Because the screen is the only well-lit mirror in town

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Great Acid Movies #2: PERFORMANCE (1968)

In Marianne Faithfull's highly recommended autobiography, she discusses the germination (in 1968) of the film PERFORMANCE (directed by Nicholas Roeg and Donald Cammell), recounting a particularly LSD-drenched evening with Mick, James Fox and Fox's androgynous girlfriend, Andee:
The carpets undulated in little ripples of apricot and ivory. Andee and I were slave girls of the great pharaoh languidly reclining on the royal barge [Mick's huge bed]. The pharaoh was fondling James. (It was going to be a very tactile trip...)
Later she describes vibrating beyond sex and duality in what might be described in lesser hands as 'tripping your face off' -- for what are faces if not masks?
I was in love with everybody. Actually, I was everybody... it was such a blissful state that you could easily fall in love with a chair, with your own shoes. What an absurd thought, someone belonging to someone else! God, and to think they started the Trojan War over stupidity such as that!

Sooner or later something was going to take place on this bed and tonight was evidently going to be the night. It was raison d'etre for the bed --- if Mick couldn't get Keith into bed, this (James) was the next best thing... No one knew about our little evening, of course, not a soul. But somewhere out in the drab, damp London night, the chief Dracula of this scene, director Donald Cammell, opened up his window and snatched it out of the air....
By which she means, PERFORMANCE --  a movie that was then shelved for two years (released in 1970) and is still way, way ahead of its time.
it was a "seething cauldron of diabolical ingredients: drugs, sexual relationships, role reversals, art and life all whipped together in a bitches' brew (147-8)
The cast of the film mirrored this menage a quatre to a T: Faithfull's bosom chum Anita Pallenberg played her part; the adrogynous Michele Breton played James Fox's androgynous real-life girlfriend, Andee. James Fox and Mick Jagger played more or less themselves -- chameleons.. Cammell-ions, if you will.

Some of the opening half of PERFORMANCE gets a little tedious, with all the thick gangster slang, crosscuts, and seething leatherboy power plays. Until we get to Mick and Anita's house, the beauty is in short supply, and what there is gets uglied up pretty fast, such as a long scene of Chaz (Fox) pouring acid (wrong kind!) on a Rolls Royce and shaving the chauffeur's head, with Roeg cutting back and forth to Parliament in session. Whoa! But cross cutting like that is annoying sometimes, especially now when it's been done to death and even ruined a potentially great James Bond movie (QUANTUM OF SOLACE). It was new enough then, one supposes, to be cutting edge, but it's still overly jarring--a cheap way to cover mismatched shots rather than to effectively convey any sort of "statement" (as in, wow, parliament is just gangsters in wigs! Who'd a thunk it?)

The film hits its high "now its kicking in!" moment about 1/3 of the way through, when Turner (Mick) calls Chaz (Fox) up from his basement room, planning to kick the bugger out. Chaz is desperate to stay, and Turner is artistically blocked enough to feel him out like a character study, or just too f*cked up to figure out how to get rid of him. (If you've ever had to kick a jonesing townie out of your hippie house, or vice versa, while tripping on acid, you'll relate.) As Turner tries different weird passive-aggressive intimidation tactics, Chaz defends himself with feigned stupidity and music hall clownery. Whatever Chaz does in his defense, Turner may not buy it, but he files it into his own bag of tricks. He decides to keep him in a kind of jaded rock star "slumming" way, as when Joe Buck and Ratzo get invited to the psychedelic party in MIDNIGHT COWBOY. 

Chaz is initially so clueless about the current entertainment world that he bills himself as a juggler--which is a very easy lie to get caught in (if you can't juggle, which he certainly can't). From there Anita decides to feed Chaz psychedelic mushrooms and soon he's hallucinating into a table ("I'll buy it from you!") and Turner and Anita start teasing the lad, breaking down his psyche, stripping off the learned layers of rude boyishness, dolling him up in a hippy wig and various flashy Carnaby Street outfits, and in the end he shacks up with Breton, finally opening up and resembling a real person. And the peak keeps climbing and overflowing all the way to the tragic and confusing ending. I read an interview with Cammell where he talks about the shot of the limo driving away suddenly turning and being in New York City! But I didn't see New York, man. So what's up with the ending?

