Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Dialogue as Action: The Friends of Eddie Coyle

The Friends of Eddie Coyle (Directed by Peter Yates)
Described by Elmore Leonard as ‘the best crime novel ever written’ The Friends of Eddie Coyle is an uncompromising and bleak account of criminal life on the mean streets of Boston. The story of a small-time gun-runner desperate to avoid going to prison, George V. Higgins’s 1972 fictional debut is constructed as an elegant series of interlocking dialogues which gradually reveal the book’s theme: an elaborate play of exploitation and betrayal. 

The dialogue is a virtuoso representation of genuine speech, compact and stylized yet not so self-conscious as to come across as overtly literary. The scenes are fragmented while significant events occur out of view. Events unravel without a moral purpose: a detached aesthetic that owes much to Higgins’s experience as a lawyer acquainted with the inner workings of the Boston criminal system. 

Throughout his writing career Higgins maintained his view that the best way to tell a story is by gradually exposing its outline through the conversations of its characters. Avoiding lengthy descriptive passages, and by focusing almost exclusively on his characters’ talk, he obliges the reader to pay attention to the dialogue if they want to know what is going on. 

In his book On Writing, a discourse on the writer’s craft intended for aspiring writers, Higgins discusses his reliance on dialogue:
Many of my critics seem to feel that they have to say, or strongly imply, that my gift for dialog is all I have; or that writing dialog is not the most important attribute a novelist can have . . .  A man or woman who does not write good dialog is not a first-rate writer. I do not believe that a writer who neglects or has not learned to write good dialog can be depended on for accuracy in his understanding of character and in his creation of characters. Therefore to dismiss good dialog so lightly is evidence of a critic’s incomplete understanding of what constitutes a good novel.
The Friends of Eddie Coyle was made into a superb, underrated film in 1973. Directed by Peter Yates and starring Robert Mitchum and Peter Boyle, the script by Hollywood veteran Paul Monash sticks closely to Higgins’s aesthetic. The expressionless tone of the characters’ dialogue, the stark narrative and the unfolding tragedy of events, creates an overall effect that is at once fascinating and unsettling.

On release in 1973 the film was met with disappointment and confusion: the book seemed not to work on screen; critics found the movie flat and under-dramatized. Seen today, these alleged shortcomings now seem like strengths. The Friends of Eddie Coyle has a cadence and style of its own. The inventiveness of Higgins’s plot and the terseness of his language are reflected in a striking and extended visual scheme — Victor Kemper’s cold, urban cinematography reduces the city to abstract surfaces of diners, suburban banks, shopping-malls, parking lots — and an acting ensemble in empathy with the film’s mood of nonchalance and terror.

A crime film with minimal violence or overt displays of aggression, Yates’s direction finds the right pitch as one critic describes it as ‘somewhere near the edge of desperation’. As embodied by Robert Mitchum, in his last great role, the tone is deliberately undramatic. Action is mundane and professional, from the business-like masked bank-robbers to the hired hit-man negotiating over the fee for killing his friend. Despite the milieu of routine mistrust, of people going about their business, from robbing banks, selling guns or catching crooks, the underlying violence and chaos of their world is never far away.

The Criterion release of The Friends Of Eddie Coyle on DVD includes an essay by the critic Kent Jones. In the following extract he discusses the film’s themes, aesthetic and how dialogue in George V. Higgins’s world is central to telling the story:

‘I think that work like his is necessary for people to understand something about the humors of the criminal mentality,’ said Robert Mitchum of the novel The Friends of Eddie Coyle and its author, George V. Higgins. Yet he could have been describing the film itself, a melancholy succession of clandestine encounters conducted in the least picturesque parts of the Greater Boston area during late fall, going into winter. A middleman bargains with a gunrunner, the gunrunner bargains with a pair of wannabe bank robbers, a cop bargains with his stoolie, and the stoolie bargains with the man who works for the Man. The chips on the table may be machine guns or information or money, but the ‘humor’ looming over every encounter is survival.

Politeness and bonhomie are strictly provisional, and everybody knows it, which is what gives this film its terrible sadness. In the miserable economy of power in Boston’s rumpled gray underworld, Eddie and his ‘friends’ are all expendable, and the ones left standing play every side against the middle, their white-knuckle terror carefully concealed under several layers of nonchalance and resignation. There’s not a punch thrown, and only two fatal shots are fired, but this seemingly artless film leaves a deeper impression of dog-eat-dog brutality than many of the blood-soaked extravaganzas that preceded it and came in its wake.

