Performance (Donald Cammell/Nicolas Roeg 1970) joins ‘The Wizard of Oz’ (Victor Fleming 1939) and ‘Full Metal Jacket’ (Stanley Kubrick 1987) in a select trio that I describe as ‘movies of two halves’. Which, in this case, is appropriate, given the film’s cult status and reputation as ‘the greatest seventies film about identity’.
The first half of the film is a London gangster tale. Chas (James Fox) is an enforcer for Harry Flowers (Johnny Shannon) and goes on the run after shooting a local bookie.
The second part of the film is set in Turner’s (Mick Jagger) Notting Hill house where Chas lies low as he arranges to leave the country. Turner is a whacked-out pop star who has put himself out to grass, so to speak, with two women in a ménage à trois. This part of the film borders on the experimental, the surreal. The transition from Get Carter to Belle de Jour, if you see what I mean, is uncomfortable and nervous. Roeg’s cinematography is too close to both Richard Lester and Joseph Losey without being its own thing. The interior shots are mostly askance with all of the de rigueur psychedelia in focus; oriental carpets, tapestries, incense – the lot. So what happens is that Cammell and Roeg are busy telling us, telling me, that they’re making a film. Not telling a story. Not really. So they don’t direct their actors with any precision or feel for story telling. It’s all too loose and disconnected. The numerous sex scenes and displays of angst over sexual identity are all servants to the way the movie looks. If one of the principals connected to the production had made a grand statement about trying to transfer Brecht’s theory of alienation from the theatre to a film, I might have tried harder, I suppose. As it was, I just felt excluded most of the time – the one notable exception being when Mick sings ‘Memo from Turner’ on the soundtrack. Isolated intimacy.
I was encouraged to write an account of ‘Performance’ by Wellington Musician, Mikey Jamieson. He and I go back a ways as friends and musical collaborators and so I was pleased to do the right thing – although I have a feeling that he may well disagree with the sentiments I’ve expressed above. I’d like to just add, for Mikey, and anyone else’s, benefit, one of my lovely dad’s observations about developments in film during the late 60s; ‘If you get your gear off in a British film, it’s a sex film. If you do it in a French or Italian film, it’s cinematic art.’