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Performance (1970)
Directors: Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg

review by Andrew Darlington

As she straddles him, Pherber holds a mirror to Chas' chest, so the reflection of her naked breast is transplanted there, in a disturbing montage of erotic displacement. Then she frames the reflection of his face inside her hair in another flash-image of gender ambiguity. Fact, rock stars seldom, if ever, make convincing movie stars. Count them. So is it just coincidence that the only decent movie David Bowie ever made, and Mick Jagger's greatest - and only convincing celluloid moment came through the directorial skills of the same cinematic alchemist? And that in both cases they were essentially playing magnified versions of their own personas?

Through the weirdly hypnotic, compulsively watchable The Man Who Fell To Earth, Bowie no more than play-acts his near-translucent coked-out Ziggy Alien role, tenuously attached to reality by the slenderest of DNA. While Jagger is caught at the nexus of his aristocratic rough trade, debauched Byronic malevolence. Mick Jagger, and Mick Jagger. James Fox, and James Fox, as the ad-teaser suggests. Made across an 11-week schedule in 1968, over-running by one week more, and eventually premiered on 1st August 1970, Performance is a film of deliriously warping fantasy. And reality. A film, as the trailer proclaims, "about madness. About vice. And versa."

In The Observer (11th March 2007) Philip French writes that director "Nicolas Roeg is a rare case of a cinematographer becoming a major director, and this is one of the key movies of its time." A psychedelic British thriller that fades-in with a long shot of a black Rolls Royce, tracked by a fluctuating dysfunctional electro-soundtrack, inter-cut with stroboscopic speed-cut images of violent sex. Roeg's revolutionary editing technique still triggers shocks. A Teasmade flashes into life. East End gangsters grumble about violence on TV. The disjointed narrative soon fixes on sleazy cockney gang-boss Harry Flowers' protection and extortion rackets ("you was merged, old son"").

James Fox is his errant enforcer with a talent for ultra-violence, "putting the frighteners on flash little twerps," his flamboyant style of intimidation earning him the underworld title 'performer'. 'Chas' sets out to terrorise a legal-counsel by brutally torturing his chauffeur in a scene of dark throw-away humour that echoes Clockwork Orange - and will be re-echoed by Reservoir Dogs ("hair today, gone tomorrow" as they shave his head with a cut-throat razor). But unleashing Chas is "like telling a mad dog who to bite." He exceeds his remit, and takes a sadistic disciplinary beating from Joey (Anthony Valentine), spliced with a psychological giveaway b/w footage of school bullying, but Chas turns the tables and kills his punisher instead.

Locations are real - Portland Car Services, Wandsworth Bridge Road, rundown bohemian Notting Hill - in the same way that Get Carter's Tyneside is real. Prefiguring the heightened reality of Soho in Mona Lisa, and beyond. Now a fugitive from his own bosses, Chas hennas his hair with ochre-red house-paint. On the point of escape, in the rail station he overhears a random conversation, a Hendrix-alike guitarist - Noel, talks to his Mum, dropping an address. So instead, following it up he bluffs his way in, reinventing himself as a juggler - "a performer of natural magic," to find an untraceable refuge in the cavernous Notting Hill home of reclusive drug-fuelled androgynous rock star Turner (Jagger, unforgettably playing himself), and his ménage a trios of strange young women (Anita Pallenberg as Pherber, Michele Breton as Lucy), who share his bed, and his bath. Turner's home becomes a claustrophobic hideout, corrupt and phantasmagorical.

Chas warily refuses Pherber's offered joint, but unwittingly eats her magic mushroom - "two-thirds of the big one." The interplay of light on the tabletop intensifies. The green flame fluctuates. There are zoom-in micro-sections into fungi, "the blood of this vegetable (which) is boring a hole" into his head, just as the lethal bullet will later plumb cortex and brain-matter. The intended refuge spirals into an eerie breakdown of barriers and roles. What was hard, strong and masculine on the outside is meaningless here. Time and identity fracture, bringing out different strengths, hallucination merges with reality, characters become interchangeable. Rooms are shadowed, everything is cluttered, every frame crammed with detail, with a visual intensity of cultural references and artefacts.

Nova magazine, neon strip-light tubes, a James Dean cut out on the wall, an Otis Redding vinyl LP, and desert landscapes glimpsed through a 3D-viewer. Her nipple as the pyramid... Jagger strums the skeletal chords of Robert Johnson's Hello Satan on his bed. They lounge in the shaped bath with Brigit Riley tiles where bank-notes float, carelessly adhered to bare bodies. Slide guitars whine. The Last Poets' proto-rap Wake Up Niggers, beat-boxing to an empty room. "There's nothing wrong with me," protests Chas, "I'm normal." But nothing is normal here, beneath a teasingly deceitful surface reality; worlds are colliding, exotic and explosive. Only the precocious kids know what's real. Pallenberg licks Jagger's nostrils. Films him as he sleeps. She tweaks Michele Breton's nipple erect, in a bed with long billowing ectoplasmic drapes. She shoots-up into her bare bottom.

