Sunday, July 13, 2008

Performance

Donald Cammell and Nicholas Roeg's 1970 classic Performance is the kind of film which divides the critical opinion to the extremes. Richard Schickel in Time called it "the most disgusting, the most completely worthless film I have seen since I began reviewing" and the cranky critic John Simon thought it was "indescribably sleazy, self-indulgent and meretricious." At the same time estimable British film critic Colin MacCabe considers it "the greatest British film ever made." (All quotes from this review of Colin MacCabe's book on the film from the BFI classics series.) I personally thought it was awful but in a totally sui-generis way. In fact it is the kind of awful film we can't have enough of, specially in these times when we get only generic kind of awful films. Even the so-called artistic films feel generic and predictable.

In the first half of the film we follow the daily routine of an ultra-violent young gangster and a thug Chas (James Fox in an extremely impressive and solid role) as he goes on his regular work of beating and shooting people. After he disobeys one of the orders he is himself very brutally roughed up and when he kills off one of his assailants he is forced to flee from both the police and the boss. He finds shelter in the apartment of a has-been rock star played by Mick Jagger (who like the film itself defines his own category of awfulness) and his two female concubines. It is very hard to summarize what happens in the second half of the film, although it is advisable that one should take some psychedelic drugs or at least be a little high to really appreciate all the mind-bending stuff that goes on.

I won't hazard a guess as to what really happens and what it all means actually but at a general level it is pretty obvious. As the title clearly indicates the film is about the idea of human identity as a performance. Who one is, is really all about impersonation and role playing and this includes one's gendered identity too. This was also one of the main elements of counterculture ethos. The idea that one has to shed one's socially imposed identity and search for a new self, taking help from sex and drugs on the way. Further, the film seems to point out a line of continuity between the public persona of a gangster and a rock star, and by analogy between creativity and violence. "The only performance that makes it, that really makes it, that makes it all the way, is the one that achieves madness" as one of the key lines of the film has it.

The film is full of references to other art-forms. Borges seems to the pre-eminent deity of the film. His portrait appears at a key moment in the film as a bullet goes through it. Cammell also mentioned that idea of the film came from reading Vladimir Nabokov's Despair. In any case, the idea of psychological double, identity crisis and identity switching is not so uncommon in films or literature. The most famous of all might be Bergman's Persona. I also love Robert Altman's 3 Women which is similarly mind-bending exercise in identity switching.

What gives Performace its special status is the accuracy and intimacy with which it captures the look and feel of the "swinging London." These people wake up to a good casual threesome sex. Soon after the girl injects some drug into her bottom as nonchalantly as if she were taking morning tea. In one scene all three are in the bath tub and Jagger asks the two girls to smell his hair and see if it needs washing! I don't know, I had my anthropological eye open that's what kept me going in a serious way.

It was also the first film in which Roeg used his trademark cut-up technique of extreme non-linear editing. It is extremely effective here, much more than it is in his later films (I have seen only Don't Look Now and Bad Timing). I sometimes wonder why this hasn't become so common, specially since it is such a powerful and effective way to represent subjectivity, stream of consciousness and a process of thought in cinema. When in fact films do use it they make it look more a like a music video or an advertising commercial. Mainstream narrative cinema still unfortunately seems to be stuck in the linear cause and effect sort of editing.

As expected the film feature a truly avant-garde musical score composed by fantastically named Jack Nitzsche. Mick Jagger also sings a song called "Memo from Turner". It is a pretty strange song, and it gets even stranger in the film. The set-design, specially in the second half is also excellent. The background is full of references to surrealistic paintings and other art works, most of which will require many repeat viewings to actually pin down.

In short, Performance is a thoroughly unique (and depending on context questionable) experience. Definitely deserves a wider renown, much beyond its cult reputation. Senses of Cinema has an article on Donald Cammell which also has some insightful remarks about the film. Cammell's career never really took off and he tragically took his own life in 1996 at the age of 62. Nicholas Roeg went on to make a bunch of classics, which though mostly reviled and lambasted by establishment critics have managed to garner cult reputation. Jim Hoberman also has some interesting things to say about the film.

7 comments:

puccinio said...

What's with the anti-Mick Jagger sentiment. He's great in the film as is Anita Pallenberg(Keith Richards' then girlfriend!) who also helped write the script with Cammell.

