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hbo dramas

#10: performance (donald cammell and nicolas roeg, 1970)

(This is the 41st of 50 pieces that originally appeared in a Facebook group devoted to three of us choosing our 50 favorite movies. I’ll present them un-edited except for typos or egregious errors. I’ll also add a post-script to each.

(Jeff Pike, who was one of the three participants in the project, has begun counting down his own choices at his blog, and I highly recommend following him. His blog rules, anyway, so do it even if you don’t care about our lists. Meanwhile, Phil Dellio beat us all to the punch; you can read his 50 mini-essays here.)

When I first saw Performance in 1970 or ‘71, it set a light bulb off in my head, and when I went to college a couple of years later, I became a film major because I wanted to make movies like Nicolas Roeg.

Performance no longer seems like a very complicated movie. I showed it to a friend a few years ago who had never seen it, and he thought it was fairly straightforward. This is because the techniques of Performance, the things that made it seem so remarkable in 1970, are commonplace now. Fractured editing, uncertain chronologies, plots full of puzzles, these are all part of the standard bag of contemporary directors’ tricks.

What is interesting, in retrospect, is that I attached my devotion to co-director Nicolas Roeg, when at least two others were equally responsible for the style of the film. When Roeg went off to make his first solo-directing film, Walkabout, Donald Cammell was left to edit Performance into something acceptable for a recalcitrant studio. He worked with an editor named Frank Mazzola, who was uncredited. The two of them created the jagged style of the final product.

Performance caused many problems for Warner Brothers. That it was made at all seems impossible. Cammell and Roeg were left alone to go off to London and make a film with a rock star, a couple of little-known actresses, and James Fox. The resulting film was filled with casual sex, casual drug use, and lots of homoerotic violence. Rumor is that the wife of a Warners executive vomited during the preview showing, leading to the film being put on the shelf for two years (another rumor is that Warners tried to destroy the negative). When it was finally released, reviewers were largely unimpressed; Richard Schickel famously called it “the most completely worthless film I have seen.”

James Fox, who was a rising star in English cinema, didn’t make another movie for eight years. While Fox dismisses the idea that making Performance led to his subsequent nervous breakdown, he admits that the film “gave me doubts about my way of life.”

Fox plays a vicious gang enforcer, Chas, who gets out of line and goes on the lam; Jagger plays a semi-retired rock star named Turner who wonders what happened to his career and his life. The two characters get to know each other in the manner of Bergman’s Persona, and everything is somehow related to the work of Jorge Luis Borges.

And those critics? Performance is now listed at the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They site that collates critical opinion as being the 191st-best movie of all time. [Ed. note: the most recent update moves it to #165.]


The comments contained an interesting discussion of the work of Nicolas Roeg. In listing their favorites, no one made a case for any of his films past his first four (Performance, Walkabout, Don’t Look Now, The Man Who Fell to Earth).



Hey, thanks for the pointer and the kind words. You and Phil are both way ahead of me on this!

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