The Friends of Eddie Coyle is, in many ways, an inside job. Meaning that there’s not a minute spent orienting the viewer. The tale of a low-level mobster who gives up one of his contacts in a failed effort to bargain his way out of a New Hampshire prison stint is imparted to us a little bit at a time, through a series of seemingly affable but quietly desperate sit-downs between criminals and cops, or other criminals, in crummy coffee shops, underpopulated bars, and public spaces that give new meaning to the word ordinary. The filmmakers never do anything in the way of rhetorical underlining.

Director Peter Yates, born and trained in England and mostly known at this relatively early point in his career for his 1968 film Bullitt (and, to those fortunate enough to have seen it in the States, for the excellent Robbery), was an interesting choice for this material. Like that Steve McQueen classic, The Friends of Eddie Coyle is an all-action experience. But two crisply executed bank heists and a logistically complex parking-lot arrest aside, the kinetic excitement here is sparked by the verbal and gestural rhythms between the actors as they plead for their lives across dingy Beantown tabletops. Yates’s camera eye stays so casually observant and his cinematic syntax so spare throughout that when he finally retreats to a plaintive distance in the aftermath of the film’s one inevitable tragedy, it packs a considerable punch. At which point, Dave Grusin’s score, the busiest thing in the movie apart from the gunrunner’s patterned shirts and canary yellow muscle car, finally settles into a plangent farewell.

Off-handed fatalism is embedded in every word of every exchange, each of which alternates between hide-and-seek games and verbal tugs-of-war. The Friends of Eddie Coyle is an extremely faithful adaptation (in structure, spirit, and flavor) of the first published novel by the Brockton, Massachusetts–born Higgins, whose career as a United States prosecutor and then big-time criminal defense lawyer (his clients included Eldridge Cleaver and G. Gordon Liddy) coincided with his ascendancy as a novelist, and whose dialogue is one of the glories of American literature. ‘I’m not doing dialogue because I like doing dialogue,’ Higgins once said. ‘The characters are telling you the story. I’m not telling you the story, they’re going to do it. If I do it right, you will get the whole story.’ What is remarkable about the film is the extreme degree to which Yates and the producer and writer, Paul Monash, adhere to Higgins’s aesthetic, banking on the contention that if you render the action among the characters as faithfully as possible, their entire moral universe will be revealed.

And so it is. ‘Look, one of the first things I learned is never to ask a man why he’s in a hurry,’ says Robert Mitchum’s Eddie to Steven Keats’s inappropriately relaxed arms salesman, Jackie Brown (guess who’s a fan of this movie), in what might be the film’s most emblematic bit of table talk. ‘All you got to know is that I told the man he can depend on me because you told me I could depend on you. Now one of us is gonna have a big fat problem. Another thing I’ve learned: if anybody’s gonna have a problem, you’re gonna be the one.’ As in every good dialogue-driven film, talk in The Friends of Eddie Coyle equals action. In this case, manoeuvring for leverage and self-preservation...

– Extracted from ‘The Friends of Eddie Coyle: They Were Expendable’ by Kent Jones. For the full article go here

Monday, 18 February 2013

Mind Games: Christopher Nolan on Narrative

Memento (Directed by Christopher Nolan)
Beginning in early childhood, Christopher Nolan made short films with action figures and an 8mm camera borrowed from his father. Nolan maintained an interest in film while studying for a literature degree at University College, London. After graduation, Nolan and a group of friends raised a few thousand pounds to make his 1998 debut feature Following, a neo-noir exercise shot in 16mm over several months of weekends. Using a non-linear narrative, developed to even greater effect in Memento, the film follows Bill (Jeremy Theobald), a struggling writer who follows people around London, seeking inspiration for his characters.

Well-meaning as it was, Following was effectively preparation for Nolan’s audacious indie breakthrough Memento (2000). Based on a story by his brother Jonathan Nolan, the film experiments boldly with narrative – taking the perspective of an amnesiac Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce) who is on an apparent mission to avenge his wife’s murder.

