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PHERBER: What do you think Turner feels like?
CHAS: I don’t know. He’s weird, and you’re weird. You’re kinky.
PHERBER: He’s a man, a male and female man!
–dialogue from Performance
FEATURING: James Fox, Mick Jagger, Anita Pallenberg, Michèle Breton
PLOT: Chas, a sadistic associate gangster who terrorizes local businesses for London crime kingpin Harry Flowers, is forced to go into hiding when he kills one of his boss’ allies. He rents a basement from Turner, a former rock icon caught in creative doldrums, now living as a hermit in a luxurious town house with two beautiful live-in girlfriends and a never-ending supply of dope. Turner initially wants to get rid of Chas but gradually grows fascinated by him, sensing that the thug’s energy might help him break out of his artistic slump, and he begins to make over Chas in his own image.
- Donald Cammell, a former painter turned screenwriter, wrote the script and directed the actors. Nicolas Roeg, already a sought after cinematographer for his work on films such as The Masque of the Red Death and Fahrenheit 451, supervised the film’s visuals. It was the first directing credit for either.
- Donald Cammell took his own life in 1996 with a bullet to the head.
- Warner Brothers agreed to distribute the movie solely because rock star Mick Jagger was attached to the project.
- The role of Chas was written with Marlon Brando in mind. Depending on whom you ask, Brando either declined the role, or the producers decided he could not play a convincing lower-class Brit. James Fox, a rising young actor known for his posh upper-class persona, studied actual London gangsters to get down the Cockney accent and criminal mannerisms.
- Fox, in his acting prime at the time of Performance, suffered a nervous breakdown after filming (reportedly brought about by the combination of his father’s death and smoking the powerful hallucinogen DMT with Jagger) and did not act again for 8 years after completing the movie.
- Tuesday Weld and Marianne Faithfull were the original choices to play Pherber, but Pallenberg, a model and Rolling Stones groupie (then Keith Richards’ girlfriend), was brought in after Weld was injured and Faithfull became pregnant.
- Nicolas Roeg recalls seeing members of the film development lab destroying “intimate” scenes of the film “with a fire axe,” apparently believing they had mistakenly been sent illegal hardcore pornography to develop.
- Jack Nitzsche composed much of the score on the ninth Moog synthesizer ever built (the Moog probably belonged to Jagger: the Rolling Stones had been one of the first rock groups to include a synthesizer on their 1967 album “Their Satanic Majesties Request”).
- The movie was completed in 1968, but shelved for two years after a disastrous test screening at which audiences yelled at the screen and walked out of the theater. A studio executive’s wife reportedly vomited from viewing the graphic violence, and audiences were offered their money back. The movie’s eventual release was delayed for two years while the film was re-edited; much of the violence was trimmed, and Mick Jagger’s first appearance was moved forward in the film to appease Warner Brother executives. Roeg has already left for Australia to make Walkabout and was not involved in the final cut.
- In order to compress the beginning of the film, partly so that Jagger would appear onscreen earlier, editor Frank Mazzola created the fast crosscutting montage that begins the film. “I knew I’d have to slide things back and forth or extend something to make it hit on a note or a frame,” the editor recalls. “I could do three or four or five of those cuts and bang!, it was perfect, like a beat… You could do anything to that film and it would work, because of the way it was happening. It was poetry, it was organic…”
- Among the cuts later demanded by the British censors was a scene of Fox being flogged, intercut with a scene of him making love to a woman digging her fingernails into his back.
- Performance was savaged by critics on its initial release, but its reputation has improved over the years. In 2009 Mick Jagger’s Turner ranked number one in Film Comment’s poll of top film performances by a musician.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: Turner is dancing around with a large fluorescent tube before a stoned Chas when he suddenly howl and thrusts the glowing cylinder at the mobster’s ear; a tracking shot through his auditory canal reveals Chas’ mob boss imprinted on the tympanic membrane. The camera plunges past this barrier and suddenly Jagger replaces the crimelord in the scene; he launches into a taunting song aimed at Chas and assembled gang lieutenants.
