BFI Classics: Performance

Author: Colin McCabe

Performance is film with a reputation that precedes it; even before it was released it was shrouded in controversy and myth: the film that the sixties counter-culture had been waiting for that was met with immediate cult status – even if the box-office receipts were low. Colin McCabe lays out his book in a clear chronological path after the Introduction from the script writing and its origins through to the casting, shooting, editing, release and the consequences of its aftermath. It is only in the end chapter entitled ‘Coda: Politics and Magic’ does he go into the philosophical and theoretic interpretations of the film, bringing together the cultural resonances and controversies that highlight the films enduring qualities.

As already mentioned the film was dogged with controversy. McCabe begins by exploring who was the auteur of the film as it had two directors: Donald Cammell and Nicholas Roeg and comes to the conclusion that this was very much a joint effort. By looking at its origins it is clear that Cammell’s original idea and script, as well as his associations with the rock and roll hierarchy and his own sexual predilections that the much of the film was Cammell’s. But then again with the arrival of cinematographer Nicholas Roeg in his directorial debut much of the vision of Cammell was realised by Roeg; especially when familiar with the style of Roeg’s films including Walkabout (1971) and Don’t Look Now (1973) are we are aware of Roeg’s artistic style (Cammell himself had been a failed artist in the Chelsea set).

This was a unique film in many ways. It brought together the Rock and Roll and druggy counter-culture of Mick Jagger and Anita Pallenberg (Keith Richard’s girlfriend) with the world of the cockney gangster. It is not until halfway through the film that Jagger appears and up until that point we are in the world of the cockney gangster – brilliantly played by James Fox. This is the world that today we are familiar with through the films of Guy Ritchie, but had been largely passed by until this film (although through post production difficulties and wrangling with Warner Brothers it was not released until 1970). Its reputation largely lies in the already mentioned mythical controversies that McCabe attempts to demystify throughout the book: Fox’s alleged breakdown following this film (he was apparently already going off the rails before the film was made), Jagger’s on-screen sex (some of the most explicit committed to screen up until this film) with his musical partner-in-crime Keith Richards’ girlfriend, Pallenberg, (although Richards was jealous of their relationship during the shoot) and the mysterious Cammell himself, whose career following this film never really picked up before his premature suicide in 1995 or the real life gangland exploits of many of the support actors. Roeg seemed to be the only who really benefitted from this film in the long run.

McCabe also explores the other background influences to the film besides the drug/youth culture of the film such as the influence of the French nouvelle vague and in particular the avant-garde films of Jean-Luc Godard and how many of those influences and his style found their way into Cammell and Roeg’s film. It may confuse many a reader when McCabe goes into the other influences in the film, such as French Surrealist poets and filmmakers Antonin Artaud and Jean Cocteau or Surrealist philosopher Georges Bataille towards the end of the book. For myself I was brought to this film in my misspent youth as a Rolling Stones fan and loved the soundtrack album with the bluesy soundtrack music provided by Mick Jagger, Randy Newman, Ry Cooder and Jack Nietzsche (who also worked closely with The Rolling Stones), as well as sixties rappers The Last Poets. It is this cult status that will probably lead to the film enduring for longer and might even allow for others to read about it.

Chris Hick

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