... for when you're seeing things.

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 thanks to the studio shelving the film for so long it lost its buzz; Mick was traumatized by the experience and it warped his relationship with the most important person in his life, his true 'spouse,' Keith, etc. Only Roeg's career would take off, as if winning the big hand at poker. For now he had a director credit and could get into the union. The rest is history - Roeg would show time and again the ability to circumnavigate the void without plunging so far in he couldn't get out by the roll of the credits (sometimes he just barely made it out before the final bell, as in DON'T LOOK NOW).

Life goes on, and death goes often. From 1986-89, I lived a very Cammell-Jagger style life, tripping with my college hippie bandmates. We knew of this film and loved Jack Nitzsche's score (a roommate had the LP) long before it appeared, finally, on VHS. The soundtrack is 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. For PERFORMANCE is a kind of endlessly fascinating artifact from a looser time, when what would count as certifiable insanity today was just wordplay and mind-melding. Ahead of its time in every way as well as behind it, PERFORMANCE even contains what may be the first MTV-ready video (non-Scopitone): "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! Cheers!


Lastly, there's Mick himself as Turner. Always an interesting screen presence, more so than in any film before or sense, Mick relishes the chance to play a darker, more genuinely Satanic version of himself, pale and 'stuck' but way farther out than most of us ever get, 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. The devil seems to have half-devoured him and what we see is the stuff left in the fridge for later. While, 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), under the warlock-ish spell of Cammell, 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 you can practically feel the dark forces stir from their Lovecraftian slumber at his power, the devil recognizing the tune he taught Johnson at the crossroads, finally played just right enough to wake him. Mick may not be the devil, or the devil's sympathy-courting minstrel, but there's got to be some sinister reason he and his band are still alive (knock on wood), karate kicking, and-- even in their withered shells--super sexy.

Thank "god," then, PERFORMANCE is finally out on DVD. It too is still alive, kicking, unedited, wild and still pulsing with something almost unknown in modern films, genuine subversion. Come on in its kitchen, at your own invitation - after all, you're the only one left at the party by the end. You've been talking to shadows. But isn't that how it's always been, Chaz? Time to go.

6 comments:

  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.)

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  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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  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.

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

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    2. Hi Eric, it's Woozle again Thank you so much for writing about PERFORMANCE. Of all the films you've covered on your site - all of the ones that I've seen anyway (I must confess, I haven't seen them all) - PERFORMANCE is the one that means the most to me. The whole (arguable) central metaphor of the film - the idea that life is a performance, or that we're all performers, that all identity is a construct - has influenced me profoundly, as has Mick Jagger's quoting of Hassan I-Sabbah's apocryphal line, "Nothing Is True/Everything Is Permitted." I have been haunted by the myth of Hassan I-Sabbah and the Assassins of Alamut for a long time (William S. Burroughs and Brion Gysin were fascinated by the Assassins and "Nothing Is True/Everything Is Permitted" too - see here: https://www.alamut.com/subj/ideologies/alamut/litTheory.html - or here: https://my.vanderbilt.edu/jefftaylor/publications/origins/ - and Burroughs and Gysin are icons of mine) ever since I first watched PERFORMANCE, six years ago. I'm haunted by the idea of performers and assassins...I know that, in PERFORMANCE, Roeg and Cammel imply that performers/artists (Turner) and assassins/outlaws (Chaz) are brothers under the skin, but somehow, I keep turning the movie over in my head trying to make it come to an opposite conclusion: to the conclusion that there is a binary split between assassins/outlaws (people who destroy) and performers (artists; people who create) and that you can either be a performer in life or an assassin. I know that's definitely not the message of the film, but it's a message I keep coming back to. I'm trying to write something - a long personal essay - about how some days I feel like I'm not really the person that people think I am (that my whole life is a performance, a performance grown dull and oppressive) and I feel tempted to be an assassin (to be an outlaw, to snap and go berserk and run amok, to do something I know that I'll regret) and how I must step back from the idea of assassins and outlaws, and strive to be a true performer (to be the person that the people who care about me are sure that I can be, and also to be a serious writer [I am a writer and a poet; I have performed my poems before live audiences] and make my mark on the world that way), but I keep getting so bogged down in my own dobuts that I can't finish the essay. I keep on telling myself, "In me, the sweet performer must prevail..." but some days that seems hard to believe.
      Do I sound silly, thinking about the film this way, or thinking of the ideas of "performers" and "assassins" that way?

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    3. whoa -quite a message Woozle. It's a very interesting interpretation. I'd argue that Turner sees Chaz as a legitimate creator because what he is an artist of is courting fear and terror, or influencing people to submit to petty extortion for his boss, Harry Flowers. He's a mix between say Dario Argento and Andy Kaufman, as in breaking the fourth wall to inflict genuine psychological damage. Not unlike, in a sense, Alex and his Droogs or Hassan i Sabbah's Hashishins, or Wulfgar from Nighthawks if you want to get international about it.

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