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Even before Anita Pallenberg feeds James Fox hallucinogenic amanita mushrooms on the sly near the climax, the crazed editing of the first half, which cuts back and forth across time and space without warning while setting up the tale of Chas’ fall from gangster grace, is so trippy that it’s almost completely disoriented us. Performance is almost exactly what you would expect to see if you matched a couple of smart, artsy, experimental directors to an eccentric half-amateur cast of drug addicts in 1968 and the set’s caterers fed the crew a diet of nothing but hash brownies and magic mushrooms for the entire shoot.
Original trailer for Performance [mildly NSFW]
COMMENTS: When you notice a bullet shattering a portrait of Jorge Luis Borges on the way through a victim’s skull (in the second of Nic Roeg’s fantastical tracking shots inside a character’s head) you realize exactly how fond writer/co-director Donald Cammell was of the Argentine writer (at another point in the film, a raving Jagger gives a shout-out to “Orbis Tertius” as well as other madnesses about “the tetrarchs of Sodom” and so on). Despite his obvious reverence for the poet laureate of paradoxes and labyrinths, however, the wild-eyed Performance couldn’t be much farther from the lean discipline and esoteric clarity of a Borges story (if you want to see the equivalent of one of Borges’ playful philosophical parables on film, look to Charlie Kaufman instead). Cammell’s script, with its hallucinogenic stream-of-consciousness style, is much more reminiscent of another, earthier hep writer, William S. Burroughs. Cammell throws out references to not only Borges and Burroughs, but also to Aleister Crowley, Antonin Artaud, and Eastern philosophy, along with shards of Jung for good measure; it’s as if he’s intent on working his entire bookshelf into the script, at least the dangerous and decadent tomes. None of these ideas are synthesized into a coherent argument; they zoom about and collide off one another and bounce off at strange tangents, just like the free-floating ideas circulating around intellectual circles in the late 1960s. In that age, any thinker whose words could be used to support a philosophy of principled debauchery, who could offer a quote useful in bedding a buxom grad student or a seducing a zoned-out seeker, had instant credibility.
I don’t mean these observations as an attack on the script or the film: they are offered as a way of understanding how this wild, crazy, pretentious monument to hedonistic excess perfectly captured the zeitgeist of the smart-but-stoned set circa 1968. The movie captures the intellectual confusion and intoxicating energy of the Swinging Sixties as well as any ever made. It’s Performance‘s romantic impression of an era where it was reasonable to believe that any guy might one day accidentally stumble into a mad rockers mod pad and tumble into a threesome with a French runaway and a German model while dropping acid, discussing Egyptian occultism and listening to the Last Poets’ bongo-fueled calls for black revolution, that gives the movie it’s strange coherence.
The movie begins with an astonishingly edited sequence that cuts back and forth between a limo driving down the road and Fox having rough sex with a floozy; weird, doom-laden electronic beats play, and as the lovemaking climaxes the cutting back and forth between machine and flesh becomes so rapid that the images merge into a strobe effect. After a short dramatic break the man whose love life we’ve been following, Chas, climbs into the limo with his cohorts and is off to work, but almost immediately we see another black car pull up to an almost identical row of brownstone buildings as the one he’s just left; we’re disoriented because a new character, a barrister, steps out of the car and heads off to a court of law. We then alternate scenes between Chas shaking down a taxi-dispatch office for protection money and the lawyer defending a rich man accused of masterminding a case involving stock fraud in a merger attempt. Scenes jump back and forth in time as Chas visits Harry Flowers, the big boss, while the attorney drones on (accompanied by electronic squiggles from the score’s Moog). The jagged, jumbled narrative of the opening is not constructed merely to confuse and alienate the audience: if establishes the themes of duality and merger that will dominate the story once Chas meets Turner.
As the first act goes on, the confusing edits grow farther apart, and the story flattens out into a gangland tale that rates as many people’s favorite part of the film (despite its psychedelic credentials, Performance is also sometimes credited as the genesis of the British gangster film). The violence on display was unprecedentedly brutal for the time, even after the massive cuts demanded by Warner Brothers and the British censors. After kingpin Flowers makes an independent bookie (and personal enemy of Chas) an offer he can’t refuse, the hothead enforcer endangers the criminal merger by taking matters into his own hands. The victims turn the tables, and the result is that Chas absorbs a massive beating and endures grimy underworld-style torture in a room that’s been vandalized with splattered red paint (to camouflage the flowing blood). His tormentors underestimate Chas’ talent for violence, however, and the thug manages to escape them; but in doing so he signs his own death warrant with the organization, and is forced to go on the lam.
