Tuesday 2 January 2018

Performance (UK 1970 Dir Donald Cammell, Nicolas Roeg)

At the start of 2018 I thought I'd reproduce some viewing notes that I wrote for screenings at my
local film club over the past couple of years, kicking off with Performance. 

Performance is a movie thoroughly deserving of that rather over-used term ‘cult status.’ Filmed in 1968, it was shelved for two years before finally being released – with cuts – to a public unused to such transgressive goings-on in a British flick, and greeting it with little more than mild disinterest. Two decades of frequent showings on the club circuits built up a steady fan base, leading to the film now regularly being included in ‘20 top British film’ lists. Whether it deserves that accolade is a matter for debate, but its enduring fascination is more than nostalgia for a London of the past – it was one of the first films, British or otherwise, to explicitly flirt with gender identity and its blurred boundaries. Filled with druggy details and a certain soupcon of polymorphous perversity, it’s a movie the UK certainly wasn’t ready for in 1970.

The question of identity extends beyond the story of the film, which sees heavy for hire Chas (played by James Fox) on the run from a killing, moving himself into, and ‘turning on’ at the Notting Hill home of ‘retired’ rock star Turner (Mick Jagger) and his two muses, played by Anita Pallenberg and Michele Breton.   

The distinction between real life and film was blurred in the casting - Jagger and Pallenberg may possibly have been an item at the point of filming, and the latter had already been associated with other members of The Rolling Stones. James Fox was at the time going out with an androgynous girl called Andee, who is suspiciously similar to the slight Ms Breton, with whom Chas has a relationship. Jagger’s former girlfriend Marianne Faithfull goes further in the ‘art imitating life’ debate, citing  a wild druggy evening with Jagger, James Fox and Andee as the inspiration for part of the film, a detail picked up by Donald Cammell and expanded into a full length movie script, originally titled ‘The Liars’. 

And one cannot forget the spectre of Brian Jones, the Stones member who, very like Turner in the film, had rejected his band and opted for a life of drug-fuelled self-reflection. As Bill Wyman said, again echoing the Turner character, “he was very influential, very important, and then slowly lost it – highly intelligent – and just kind of wasted it and blew it all away.” Tragically Jones would die between the filming of Performance and its cinema release.
People often cite Performance as Nic Roeg’s first directing role, which it was, but it was also co-helmed by Donald Cammell. Cammell came from a wealthy background, which funded his travels around the world, freely indulging his talent as an artist and moving in the circles of the great and the good. In 1967 he ended up in Paris, where via producer Sanford Lieberson he was paired with Nicolas Roeg, a jobbing cinematographer, to produce the final flick – rumour has it that Marlon Brando, a friend of Cammell’s, was first approached for the James Fox role. And although it’s what would now be seen as a typically Roeg film – all sharp edits and strange point of view shooting  - there is a question about how much of Performance’s look and louche transgressive feel actually came from Cammell’s first-hand experience of the excesses of the ‘swinging sixties.’

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