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                                                        Flickhead

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Mick Jagger, James Fox and Anita Pallenberg

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Cinema Obscura

Ruminations on Donald Cammell & Nicolas Roeg and Performance

By Ray Young

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    When it was released in America in 1970, Performance was generally trashed by the press. John Simon called it “indescribably sleazy,” and for Richard Schickel it was “the most completely worthless film I have seen since I began reviewing.” Warner Brothers, who produced the picture, were unable to decipher its story, unresponsive toward its metaphysical airs, and horrified by the homoerotic violence and nudity that earned it an ‘X’ rating. They distributed it two years after it was completed — but not without extensive cuts. You’re probably not going to find a lot of people sitting down relaxing in their living rooms playing this film on their home entertainment centers these days.
    Starring Mick Jagger, Performance was likely granted release on the strength of the Rolling Stones in the wake of Altamont. That 1969 concert was big news, especially for Jagger’s brush with death (someone in the audience was poised to shoot him). And the suits at Warners may have anticipated some indirect publicity via the Maysley’s documentary of that fiasco, Gimme Shelter, which was nearing release.
    It bombed in first run, but two or three years later Performance found a niche for itself as a ‘rock movie’ on the midnight show circuit. Young, stoned audiences responded to the strange tale of a violent gangster, Chas (James Fox), on the run from his own people, taking refuge in the house of a retired rock star, Turner (Jagger). The other occupants, Pherber (Anita Pallenberg) and Lucy (Michèle Breton), contribute in a spontaneous experiment, prodding Chas to comprehend his intellectual and sexual deficiencies while simultaneously ridding Turner of his suffocating inertia and regain his ‘demon.’ (“Don’t you get it?” screams Pherber. “He’s stuck! Stuck!”)

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“You’re a comical little geezer,” Chas tells Turner. “You’ll look funny when you’re fifty.”
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    Among its many irregularities, Performance had two directors: Nicolas Roeg and Donald Cammell. While Warners held up its release, Roeg went on to film his first solo project, Walkabout, and was about to enjoy his peak years in the 70’s: Don’t Look Now, The Man Who Fell to Earth, and Bad Timing: A Sensual Obsession. (There was even a pop song dedicated to the director: E=MC2, recorded by Big Audio Dynamite.) Given the distinctive time-shift editing, experiments with different lenses and film stock, casting musical performers (David Bowie in The Man Who Fell…, Art Garfunkel in Bad Timing), and his escalating popularity, the common misconception became that Roeg was the singular creative force behind Performance. Plus his long climb in the business could be traced back to the late 40’s: clapper boy, camera operator, second-unit director, high-profile cinematographer. What a lot of people failed to recognize was the adherence to genre in Roeg’s later films, a discipline Performance consciously evades.
    Donald Cammell, on the other hand, had no experience in pictures other than some minor screenplays, and in the wake of Performance seemed less a filmmaker than an enigma. With the release of his first solo film, 1977’s Demon Seed, there was little evidence of any exceptional talent. Far less prolific than Roeg, Cammell directed only two more features over the next twenty years: White of the Eye and Wild Side, character-driven psychodramas closer in spirit to Performance than anything by Roeg.
    Two books — Colin MacCabe’s Performance (88 pages, illustrated; Bfi publishing, $12.95), and Mick Brown on Performance (202 pages, illustrated; Bloomsbury Paperbacks, $15.95) — and a documentary film (Kevin MacDonald and Chris Rodley’s Donald Cammell: The Ultimate Performance) attempt to solve the riddle of Performance and give Cammell his due, albeit posthumously. (He committed suicide at the age of sixty-two, in 1996.) Reminding us that the film was a rare collaborative effort by two first-time directors, they form an image of Cammell’s bohemian idealist that is as vague and seductive as one of his own scenarios.

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Donald Cammell, self portrait
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    There are enough romantic flourishes in Cammell’s life to warrant a full-scale biography. Born in 1934 under the prophetic eye of the Camera Obscura of Edinburgh, Donald was of the Cammells of Cammell Laird, a major shipbuilding concern. His father, Charles Richard Cammell, was an aesthete who contributed articles to miscellaneous periodicals — Scotsman, Connoisseur, and the Atlantis Quarterly: A Journal Devoted to Atlantean and Occult Studies — and wrote biographies of Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Aleister Crowley, the latter a friend of the family.
    When in his twenties, Donald had aspirations of becoming a painter, but after observing the nouvelle vague in all its glory, came to believe that the future of art was in cinema. (He had a walk-on as a tourist asking for directions in Eric Rohmer’s 1967 film, La Collectionneuse.) Later embracing Britain’s cultural revolution — ‘Swinging London’ — Cammell moved among the mods and rockers and had a distant acquaintance with underworld figures, all of whom figure prominently in Performance.
    The story of gangsters and rock stars appealed to Warners (an early casting suggestion had Jagger with Marlon Brando and Tuesday Weld), but London itself was an additional selling point. “They wanted to make a film which would capture the new youth culture and its capital,” writes MacCabe. “The American studios had proved spectacularly bad at this exercise…But there had been a series of films which had got closer: Dick Lester’s film with the Beatles, A Hard Day’s Night, Roman Polanski’s Repulsion and, above all, Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blowup. All had shown a foreigner’s view of the capital. Now…a Hollywood studio was on the real inside track. A film about swinging London by a swinging Londoner.”
    Cammell utilized these ingredients to enhance the screenplay’s metaphoric study of self deception, the ‘performance’ or veneer one cultivates and sustains in order to dodge honesty and self awareness. Most of it derived from literary influences — Jean Genet, Antonin Artaud, and especially Jorge Luis Borges, whose face shatters on the screen near the end of the picture. In one scene, Jagger, playacting a 50’s greaser in black leather and pompadour (mocking Chas’s amplified masculinity), delivers the film’s maxim: “The only performance that makes it, that really makes it, that makes it all the way, is the one that achieves madness” — when performance consumes performer.

