Friday, March 2, 2012

Ten Statements About....PERFORMANCE (1970)

His boss may call him Jack The Lad, but there's nothing
boyish about James Fox's Chas....
"We push the buttons. He's the Horror Show. He's an old pro. He can take it. He dishes it out, too."

1) Even from the first few minutes, co-directors Don Cammell and Nicholas Roeg make it very clear that this is not your average movie. With its quick cuts and transpositions, it's obvious that these two filmmakers are not interested in linear narration, and are going to delight in moving backwards and forwards in time to tell the story they kinda, sorta want.

2) ...and good thing Roeg and Cammell start out with that quick-cut, fast-forward transposition style, because this is one of those films which changes narrative lanes on a dime. The first forty minutes is such a relentlessly brutal gangster film with an equally brutal human animal at its center...but the moment he steps into Turner's mansion, James Fox's Chas suddenly enters squarely into the realm of the psychological suspense thriller.

3) I have always had a dim view of Mick Jagger, being firmly in the camp of the Davies Brothers and The Kinks, but let's give credit where credit is due--this is a guy who in this film shows some promise as an actor (that said promise never got paid off is another story). Turner is an interesting character who may be written off as being Jagger playing Jagger, but there's something deeper in this. Turner is Jagger's worst fear of the future, a version of him who's lost touch with his talent and is empty, crawling around this empty mansion with his two hand maidens waiting for an apocalypse that he fears never is going to come...until Chas walks through his door.

"I don't have a French Hot Girl...will a German Hot Girl
4) Apparently Johnny Shannon was a gentleman of some shady disposition hired by Roeg and Cammell to dialogue coach James Fox that they decided to cast as Harry Flowers. Thank God, too, because he is a truly compelling character who benefits from Roeg and Cammell's insistence on leaving so much open to interpretation. When Flowers pursues Chas, we cannot decide whether it's to punish him for his insubordination, or because he has an unrequited sexual crush on the young torpedo. I can't imagine a more accomplished actor making Harry come to life so thoroughly as Shannon does.

5) Anita Pallenberg...I get it now.

6) I think it's a credit to the production as a whole that I can't decide, two days after my most recent watching of this film, if the reason I find it so disturbing was because of Cammell's script, the interpretation of the script by the actors, or the gleefully off-kilter directing of Cammell and Roeg. This may very well be one of those perfect storms of a film where every element came together to construct something greater than the individual parts.

7) While I will not champion the claim made by the documentary on the DVD that 'Memo To Turner' is the first music video (I think the Monkees, the Beatles, and the creators of the Scopitone would have something to say about that), it is one of those steps towards MTV. I do like how it seeks to tell a surreal story within the song, which goes a long way towards perfecting the classic MTV formula.
"See?  You're one side gangster, one side German Hot Girl...
it's a metaphor, it is!"

8) I got to give credit to the script for being so intensely literary--this film is heavily inspired by Jorge Luis Borges, to the point where we see Borges' face when Chas shoots Turner in the head (or we think we see him...but I'll get to that in Statement Ten)--without being totally inaccessible. If you're not interested in all the psychic identity stuffage, you can enjoy it as a story about a gangster struggling for control with a has-been musician.

9) While I do understand that Michelle Breton's Lucy is there to emphasize the hedonistic lifestyle of Turner, I wonder if the film really needed her. At its core, this is a three-handed game of wills between Chas, Turner and Pallenberg's Pherber, and Lucy comes off as somewhat superfluous. Yeah, there's that weird attempt to give her and Chas something of a love story in the last fifteen minutes of the film, but by then it's too little, too late.

10) And speaking of that last fifteen minutes, and the way Roeg and Cammell refuse to spell things out for you....I love how, even though you see Chas shoot Turner in the head, these two manipulate things narratively to the point where you still have doubt about what happens in the end. I swear, I honestly suspect that what actually happened is that Chas and Turner switched identities, Turner killed Chas and took his place, marching off to the back of Harry's limo and certain death in his own right. I love a film that can keep me wondering like this, and it's one of the reasons I respect Roeg's work as a whole. excellent, dark, and bizarre little film that masterfully plays games with our heads right up to the end....and knowing that this is just the first step on two very different journeys for the filmmakers, one tragic (Cammell only did a few more films over the next twenty years before taking his life) and one uniquely strange makes it all the more satisfying.

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