By the way, the film's auteur is Donald Cammell. Nicholas Roeg just did the cinematography and the editing was overseen by Frank Mazzolla(who served as an adviser on Nicholas Ray's ''Rebel Without A Cause'' being a teenage gang hustler himself) on advice by Cammell. Many people have the mistaken idea that Roeg had more to do with the film than he actually did based on his poaching of the techniques of this film and ''Petulia''(which he also shot) for his own style for his comparably minor career as a director. Roeg got co-director credit because that was Cammell's way of getting it green-lit since Roeg was an experienced DP.

I like ''Performance'' a lot but I don't think it's a great film. It's certainly interesting and holds up on repeated viewings and it's a one-of-a-kind film but it feels like it's missing something which both ''Persona'' and ''Images''(an Altman film closer to ''Persona'' than ''3 Women'') have. I think the reason could be that the other two are made by mature artists of a certain age and maturity, while ''Performance'' is very much a young person's film.

However most people misunderstand certain aspects of the film by calling it a portrait of swinging-60's London(or whatever that means). ''Performance'' is an important British film for many reasons. Chief among them being the story of the Kray Twins, notorious British gangsters who became jet-setting celebrities in the class-fractured British society of the 60's. In fact the DVD of the film made a very questionable change to the original print, during the music video, at the end Mick Jagger was supposed to say, "Here's to England" or something like that before killing those guys.

''Memo From Turner'' is a great song. Scorsese used it in his much better ''Goodfellas'' where it serves a very important point as well. The music-video for the film(the first time it was inscribed within the film) is beyond bizarre.

Alok said...

Yes I thought about it too. It definitely feels like a very youthful film, both in form and in content... very alive and excited about the possibilities.

Also the overall mood of non-chalance makes it feel like a very intimate and insider account of that atmosphere. Something that films like Blow-up lack which is another quintessential Swinging London film.

I was reading about the different versions of the film and the missing scenes. It is definitely the kind of film which begs repeat viewings and also critical commentary and scholarly explication.

Also, it definitely has more intellectual heft than Nicolas Roeg's later solo effort which must have come from Cammell who was an extremely well-read person and had a wide range of intellectual and artistic interests. In that sense Cammell is indeed the primary auteur. I don't know about the style of cinematography and editing but it has definitely become associated with Roeg. Surprisingly it is still remains so unusual in a mainstream film... even with the infestation of so many music video directors in the movies.

puccinio said...

-----------------------------
Something that films like Blow-up lack which is another quintessential Swinging London film.
------------------------------

Well for me the quintessential
"swinging London film" is Stanley Donen's ''Bedazzled'' more Faustian than the recent Americanized remake and really funny. It also has one of the greatest last lines in cinema. Donen's ''Two for the Road'', a masterpiece, also has a lot to do with sixties(and is better than ''Petulia'' which mines the same subject) although that's more cosmopolitan. It also has a really fascinating editing structure, very unique as well.

The Antonioni film does not have much to say about "swinging London" in my opinion. The concert scenes are great though. I saw it more as a send-up/remake of Fellini's ''La Dolce Vita''. It's a great film but quite frankly I much prefered ''Zabriskie Point'' which is a really quintessential film about California in the late 60's(the 60's period) even if people disliked that film when it came out and thought it was anti-American. Really bizarre, it was pretty obvious to me from both films that Antonioni preferred America over Britian.

In any case there's very little of London, swinging or otherwise in ''Performance''. The ones shown are mostly crime-infested areas(the East-End) and garages. Mostly it's Mick Jagger's house, roads, offices and that house in the credit-sequence where James Fox and that air-hostess eat each other up in bed.

-------------------------------
I don't know about the style of cinematography and editing but it has definitely become associated with Roeg.
---------------------------------

Roeg isn't a bad director. Just not a really deep one. The thing was that Cammell after the failure of ''Performance'' really struggled and made only 3 more films, one-per-decade while Roeg went on to do steady work so when ''Performance'' became a cult film and not an object of embarrasment, people started focusing more on Roeg. Cammell's later films are fascinating and the last two are great in my view.

Of Roeg's films, I like ''Dont' Look Now''(except the ending is bad), ''The Man Who Fell To Earth'' and ''Insignificance''. The others are okay. Heavy on concept and(mostly superficial) style but little in way of insight and ideas, much like most of the so-called British New Wave sadly. Jonathan Rosenbaum had a point when he said that the best British New Wave film was ''Peeping Tom'' made by the very old-wave Michael Powell.