This movie's erotic strangeness, disquieting narcotics and explicit scenes of stomach-churning ultra-violence are still graphic, even to viewers inured to the visceral by Tarantino. So many myths have accumulated around this film that it's something of an urban legend. People seek out 81 Powis Square, Notting Hill Gate, to see where it happened. Like they seek out Abbey Road, or Joe Meek's studio at 304 Holloway Road, Islington. Tales circulate of Keith Richards running a prurient eye over Jagger squirming out weird sex scenes with Pallenberg - the guitarist's then-girlfriend, of offended development technicians refusing to process the prints, and of pre-screening viewers projectile-vomiting. Participants were also fractured.

Fox's involvement in the movie precipitated a life-crisis that drove him to desert cinema (in which he'd excelled in The Servant and A Passage To India) for more than a decade, devoting himself instead to the activities of the evangelical Navigator sect. For Jagger it represents his most credible work outside of the 'Stones. Begun in September 1968, within weeks of completing the Beggars Banquet album, it was released only after a time-delay that enveloped Brian Jones' death, Honky Tonk Women and Let It Bleed, the highest - and lowest, points of their Satanic Majesties' dark arc. And - as if to emphasise that nothing he'd do on celluloid would ever be as good again, it eventually premiered within a month of his dire movie follow-up, Ned Kelly. Meanwhile, added here, as a bonus music-video style featurette, the compelling Memo From Turner sequence - made with Ry Cooder's creative intervention, was Jagger's first - and finest, solo music-project. Yet it surprisingly propelled the spin-off single no higher than #32 on 21st November 1970 (Decca F13067). "I think maybe we ought to call Dr Burroughs," says Pallenberg surveying Chas' wounds, and there's a lyric name-check to William Burroughs' Soft Machine in the song, too.

To Empire magazine this is a film "full of the fashions, music and faces of '68... still as fresh and disturbing now as it ever was, (with) moments that remain un-matchably astonishing." Performance owes this distinct visual style and cult status to the successful collaboration between two filmmakers. It marks what Philip French calls the "joint directorial debut" of Roeg (who had earlier contributed to Fahrenheit 451) "with upper-middle-class maverick and celebrated portrait-painter Donald Cammell" who co-directs and also wrote the experimental screenplay - citing Nietzsche, the distorted paintings of Francis Bacon and the magical fictions of Jorge Luis Borges as inspirational influences.

Cammell (his family owned Cammell Laird shipbuilding) subsequently split to Hollywood where he directed three failed movies (which have now also assumed cult status, Demon Seed - about Julie Christie impregnated by a computer, White Of The Eye - a mystic serial killer thriller set in the Arizona desert, and direct-to-cable Wild Side with Christopher Walken). He co-wrote an oriental action-picture with Marlon Brando, which was never made, then took his own life in 1996, aged 62. While Roeg followed Performance by crafting more pictures that confirm his gifts as a cinematic visionary and visual stylist. Enjoying a long and critically acclaimed career, the best examples from which have recently been - or soon will be, available on DVD. The disturbing occult thriller Don't Look Now, David Bowie's SF fable The Man Who Fell To Earth, Art Garfunkel's psychological drama Bad Timing (1980), and the political comedy Insignificance (1985).

If there was a falling off in his work from the mid-1980s on - this full, uncut Performance remains a film of deliberate excess and unique provocation. Mutilated by drastic cuts and re-edits imposed by Warner Bros, loathed by its Hollywood financiers, it was critically mauled on its initial appearance. Yet as an exhilarating commentary on swinging London's dying days it shares the dark luminosity of Blow-Up, only more so. "Comical little geezer," snipes Chas to Turner, "you'll look funny when you're fifty." Jagger's way past that fifty mark now, but anticipates his own retaliation in Memo From Turner when he slurs, "You'll still be in the circus while I'm laughing, laughing in my grave." But if Chas is trapped, so is Turner. He's also 'retired'. He caught a glimpse of his 'daemon' in the mirror, and it abandoned him.

Early superimpositions of Chas/ Turner, in a series of narcotic blinks, hint at the fluidity that's to come. Even the name 'Turner' is a clue - one who turns others. And Turner siphons off the cockney thug's predatory persona like a vampire inhaling life-giving plasma. Chas' sense of reality erodes in precarious role swapping. He's immersed in a "sick, degenerate, perverted" hedonism of polymorphous identity games. Submerged in the seductive art and corrupt synergy between rock music and crime. As Turner embarks on his own experimental re-discovery, "I know a thing or two about performing, my boy, I can tell you," Jagger leers, "the only performance that makes it, that really makes it, that makes it all the way, is the one that achieves madness, right?" Impacting into a shocking final performance of his own... the climatic shape-shifting switch-confrontation with Harry Flowers' gun-sharks. One I had to watch repeatedly to decipher what exactly the bizarre mutation meant. This is an incandescent, unsettling, endlessly fascinating, disturbingly brilliant movie. If there's a better one made, I've yet to view it... Fashion designer Ossie Clarke published his own gossipy diaries in 1990, recording that on 10th January 1974 he "moved into Powis Terrace. Dinner with Mick and Bianca..." The rest is silence.
Performance on DVD

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