Nov 30, 2012


For better or worse, if any film reflects the distinct and decidedly decadent zeitgeist of its time, especially in regard to art, kultur, and social trends, it is Performance directed by Donald Cammell (White of the Eye, Wild Side) and Nicholas Roeg (Don’t Look Now, Track 29). Admittedly, the first time I attempted to watch this stylish yet sleazy cult film, I felt it was nothing more than sleekly directed, photographed, and edited hippie excess and celluloid debris directed by two decadent and delirious drug-addled counter-culture filmmakers whose idea of an artistic statement was seeing how much superficial and stereotypical sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll they could fit into about 2 hours and thus use these pseudo-shocking ingredients as a means to make up for a convoluted, nonsensical story of the sensory-overloading sort. After all, what better gimmick for the “ultimate cinematic trip” than featuring Mick Jagger of The Rolling Stones in one of the lead roles in his debut screen appearance, not to mention the bold and beautiful German-Italian model/actress Anita Pallenberg (Dillinger Is Dead, Michael Kohlhaas - Der Rebell) – girlfriend of Brian Jones and later Keith Richards – as the sexy and sassy female lead. On that basis alone, Performance – a film where gangster-meets-rocker – was destined to be a ‘cult classic’ no matter how incompetently it was directed, but as I learned during my second-viewing of the cinematic work, it is more than just an expensive proto-music video. The film was directed by two first-time directors: Nicholas Roeg who previously worked as a cinematographer for films like The Masque of the Red Death (1964) and Fahrenheit 451 (1966), and Donald Cammell who was a child prodigy and society portrait painter who inevitably gave up the medium to become a filmmaker.

 In regard to questions as to who was the real ‘auteur’ behind Performance, Cammell thought the question was “just silly,” but did admit to the authors of Donald Cammell: A Life on the Wild Side by Rebecca Umland and Sam Umland (2006) while speaking quite narcissistically and characteristically in the third-person that “In truth Nic has been extremely embarrassed by all the attention he’s received for Performance over the years, but the fact is, Donald and Nic worked together, and Performance was the result of the special mixture of them both. It’s simply impossible to sort it all out.” Considering that Cammell’s film career never really took off (he only directed three more feature-length works before his suicide in 1996 after he did not get final-cut for his swansong Wild Side) after Performance, most film critics and theorists contend that it is essentially a Nicholas Roeg film due to his relatively illustrious and successful career as an idiosyncratic auteur filmmaker, but as Anita Pallenberg in Cammell's biography and crew members featured in the documentary Influence and Controversy: Making 'Performance' (2007) also vouch, the directing responsibilities were for the most part divided this way: one filmmaker dealing with the actors and the other with the technical aspects. On top of acting as the cinematographer, Roeg was in charge of the technical responsibilities while Cammell – who also wrote the script – dealt with the actors and the innumerable cultural references (literature, painting, filmmaking, etc.). If it says anything, Donald Cammell acted like a pompous dictator on the set of Performance despite being a novice filmmaker, as Anita Pallenberg remarked that the tragic auteur was "being very much a prima donna for a director who had no previous experience.  He was a very difficult director to work with" and "There was lots of banging and slamming doors, that sort of thing.  Sometimes he would get mad at the technical crew.  He thought they were working too slowly or something like that."  Whatever the true nature of the motley crew's work habits, it would take two years before Performance was to be released after its completion in 1968, in part due to Warner Bros dissatisfaction with the film.  Cammell's friend and longtime collaborator Frank Mazzola re-edited the film in 1970 (by then, Roeg gave up on the film and went to Australia to direct Walkabout), henceforth giving the film the fluid and fierce feel it has today and finally making it releasable in the studio's eye.