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Borges, shattered upon the exit from Turner’s mind
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    ‘Merger’ is heard repeatedly in the dialogue, and Mick Brown points to Borges’s theory that “every man is two men,” realized at the end upon the fusion of Chas (the personification of violence) and Turner (pacifism). In the first half of the picture, gangsters (seen reading Borges on their coffee break!), businessmen and lawyers are so utterly lost in their oppressive performance that single-mindedness has left them homosexual. In the second half, Cammell examines what he called “the interchangeability of gender,” via Chas’s overbearing manliness, Pherber’s domineering femininity, and Turner and Lucy’s androgyny, narcissistic characters approaching the liberation of the female-man and the male-woman, a ‘complete’ individual.
    (Bridging the two halves, a scene transpires between a black man — the musician Noel — and his mother, who is white. As the soundtrack includes the songs “Wake Up Niggers,” by the Last Poets, and “Poor White Hound Dog,” by Jack Nitzche, Cammell may have intended race to be as dominant an issue as sex. A major influence on Borges was H.G. Wells, whose novel, The Time Machine, predicts an interracial society.)
    Why this strange experiment? Why the merger of sex and race and personality? Cammell’s formative years were lived with a father sensitive to the principles of Dante Rossetti and the pre-Raphaelites. A movement against stale, formula-driven art, they mourned the death of one culture’s passion and trumpeted the glory of another’s birth. In this respect, Performance transcends every other youth and/or counterculture film of its period. Rapid fashion trends stunted “the Sixties,” when automatic nostalgia dated movies within weeks of their release. They were products manufactured by calculating producers quick to capitalize on flighty, superficial tastes — indeed, Warners’ own impetus for backing Performance. Cammell and Roeg’s film may appear outwardly passé in its psychedelic drug use, music, hair and clothing styles, and Christopher Gibbs’s Moroccan set design, but in truth its ‘hippiedom’ spans centuries, beyond the pre-Raphaelites, back to al-Hassan ibn-al-Sabbah and his declaration of moral freedom, “Nothing is true, everything is permitted.”

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Turner’s digs at 81 Powis Square, Notting Hill, its faux Moroccan design by Christopher Gibbs
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    As if to expand on Borges, Cammell’s decision to have a co-director was actually spurred by the mundane realization of his own technical shortcomings. He needed a professional on the set, and approached Roeg to sign on as cinematographer. But Roeg was adamant about becoming a director himself and, based partially on their shared predilection for certain authors and literature, Cammell suggested they collaborate. By most accounts, Cammell blocked the actors and Roeg blocked the camera. Although based on Cammell’s idea, Performance is not an auteur’s film. “The genius of Cammell and Roeg,” writes Colin MacCabe, “was to allow an almost unprecedented level of creative contribution to the film they were making.” Since they were staying under a modest budget and had Jagger in the cast, Warner Brothers allowed them to go off and shoot on location without interference.
    When watching Cammell in The Ultimate Performance, or studying his subsequent films and their fate at the hands of boorish, scissor-happy financiers, a familiar pattern begins to emerge. A similar scenario had played out some twenty-five years earlier with Orson Welles. Indeed, if avant-garde cinema needed a martyr to call its own, Cammell could be its Welles. The mutual legacy of unrealized projects, and completed films butchered by upper management (Wild Side was cut so severely that Cammell had his name removed from the credits), they shared the same self-destructive naïveté that corporate hustlers manipulate and devour. There are, of course, dozens of dissimilarities separating the two. For starters, Welles had final cut on Citizen Kane.
    At last count, there were at least four English-language versions of Performance — X-rated and R-rated American theatrical editions, the original British release, and the home video — each one plus or minus any number of scenes or individual frames. And these cuts were done after Warners’ initial demands to tone down the sex and violence. One accidental benefit that came out of this was the intensification of Cammell’s already pulsing flash-cut editing. As Mick Brown points out, Borges wrote about “the congruence of events at different times and in different individuals,” a continuum where everything happens at once. Cammell unintentionally obliged the author when, prodded to get to Jagger’s scenes faster, he was forced to consolidate the first four reels down to two. (By this point Roeg had departed for Australia, obligated to begin filming Walkabout.)