For his next project, an impressive remake of the 1997 Norwegian thriller Insomnia, Nolan used a more conventional chronology, demonstrating a strong command over a complex and unyielding noir plot set in the permanent daylight of an Alaskan summer. The film stars Al Pacino as a veteran detective assigned from Los Angeles to investigate the brutal slaying of a high-school student. In an atypically dark and sombre role, Robin Williams plays his nemesis, a murder suspect who has witnessed Pacino accidentally killing his partner during a shootout in the fog.

Following Insomnia, his first studio film, Nolan became one of the most bankable of Hollywood directors, going on to make the hugely successful The Dark Knight (2008) and Inception (2010) which also take as their basis Nolan’s favoured theme of conflicted male protagonists struggling with the nature of identity.

Nolan talked to The Onion A.V. Club in 2002 – just after the release of Insomnia – about his thoughts on narrative, the appeal of the noir genre, and what it’s like to make a film within the studio system:

Following (Directed by Christopher Nolan)
AVC: Where did the money for ‘Following’ come from, and what were the problems of shooting over such a long period of time?

Christopher Nolan: Following was a film that I made knowing I couldn’t get any money for it, knowing that I was going to have to pay for it myself. I wasn’t a wealthy person. Everyone involved in the film was, you know, working full-time and trying to get by in London, which is difficult and expensive. But we figured out that if you shot in 16mm black and white, which made the lighting much easier to set up, we could shoot 15 minutes of footage every week, and pay for that, and keep going one day a week as we earned money through our various jobs. So it took us three or four months, shooting one day a week, to finish the production. It’s probably the cheapest feature ever made, for what that’s worth.

The purpose of ‘Following’s unusual structure isn’t as apparent as that of ‘Memento’. Why did you construct the film the way you did?

When I was writing it, I really just constructed the film on an instinctive basis. I didn’t quite know what I was doing, in a way. I just knew that I had a structure that made a lot of sense to me, and it really took me the making of the film until I started to feel what I thought I was trying to do. And to me, what I tried to do was tell a story in something like a three-dimensional sense, to tell a story that expands in all directions as you’re passing through the narrative. Instead of just expanding in one direction, it expands in every direction. And the reason that was interesting to me, and the reason it worked instinctively, is because once I started to really sit down and think about what that meant, I realized that that’s the way we receive most stories in real life. If you look at the way a newspaper story works, that’s how it works. Say you have a headline like ‘Mountain Bike Stolen,’ and then you read the story, read another story about it the next day, and then the next week, and then the next year. News is a process of expansion, the filling in of detail, and making narrative connections – not based on chronology, but based on features of the story. There are narrative connections made between props, between characters, between situations, and so forth. That was very interesting to me. It made a lot of sense for that story. In the case of Memento, I absolutely had not intended to make another film with a fractured chronology, because I felt pretty good about how I had explored it in Following. But when it came to my brother’s short story, the first thing we said to each other was, ‘It’s most interesting told from a third-person point of view.’ And the structure of the film was from the process of sitting and thinking about how you put the audience into the position of somebody who doesn’t know what’s just happened. I finally came up with the answer: ‘Well, you don’t tell them what’s just happened, you tell them what’s going to happen, and tell the story backwards, and that way you remove the information from the audience that’s not available to the character, and that helps you get into his condition.’ That was the reason that I wound up making two films in a row with fractured timelines. But Insomnia has a very linear structure, specifically for the reason that I was trying to tell a story from the point of view of a character who’s passing through an intensely linear experience, an accumulation of many days without sleep.

Memento (Directed by Christopher Nolan)
In the broadest sense, all three of your features are in the noir genre, and all are told from something close to a first-person perspective. What attracts you to those styles?

Well, I think the two are sort of hand-in-hand, in the sense that, to me, the most interesting approach to film noir is subjective. The genre is really all about not knowing what’s going on around you, and that fear of the unknown. The only way to do that effectively is to really get into the maze, rather than look at the maze from above, so that’s where I sort of come at it. In the case of the three films I’ve done, there’s some element of the protagonist’s psychology that is skewed, that gives you a different take on that story. So if you can get in that person’s head and adopt that point of view of the story, you get to take familiar elements and see them from an unfamiliar angle. That makes the whole thing much more exciting.

Did you have any particular models in mind when you...