Featuring a corrupt cocktail of gay gangsters, tripping hitmen, reclusive rock stars, androgynous men and women, and an all-around semi-psychedelic essence of decadence, Performance – much like Kenneth Anger’s Lucifer Rising (1972), which incidentally features director Donald Cammell in the role of Osiris ‘the lord of death’ – is one of few cinematic works from its time to portray its era with more than the pathetic pretense of peace and love, but also with chaos, destruction, and dissolution of all things that once were, thus signaling Aleister Crowley's (who was like a surrogate uncle to Cammel as a young lad) prophecy of the Aeon of Horus. Essentially a film that is divided into two acts, Performance begins with the introduction of the character of Chas (James Fox) – a gangster ‘soldier’ in an East London gang modeled after the infamous real-life Kray twins led by a physically repugnant and exceedingly eccentric homosexual (Ronald "Ronnie" Kray was openly bisexual) named Harry Flowers (Johnny Shannon) – who intimidates people via violence and destruction so as to collect pay-offs for his boss. An archetypical man’s man of the stoic and unsentimental sort, Chas fancies his trade, most notably bringing absolute fear to his enemy's souls. Naturally, things take a turn for the worst when Chas decides to disobey his boss Mr. Flowers’s order not to get involved with Joey Maddocks (Anthony Valentine) – an archenemy of the somewhat sadistic paid street fighter sort whose business his boss plans to takeover – and he fails to follow orders. Not only does Chas throw his muscle against Maddocks, but he also ends up killing him. Needless to say, Flowers and his officers decide Chas is bad for their “terrific democratic organization” which knows not to mix business and personal vendettas, so they decide they must rid themselves of the ”ignorant boy…out-of-date boy.”

 Now a dual fugitive of the law and organized crime, Chas goes underground and into hiding and decides living with a wash-up rock star will be the last place his enemies would look to find him. Now calling himself “Johnny Dean” with the contrived 'artistic' occupation of being a “juggler,” Chas eventually finds himself at the basement apartment which is owned by an effete, degenerate rock star Turner (Mick Jagger) who has "lost his demon," thus essentially signaling the second and final chapter of Performance. At first, Chas only meets Turner’s lover Pherber (Anita Pallenberg) who gets every dime out of the crypto-gangster she can swindle, which – being a dead man walking - he is more than willing to pay. Despite paying an absurd amount for rent, Turner – who has an agile animosity for Chas – attempts to give the money back to the new tenant. Chas isn't exactly impressed with his landlord and his friends either, describing his new residence as “a right pisshole” filled with “long hair…beatniks… love…forigners…you name it.” Despite his initial repellence toward the renegade rock star and his lurid and lecherous lifestyle, before he knows it, Chas is quite literally penetrating Pherber and eventually comes to feel a sort of odd metaphysical and even homoerotic connection to Turner. To quickly 'cure' the fag-bashing gangster of his manly ‘homophobic’ tendencies, Pherber and Turner drug Chas by tricking him into eating hallucinogenic mushrooms and digging deep into his seemingly impenetrable psyche, thus unleashing his inner femme. By way of dirty drugging, uninhibited and increasingly indulgent partaking of carnal knowledge and the overall narcotizing influence of his sin-sanctifying hippie landlord's influence, Chas is physically and mentally transformed thus thrusting him into a state somewhere in between hell and nirvana and hereafter inspiring him to sleep with a boyish French girl named Lucy (Michele Breton) – who happens to be the third person in Pherber and Turner’s pan-sexual ménage à trios – that he describes as a “bit underdeveloped…like a little boy” and becoming physically androgynous himself like Turner; both men eventually becoming one another's alter-egos.

Ultimately, Performance is about transformation and the unity of two individuals into one; Chas being the archetype for pure masculinity and Turner being a man in touch with both genders or as Pheber states, “man-and-female man,” as a dichotomy of sexual extremes. Unlike if the film were directed today, Chas’ testosterone-draining transformation is not portrayed as a purely positive thing as it inevitably leads to his assumed ruin because due to becoming more ‘in touch’ with his feminine side, he is drained of his masculine instincts thus rendering him inhibited and vulnerable in matters that would not have fazed him previously. Using a hardened gangster as the audacious anti-hero of Performance makes the trans-gender transfiguration all the more compelling. Written by Cammell, who despite being a lecherous ladies man who dated teenage girls while a middle-aged man, apparently dabbled in homosexuality (according to rumor, including with Mick Jagger during the making of the film), homosexuality is certainly a theme that runs throughout the entirety of Performance in various forms and guises; both subtle and self-evident. Aside from the obvious influences of Jorge Borges (especially in regard to identity crisis), the film also makes a number of references to beat queer junkie icon William S. Burroughs (Naked Lunch, The Wild Boys), including Turner's remark that, “nothing is true, everything is permitted” in reference to the novelist’s mythical attribution to Nizārī Muslim Hassan-i Sabbāh and fictional hashish-toking warriors.  Indeed, in Performance, "everything is permitted," but for a price most people are not willing to pay.  Both Chas and Turner pay that price only for it to to lead to their untimely descent.  Donald Cammel also extended his hand to Lucifer for a life of debauchery and (self)destruction, thereupon leading to his death via self-sacrifice in a manner not all that different than the character he wrote and directed for Performance; no doubt the forsaken artist's finest pursuance as a filmmaker.

-Ty E

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