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“That word was merger, gentlemen…” Fox and Jagger.
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    It’s unlikely the violent editing alone upset critics. Taking a cue from the nouvelle vague and especially Jean-Luc Godard, the late 60’s were inundated with jump cuts and montage effects: Bonnie & Clyde, The Wild Bunch and The Graduate challenged mainstream forms and had viewers adapting to a new cinema language. Within Performance, however, editing became another of its metaphoric instruments, and a lot of critics felt its unyielding subjectivity betrayed the rudiments of narrative and taste. General audiences in America weren’t as offended because, quite frankly, they didn’t bother going to see the picture at all.
    MacCabe and Brown’s credibility is tested by the film’s subsequent ‘midnight show’ popularity. Anyone under the age of forty-five may not believe a time existed when wine bottles and marijuana passed from hand to hand at these witching-hour weekend rituals, where pictures like Performance, El Topo and Eraserhead were discussed in Marxist terms by audiences barely out of high school. MacCabe’s admission — “I doubt if I have ever been so affected by any film as I was by my first viewing of Performance…in January 1971” — may be a case of recall softened by the picture’s intoxicating aura and the writer’s own fuzzy nostalgia . . . Or the picture’s fuzzy aura and the writer’s intoxicated nostalgia.
    This is not to discredit the authors — their books are insightful, lively reads, divided by MacCabe’s emotional commitment and Brown’s methodical approach. (The latter’s field research includes a comparison of a genuine fly agaric experience with the accuracy of one depicted in the film.) But Performance isn’t generally regarded as a masterpiece, and an objective viewer — especially one as straight laced as Richard Schickel — may not be as responsive to its sundry qualities. MacCabe even succumbs to bursts of sycophantic exaggeration. He names James Fox as “the biggest young star that Britain could boast” during the decade of Michael Caine, Peter O’Toole, Sean Connery, and Oliver Reed. Claiming that Anita Pallenberg “dominated the 60’s” is gibberish from a man smitten (his crush is obvious) and blind to the stardom of Raquel Welch, Brigitte Bardot, Sophia Loren, Anita Ekberg, even Twiggy. This sporadic hyperbole regretfully (calculatingly?) eases the sting of MacCabe’s one truly astonishing, courageous and pointed assertion, that Performance is “the greatest British film ever made.”

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Anita Pherber Pallenberg, Colin MacCabe’s lust issue. (We understand, we understand…)
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    Cammell’s on-screen interviews in The Ultimate Performance display the charm, intellect, humor, and surprising lack of pretension he’s sometimes remembered for — it makes the suicide seem a greater loss. Among those close to him, Myriam Gibril and Kenneth Anger, Cammell’s co-star and director when he played Osiris in Lucifer Rising, recall his bouts with depression and a frustrating work relationship he had over the years with Marlon Brando. Indeed, Anger thinks that Brando’s bad karma sent Cammell over the edge.
    Woefully short at seventy-five minutes, Kevin MacDonald and Chris Rodley’s documentary rises above ordinary, superficial production anecdote chit chat to examine Cammell’s persona in relation to his films, with a bias for Performance. (There are lively conversations with Jagger, Fox, Roeg, and co-stars Stanley Meadows and Johnny Shannon.) The director’s wife and collaborator, China Cammell, actress Barbara Steele, and his editor, Frank Mazzola discuss his lifestyle, art and work ethics. It’s not all flattery and praise: White of the Eye star Cathy Moriarty remembers Donald and China as “a couple of fuckin’ lunatics.” But by the end, we wish the film — as well as Cammell’s life and career — were longer.

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M E M O    F R O M    T U R N E R

Didn't I see you down in San Antone on a hot and dusty night?

We were eating eggs in Sammy's when the black man there drew his knife.
Aw, you drowned that Jew in Rampton as he washed his sleeveless shirt,
You know, that Spanish-speaking gentlemen, the one we all called "Kurt."

Come now, gentleman, I know there's some mistake.

How forgetful I'm becoming, now you fixed your bus'ness straight.

I remember you in Hemlock Road in nineteen fifty-six.

You're a faggy little leather boy with a smaller piece of stick.
You're a lashing, smashing hunk of man;
Your sweat shines sweet and strong.
Your organ’s working perfectly, but there's a part that's not screwed on.

Weren't you at the Coke convention back in nineteen-sixty-five

You're the misbred, grey executive I've seen heavily advertised.
You're the great, gray man whose daughter licks policemen's buttons clean.
You're the man who squats behind the man who works the soft machine.

Come now, gentleman, your love is all I crave.

You'll still be in the circus when I'm laughing, laughing in my grave.

When the old men do the fighting and the young men all look on.

And the young girls eat their mothers meat from tubes of plasticon.
Be wary of these my gentle friends of all the skins you breed.
They have a tasty habit - they eat the hands that bleed.

So remember who you say you are and keep your noses clean.

Boys will be boys and play with toys so be strong with your beast.
Oh Rosie dear, doncha think it's queer, so stop me if you please.
The baby is dead, my lady said, "You gentlemen, why you all work for me?"

— Jagger/Richards