Cleansing the lens of cinematic perception... until the screen is a white glaring rectangle

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. If the Redlands bust in mid-60s London was like overturning a normal rock and finding the madness of affluent and beautiful youth experiencing a level of freedom the average voluntary slave to the system found intimidating, thus inspiring jealous rage, curious prurience and hypocritical pooh-poohing, PERFORMANCE made it impossible to be or do those things anymore - we were suddenly inside the dragon's den, the average viewer, like Chaz, the uncool (or cool, if you weren't class conscious) sadist gangster dosed with shrooms, found himself wrapped up in the new freedom. All it takes is the right set and setting and the right dosage, the bonds of rational sense and order vanished in a Lewis Carroll wordplay identity-dissolving labyrinth of play, sound, light, and movement. Could anyone imagine a better set and setting than that trippy house with those gorgeous, talented, free-spirited, vaguely Satanic, utterly open yet endlessly masked characters? The cast of the film mirrored that menage that Faithfull and Mick had been in before, albeit confusing the matters (as befit the subject): Faithfull's bosom chum (And Keith's girlfriend) Anita Pallenberg was the girl; Michele Breton played the androgyne that Mick could morph into (and James Fox's androgynous real-life girlfriend); Fox and Jagger played more or less themselves -- Camell-ionically warped into endless permutations, mirror dissolves, sex and gender warping, Francis Bacon-ating equations.

Some of the opening half of PERFORMANCE gets a little tedious, with all the thick gangster slang, crosscuts, and seething leatherboy power plays, that is, unless you give up expecting narrative thrust and surrender to Roeg's keen interest in generating meaning from apparently random images and sounds thrust up against each other. Cammell territory kicks in when we get to Mick and Anita's house, but before then 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 (how wasteful!) or being roughed up by his old schoolboy crush, a small town bookie Chaz's boss has newly muscled into the orginzation.  Roeg cutting back and forth to Parliament in session with various scenes of bullying office drones. Whoa! But cross cutting like that is annoying (was it ever not cliche? If anyplace wasn't, this is it) and overly jarring (as in: sir are you inferring corporate takeovers voted through in Parliament is no different than gangsters muscling in for cuts of criminal enterprises? How dare you sir-zzzz)

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, perhaps sensing the danger or sympathizing with what he gleans is a life or incarceration situtation. (If you've ever had to kick a broke meth-rattled scuz out of your hippie house 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. 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). Turner doesn't buy it, but he seems to be taking notes, filing it all into his own bag of tricks. Finally, Turner decides to keep him around in a kind of jaded rock star "slumming" way, as when Joe Buck and Ratzo get invited to the psychedelic party in MIDNIGHT COWBOY.

From there Anita decides to feed Chaz psychedelic mushrooms and soon he's hallucinating into a table ("How much you want fr'it?") 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 after he tells them he needs a fast in disguise passport photo to leave the country with. 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 recently read a piece where Cammell talked about the shot of the limo driving away suddenly turning and being in New York City! - But dude, that shot ain't there!)

Flaws don't matter with a film as subversively noble and--for a fairly substantial chunk--as druggy 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 but settled for his girlfriend" (or a dismissive "man we were so wasted" which 80%, alas, of my American tripper friends let it rest at - as if any feeling or insight while tripping is automatically void - a feeling not shared by most Europeans, thankfully), but rather 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 mentioned above, and the film version of same, wherein Faithfull swaps places with Pallenberg, there's no jealousy or clinging - friends and doubles abound, and that's a common feature in the film - the way Mick and Breton eventually become interchangeable, allowing the film to explore a gay subtext without having to get censored for it (the cutting back and forth between them must have really unnerved the suits at Warners and perhaps led to the shelving)

Anita herself is already a mirror twin of a Rolling Stone - the dearly departed Brian Jones (see their matching mouths above left) - all their friends noted well the way they soaked up each other's tics and styles, ravenous sponges for style and experience (and Pallenberg and Faithfull in turn helped style Mick and Keith). It can all be read as a call for everyone to be openly bisexual and loose-masked, to swap roles and bodies and personas, but it's even more than that... it blows the lid off all notions of persona, racing clear past mere granolification, any hippie Grateful Dead flute dancing, 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 before or since took it as deep and clear-eyed druggy as PERFORMANCE. And with his masterfully intuitive editing strategy Roeg created all sorts of audio-visual allusion strategies he'd incorporate into the rest of his body of work, including the mixture of miniatures with full size people, disguises, cameras, light sources, mirrors, and the use of recurring authors via books left lying around and author photos (like the famous Borges head shot). As for the persona meltdown, Bergman approached it from a more Nordically removed, intellectual angle while Cammell and Co. plunged headfirst into the madness, and never fully returned from the void they found (Fox, they say, took years to recover; Breton never made another film; Cammell's career was never to be the same - throwing him a kind of early curve ball; Mick was traumatized; Keith was furious, and so on. Only Roeg's career would take off, as if winning the big hand at poker.

Life goes on. For awhile in the 80s all we tripping college hippie bandmates knew of this film was Jack Nitzsche's score (a roommate had the LP). It's worth getting on CD even if you also get the DVD, which--even if you're not an ex-rock star-turned robe-wearing drug-taking recluse like some of us-- you must own. This is a music movie and even contains what may be the first MTV-ready video 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, with black eye liner and a full mane of black hair making him seem always as if he's vanishing inside a giant wig coccoon, leaving only lips and eyes. 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 - which he was very good at (he'd have made an excellent shaman). Under the warlock-ish spell of Cammell however, Jagger lets loose into some terrifying and funny places. At one point just shaking a luminescent light rod through (via Roeg's editing trucks) Chazz's ear drums, to one of Jack ("The Lonely Surfer") Nitzsche's instrumental tracks, 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 - you can practically feel the dark forces stir from their Lovecraftian slumber at his power. 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. And thank "god," then, PERFORMANCE is on DVD. It too is still alive, unedited, wild and still pulsing with something almost unknown in modern films, genuine subversion. Come in at your own invitation - after all, you're the only one there by the end. But isn't that how it's always been, Chaz?


  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.

  3. One of my strange favorites. I could put together a festival of such films that combine rock,surrealism,disturbing takes on society (British and American) Irreverence,nonsense,horror(real horror),etc. Say Performance,The Man Who Fell To Earth,Don't look Back,Head,Renaldo And clara (the 4 hour cut-yes I said it),Slade In Flame (Oh yes,give it a chance),Journey Through The Past,The Last Movie,O Lucky Man! Medium Cool...Enough to start (and perhaps) Finish with.

    1. Plus I'm probably the only person alive who likes HOW I WON THE WAR.


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