Flaws don't matter with a film as subversively noble as this one. I quoted Faithfull at length above because I value her openness and clarity on drugs and the shifting locus of perception and subjectivity that is required to be truly that free. It isn't just "LSD talk" or "perversion" or "oooh ooooh Mick wanted to sleep with Keith." It's deeper, man, a scissor slash at the very fabric of our society, a challenge not just to the whole idea of "ownership" in sexuality and set gender identity but to the notion of identity in and of itself. In the trysts at play on both sides of the mirror--Faithfull's encounter with Fox and Jagger and Co., and the film version of same, wherein Faithfull swaps places with her best friend Anita Pallenberg.

Anita herself is already a mirror twin of a Stone - the dearly departed Brian Jones (see their matching mouths above left), elaborating the whole strange psycho-sexual link with Mick who at times switches places with Breton (who has Mick-length hair and a similarly skinny, androgynous body). It can be read as a call for everyone to be openly bisexual and loose-masked. But it's even more than that... it blows the lid off all notions of personae, racing clear past mere granolification and into the dark recesses of the void beyond identity and duality, the realm of madness, "the only performance that really makes it".

Bergman had tread into this realm with PERSONA (1966) and HOUR OF THE WOLF (1968), but no one took it as deep and clear-eyed druggy as PERFORMANCE. Bergman approached it from a more Nordically removed, intellectual angle (though I'm sure he at least 'dabbled'), while Cammell and Co. plunged headfirst into the madness, and never fully returned (Fox, they say, took years to recover, Breton never made another film, Cammell's career was destroyed, Mick was traumatized, Keith was furious, and so on.)

Jack Nitzsche's score is worth getting on CD even if you also get the DVD, which you must. This is a music movie and even contains what may be the first MTV-ready video (MTV from Hell), for "Memo from Turner." In that photo below you can see how Jagger taps the vein of homoerotic sadism that runs under the "chip chip cheerio" surface of British Imperialism and then trickles down to the Harry Flowers underclasses. It would make a damned good triple bill with DELIVERANCE and GUNGA DIN!

Lastly, there's Mick himself as Turner. Always an interesting screen presence, here Mick relishes the chance to play a darker, more genuinely Satanic version of himself. According to Faithfull, Jagger really wasn't into Satanism and black magic per se, he just liked to pose in the clothes and do shamanic gyrations. Under the warlock-ish spell of Cammell however, Jagger lets loose into some terrifying and funny places. At one point just shaking a stick to one of Jack ("The Lonely Surfer") Nitzsche's instrumental tracks (which Turner is supposed to have written), you get a sense of how truly sublime and mind-altering Mick's snake charmer dancing is. Later he even plays guitar and sings Robert Johnson's "Come on in my Kitchen," and if you never understood what Johnson's blues had to do with the devil, now you know. Mick may not be the devil, but he's a hell of a good recruiting officer. There's got to be some sinister reason he and Keith are still alive, kicking, and even in their withered shells, super sexy.


  1. Cammell's "White of the Eye" deserves more attention. I'd like to see an Acidemic take on it. (It can be found on DVD now, if you haven't seen it.)

  2. Interesting review, but the intercut scenes mentioned at the beginning are in a courtroom, NOT the houses of parliament. They are of the trial in which the barrister, whose Rolls Royce is later given the 'acid' treatment, is defending an associate of Harry Flowers. 'Business is business' and we see shots of the jury listening attentively to the submissions, but also as viewers of a porno film in a Soho cinema, where Chas is 'performing', intimidating the cinema owner for protection money.
    One of my favourite 60's/70's films. Dan.


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