The middle sequence, where Chas makes his way into Turner’s basement hideout, marks the film’s weakest segment; the film is biding its time until the final fireworks. This sequence functions to set up the duality between Chas and Turner. Fox works hard in the first half of the film to create a character with a powerful air of invulnerability, but Jagger, sneering in lipstick, has an instant presence from the moment he first appears (omitting the humorously incongruous scenes of the star spray-painting a wall that Warner Brothers insisted be inserted into the first half to assure audiences that the rock idol really was in the movie). It quickly becomes obvious that Chas is out of his depth among the Bohemians, and his Cockney confidence looks increasingly unjustified as he tries to fool the hippie trio into believing he’s a juggler waiting for his equipment to arrive. Sexy secretary Pherber immediately puts him off guard with her casual wordplay and the way she leans back and caresses the fur coat pooled around her crotch as she negotiates the rent. Turner starts out uninterested in and unimpressed with the juggler; he tries to give him his rent back and convince him to leave the premises with a simpering display of disdain, blaring guitar licks from the speakers while Chas tries to explain himself and strutting about in his trademark Stones style, spouting fragments of poetry and wielding his microphone like a homophobe-slaying blade. Turner, a semi-retired rock star undergoing a creative crisis, eventually relents and decides to let Chas stay on in the basement, intrigued by the gangster’s desperation to stay somewhere he’s unwanted. An erotic lesbian sex scene and a three-way bath in Turner’s spacious tub establish the aura of decadence and liven up the connective tissue of the second act, but it’s all a setup for what’s to come.
Turner (who’s “lost his daemon,” according to Pherber) intuits the violent energy inside Chas and determines to metaphorically crack open his head and feed on the energy inside. The predator becomes the prey, especially when it turns out that Chas needs something from the bohos: a Polaroid camera so that he can make a fake passport for himself to escape from the killers scouring England for him. This gives Pherber and Turner the opportunity to play dress up with Chas, pretending to help him remake his image as a performer, while slipping him a nearly fatal dose of magic mushrooms. Chas, a criminal expert but a psychedelic novice, falls under their influence almost immediately, particularly when voluptuous Pherber demonstrates her boudoir skills as a friendly gesture. She probes his personality and more, dressing him up in a longhair wig so that he starts to look like the androgynous Turner and challenging his masculinity by holding up a mirror against his chest so that he sprouts her breasts. The drug trip allows Roeg to deploy visual tricks with lighting and montage while Cammell writes lines like “the only performance that makes it all the way is the one that achieves madness!”
The highlight of the trip sequence, and of the film, is the song “Memo from Turner,” where Turner’s persona merges with that of Chas’ boss, Harry Flowers, inside the refugee’s head. The lyrics are Dylanesque (“I remember you on Hemlock Row in 1956/You’re a faggy little leather boy with a smaller piece of stick.”) The sudden musical number comes out of left field, and it’s pleasantly jarring; it helps that the tune is memorable, and that Jagger’s trademark aggressive ambisexuality blasts the clothes off square middle-aged gangsters in the course of the song. “Memo from Turner” isn’t the movies’ first rock music video, as is sometimes claimed (don’t people remember the Beatles?), but it is one of the most impactful. For many viewers, “Memo from Turner” was Performance‘s take-home moment, the sequence that sticks in the mind years later. Quite possibly, Jagger’s performance here salvaged the film for a good number of viewers, particularly those who only came to see the singer in the first place.