No, not really. There are a few models, particularly literary. The one example I like to use is a book by Graham Swift called Waterland, which is a fantastic book I read when I was a kid. Swift constructs the story in a nonlinear fashion that’s entirely clear and consistent and interesting, so I’ve certainly grown up feeling that there’s no reason you shouldn’t be able to present the cinematic narrative in whatever form is most interesting. But I try not to have conscious cinematic references in mind when I’m figuring out what to do or how to do it, simply because I think it’s restricting. Not because you’re copying – probably more likely because you’d be afraid to copy, that you wouldn’t do stuff – and, to me, any kind of filmmaking that’s reactive is not going to be as good as something more inventive and original.

Memento (Directed by Christopher Nolan)
Your films, particularly the first two, return to the same sort of small set of locations again and again. Is there a reason for that?

Probably mostly practical reasons, because when you have no money, you start looking at the genre and the story like, ‘What’s the most I can do with the least? What’s the most I can do with the interrelationships of a very small group of characters and a small set of spaces?’ And Memento is somewhat bigger [than Following], but it still had to be contained, for practical reasons. I didn’t find that in any way restricting, because I went into the script stage constructing a story designed in that way. And it’s exactly the same, really, with Insomnia. The geography is much bigger, but it allowed me to juxtapose this massive Alaskan landscape with this very claustrophobic situation. I think the two, in the film, set each other off quite nicely. With Memento, there’s a lot of circularity with locations. You start with places you keep coming back to, so everything is in spirals and circles, allowing you to feel the main character’s disorientation.

Do you see a natural connection between ‘Insomnia’ and ‘Memento’, because both films deal with how the mind operates and plays tricks on you?

Definitely. Now that I’ve finished Insomnia, I look back and see all kinds of obvious connections. Certainly the idea of perception is carried over very strongly, and it’s something I continue to be interested in, trying to give the audience a slightly different perception of the story. Memento is about somebody who can’t make memories, and the way it skews his view of what’s happening. Insomnia is also very much about the Al Pacino character’s thought process, and how it’s clouded through cumulative exhaustion, combined with guilt and extraordinary stress. That, to me, is pretty fascinating. And I think the films also share all sorts of thematic concerns, such as the relationship between motivation and action, and the difficulty of reconciling your view of the story with the supposed objective view of that story.

Memento (Directed by Christopher Nolan)
So why remake ‘Insomnia’? What are the crucial differences between your version and the original?

To me, it’s a question of seeing this film that I absolutely loved, and that I thought was perfect and unimproveable. But I thought that the narrative situation could be taken in a very different direction by setting it in a very different arena, namely the context of the type of American studio film that used to get made 50 years ago. Setting it in that arena totally transforms the nature of the moral paradox; in the original, it’s completely fascinating, but I had no interest in attempting to redo that. What we did, and what Hillary Seitz’s script did very well, is give you a sympathetic character, particularly in casting Al Pacino, that you automatically invest a lot of trust and respect and sympathy toward. And then, using that, I take you to a very different impression of the man.

What do you mean by ‘moral paradox’ in this story?

Well, I think that the hero is put in the position where he can’t do the right thing, and that, to me, is what the moral paradox is. If he does the right thing, bad things are going to happen. By making him a good man who wants to do the right thing, the fact that he’s killed his partner by mistake and lied about it, and that he’s seen by the bad guy... He doesn’t have any way, if you think about it, to do the right thing. In fact, it really doesn’t matter whether he’s doing the right thing. I loved how the script completely scrapped the backstory [about Pacino’s alleged corruption as an L.A. police detective], so we wound up making a film that’s really the last act of a story. It wraps it up very tightly. In the middle of the film, he’s in a place where there really is no way out, which I love. To me, that’s what film noir is all about. Studios used to be much better at making these kinds of movies. Take Strangers On A Train, for example, in which the guy at the center of it is sympathetic and a good man, and you’ve invested a lot in him, but he’s compromised and therefore trapped, and you’re kind of trapped with him.

Insomnia (Directed by Christopher Nolan)
Did you have to go through studio things like test screenings? What was that process like?

You know, in retrospect, it worked enormously in my favor, because I got the film I wanted on screen. I was very afraid of the process, because I’ve never had to go through it. I can’t imagine having gone through it with something like Memento. [Laughs.] The test screenings were one of these things that just loomed over me, and that was just terrifying. Then, when I went through it, it was kind of okay. There’s a logic to it that the studio people explain to you, and you start to pick up. I don’t like it, and I would very happily not do it. Filmmakers are all different. Steven Soderbergh is a producer on the film, and he helped guide me through it. He likes test screenings, because he learns a lot about the film by sitting with an audience of unbiased strangers and feeling their reaction.

