifesto states that YOSS “aims to unite fellow writers and readers everywhere in one cause – to bring short fiction the larger audience it deserves.” An admirable endeavour, and one that TSR, which has always been an advocate of the genre, can wholeheartedly endorse. This site’s contribution will be more modest: for the third time, we’ll launch our 31 Days of Stories, featuring one story per day, plus as many goodies and Easter eggs as time and the generosity of fellow contributors permit.

So, an ambitious plan for the next couple of months. I’m planning to throw open the windows and let some air into the joint. Hope you’ll join me.

UPDATED April 8: An earlier version of this post neglected to include Sarah Selecky as one of the founders of YOSS. TSR regrets this oversight.