Sunday, 9 March 2014

On Performance

What do you get when you cross a film about London villains and the sixties counter-culture? You get the film Performance which, for some reason or another, has got its hooks well and truly into me recently. The 1968 film with its unique visuals and dark sixties counter-culture atmosphere seems to have hit a nerve, or maybe saying that it haunts you is a better way of putting it. From the books and website posts listed online, it seems it haunts other people too. What i find more perplexing in my case is why? What does this film contain that makes it so compelling? It could be the excellent cinematography of Nicolas Roeg whose work I've admired for many years, but it appears to be more than that, Yes, there is the superb soundtrack, great story, an interesting cast, a fascinating production history but there is something else there. Something unseen like a dark creative undercurrent or vibe that runs through the whole film. It's a puzzle or riddle. The film seems to leave you with more questions than answers. Without doubt, it is one of the best films of the sixties.

James Fox as the gangster Chas
For those of you who haven't seen the movie, i would recommend a viewing, although it is definitely one of those love or hate experiences. As Rolling Stone magazine once wisely advised you should not watch this film while on an acid trip. Actually it's pretty intense with just a cup of tea as a stimulant! Performance is really a film of two distinct halves, dealing with two very different cultures that clash in the middle of the movie. James Fox play Chas who is an extortioner for a South London crime boss called Harry Flowers. Chas is very good at his job but is a loose cannon in a criminal organisation that sees its role more as business acquisitions and mergers management rather than as a criminal enterprise. With Chas starting to become unruly, something has to give and eventually Chas ends up mixing business with pleasure and kills a new business 'associate' protected by Harry Flowers' firm. The line has been crossed and with the firm popping up on the radar of the police, inland revenue and others, Harry Flowers decides that the only option is to remove the problem. Find and kill Chas. To escape the wrath of his boss Chas needs to hide and through an overheard conversation, he ends up entering the gloomy, decaying, late sixties bohemian counter-culture world of 25 Powis Square, Notting Hill - the home of the fading, eccentric and reclusive rock star Turner (played by Mick Jagger) who has "lost his demon".

Anita Pallenburg and Mick Jagger in  Performance
At first glance, it appears to be the perfect hideaway and yet the poorly lit, decaying house exudes a deathly atmosphere which seems to saturate the film and the characters. Michèle Breton, who played Lucy, commented in a 1995 interview that when she watched the film in 1987 "I was feeling kind of sick looking at this. It was a feeling of death."  Even the décor retains an creepy evil presence right the way through the film although that could just be my aversion to sixties psychedelic art. There's definitely bad karma at number 25 and things are not going to work out for the better. Curtains remain firmly closed, rooms remain sombre and the colours somewhat muted, daylight seems to be shunned with Turner preferring artificial light. Patches of daylight amongst the darkness do appear occasionally and provide the same deathly aura of Colonel Kurtz's Cambodian jungle base in Apocalypse Now. Turner and his two female companions Pherber (Anita Pallenberg) and Lucy (Michèle Breton) appear to want to block the outside world out including the light and exist in their own little world influenced by music, art, literature and plenty of drugs. Then the world arrives at their door in the shape of Chas but it soon becomes clear that the violent and unpredictable villain is well out of his depth. The rest of the film deals with the consequences.

Anita Pallenburg and Michèle Breton in Performance
Performance was unusual in that it had two directors working on set. Nicolas Roeg was brought in to provide the visual style and technical skill, but it was Donald Cammell who would really shape the film; writing and developing his original story, selecting and coaching the actors, developing the project to the point where the lines between film set and real life would blur to become almost indefinable. The production was described by Marianne Faithfull, Jagger's girlfriend at the time, as 'a psycho-sexual lab’ and a 'seething cauldron of diabolical ingredients: drugs, incestuous sexual relationships, role reversals, art and life all whipped together into a bitch’s brew’.  It has to be said that the more you read about Donald Cammell, the harder it becomes to like him as an person. Keith Richards, Pallenburg's then boyfriend, never forgave the director for what went on during the filming, describing Cammell in his 2010 autobiography 'Life' as 'the most destructive little turd I've ever met. Also a Svengali, utterly predatory, a very successful manipulator of women. . . . Putting people down was almost an addiction for him." Cammell's talents successfully created the exact authentic psychological and sexual atmosphere needed to create the film, however the emotional toll on the actors appears to have  been considerable. Lost years of drug addiction awaited for the two female leads, James Fox left acting for ten years and joined a Christian sect in Leeds, Jagger's relationship with Keith Richards was damaged causing major problems for the film soundtrack and the Rolling Stones. Even Donald Cammell didn't escape completely unscathed, going onto a frustrating and ultimately unsatisfying career in Hollywood, directing just three more films before fatally shooting himself in 1996.

Memo to Turner featuring the great slide guitar work of Ry Cooder

In the end Warner Brothers hated the film when it was delivered to them. The executives thought they were getting a Mick Jagger film that would appeal to sixties youth like the Beatles 'A Hard Days Night'. Instead they got a drug and sex riddled Performance and they despised everything in it. It took nearly two years, numerous edits and a change of executives at the studio before the film would finally get a release in August 1970. It received a mixed reception on release but has, over the years, gained recognition as a classic British film and as Marianne Faithfull observed, the film 'preserves a whole era under glass. Even Mick Jagger's official website recommends it as THE Jagger film to watch. Thankfully due to this classic status, and it has to be said an intriguing production history and cast, there is plenty of research material out there for interested film buffs like myself, with at least four books detailing the history, production and references within the film - the most recent book being released as recently as 2012. So I'm going to start with 'Mick Brown's on Performance' which, according to the reviews on Amazon, details everything that you'd ever want to know. If I learn anything revelatory, and find my demon, I'll let you know.

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