Image B+ Sound C Extras C
starring James Fox, Mick Jagger, Anita Pallenberg, Michele Breton
screenplay by Donald Cammell
directed by Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg
by Walter Chaw Emerging in the middle of one of the most experimental, challenging periods in cinematic history, Performance--completed in 1968 but shelved until 1970--is a product at once ahead of its time and two years too late. Had its trippy-dippy, anachronistic cross-cutting and madly-inappropriate scoring appeared in 1968 (the year of Rosemary's Baby, Night of the Living Dead, If..., 2001: A Space Odyssey, and the film to which it perhaps owes its greatest allegiance, Once Upon a Time in the West), Performance would've found traction and good company as a foundational film for the American New Wave instead of as a picture that, for all its foment and formal revolution, seemed hysterical against a maturing, more sedate(d) mainstream avant-garde parade of stuff like El Topo, Zabriskie Point, MASH, and Five Easy Pieces.
The perspective offered in hindsight is that Performance, co-helmed by the great Nicolas Roeg in his directorial debut (Roeg had lensed a number of British films in the years prior), is very much a product of 1968: psychedelic, hallucinogenic, doomed, freakish, and childish, and presented by an accomplished cinematographer-turned-director who finds, in the near absence of narrative and coherent editing, good uses for colour filters and long tracking shots. (I wonder if, with its kinetic energy, unabashed sexuality, and hyper-Mod posturing, Performance isn't ultimately lumped in, unfairly, with desperate flower-power panderers like Myra Breckinridge and Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.) The mantra appears to have been that testosterone pastimes are best told in collisions of imagery; with Roeg following Performance with the trancelike Walkabout, the gynaecological terror of Don't Look Now, and the domestic subversion of The Man Who Fell to Earth, it's possible to trace the evolution of boy to man (the dream of pre-pubescence on to the promise of societal intercourse through to the failure of expectation) in Roeg's evolution from a chronicler of obscene, hedonistic pruriences into a disseminator of vague, apocalyptic poignancies.
Performance opens with violent sex, jarringly intercut--in what would become an early Roeg hallmark (note similar moments in Don't Look Now and, especially, The Man Who Fell to Earth)--with images of transformation and scored like a horror film or, more to the point, like Ennio Morricone's human-voiced laments in his work with Sergio Leone. Throughout Performance, this idea of the transformative power of sex will be explored through androgyny, uncomfortably-sexualized violence, transferences of persona, and exchanges of material wealth. It undermines totem and ritual in its tale of gangster Chas (James Fox), who runs afoul of his organization and goes literally underground in the hippie den of drugged-out rocker Turner (Mick Jagger) and a couple of his most ardent groupies. It's interesting to me that in a recent documentary on the music used by "The Sopranos", that show's producers said The Rolling Stones and Elvis Costello were the most appropriate accompaniments to "this thing of ours," since Jagger's character's gradual disintegration into Chas feels as organic as Johnny Depp's appropriation of Keith Richards for the ideal pirate model.
There's something to the idea that any endeavour employed in the influence of other men for the purposes of power (and, as it follows, reproductive rights to a wider variety of women) has, at its root, the same kind of ruthless ambition and the appearance of casual cool. Too much to say that Performance is the reverse-distaff version of the reminiscent-sounding Persona, though the last half of the film is spent in relative isolation after the first half's insane pace levels off into something with the steady cadence of more familiar fare. But where Persona can be read as a distillation of the history of storytelling (and although Performance performs an image-morph dialogue in obvious homage to Persona DP Sven Nykvist's bit of grotesque showiness), Performance is a summation of how storytelling is an essential component to reproductive success. Persona is about the life of the mind; Performance is about the life of the testicles.
Dealing with music, photography, poetry, literature, and film in terms of that exclusively male will to power, Roeg establishes the tropes that would guide his Seventies output, offering explanation along the way--tied to his marriage to Theresa Russell on the heels of the troubled production Bad Timing (1980)--of why nothing he's done in the past two decades has had the same fundamental power of this conceptual cycle. It strikes me as pithy that Performance comes on like a turgid dick and Bad Timing ends, after a fashion, with semen stains: when Chas takes a bad mushroom and Roeg drops us into a proverbial rabbit hole all of soothsaying hippie-chicks talking priapism while breaking down a gun, the proper touchstone isn't Bergman, but rather Lewis Carroll's demented coming-of-age dreadfuls. "Nothing is true, everything is permitted," says Turner to Chas as Chas peers at his evolving form in a looking glass (and the use of mirrors in the picture touches on everything from Borges to Lacan to William Burroughs to Jean Genet): in that moment, mine the picture's thesis that the utopia/hedonism of the sixties was finding itself at this philosophical dead end of borrowed theology, fashionable politicism, and the irrecoverable deflation of flesh and blood.
