Perform­ance 1970

Read the script
Extract from Perform­ance (DOC)

The Story

Directed by Nicolas Roeg and Donald Cammell, and based on a script by Cammell, Perform­ance was visu­ally daring even by the stand­ards of its day. It was financed by Warner Brother prob­ably with an eye on the commer­cial possib­il­ities of a film star­ring Mick Jagger who was then at the zenith of his rock-god status. The finished movie, however, was too contro­ver­sial for the studio (Jagger doesn’t even appear until halfway through) and was initially released in a heavily cut version.

Even today the film defies easy clas­si­fic­a­tion. It starts as a gang­ster film set in contem­porary London but uses Roeg’s expres­sion­istic camera to quickly estab­lish a louche and fren­etic style that prac­tic­ally rein­vented the genre and has been much imit­ated since. Chas (James Fox) is a “fright­ener”, a sadistic thug, working for two gang­sters obvi­ously based on the Krays. The closeted and violent world he lives in, with its unwritten rules, is bril­liantly evoked in the intro­ductory section. The story changes when Chas is forced to go on the run from his employers after he kills some­body and brings them unwanted attention.

The action then shifts to a rambling mansion in Notting Hill where Chas insinu­ates himself as an unlikely lodger. This is the home of a semi-retired and reclusive rock star, Turner (Mick Jagger) who lives with a seraglio of women, including Pherber (Anita Pallen­berg). To Chas, this is the perfect “hidey hole” though he is openly contemp­tuous of Turner’s life­style. Pherber and Turner, however, are fascin­ated by Chas. Pherber is convinced that Chas can restore to Turner his “demon” – the source of his creativity – and that, in some way, Chas and Turner are two halves of the same psyche. She feeds Chas psyche­delic mush­rooms in a delib­erate assault on his defences: “I just want to get in there, to go right inside …”

Here the film enters the territory of Timothy Leary and Carlos Castaneda and the ‘magical’ aspects of hallu­cino­genics, some­where harder for a modern audi­ence to follow. The ending of the film is delib­er­ately ambiguous: do Chas and Turner succeed in fusing together? Certainly, the film blends gang­ster and psyche­delic genres together in an often maddening combin­a­tion of posturing and striking originality.

It is a film that is very much of its time (the interest in sexual role-playing, for example, that was about to blossom in the seven­ties with figures like David Bowie) and very much a cult film par excel­lence – but also manages to tran­scend both of those narrow definitions.

Scene 1

(Top of the page)

For a gang­ster film, Perform­ance actu­ally contains relat­ively little explicit viol­ence, the implicit kind being demon­strably more effective. This scene shows the attack on Chas in a chaotic, cartoonish way –  a series of frames that are delib­er­ately styl­ised like panels by Licht­en­stein, the dialogue a series of interjections

But the subtext is not simplistic, there is a back­story informing it. When Maddox (Anthony Valentine) pleads with Chas, after minutes or hours of whip­ping, you glimpse a complex homo­erotic rela­tion­ship in a couple of lines. The insets – a typical Roeg touch – makes the connec­tion with male compet­i­tion in the school­yard and boxing ring.

The dream­like quality of the killing at the end of the scene like­wise feels abso­lutely convin­cing, Chas’s detach­ment contrasting with Maddox’s disbe­lief at his own death (Kubrick has a similar scene in Lolita where James Mason shoots Peter Sellers but  Roeg uses his camera to push it even further).

Scene 2

Read the script
Extract from Perform­ance (PDF) – Scene 2

Perform­ance has quite an evolved myth­o­logy surrounding its filming: there are tales of shooting being done in a haze of hashish smoke; of a jealous Keith Richards haunting the set to prevent Jagger stealing his girl­friend, Anita Pallen­berg; and of a ‘secret’ 16mm film of explicit sexual activity under the sheets. Whatever happened off set, Perform­ance is prob­ably the most successful of the sixties films that attempted to celeb­rate psyche­delia; not just because Roeg is too good a cine­ma­to­grapher to resort to the usual kaleido­scopic cliches, but because it focuses on the glamour that surrounded drug culture rather than trying to show the effects.

The kitchen in this scene, like the rest of the womb-like house, is a perfect micro­cosm of London hippy chic. Cammel summons up a stoned atmo­sphere through word patterns and rhythms and Roeg uses the camera to bore through the back of James Fox’s head. It’s not espe­cially subtle but it’s persuasive – about the most persuasive ‘druggy’ scene to reach the screen until With­nail and I two decades later.

Scene 3

On the making of Perform­ance

Read the photostory of Perform­ance

Photost­ories tell the story of a film in strip-form, using stills. They were a feature of early film magazines. This one is taken from an eighties Orbis public­a­tion called The Movie.

What to read next
Article on Perform­ance by Adrian Danks, Senses of Cinema (PDF)

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