Saturday, 13 July 2013

Sympathy for the devils: Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg


If you mix the gangster film genre with sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll, you get ‘Performance’. Made in 1968, but only released in 1970 by a hesitant Warner Bros. studio, this groundbreaking flick is a true underground cult classic.

‘Performance’ was considered to be so scandalous at the time that it catapulted its co-directors and cast to decadent cinematic legend. Mick Jagger, Anita Pallenberg, and James Fox portray London degenerates whose glamorous and libidinous drugged-up behavior in their funky Notting Hill flat actually makes you want to join in on their fun!

Notting Hill

The film was shot in a studio, but this is the lovely building on Powis Square where most of the insanely surreal action in ‘Performance’ is set. It sure looks spruced up compared to when the movie was shot. Back in the day, Notting Hill was a rundown part of London, as opposed to the posh neighborhood it’s become. Anyway, the more I read about the making of ‘Performance’ and all the funny business that went on behind the scenes, the more I felt like depicting that spicy story in pen and ink!  

Performance comix

I don’t want to delve all that deeply into the raunchy details behind the filming of ‘Performance’ here. After all, my intention is to tease you into getting ahold of my book, Sinemania!, and reading all about it in its pages. (I know, I’m cruel, ain’t I?) In the meantime, though, watch this trailer for the film.

But what I can do is give you a little ‘fix’ by introducing you to the two directors of this strange movie, a ‘folie a deux’ created by Donald Cammell and Nicholas Roeg. Fasten your seat belt because you’re now in for a hell-raising ride with these two rockin’ rollin’ shit disturbers!

The son of poet and writer Charles Richard Cammell, Donald was born near Edinburgh Castle. His amazing talent for painting made him move to Paris for a while. When London began to swing in ‘the ‘60s, Cammell decided he had to be where the action was. Quite the libertine dandy, he surrounded himself with the ‘in crowd’ of the ‘Chelsea Set’ which included those hedonistic bad boys The Rolling Stones. Cammell approached Mick Jagger with the sulfuric script for his first movie, ‘Performance’. Controversy being his middle name, Mick went for it, portraying the decadent rock star Turner, by far Jagger’s best role in what turned out to be a mediocre movie-acting career.

Nicholas Roeg co-directed the project, but disassociated himself from the heavy duty production and let Cammell finish the messy job of editing the sleazy results. Cammell certainly had his wicked side. He was fascinated by death and loved satanic rituals, interests shared with his good friend Kenneth Anger, another avant-garde filmmaker who I’ll get into at a later date. I suppose it was only too appropriate that Cammell met a rather gruesome end, a fate perhaps befitting an eccentric visionary who Hollywood had no place for.

But Cammell’s influence nevertheless lives on and he certainly rubbed off on director Paul McGuigan whose excellent and nasty 2000 film ‘Gangster No.1’, owes a lot to ‘Performance’. For more on the innovative, iconoclastic, and debonair Cammell and his tumultuous life, you should watch this excellent documentary, courtesy of YouTube.

Nicolas Roeg

Cammell’s sidekick on ‘Performance’, the better known but equally British Nicolas Roeg, started off his career as cinematographer. For me, he’s more of a painter whose canvas happens to be celluloid. Not all of his flicks are head-scratchers, but his narrative approach is pretty much of a mindfuck for which you either need acid or a high IQ to fully comprehend. Alas, I have neither, but I can still get off on the beauty of his images, not to mention the nude scenes. Let’s look at that rogue Roeg’s three major films of frustrated love which contain his most controversial scenes depicting people talking and talking and, uh, frolicking.

Don’t Look Now (1973)

Don't look now

'Don't Look Now' star Donald Sutherland warmed up for his 1976 role in ‘Fellini’s Casanova’ by munching on Julie Christie’s fur pie. To this day, the realism of that scene makes you wonder if they actually shared more than just phone numbers. Warren Beatty, Julie’s boyfriend at the time, wanted that bit cut from the film. Roeg tried to please the censors by juxtaposing the scene with other images from the day to day life of a couple in Venice mourning the death of their daughter. Still, ‘Don’t Look Now’ ended up with an X-rating and with a raunchy psycho-horror cult thriller under his belt, Roeg knew which direction he had to take. After all, nobody’s gonna walk out of a good sex scene, right?

