In 1968, two natural rebels came together to make a film and the result was an explosion. Performance is an amazing piece of work no matter how you look at it – and it goes without saying that there are myriad ways of doing so. In devising the film, Donald Cammell used his fascination with the declining world of the East End gangster and fused it with ideas brought from European films and a love of Borges, Artaud and Nabokov. In Nicolas Roeg, he found the ideal partner and the end product is a genuinely collaborative vision.
The plot is very simple but it’s told in a complex manner. Chas (Fox), an East End thug, is involved in an unfortunate incident involving a rival, Joey Maddox (Valentine) and escapes to a house in Notting Hill. His refuge is owned by Turner (Jagger), a reclusive rock singer eager for new experiences to assuage his boredom. Initially, Chas is met by hostility from Turner and his two girlfriends but gradually he is assimilated into the community to the extent that his identity begins to undergo some radical changes.
In itself, the style of Performance is nothing particularly new. The use of jump cuts, flash images and switches between perspective are all heavily influenced by the French New Wave and, in particular, by the work of Jean-Luc Godard. As for the manipulations of narrative time, this goes back as far as Alain Resnais and further. Performance simply takes these techniques and pushes them further, creating something which, while it wasn’t new in cinematic terms, was certainly new, strong meat for the mainstream of British cinema in 1970. There is considerable debate about whether Donald Cammell, or Nicolas Roeg is primarily responsible for taking a bizarre but relatively straightforward tale of a gangland thug turned new-age plaything and manipulating it into a phantasmagoria of technique. I’m not sure that it really matters – teamwork would seem to be the best, if predictable, answer - but it is worth mentioning that the crucial influence on the film – the playground in which the ideas were worked out – is Richard Lester’s 1968 melodrama Petulia where a simple story is cut up into a visually astounding intellectual puzzle; the cinematographer on Petulia was Nicolas Roeg and as soon as he finished his DP chores on that film, he began Performance.
What is interesting is the way in which the film is so representative of the sensibilities of both of its credited directors. It’s accepted that Roeg photographed the film while Cammell worked with the actors. But in fact, the careers of both directors would be so shaped by this film that it’s impossible to play favourites. Roeg was so struck with the narrative techniques used here that they became his own calling card, to such an extent that when he went back to traditional storytelling, some of his talent seemed to desert him. Cammell’s career went off the rails and although he completed a short film in 1971 – The Argument – he was unable to get other projects off the ground and ended up as a gun-for-hire on Demon Seed. The sheer liberty and release of [i[Performance proved a cruel lesson for him as he tried to recreate the creative freedom and, time and again, failed. But the failure was rarely artistic. Cammell’s films are always interesting and sometimes, as in the case of White of the Eye and the director’s cut of Wild Side, genuinely remarkable. Studios continually used the editing suite as a weapon against him, sensing that, like Sam Peckinpah, he was a loose cannon for whom compromise wasn’t an option. Indeed, his suicide was largely caused by the horrible realisation that yet another project was being taken away from him.
For both men, though, Performance is a key moment when everything came together. It was a perfect project for their sensibilities particularly a shared obsession with dark sexuality and the edges of moral certainty. The filmmaking remains breathtaking; not so much for the look of the film, gorgeous though that is, but for the sheer cheek of it, the feeling that it’s a direct gob in the face of John Trevelyan, Mary Whitehouse, Roy Jenkins and, let’s face it, Warner Brothers. It seems like cinema without obvious limits, controlled by masters who know exactly how far to push it. In this sense, Performance is in itself a performance, and a dazzling one, by major artists on the brink of great careers, or in Cammell’s case the illusory promise of one. As an experiment in pushing the fragmented style into new extremes it is very successful, even if some of the cutting now looks hackneyed through overuse. Ironically, this may be one of the only times when a studio refusing to accept a film might have done the finished work a favour. After a disastrous preview in LA, Cammell recut the film with editor Frank Mazzola and it was during this editing process that the distinctive storytelling style was decided upon.
As for the themes of the film, well, it’s a terrible cliché to say this but perhaps it’s become a cliché because it’s true; Performance is the film which best represents the flipside of the hippie dream – Altamont, Charles Manson, Brian Jones and that terrible waking realisation that love was never going to be all you needed. Given that the film was made in 1968, the year before things went seriously down the toilet, it’s extraordinarily prescient in atmosphere and theme.
It’s partly the presence of Mick Jagger which encourages such a reading of course. He looks great here, much as he did during Gimme Shelter as, swaggering around in his Uncle Sam hat, he played ringmaster to a cabal of Hell’s Angels. Everything about Jagger at this period has a slightly sinister feel to it, one that you can feel most strongly in albums like Let It Bleed and, of course, Beggar’s Banquet. The Rolling Stones, and particularly Jagger, luxuriate in the dark side of rock and roll – the delicious feeling of embodying everything conservative parents warned their adolescent offspring would happen if they masturbated, stayed out late and listened to loud music.
