Thursday 17 September 2020

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.

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