But that’s different from filling out those little cards...

Well, they do that at the end, but you’re still there for the screening, so there are potentially a lot of benefits for the filmmaker. For this movie, everybody in the audience was just kind of dead still and focused, you know, which is kind of what it’s supposed to be, because it’s not a comedy. [Laughs.] That was great, because I felt the tension was very good, and it felt like those things were working. I actually get a lot more out of showing films to small groups of people that I know, because I know how to gauge their reactions. Anyway, I wasn’t crazy about the process, but I have to say it worked in my favor, because there were certainly things in the movie that seemed confusing, or potentially confusing. And that’s always a big fear among producers and the studio: Are people going to understand the plot? Will they understand why the characters act the way they do? I felt pretty good going into the test screenings that people wouldn’t feel like that.

Insomnia (Directed by Christopher Nolan)
Do you think that same fear of confusion is why ‘Memento’ bounced around a little bit without finding a distributor?

Oh, absolutely. And it didn’t just bounce around a little bit; it was a long time. It was really gruelling. I kind of had expected it, but we went through about six months of saying, ‘What the hell are we gonna do?’ That’s a long time to be under that kind of pressure. I think the problem was a lack of adventurousness on the part of the so-called independent studios. I’m not an idiot, and I knew the film was going to be difficult for audiences potentially, so I made the film as small as possible. I made it for the right price, with the right cast. It made a lot of sense to me where it was coming from. What was weird as well was that there’d usually be somebody at each screening who totally got the movie, and could see that there was something there that people would enjoy. Hollywood is a very frightened place – one’s very nervous, understandably, with lots of money – so they watch movies in a different way. Which is one reason, to be honest, that the screenings can be helpful, because the audience is relaxed. They’re just watching a movie. Everybody else who you screen the movie for has a huge stake in it, so they sit there going, ‘Oh my God, is the audience going to know what this is? Are they gonna understand this business about the shell case?’ and this kind of stuff. Then, when you’re able to show it to a relaxed audience, they’re like, ‘Yeah. Fine. I’ve got it.’

I was at one of those early film-festival screenings of ‘Memento’, and, at the Q&A afterwards, you were inundated with questions from people trying to sort the movie out. Perhaps that was misinterpreted as the audience being confused, rather than interested in the movie.

Well, I wouldn’t even call it a misinterpretation, because the people who asked a lot of questions were very often pissed off by the film. People who had just accepted the fact that you can’t quite grasp everything, necessarily, and that’s part of the characters’ experience, seemed to be a little more relaxed about a lot of issues. And certainly with Insomnia, I was very interested in the notion of using linear construction to remove any concern about the plot. People don’t come out of Insomnia worrying about the plot. There are all kinds of complexities in the plot, and it’s actually a much more complicated plot than Memento. But people don’t worry about it. They pass through it, because they’re comfortable with their own familiar ground structurally, so they’re not constantly worried about it. I wanted to do a different thing, so that people would come out with questions about the themes– which is, in the case of Memento, too, much more interesting to me than questions about the plot. They came out with questions about the paradoxical situation, and the moral questions about the characters that the film raises. That, to me, is a lot more fun.

Insomnia (Directed by Christopher Nolan)
Would you say that you’re kinder to both the detective and the killer in this film than the original ‘Insomnia’—that your film’s view is perhaps a little softer?

Perhaps. I think I try to understand them more, maybe, and in that sense, I’m kinder. Or I try to be a little more subjective with the film, a little more inside the detective’s head. I guess there’s a sense in which that feels kinder. But I think the film is, nevertheless, quite judgmental in a way that the original isn’t. The original is very dark and very alienating, and that’s kind of the point of it. This is much more inside this guy’s head, and kind of wrestling with it. I guess the only way I can really answer your question is just to confess to the fact that I really think of the two main characters as the same character, in a sense, and sort of approached it that way. So even though I refer to it as a very subjective experience, I think that that subjectivity encompasses both characters without jumping back and forth. I did actually talk quite a lot to Robin Williams about this: To me, there’s an odd quality to his character. It’s almost as if he doesn’t exist, like he’s just a projection of the hero’s guilty conscience.

If memory serves, the original ‘Insomnia’ put the detective up against someone who’s more of a serial killer, whereas Robin Williams’ character seems to be somebody who doesn’t do this habitually.