Performance is a subtly layered study of the late 1960s, taking in the dying embers of gangland Britain, the hippie dream of peace and love, and the dying fall into the turn of the decade. The first half-hour of the movie is, give or take some narrative games and some remarkably explicit imagery linking sex and violence, a reasonably straight gangster movie in which Chas goes about his business as an enforcer for Harry Flowers. Chas is a ‘performer’, the first in the movie – the phrase is slang for a particularly theatrical type of thug. He does his thing, Harry gets the money and everyone is happy. But Chas is, by his very nature, a risk. Gangland is changing as the decade comes towards its close and the identity of the mobster is changing with it. The disintegration of Chas’s personality that occurs in the Powys Square house is perhaps symbolic of the decline of the power of the mobsters in the East End. This depiction of 1960s gangsterdom has a brutal immediacy which was very unusual in 1968, the realism coming from Cammell’s friend David Livitnoff who was a friend of the Kray twins among others. A fine collection of lowlifes is embodied by the likes of John Bindon and Johnny Shannon, neither of them any stranger to real life skulduggery.
In these scenes, Performance is clearly pointing forward to the great British gangster movie of the 1970s, Mike Hodges’ Get Carter.
As for the hippie idyll, we see this in the humour-filled bathroom scene and the soft-focus fumblings beneath the covers of Turner and his two women – the aggressive Pherber (Pallenberg) and the sweet Lucy (Breton). This is a visually arresting sequence, shot handheld under the bedsheets in lovely, soft colour. These are gentle, touching and almost domestic moments in a violent film and very different from the SM-tinged sex we see towards the start of the movie. As Cammell said, it’s basically “Just three kids getting it on”. But this very gentleness makes it seem weirdly out of place and adds to a sense that this house is existing in a peace-saturated bubble which is infinitely fragile. There is a flipside to this dreamworld, one which Turner in particular is eager to explore; the brutality of Chas is the Yin to Turner’s Yang. This, then, leads naturally into the deadly identity games which are played out in the final third of the film.
Chas in one performer in the film; the other is Turner and his androgynous, highly sexual ambience is very reminiscent of the ‘real’ Mick Jagger. So too is the aggression and sense of threat and nowhere do we see this more than in the central musical number “Memo From T” which is a great production number. During this, Turner takes over the facade of Chas and the change seems quite natural because the intimidation for which Chas is famous is part and parcel of a rock star’s stage persona. The song itself is pretty good but the performance of it – yet another performance – is riveting; Jagger spits out the sardonic lyric with the vitriolic force of Bob Dylan at his most accusatory.
Is it too much to suggest that the violent conclusion is a shot which signals the end of the 1960s, anticipating Altamont by a year? Maybe – although the gunshots in Los Angeles and Mephis came first. Of course, that’s all very neat, but the final conflagration has an apocalyptic feel to it – indeed, the whole film is more than slightly tinged with overtones of the occult. It ends in death for both of the protagonists – we see, or at least we think we see, Turner die and Chas is clearly not on his way to a welcome home party. This is the end of the decade, the end of a dream; and how ironic for a film about the waking from a dream should be structured as one. The ending of the film seems final yet it also floats on the breeze of narrative flexibility – all endings are beginnings and the path which leads you may find you back where you started. Chas leaves a note for Lucy saying “Gone to Persia”. Death is just another trip.
It’s fair to say that Performance was one of the most awaited DVDs of 2007 and the results are pretty good although not, perhaps, as good as one might have wished. The DVD does, however, contain the most complete version of the film currently available, the same one issued by Warners on VHS during the 1990s in their “Maverick Directors” series. There is, however, one bizarre cut during the song ‘Memo From Turner’. At one point, Turner raises a glass and should say “Here’s to Old England” but in this version, no sound comes out. The reason behind this is a mystery to me. It doesn’t ruin the film but it’s very irritating.
The film is presented at an aspect ratio of 1.78:1 and has been anamorphically enhanced. The picture is generally pleasing with plenty of detail and reasonably good colours. Rather a lot of grain though and occasional artifacting. I also found it a little dark compared to the other prints of the film I have seen. The mono soundtrack is excellent throughout.
There are three extra features. Along with the theatrical trailer we get two featurettes. The first is a reasonably meaty twenty-five minute documentary about the making of the film and its reception. Sadly, this lacks any input from Nicolas Roeg but there are interesting comments from Anita Pallenberg, David Cammell, Antony Gibbs, Sandy Lieberson and critic Colin McCabe. Nothing from Mick Jagger nor, unsurprisingly, from James Fox – as is well known, the violence in this film so disturbed him that he became an evangelical Christian and didn’t appear on screen again for a decade. The documentary goes into the controversial reception of the film at Warner Brothers and goes some way to demystifying the process of who did what. The second featurette runs about five minutes, is from the time of the production and looks at the recording of Jagger’s number ‘Memo From Turner’. Picture quality on this latter feature is fairly poor but the sound is adequate.
English subtitles are provided for the film but not for the extra features.