HCF REWIND NO. 215: PERFORMANCE [US/UK 1970]
AVAILABLE ON DVD
RUNNING TIME: 106 min
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
Chas is a member of an east London gang led by Harry Flowers; his speciality is intimidation through violence, which he enjoys, as he collects pay-offs for Flowers. When Flowers decides to take over a betting shop owned by Joey Maddocks, he forbids Chas to get involved, as he feels Chas’s complicated personal history with Maddocks may lead to trouble. Chas ignores his boss and humiliates Maddocks, who retaliates by wrecking Chas’s apartment and attacking Chas himself. Chas shoots him, packs a suitcase and flees. When Flowers makes it clear that he has no intention of offering protection to Chas but instead wants him eliminated, Chas assumes a new name, Johnny Dean, and, intending to flee the country, hides out at the house of Turner, a reclusive, eccentric former rock star….
“The only performance that makes it, that makes it all the way, is the one that achieves madness”.
Well, ‘mad’ is certainly one term one could use to describe Performance, a truly weird and original [though it can be partly taken as a messed-up variant on Ingmar Bergman’s Persona] cult movie which manages to be somehow timeless and yet also evokes the time and environment it was made in more than many other films. It explores complex notions of power, performing, identity, role reversal and sexuality, and constantly challenges and even irritates. I doubt this film could be made now, and perhaps the world still isn’t entirely ready for it. It’s not the most likeable of films – directors Nicolas Roeg and the lesser known Donald Cammell have both made pictures that I enjoy watching more – but there’s something about Performance, as ugly and annoying as it can sometimes be [this is certainly not the film to see first if you’re interested in exploring the wonderful and crazy world of Roeg – Walkabout or Don’t Look Now would be more appropriate starting points], which every now and again draws me back into it’s bizarre and disturbing world. Even now, it doesn’t entirely make sense to me, but I don’t think the filmmakers really intended it to.
Somebody needs to make a film about the making of Performance, though people would say they made stuff up. It was originally conceived by Cammell as a light-hearted swinging 60’s romp, and Warner Bros. thought they were getting the Rolling Stones equivalent of A Hard Days Night. When Roeg joined Cammell the project became much darker and more experimental. James Fox replaced Marlon Brando as Chas and spent time with London gangsters as research, while an actual gangster joined the cast and influenced the project. Much of the script’s second half was thrown out and replaced by improvisation. The Rolling Stones were supposed to do all the soundtrack but huge problems were caused by the sex and drug-fuelled goings-ons inside the main London house set, most notably Mick Jagger and Anita Pallenberg having sex for real on-screen, causing her boyfriend Keith Richards to refuse to play. The footage later won a prize at an Amsterdam porno film festival. Other explicit sex footage was destroyed with a hammer and chisel by the processing lab who refused to develop it. There were mass walk-outs during previews, which, along with the Kray brothers supposedly ‘suggesting’ that the gangster section of the film be reduced as it was too true to life, caused two years to be spent on extensive re-edits. Editor Frank Mazzola tried to cram in as many shots as he could with rapid cutting, just making the film stranger. On release it was censored nearly everywhere, though oddly only losing two mins in the UK, while the US saw two characters dubbed so they could be ‘understood’ more. Rumours still persist of graphic violent and sexual material still existing, while the film seems to have grown in critical estimation.
The heavy pre-release cutting has certainly altered a film which was obviously intended to be one of two halves, the first involving Chas as a gangster bully who likes his work a little too much, and the second having him in the bohemian, druggy house of Turner, who was once a great rock star. Now, the half hour gangster section just seems like a preamble to the rest. There’s a compelling, almost-documentary-like realism to these early scenes which the in-your-face editing doesn’t really dispel. The elliptical cutting, rarely allowing a shot to last more than five seconds, often mixes quick shots from different locales, scenes and even time periods. When someone describes something or is thinking something, you often see a quick shot of that something, even if it’s not really important. Almost every scene here is ‘enhanced’ in some strange way to make it either more effective or just odder. A conversation between some gangsters has the colour gradually fade away until it’s black and white. A vicious fight takes place in a room where the white walls have been splashed with red paint so it looks like blood. The violence has been outdone in many more recent films – perhaps the nastiest scene is a forced head shaving – but there’s a disturbing touch of sexuality about some of it. Amidst all this, Fox is almost hypnotic to watch and scarily convincing as he roughs people up, and I wonder if his performance influenced Malcolm McDowell’s in A Clockwork Orange?