Yes. Partly because of who he is as a movie star, he takes the role to a very sympathetic level, where people are literally watching him murder someone in flashback, and they still kind of understand him. To me, he’s actually someone who’s very dangerous, because he isn’t able to apply moral judgment on himself the way Pacino does. So you’ve got these two guys who are really in the same boat, but one of them is constructing his own punishment for himself, and the other is waiting for punishment from somebody else. In fact, Williams is almost looking to Pacino for it. He’s saying to him, ‘I’ve done this horrible thing, and nothing bad has happened. The ground didn’t open up and swallow me, and God didn’t strike me down, so where do I go from here?’ Which is very dangerous, and really chilling.

Is it true that you’re planning to do a film about Howard Hughes?

Yeah, I’m writing it right now.

It’s sort of cursed, isn’t it? The whole idea of doing a Howard Hughes biopic seems cursed.

Well, it’s not cursed. It’s just never happened. Cursed is when you do it and it fails miserably, and somebody else does it and it fails miserably. No one has ever gone ahead with a Howard Hughes biopic. I don’t know why it has a reputation as being cursed, and I don’t intend to find out. [Laughs.] I think casting may have had something to do with it, and I think I’ve found the one guy, in the person of Jim Carrey, who can actually do what’s required by the part. It’s a monumental part to try to pull off, no question. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be done. I hope. [Laughs.]

– Christopher Nolan: Interview with Scott Tobias. The A.V. Club (June 5, 2002).

Monday, 4 February 2013

Paul Schrader on ‘Performance’

Performance (Directed by Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg)
‘The only performance that makes it, that makes it all the way, is the one that achieves madness’. 
– Performance (1970)

Performance was a collaboration by two filmmakers – writer and painter Donald Cammell (who worked with the actors from his original script and supervised the film’s editing) and cinematographer Nicolas Roeg (responsible for the camerawork and film’s hallucinatory imagery). Described at the time as ‘the worlds most expensive home movie,’ Performance has become over the years one of the most influential and revered ‘cult’ films ever made. 

Performance is a complex film to absorb initially, rooted as is it in the specific milieu of late 1960’s London. The criminal sub-culture of East End gangsterism, represented by the violence of the Kray Twins, comes into contact, and morphs into, the decadent bohemianism of The Rolling Stones and Mick Jagger, who plays the role of ‘Turner’ with an affected narcissism based substantially on fellow Stone, Brian Jones.

In Performance, London gangster Chas (James Fox) specialises in extortion, a ‘performer’ whose ‘role’ is to use threats and violence to enforce payment. Self-consciously masculine, the unemotional and brutal Chas falls out of favour with his boss after he kills another gangster in defiance of orders and is then compelled to go on the run. He chooses to hide out in an unfamiliar environment, the Notting Hill residence of reclusive rock star Turner and his two girlfriends Pherber and Lucy (Anita Pallenberg and Michele Breton). Although Chas’s pretence to be an unemployed juggler convinces no-one, Turner is sufficiently intrigued and broke enough to allow him to stay.

Jagger’s musician Turner has run out of inspiration and retreated into the self-contained world of his house to lead a drug-fuelled existence that initially fills Chas with contempt. Soon Turner and Pherber start to play a series of mind games on Chas, taking advantage of his dependent status and using drugs to gradually undermine his aggressive persona.

Explicitly intellectual, underscored with violence and a hallucinogenic intensity, Performance’s ambitious esthetic manages to reference Kenneth Anger, Antonin Artaud and Jorge Luis Borges, while Cammell, a former artist, also relies on a Francis Bacon painting for inspiration in connecting the two worlds of the film.

When the gangsters finally arrive to take the disorientated Chas away to his death, Chas, now wearing a long wig, makes his way to Turner and murders him. There is an implied complicity between the two men in this act, as if Turner had been preparing for Chas to kill him all along. Although it is evidently Chas that the gangsters bundle into a car immediately afterwards, it is Jagger/Turner’s face that is visible at the car window as it drives away. The two men have become united: the ‘masculine’ Chas and ‘feminine’ Turner now combined into one through the ritual of death.

Donald Cammell stated that his intention in making Performance was to make a ‘transcendent’ film in which death becomes not the end of life but the beginning of an alternative existence – a notion that owes much to Jean Cocteau’s Le Sang d’un poète (Blood of a Poet, 1930), a film that Cammell was fascinated by, and in which the poet-martyr ultimately achieves immortality, paradoxically, through death. 

