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Transgression a’Go-Go

PERFORMANCE, 1970 Directors: Nicholas Roeg & Donald Cammell

The film is a projection of the producer’s fantasy of who he thinks I think I really am. —Mick Jagger

Nicholas Roeg’s directorial debut is a Borgesian, Britnoir, rock and roll fable on the uncertainty of self and the uneasy friendship between madness and art. Why it took all this time to get to DVD has been one of the great frustrating questions of the age. Why it features the ugliest packaging in the history of the medium is another. But don’t’ let that put you off—this is a singular, psychedelic masterpiece.

A murderous, deeply closeted (from himself) English Mafia enforcer played by James Fox—he’s all action, no soul—needs a hideout. He stumbles upon Mick Jagger’s wiggy, Moroccan-fabric, rich-hippie mansion. Jagger plays a faded rock recluse rendered a hermit by the loss of the inner fire that made him a star: he’s all soul, no will.

Mick sees in Fox’s vicious gangster the demon(s) he’s lost. James—experiencing overpowering attraction/revulsion to the sinister free love capering that includes Anita Pallenberg as the most beautiful woman in the world—sees in Mick the freedom of expression he craves. Gradually, through inspired cross-cutting and knife-edge dialogue, Mick and James recognize their common ground and merge identities altogether. Or do they?

Roger Cammell and Nicholas Roeg co-wrote Performance; thereafter Roeg wrote his own scripts and Cammell’s later writing credits are a matter of some dispute. Cammell, with his compulsion towards cheap transcendent apocalypse, seems the weaker link, the less important artist. He made only two other films, both reflecting his singular, hermetic notions of eroticism. In Demon Seed, Julie Christie is raped by a machine and that rape is rendered in excruciating detail. She bears the machine’s child, whose birth serves as a laborious metaphor for technology stealing our souls. In Wild Side, Anne Heche seduces Joan Chen. A ten minute graphic nude sex scene between the two follows (this after Heche does Christopher Walken for money and is anally raped by Steve Bauer). If your taste runs to this sort of thing, rent it right away; you won’t be disappointed. You may, in fact, be converted. Cammell killed himself shortly before Wild Side was released.

Sadly, Roeg—who in the early ’70s was always named among the great directors—suffered another kind of death, this one slower and more painful to observe. He ran out of good ideas.

Or, if you prefer, his mad, grandiloquent, surreal style suddenly seemed to have no supporting subtext. What makes the psychedelic operatic grandiosity of Performance so inspiring (hell, what makes it bearable) are the thematics underlying. Roeg’s thematics concern the nature of transference, the positive and negative effects of drugs, how "performance" lets us transcend the rational to discover the glorious animal within, and how, if you make a bargain with the devil, eventually you gots to pay. And the seductive glories and punishments of rock and roll and/or the "lashings of ultraviolence."

In Walkabout, an almost silent, dream-like evocation of the Australian outback in the imagination of one bored housewife, Roeg showed what he had learned in the years spent as a cinematographer (he photographed Lawrence of Arabia). Walkabout is a poem to sunlight, lizards, rocks, streams, the color tones of skin, the erotic lure of the aboriginal; it has no more weight than a dream, but it’s damn compelling. The story is slight, the actual narrative events unimportant but, as in a dream, every tiny moment speaks of armies of assumptions and perceptions and metaphors and memories motivating the actor. And what might that remind you of? That's right— being on drugs!

Don’t Look Now is Roeg’s masterpiece, probably because he had such extraordinary source material for his screenplay. Roeg adapted Daphne du Maurier’s short story about a man (Donald Sutherland in his finest work) who is gifted with ‘second sight’ (psychic powers) but is blinded by his masculine pride and cannot see. His wife, played by Julie Christie, has the feminine empathy to understand what her husband could do if he’d only open his (third) eye. Naturally, they’re doomed. There’s an extended nude love scene between the two that’s an apotheosis of the form that’s often cited as among the most true to life love scenes. Roeg shoots Venice with an unsentimental but fiendishly erotic eye, finding sensuality in vinegar spilled on ancient floors, mosaic tiles flying through the air and the feathery plumes of a funeral gondola.

Roeg’s dialogue always conceals more than it reveals. Usually, we figure out what everyone meant at the climax of the picture, when all mysteries are revealed. Roeg drops clues and never underlines them. Since the most important clues in Performance are spoken in incomprehensible Cockney (or whatever) patois, you probably won’t figure out half this picture until you see it again. Don’t strain too much for rational understanding. Let the surrealism/all-too-realism of it float you—enjoy the ride. I mean, the trip.

Approximating madness, Roeg shoots from every odd angle, from every poetic angle. He assaults the camera with the actors, the actors assault us by charging the camera. Roeg shoots for the rhythms of music, for the rhythms of the ever-changing moods of his characters and for the rhythms of whatever he was apparently on while shooting. The lighting always calls attention to itself. It is either garish and hyper-stylized, soft in a porn-video style or simple and natural. The lighting determines the mood of the scene and comments on the characters. It is a key guide to the sometimes confusing action. Roeg uses Fox’s super-straight attire and his anal apartment to spell out the unaddressed side of his nature, as Roeg uses Jagger’s trippy lair to suggest that Jagger has no aspect of himself he hasn’t explored. Performance is a product of its age, for good or ill.

Roeg directs actors for a combination of histrionics and subdued realism. As usual—and evocative of Nicholas Ray—his women characters are soulful and struggle with their flaws while the men are deeply scarred and work like mad to pretend they’re perfect. Jagger’s amazing. Anita Pallenberg is more than credible and Fox—who plays a man crippled by the distance between his self-consciousness when trying to live normal life and his complete connection to himself when violent—seems to glide effortlessly through his duel with these two charismatic amateurs. That effortlessness apparently demanded great effort. Fox never came close to his work here again. His later performances seemed so enervated, as if trying to keep up with Jagger just about killed him. It turns out Fox spent time in institutions after the making of Performance, trying to regain his equilibrium, his identity and his sanity. Playing a man who did not know who he was apparently exacerbated those very doubts in Fox.

Roeg paces like nobody else. Performance moves smoothly, except when Roeg destroys the smooth pace to scare the shit out of us. He uses violence like the adagios in a symphony: they seduce us, make our blood speed up and get us over the slow spots that might result from Roeg’s imperfect rhythms of character-building.

The soundtrack, produced by rock pioneer and Neil Young producer Jack Nitzche, features Ry Cooder, Randy Newman and Jagger performing the (first rock video) Memo From Turner. The song is Fox’s drug-induced hallucination and serves as the film’s climax. It tells us what Fox has thought of Jagger all along. It’s unnerving, glamorous, kinky, hilarious. Ry Cooder’s slide guitar playing suggests a pact with the Devil.

Please allow me to introduce myself, indeed….


David N. Meyer

David N. Meyer's Spring Semester cinema studies course at The New School begins January 26, The Desperate Horizon: Road Movies, Westerns, and the American Landscape.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2007

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