Chas hides out in the strange house populated by the has-been rock star, his two ‘chicks’, and a very young maid, and the headlong pace of the film quickly dwindles to a slow, appropriately druggy feel. Chas, who obviously despises the kind of lifestyle that takes place in his temporary abode, finds himself drawn into it, while Turner, who has lost his ‘mojo’, sees in Chas the energy that he once had, a kindred spirit equally prone to extreme behaviour and even artistry, and wants to get into his head. This leads to one of the most bonkers scenes in a cinematic year filled with bonkers scenes, where Jagger, who is playing Turner, sings a song whilst dressed as Chas in the office of Chas’s boss and the other gangsters do a striptease. Whether this is where the film really goes off the rails or gets even more interesting is both down to your taste and your mindset at the time. Likewise, you’ll either think that the interior of Turner’s house is either a random mix of clutter or some kind of ‘chill-out’ paradise with all the Middle Eastern stuff like tapestries, incense and rugs mixing with a variety of paintings from various eras. You may get references to people like the writer Jorge Luis Borges [whose picture shows up in a crucial scene near the end] and his tales of identity crisis, and playwright, poet and actor Antonin Artaud and his Theatre Of Cruelty and linking of performing to insanity, but it may not matter if you don’t, because there’s so much else going on, such as a homosexual element which raises its head every now and again, from the very sexual flogging that Chas receives to an almost subliminal shot where it looks like Chas is in bed with Turner.
The film constantly teases us with role reversals while Roeg, who also photographed, plays with colours throughout, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen as much playing around with mirrors outside of a horror film. Performance manages to be both ugly and beautiful throughout. Sometimes the two jar, and I don’t think it’s always quite as ‘deep’ as it seems. The links between performing and criminality have been explored just as well elsewhere, while at times Performance seems to be striving to be something which cinema, at least commercial cinema, can’t realistically be. Its fragmented and blurred sense of time, space and character identity, be it through flashing us shots of a scene which is yet to happen, or its final shot, which in the context of a ‘non-fantastical’ story is extremely puzzling but is really the only place the film can finally go, is wonderfully ambitious and I wish more filmmakers would try and do this sort of thing [Roeg would do it for his next few films before frustratingly lapsing into mediocrity]. There are so many things cinema can do that haven’t been explored. However, the average audience member just doesn’t want all this and with Performance especially there is a sense of both trying to both do too much and not doing enough – for a start, it could have maybe done with a more complex plot to prop up all the experimentation. Performance is a very hard film to like, but it’s a very easy one to admire, and how many films today try to do what it tries to do?
Meanwhile Jagger, who is basically playing himself though of course he was the total opposite of a ‘has-been’ in 1970, comes across naturally but also seems a bit withdrawn and constrained. Perhaps this was intentional, but I don’t think he’s as successful as David Bowie’s and Art Garfunkel’s performances in later Roeg films. Memo From Turner, on which Richards was actually replaced by Cooder, is hardly a classic Rolling Stones track, but the music throughout, some of which was written by Jack Nitzsche, is well chosen. One Arabian-sounding track with the dulcimer and the mouth bow is especially memorable. Then there’s extensive use of things closer to sound effects, such as what sounds for all the world like a load of mobile phone ringtones going off for several minutes at the beginning. It’s annoying, but Performance is the kind of film where they could have put almost anything into it and it may have worked. There aren’t many other pictures where the sense of an underground film has been allowed to seep into a commercial one so interestingly. This is the kind of picture that you experience, but may not understand, and the cinema certainly needs more films like it now.