We got round to re-screening Performance last week and here is the essay I wrote to accompany the screening along with Tara's amazing drawings.
Its been a very long time since I have written on here, sorry about that. I must try harder!
Directed by Nicholas Roeg & Donald Cammell
Performance is a film of duality; the person staring into the mirror and their reflection are both equal. The film is as much about Nicholas Roeg and Donald Cammell as it is about Mick Jagger's ‘Turner’ and James Fox's ‘Chas’. At the core of Performance is the notion of identities merging. I initially thought that the split between Roeg & Cammell's directing duties were pretty clear-cut, with one director taking charge of the actors and script and the other taking charge of the visual style and editing, but both directors’ subsequent films have such a similar distinctive visual and thematic style that it feels like Performance was a real joining of minds, a true alignment.
Performance is an extraordinarily visual film, dripping with references to artists such as Francis Bacon and the film has a clear Pop Art aesthetic over all.
This debut film for both directors gains its unique style surely as a product of Roeg's 23 years experience as an editor and cinematographer, working on films such as Roger Corman's The Masque Of Red Death, Francois Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451 and John Schlesinger’s Far From The Madding Crowd. Cammell had an art school background, from which he had gained a considerable reputation for as a painter of high society figures. Cammell was also well placed in swinging London and this too had an influence on the film and its cast. This duality is also heavily influenced by the work of Jorge Louis Borges, whose work is quoted throughout the film- he even makes a cheeky cameo at the films conclusion. Borges writing has reoccurring themes of dreams, labyrinths and mirrors.
“This film is about madness. And sanity. Fantasy. And reality. Death. And life. Vice. And versa.”
Both men seem to have needed each other to make the film; Roeg had his valuable technical experience where as Cammell could draw on his personal experience to create a true bohemian atmosphere. In the film, two worlds collide with sexual and violent results, ‘Chas’ the arrogant, self- obsessed gangster is drawn into the run down, fried, end of the hippie dream world Turner’s washed up rock star inhabits. Both men are drawn towards each other as much as they are disgusted by each other. Does this mirror the directors’ relationship?
I don’t know why Nicholas Roeg and Donald Cammell didn’t collaborate again. Maybe it was a clash of egos, a difference of personalities, the need to be seen as an auteur? Most people seem to credit Roeg with Performance and I guess that’s a result of his film work that followed: Don’t Look Now, The Man Who fell To Earth, Walkabout and Bad Timing, films which I feel are about as close to cinematic perfection as you can get. It’s understandable to see why Roeg gets most of the credit for Performance- Cammell never really had the career that he deserved and he was clearly a troubled genius, sadly committing suicide in 1996. The work he directed after, Demon Seed (his debut film, made 10 years after Performance) and the incredible White Of The Eye show that his contribution to Performance must have been equal to Roeg’s. Both directors utilise the non-linear cut-up editing style that Performance first brought us.
There is no other film quite like Performance and it famously confused its producers, Warner Brothers, who shelved the film for two years. Maybe if it had been released in 1968 and was a successful hit then, the two directors may have worked together again. Maybe the shoot was just too much; the theories of Antonin Artuad, the French playwright who devised ‘Theatre Of Cruelty’ play heavily throughout the film, particularly the links between madness and performance. Did this spill out into the director’s lives? I suspect that there may have been a “party” atmosphere on set with Mick Jagger and Anita Pallenberg heavily involved in the Rock ‘n’ Roll lifestyle at the time. Amazingly, the directors were more or less given the freedom to do what they wanted as Warner Brothers assumed they were getting the Rolling Stones version of The Beatles’ A Hard Days Night. During an early test screening, a Warner executive’s wife vomited in shock- this was not the lightweight film that they were expecting. Warner Brothers chose to cut the film several times and redub some of the actors due to their cockney accents; they felt had a real mess on their hands.
One of Don Simpson’s (legendary Hollywood producer, known for his love of excess) early film roles was to promote Performance in America. He arranged a screening for some critics and in real Simpson style, spent the promotional budget on Champagne and a mountain of cocaine to distract the critics from the film and leave them with hazy happy memories of the party instead.
I find that I always root for Donald Cammell as he’s the underdog, a real mythical figure. I think he’s underrated and I feel sad at how frustrated and stunted he must have felt. In truth, I know that Nicholas Roeg is the better director, probably one of my favourite directors whose work has affected me most and one of the greatest directors of the 1970’s. Cammell has left me with two films I love but not films that I will watch again and again, due to them being such intense cinematic experiences. He’s also left me with Wild Side, a film which was butchered into a total unwatchable mess; he’s left me his performance as Osiris in Kenneth Anger’s Lucifer Rising, which always makes me smile. I think part of my fondness for Cammell probably stems from the BBC documentary Donald Cammell – The Ultimate Performance, which I watched as an impressionable 18 year old. I highly suggest tracking it down on YouTube as it’s a very moving documentary.
Performance stands up as a piece of art; it’s a mirror between insanity and sanity. It shows a world that’s ending. The excitement and potential of the sixties dream crashing down in sex, drugs and violence. Would it have been an incoherent mess if it was a product of one man’s mind? Would it have been a straight sixties kitsch gangster piece in another’s hands?
We will never know. When Cammell first wrote the script, he envisioned it as a comedy caper called The Liars. I’m glad that didn’t get made and it became a much darker project.
Performance is such a magical film and I’m glad that though the relationship was fleeting, Roeg & Cammell got to the opportunity to make one of the greatest films ever made.
“The only performance that makes it, that makes it all the way, is the one that achieves madness”.