Roeg suggests, and I tend to agree, that we've never completely recovered as a society from the well-intentioned freedom of this period in our cultural development--that we never stopped agreeing to be animals long enough to bargain with being human. Performance should be seen in repertoire with Kubrick's 2001, both interested as they are in connecting the dots between our primate past and our primal future. (Turner's extended music video-like boardroom rant is tuned in the same key as the hotel epilogue of Kubrick's picture.) There's explanation in there, too, of Performance's Seven Wonders of the Ancient World motif: we were always building monuments to our power and we always will be--performance is just one avenue to that same old immortality.
Performance finally comes to DVD courtesy Warner in a nice 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer that alas hugs the top and bottom of the frame a little tightly following the opening-credits sequence, which is pillarboxed at the European aspect ratio of 1.66:1. Otherwise, it looks fine for a picture that hasn't aged all that well visually--at least, not as well as Roeg's other output from this period. I wonder if a general lack of care with the negative during its first tumultuous run has resulted in less than perfect elements; the extended sex scene shot on Bolex featuring Mick and his two lovelies (rumoured to be real, as most of Roeg's sex scenes are) especially suffers from colour blanching and print scratches. There remains about it, however, that indescribable warmth of cinema from this era shot by people who knew what they were doing. (Roeg, a camera operator on Lawrence of Arabia, most certainly falls in that camp.) On the other hand, the DD 1.0 mono audio is a major disappointment, given the musical nature of the second half of the film (and the acerbic sound-editing of the first, which recalls Walter Murch's early experiments in noise-as-wallpaper)--it all sounds like a sausage forced through the eye of a needle, and as sharp-eared observers have pointed out elsewhere, the trademark line "Here's to Old England!" is inexplicably muted during the "Memo from Turner" sequence.
"Influence and Controversy" (25 mins.) is a banal retrospective that gathers a variety of talking heads to expound at length on the film as a distillation of the '60s counterculture. When some dude (Colin MacCabe, "Professor at the University of Pittsburgh") proclaims it the first picture to portray the swinging London scene, I began to worry that my dyslexia had confused Antonioni's Blowup as being from 1976 as opposed to 1966. It does Performance no great service to assemble misinformed individuals on the apparent basis of their priggish British accents. Much time is devoted to a remembrance of tragic art prodigy Donald Cammell, listed as co-director/writer of the picture; certainly it's intoxicating to make hay about a film about schism directed in tandem (and indeed, editor Antony Gibbs and producer Sanford Lieberson can't resist), but like Roeg's work on films like Truffaut's Fahrenheit 451, I'm inclined to see Roeg's auteur tendencies as asserting themselves like a dominant gene. Stories from the set and stories about the casting round out the brief docu, with the proceedings grinding to a halt whenever Prof. MacCabe chimes in with facile plot observations and surface analyses of casting decisions and so forth (do we really need him to tell us about the stylistic dichotomy between the film's halves?). Maybe that's all that was asked of the man, but seriously, guys, I'm still a little shaken about the Blowup thing.
"Memo from Turner" (5 mins.) is a vintage featurette essentially composed of B-roll and promotional ephemera that underscores Jagger as the key draw to the picture. Lots of shots of an old Moog production board and behind-the-scenes bits of Jagger cutting up with Cammell constitute the bulk, such as it is. Roeg's next collaboration with a rock star, David Bowie and The Man Who Fell to Earth, brings a real sense of enduring vision to what Jagger begins here--but that's beyond the purview of this piece. A theatrical trailer (3 mins.) highlights the violence and drugs, the transvestitism, and the Jagger, leading me to a couple of conclusions: that it's no real surprise Performance wasn't a blockbuster; and that Jagger snarling "You're a faggy little leather boy with a smaller piece of stick" in a movie trailer is probably a thing forever of the past. Originally published: April 27, 2007.