Wednesday 29 September 2010

The Indecipherable Allure of Performance

Check out these promo videos by Oasis for "Live Forever"

and The Charlatans for "Just When You Think Things Are Over"

and you'll see a couple of homages to a film that almost never saw the light of day.

"Performance" is often credited as being the work of Nicholas Roeg and in truth he was responsible for a lot of the camerawork, but the overall vision and perverse dynamic which eventually saw the film to completion despite the obstacles placed in it's way was a man whose cinematic C/V was minimal to say the least. Donald Cammell was part of that upper crust echelon of British Society that embodies old money heading to hell in a bohemian hand cart. He had initially enjoyed a certain amount of success as a society portrait painter in the late '50's but had rapidly tired of this and had decided that cinema was the future. He lived an extraordinarily hedonistic life style throughout his twenties and bedded a succession of actresses and models including Barbara Steele who provided the model for Jim Steranko's Madame Hydra.

"Performance" was in many ways a distillation of all that Cammell held dear, reflecting his fascination for people on the fringes of society and gangsters and rock stars in particular. He was already friends with the hypnotically seductive Anita Pallenberg, who by the time "Performance" was in production had jettisoned Brian Jones in favor of Keith Richard. But key to the feasibility of the project was securing the involvement of Mick Jagger, who Cammell also had started to hang out with. With Jagger's name on the credits came the key to finance and with the young and well connected Sandford Lieberson acting as the Hollywood go-between, Warner Brothers agreed to fund the project on the assurance that Nick Roeg would at least co-direct the film, with current hot young actor James Fox on board as well.

Now with money, Cammell started in earnest and proceeded to create a vision of bohemian squalor on which to work his story of a London gangster shifting identities with a dissolute  and faded rock star. Fox, whose previous cinematic incarnations had been decidedly middle class, threw himself into the role of a violent East End thug with admirable intensity and just to spice things up, met up with real life gangsters, such as the superficially charming but implacably violent John Bindon, who appears in the clip below as the character putting his head around the door and saying;"excuse me?"

The film is also laden with references to some of Cammell's art passions such as Jorge Luis Borges and the work of the painter Francis Bacon - the tableaux in the closing shot of the "Memo From Turner" excerpt says it all really.

Rolls of film were consumed as work proceeded and came the moment when Sandy Lieberson couldn't forestall the thing any more - the old guys from Warners wanted to see what they were shelling out on, so a screening was arranged.

When the suits saw what Cammell and Roeg had dished up for them they were appalled at the scenes of depravity, violence and sheer weirdness that they were obliged to endure as the film danced in front of their eyes for longer than was commercially viable for any audience beyond even the most dedicated art-house viewer. "Why even the goddamn bath water's filthy" spluttered one exec as he watched the scene of Jagger sharing a bath with Michelle Bereton and Anita Pallenberg.

Perhaps cognizant of the awful fate which befell Powell and Pressberger on the first night screening of "Peeping Tom" when their careers slid ingloriously down the pan as the audience of the great and the good departed in silence, Roeg started to distance himself from the project as Cammell realised that he was going to have to make some fairy brutal cuts to the film if it was ever going to be released.

The hope for Cammell was that as much as the suits loathed the film, they were perhaps prepared to give it some kind of release if he could just ditch large chunks of the opening half of the film so that Mick Jagger could work a bit of box office magic by appearing a lot earlier in the film than the current cut allowed.

Roeg whose connections were truly international had the name of an actor named Frank Mazello who had appeared with James Dean in "The Wild One" as someone who might be able to help him on the editing of the film and as it turned out Mazello was a godsend. It was he that created (through sheer necessity) the splintered and subliminal edits which give this film much of it's allure some forty plus years later.

The film languished for a further year until Altamont and the film "Gimme Shelter", propelled the Rolling Stones back into the frontal lobe of international consciousness.

And even then it struggled although it did with some irony become a real favorite on the art-house circuit. But unlike a lot of it's contemporaries such as "Blow Up", Cammell's film doesn't show it's age, it's as involving and engaging now as it was when it was first released.

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