Performance ends with a confusing and mysterious surrealistic bit where Chas and Turner’s identities completely merge. I wouldn’t inquire too much into what that might mean, or what the entire movie might mean, if I were you. Compared to Performance, Eraserhead is a textbook example of thematic clarity. “What a dreadful question, what do I think of it, what’s it all about,” said David Cammell, the brother of co-director Donald and an associate producer if the film, in response to an interviewer’s question in 2007. “I don’t know. Do you know what it’s about?” Nicolas Roeg himself stressed that “after all this time, [Performance]’s mystery is part of its magic and attraction.” The film’s trailer less than helpfully explains that it’s about “madness… and sanity… fantasy… and reality… and sensuality…” That “sensuality” part, of course, may be the most important key to Performance‘s appeal. The film serves us a lot of meaty but undercooked themes, and we might get intellectual salmonella from chewing it over too carefully. Primary among the movie’s mysteries is the title: what’s meant by “performance”? Chas’ work as a thug (Flower’s refers to his mob job at one point as a “performer”)? Turner’s art? The undercover bit where the gangster pretends to be a juggler? All of life? There’s also a lot of focus on duality and merger, the confusing suggestion that Turner and Chas are two parts of the same person, throwaway considerations about the relationship between madness and art, and Jungian suggestions that the gangster is an out-of-balance hyper-man who needs to integrate his feminine side into his personality to complete himself. (Of course, when Chas does finally accept his girlish bohemian side, it leads almost immediately to his death—maybe the message is that it’s a good idea to keep our personalities unintegrated for as long as possible).
Still, let’s return to that sensuality the trailer mentions. Who can doubt that a major part of Performance‘s attraction is the wish-fulfillment fantasy of putting ourselves into that cozy little artificial paradise shared by Turner, Pherber and the French waif (and later Turner)? It’s got everything anyone could ever wish for: luxury, sex, an awesome selection of vinyl, top end speakers, leisure, companionship, books, irresponsibility, a nightly light show directed by Nicolas Roeg, and a big enough variety of intoxicants to keep everyone in a permanent giggly euphoria. It’s a hippie heaven even the straightest of us long to pay a visit to in our daydreams, and enduring film’s “awful decadence” looks like a tiny price to pay for fulfilling that fantasy. How can we not love a movie where a flash of light suddenly reveals that the craggy silhouette of a mountain we think we’re seeing is actually Anita Pallenberg’s erect nipple? This Performance may not be profound, but it’s certainly a lot of fun.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“…a bizarre, disconnected attempt to link the inhabitants of two kinds of London underworlds… The surprise of the movie, and the reason to see it, is Mick Jagger’s performance… Other than that, the movie is neither very good nor very bad. Interesting.”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun Times (contemporaneous)
“…an arrogant, needless slap at our viewing sensibilities, an odious, amoral work, its oozing decadence as manifest behind the camera as it is on the screen. That it is a personally successful rendering of a personal vision is probably true, but it certainly is no labor of love.”–Danny Peary, Cult Movies
“…this cultiest of movies is so much more than the sum of its parts, being an intricately detailed, kaleidoscopic signpost to the 1960s burn-out, with all its glorious hobbyhorses, pretensions and madnesses on show.”–Ali Catterall, Film 4 (video)
IMDB LINK: Performance (1970)
OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:
BFI Screenonline: Performance – the information page for Performance at the British Film Institute
Cast Into Darkness – Michael Holden wrote this article on the myths surrounding the cult movie to commemorate the British re-release of Performance
Case Study: Performance – this “case study” from the British Board of Film Classification describes the classification and some of the content-related cuts to Performance demanded by the British censors over the years
Cinema Obscura:Ruminations on Donald Cammell & Nicolas Roeg and Performance – excellent background on the film, including information about enigmatic co-director Cammell from Ray Young
“Performance” (BFI Film Classics Series) – University of Pittsburgh professor Colin MacCabe’s treatise on Performance
“Performance” (Bloomsbury Pocket Movie Guide 6) – a complete guide to the movie by British journalist Mick Brown
DVD INFO: By 2007 Warner Brothers had finally gotten over their embarrassment over Performance and released a remastered version of the cult classic on DVD (buy). (A few of the sound effects and one line from Jagger—”Here’s to jolly old England”—are reportedly missing from the remastered version of the film on DVD due to issues with the original stereo recording.) Extras-wise, the disc contains the original trailer; the thirty minute documentary Performance: Influence and Controversy, which contains interviews with the producers, crew members and Pallenberg; and Memo from Turner, a promotional piece that must have been written by Mick Jagger’s agent.
In March 2014 Warner Archive released the movie on Blu-ray (buy).