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Influential, important breakthrough in filmmaking
on March 16, 2005
Every time I hear Quentin Tarrantino claim to have invented non-linear story-telling, I want to scream. Nicolas Roeg (who photographed and co-directed) went on to make many, many non-linear films, starting with this one in 1969, as did many other directors from the 70's up to now (Steven Soderbergh, Terrence Mallick, to name just two), so please, Quentin, shut up. "Performance" was perhaps the most influential film in my own development as a director; film is a sculptural medium, and never illustrated more so than in this brilliant piece film which moves through time and space so gracefully, or jarringly, as required, while exploring identity, performance (of all sorts), spirituality, freedom from the prevailing standards of society--I could go on for pages, but will spare you. It can be found on video tape, mostly in "used" bins, and as it was shot in regular 35mm, you don't miss much of the frame, as it's close to your TV's format anyway.
Shot mostly hand-held, with Roeg using dissolves, double-exposures, color alteration, freeze-frames, and other Optical Printing techniques, as well as stunning sound design, the mind is assaulted by an abundance of images that you just have to sit back and absorb and allow them to tie themselves together later, when you have time to think about it. In order to tie characters and relationships together, one will start a sentence while another, in an entirely different place and situation, will finish it. This is used to both connective and ironic effect. "Performance" also contains the first "Rock Video" and a Rap Song (in 1969) by a group of drumming poets. The music, by a young Jack Nietshze and his wife, Buffy Sainte-Marie, features Ry Cooder, the extraordinary vocals of Merry Clayton and her choir, and is both a driving force in the film and an eerie reflection of the psychological situations we're in. And that's really true: that we're in. You get as close to being in this film as any you're likely to see. It's more experienced than viewed.
Donald Cammel was fascinated by Borges, a philosopher popular in the 60's, was a friend of Jagger's and Marriane Faithful's, as well as Anita Pallenberg, who plays Jagger's lover in the film, but who was in real life, Keith Richard's partner. In turn, the aristocratic James Fox was fascinated by the Bohemian wildness of Mick and Marianne, and in a stroke of genius, Cammel switched their real-life situations, making Jagger the artist-in-exile aristocrat, and Fox the on-the-lam gangster. Drugs really were used, the sex was real; in actual life relationships were smashed, with Fox taking a 10-year hiatus from film, life, and pretty much everything in order to explore his blown mind. This film, brilliant and important in film history, raises the perennial question all artists face: which is more important, real lives, or art? I found it interesting that the dissimilar-in every-other-way recent film, "Girl with Pearl Earring" actually brings up the same issue, though more subtly and only within the context of the film itself.
The plot is almost beside the point as "Performance" is about so many, many things having nothing to do with "plot", but quickly, it's structured in two halves. Chas (James Fox), a soldier for a small organized crime group in London, has been attacked and taken his revenge on his attacker. Now he needs to run, as all turn on him, so he hides on the Left bank of the river, using the name "Johnny," in Notting Hill (looking nothing like the recent film of its name), in the home of a reclusive ex-Pop star, Turner (Jagger) and his German lover, Pherber (Anita Pallenberg) and a French waif, Lucy (Michelle Breton in her only screen role). In the second "half," the externally frenetic pace of the first part is replaced by the externally peaceful but internally chaotic challenging of all of Chas' perceptions through hallucinagetics, mind-games--the intentional dismantling of Chas' personality so that Turner can get the stimulation he needs in order to end his creatively "stuck" situation. The process was so thorough that poor James was unable to function for a decade. It was through this role, though, that Mick Jagger, a very banal, middle-class sort of guy (who never did drugs on any serious level) emerged with a persona to go on through his career with. (Check out Marrianne Faithful's memoirs for more...) The film forces its characters, and if we want it to, us, to ask, "Who am I?" on a level that most never even approach. How much of "me" is performance, and how much my true self? And, "Can I really merge my identity completely with another's?" The "who am I, truly?" is the exploration of the film, and the exploration that those of us who stand by its "unusual" structure and sensory over-load, are generally involved in. It is intense, but if you want it to affect you, just let it, and think more and more deeply as you watch it again and again. Personally, I don't know anyone who has seen it less than a dozen times.
Cammel didn't work much after this, as Roeg did. He (Roeg) went on to make some of the most important films of our time: "Walkabout," "Bad Timing: A Sensual Obsession," "Insignificance," "The Man who Fell to Earth," "Castaway" (not "THE Castaway" with Tom Hanks, but "Castaway," based on Lucy Irvine's book about her glorious but nearly fatal year on a desert island with a man who'd advertised for a companion in the experiment). Nicolas also proved that one can "fail" ("Eureka," "Track 29") without being less than brilliant at the same time. His "failures" are more interesting than most directors' "successes," and new filmmakers can learn more from them than from a thousand Speilbergs.
I do wish they'd release this film on DVD, as my tape is so worn from years of re-viewing and showing everyone. It sometimes shows up at Rep Houses, should you be fortunate enough to have one in your city (ours is gone), where you can see it on the big screen, as intended.
And a final note: the last shot is NOT your imagination, and it sums up the entire film. Don't over-think it, just accept it, and enjoy one of the greatest cinematic rides of all time.