Nicholas Roeg / Donald Cammell 1970
After a long time waiting to see Performance – being an admirer of Roeg’s other films, including Bad Timing, Don’t Look Now – it was equally irritating and amusing for the circumstances of watching the film being quite strange. One can only respond to the encounter on its own terms I suppose – and it wasn’t entirely without its benefits. I had picked up a VHS copy, still wrapped in cellophane, at a market, and so hoped the quality would be decent enough. It wasn’t bad, but there were other issues – after watching about 90%, we realized that we had the TV on the wrong input channel. We had been sitting through the film in black and white – we’d muttered a few comments expressing surprise at this, but hadn’t thought to investigate further than that. Part of the reason for this was the strange and compelling early sections of the film – where scenes of a trial are cut, often in a bizarrely disorientating way, with scenes of Chas (James Fox) doing his ‘enforcer’s work. After realizing our mistake, we remarked at how the earlier sequences had been in some way more disorienting than the drug scenes later on. An edited psychedelic structure, through fast paced concatenation and parataxis, drained of all washes.
I wanted to write something about the film before going back to see it as it was intended – mainly because it seemed that watching in monochrome allowed the structure of the film to be granted visibility that would otherwise have been less apparent. There was a firmness to the mechanics of each scene, a more primary relation between the switches of the edit and the (non)movements of the camera – a diagram of the film’s workings. Quite a few times I was reminded of another film I’d seen recently (and not yet managed to write something about), Jean-Luc Godard’s Vivre sa Vie, particularly in the oddly heavy handed movements of the camera. I read something about Godard using heavy machinery to shoot that film, and in certain shots it seemed as though the camera detached from one weighty position, before freewheeling awkwardly along a length of track, following a permitted arc of movement, and coming to a halt ion a new position. It was like the neat, contained movement of shifting the body’s weight, say from elbow to elbow, in order to look ‘round an obstacle, a central figure. Godard often used this technique, switching viewpoints around an actor positioned in centre-frame, seen from the back like a Casper David Friedrich Rückenfigur. Roeg/Cammell employ a similar process of having characters obscuring the viewpoint, as well as being obscured themselves. This was also combined with an interesting borrowing and collage of reflections a la Bergman’s Persona, where body parts were extracted and reinserted on to others’, compounding the themes of becoming, uncertain psychological boundaries, androgyny, mirroring and symmetry, etc.
Watched in black and white I remember being struck by how the film reminded me of Chris Petit’s Radio On, in general aesthetic if nothing else, but I was also struck by the resonances between Performance and Petit’s novel Robinson, from the underworld connections with film and pornography, to the hideaway populated with mysterious, drugged out figures. I couldn’t help feeling that the ending of Performance was weak, or at least it seemed not to hang right, if that expression can do anything other than confuse. It was a little like the ending of Blow Up, which I’ve always really liked, even it has become cliché – the uncertainty as to the contaminated identities and ‘performances’ of Chas and Turner doesn’t hold the absurd poignancy of the acceptance of the mime at the end of Antonioni’s film – it is obviously going for a different speed of mystery too, with Turner’s face only very briefly glimpsed in a car window as it escapes, as if a look of any other duration would either never establish the required tension of paradox, or would allow it to be immediately seen through.