-----------------------------
Surprisingly it is still remains so unusual in a mainstream film... even with the infestation of so many music video directors in the movies.
-----------------------------

Well the editing style of the film(the random comic-book like cuts) works very badly when used in music videos. If you notice, ''Memo From Turner'' in the film is done fairly restrained. It's not too cutty. While most music-videos feel like commercials. The cutaways in ''Performance'' adds detail to the action or character or whatnot, while in music vidoes or commercials it's use is to reduce all details.

------------------------------
It is definitely the kind of film which begs repeat viewings and also critical commentary and scholarly explication.
------------------------------

I frankly wouldn't be interested in scholarly explication. The reason is that Paul Schrader says that ''Performance'' as a film comes very close to the idea of romantic creation of art a la Wordsworth or Byron more than any other film. It was funded by big budget studios but the production was akin to making a home-video. Which was why it was a big deal for directors of it's day.

Yes it's about identity, about the fractured nature of the human self and yes Borges is important for the film but ultimately it's about what people get from the film on a personal level.

Alok said...

Actually British New Wave is another gaping hole in my film history education. I really need to see some by Lindsay Anderson and also a few of those Joseph Losey-Harold Pinter films which I have only read about so far.

About rapid cuts and non linear editing, I didnt mean that films should emulate mtv music videos (horrors, no!) but rather i wanted to say that this style is very effective in representing a process of thinking in cinema... like in the novel we have stream of consciousness, internal thought trascending space and time, flashbacks, flash forwards, random jumps etc. Mainstream movies still follow a very linear cause and effect narrative and there is too much stress on continuity both in time and in space and this i believe restricts the possibilities of the medium.

Roeg uses it superficially though... in fact in films like Bad Timing it gets very irritating because the cuts only manage to hide the superficiality of the plot and give it a weight it doesn't have or deserve.

puccinio said...

-------------------------------
.... but rather i wanted to say that this style is very effective in representing a process of thinking in cinema... like in the novel we have stream of consciousness, internal thought trascending space and time, flashbacks, flash forwards, random jumps etc.
--------------------------------

The cinema has the voice-over you know and Scorsese's ''Taxi Driver'', ''Goodfellas'' and ''Casino'' essentially tried that. Stream-of-consciousness itself is a very literary device. The closest cinema has come to it is in Resnais's films with Robbe-Grillet and Marker's ''La Jetee''.

-------------------------------
I really need to see some by Lindsay Anderson and also a few of those Joseph Losey-Harold Pinter films which I have only read about so far.
--------------------------------

Lindsay Anderson's ''If...'' and ''O Lucky Man!'' are must-sees. You can see Malcolm McDowell as a talented actor that Kubrick failed to reveal in that film he made with him.

As for the Losey-Pinter films. The best one is ''The Servant'', starring Dirk Bogarde and James Fox. As you may notice from the latter's casting(his film debut) it can be seen as a predecessor to ''Performance'' thematically. The others are more mannerist. ''Accident'' is good but not really illuminating. ''The Go-Between'' starring the great Julie Christie is a really intelligent film and very beautiful but it's a tad too slow-paced.

But Losey isn't British New Wave and frankly in his uneven filmography, I find his french films like ''M. Klein'' and ''La Truite'' the best, among his british work I like the beyond bizarre films he made with Liz Taylor and his ''Modesty Blaise'' is really funny(though misunderstood and slammed on original release). His ''These Are The Damned'' is one of the great sci-fi films.

But in general when people talk of British New Wave they mean people like Richard Lester, John Schlesinger, Tony Richardson(a one-time Mr. Jeanne Moreau). And while they have talent, most of their work comes of as mannerist imitations of other New Waves. One great talent among this lot is Ken Russell. I highly recommend his ''The Devils''.

Alok said...

thanks for the recommendations. Your memory and your power of recall amazes me and even makes me despair. I am barely able to remember some vague abstract things about movies which I have not seen in the last couple of years and for some even that is too much!

puccinio said...

Well that's because films have the place for me that theatre, music, literature, painting and architecture have for other people. It's not like i'm ignorant about it but I have always looked at them in relation to cinema and not as separate fields of interest which they undoubtedly are. So I know little about them compared to the movies. It's not possible to know everything...but you can always try...