After completion, it took nearly two years for Warner Bros to distribute Performance in the United States, where, after its release, it gradually assumed cult status. A critical re-appraisal also took place over the decades in contrast to the film’s initially hostile reception. 

When Performance was eventually released on DVD in the United States, screenwriter and director Paul Schrader wrote the following piece in which he expresses his appreciation of Cammell and Roeg’s film and positions their achievement as cinema’s version of Coleridge’s opium-fuelled Kubla Khan:

Ever since the inception of movies, critics and journalists have tried to overlay its creators with the Romantic myth of creativity. If motion pictures were to be ‘art’ in the 19th-century sense, its creators must be ‘artists’ in the Romantic mode: pawns of their muse-inspired, individualistic, unconventional, and irresponsible. But, of course, then as now, this is all so much propaganda. Second only to architecture, movies are the most practical of the arts. Films are made in a disciplined manner by practical people whose creativity is more the product of sober calculation than capricious inspiration, be the film in question a classic or a programmer.

A number of films have been made in the Romantic context – personal visions responsive to instant inspiration – but, for the most part, they were unfinished, unreleased, or unwatched. The very nature of filmmaking – its financing, distribution, the physical nature of production, the conventions of storytelling, preset audience expectations, media packaging – mitigates against the success of such films. There’s no cinematic equivalent of Coleridge’s Kubla Khan.

The closest thing we have to the Great Exception is Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg’s Performance, now finally, after much delay, available on DVD. This was a film made in an unusual time under unusual circumstances, and, looking back at it now, it’s as inspired, unconventional, individualistic, and irresponsible as it was 35 years ago. It’s as if a wormhole opened in the common-sense history of film – and Performance came through.

Performance is a great film, a masterpiece, which adheres to few of the rules that define greatness. It doesn’t come out of a film tradition, it’s not the work of a great filmmaker, it doesn’t define a film style. If anything, it seems sui generis, a genuine film serendipity, the product of conflicting creative forces momentarily (perhaps magically) aligned and in sync: writer/director Donald Cammell, director/cinematographer Nicolas Roeg, producer Sandy Lieberson, technical advisor David Litvinoff, actors Mick Jagger, Anita Pallenberg, and James Fox, editor Frank Mazzola, composer Jack Nitzsche.

The insecurity of the studio system, the aura of swinging London, the social upheaval of the moment (the film was greenlit in the spring of 1968), London’s distance from Los Angeles, and Jagger’s star power combined to give Cammell and Roeg unprecedented financial and creative freedom. During shooting, the film veered ‘off book.’ Cammell and Roeg would confer at the end of each day, discuss what had happened from their separate perspectives (Cammell story and dialogue, Roeg images), and plot what should happen the next day. Everything was up for grabs: every idea, every image, no matter how outré or unexpected. Furniture was moved about between the master and the coverage, 16mm camerawork replaced 35mm in certain shots, actors were encouraged to ‘play out’ their actual relationships. Critics have been arguing for 30 years whether Performance is a Cammell film or a Roeg film or a Cammell/Roeg film – or whether, in fact, it’s a Frank Mazzola film since so much of the structure was created in the editing. Even the film’s creators were uncertain about who did what.

However it came about, the result is unique in film history: a masterpiece made from madness. Antonin Artaud was a crucial figure in Cammell’s thinking and informs Performance’s famous line: ‘The only performance that makes it, that really makes it, that makes it all the way, is the one that achieves madness.’ The madness that infected Cammell and Roeg, their belief in magic, their notions of visual images as language, their Blakean conviction that the road to excess – in sex, violence, drugs, you name it – leads to the palace of wisdom, cohered in a way that defies explanation.

Warner Brothers, offended by the X-rated result (Warner Bros. President Ted Ashley was described as ‘appalled’), dumped the film, releasing it in a handful of theaters with minimal publicity. I saw it opening night in Westwood Village where I lived; I walked home in a daze, so astonished by what I’d seen that I went back the next afternoon to see it again. I put it on the cover of Cinema, the film magazine I edited, and have watched it every year or so ever since, never failing to be astonished anew. When others ask me why I admire the film so, I find myself uncharacteristically at a loss for words. My best answer is the greatest compliment one can give a film: I say, simply, ‘It’s the real thing.’

– ‘Paul Schrader on Performance’. Film Comment – March/April 2007.