The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976)

                              The Man Who Fell to Earth

‘The Man Who Fell to Earth’, David Bowie’s film acting debut, makes you feel you’re looking at a well-crafted music video. It’s about an alien (Bowie, natch) who arrives on Earth to accomplish some obscure mission. But the more you watch it, the more you feel alienated on planet Roeg, unsure of whether you should stay or just blast off out of there! Ultimately, Bowie’s beauty and, yes, the nudity, makes you stay put in this awkward world of mood versus plot. If you see it, keep in mind that the fast-forward button was invented for a purpose while keeping your other hand free if Bowie, ahem, inspires you…. 

Bad Timing (1980)

Bad Timing

Whoa, talk about Flashback City! In this sick flick, Roeg goes back and forth in time showing us the ultra-dysfunctional relationship between an ice-cold neurotic shrink played by Art Garfunkel and a hot histrionic /bi-polar young woman portrayed by Theresa Russell. A couple truly made for each other! Compared to these folks, any dramatic romantic entanglements you might be experiencing are positively Zen-calm. As a cop played by Harvey Keitel tries to get to the bottom of Russell’s suicide attempt, lucky viewers get to witness her and Garfunkel’s tango of destruction while often glancing at their watches. (This two hour long film just dra-a-a-a-a-gs on and on and on and…)

But if you stick around long enough, you do get to watch the disturbing scene of Artie sexually assaulting Theresa who’s passed out after swallowing too many sleeping pills. And while he’s raping her, he’s shouting out his love for her instead of trying to save her life! No wonder ‘Bad Timing’ got an X-rating. Garfunkel and the 21-year old Russell reportedly tried to quit just four days into the shoot and Roeg sometimes kept his drug and booze-fueled crew working for up to 24 hours at a time. (Theresa must have nevertheless had a masochistic side because she married Roeg two years later.) The movie was trashed on release both by critics and the film's own backers, one even calling it "a sick movie, made by sick people for sick people.”

Well, being sympathetic to the devil’s bad deeds does not automatically guarantee a great movie, but it can sure help to assure a cult film director’s mythical reputation. Hell, it worked for Cammell and Roeg, as it did for the director who’ll be the subject of my next post. So don’t slash your wrists or make a blood pact with the devil just yet, okay?

1 comment:

  1. Dan Zukovic's "DARK ARC", a bizarre modern noir dark comedy called "Absolutely brilliant...truly and completely different..." in Film Threat, was released on DVD and Netflix through Vanguard Cinema (, and is currently debuting on Cable Video On Demand, including Fandor and snagfilms, and MUBI. The film had it's World Premiere at the Montreal World Film Festival, and it's US Premiere at the Cinequest Film Festival. Featuring Sarah Strange ("White Noise"), Kurt Max Runte ("X-Men", "Battlestar Gallactica",) and Dan Zukovic (director and star of the cult comedy "The Last Big Thing"). Featuring the Glam/Punk songs "Dark Fruition", "Ire and Angst", "F.ByronFitzBaudelaire" and a dark orchestral score by Neil Burnett.


    ***** (Five stars) "Absolutely brilliant...truly and completely different...something you've never tasted
    before..." Film Threat
    "A black comedy about a very strange love triangle" Seattle Times
    "Consistently stunning images...a bizarre blend of art, sex, and opium, "Dark Arc" plays like a candy-coloured
    version of David Lynch. " IFC News
    "Sarah Strange is as decadent as Angelina Jolie thinks she is...Don't see this movie sober!" Metroactive Movies
    "Equal parts film noir intrigue, pop culture send-up, brain teaser and visual feast. " American Cinematheque