(UK - 1970)

by Mike Lorefice

Cast: James Fox, Mick Jagger, Anita Pallenberg, Michele Breton, Johnny Shannon
Genre: Drama/Fantasy/Crime
Director: Donald Cammell & Nicolas Roeg
Screenplay: Donald Cammell
Cinematography: Nicolas Roeg
Composer: Jack Nitzsche, Mick Jagger, Randy Newman
Runtime: 105 minutes

"Nothing is true, everything is permitted" - Turner quoting Hassan I Sabbah

Performance is the rarest of rare movies where either throwing it into the fire or watching it again and again until you commit the whole thing to memory seem like justifiable responses. Though existing far closer to the mainstream than say anything created by Kenneth Anger, it's an experimental film that I'd quickly recommend to those who have any interest in the technical aspects of films, but it requires a certain kind of viewer that's very open and very intent. You have to be totally up to the challenging, totally into piecing the puzzle together or it'll probably seem like a jumbled mess. Turner (Mick Jagger) says, "I'll tell you this. The only performance that makes it, that really makes it, that makes it all the way, is the one that achieves madness. Right? Am I right? You with me?"

Performance, with all its paradoxes, complexities, and unconventional techniques achieves just that, which is a big reason it divides audiences. Aside from people offended by the material, those who don't like it tend to be the ones that think a movie should always (or at least usually) make sense as it goes along and only require one viewing to fully comprehend.

Though bearing some thematic similarity to the very good Ingmar Bergman film Persona, Cammell and Nicolas Roeg were readers with similar tastes, and Cammell once told Daily Cinema their primary inspiration was the writing of surrealist master Jorge Luis Borges (inverted laws of Turner's domain, androgynous characters, conflict between life and work, identity and the conflict between the real artist and their gimmick) and Vladimir Nabokov's Despair (meeting of doubles or alter egos with the controversially interpreted ending). Cammell has worked direct links to many of their influences into the piece, including the homoerotic artwork of Francis Bacon, Borges' picture after a bullet starts travelling through the skull, and direct reading of book passages.

Both Performance and Persona exist in an entirely different world and share little if any stylistic or presentational similarity. While obviously both utilizing visual trickery, Bergman's quite seaside film works in subtlety and simplicity with the exception of the three scenes that remind us we are watching a film, which draw parallels between the double nature of the characters and the duplicity in the relationship between filmmakers and viewers. One of his goals, I believe, is to create a form of reality in spite of the break scenes telling us film is not reality, suggesting our relationship with the artist is we want to believe their work regardless of what it takes to forget it's been created.

Just the opposite, Cammell & Roeg have made a movie that evokes the thought cinematographer's and editor's wet dream within the first five minutes! They've depicted the Bohemian atmosphere of swinging London by creating one of the most unconventional films ever. Their technique is basically to heighten every aspect of the mind warping experience. Juxtaposition occurs constantly, although for varying purposes and sensations. Breaking the time line, during the first part two scenes are often taking place simultaneously. While this is nothing new, the way they do it is something I've not seen before that perfectly enhances their performers concept. The gangsters, but especially the main character Chas (James Fox), essentially put on their personality. Their characters are selfish actors, mugging for the camera all the time. With close-ups of just the character performing for the camera, it takes a while to figure out which scene each person is in. Part of your attention must also be devoted to figuring out whether the scenes are happening at the same time, whether one precedes the other, or whether they only exist in the mind of a performer.

Further confusion is created by a regularly moving camera combined with the decision to not stick with any shot. In the gangster first half that is light on dialogue, it's hard to find any shot that lasts more than 5 seconds. In addition to a number of lines that will take on a different meaning upon repeated viewing, there are a number of shots that you will wonder how to interpret the first time (at least). Some of these are clues that lead you to the ending, but others are designed to create the surreal, visceral, drug enhanced atmosphere of this mysterious film. The soundtrack works similarly. Although there are songs and some conventional uses of the score, it's mostly about creating the multi-layered feel of the piece. The most effective audio combines the traditional manipulation with noises and sound effects to create an altered heightened state that makes you come as close as the medium allows to experiencing what the characters are. Ultimately, while there's much to admire about Roeg's fabulous cinematography which employs more techniques then I could begin to subscribe and the overall artistry of the film, it's the fragmented style and puzzling story that make Performance an original film that can be watched again and again.

Any discussion of the production would be incomplete without mentioning how many artists got a start with this film. We have the first directorial work of Roeg, who succeeded in making his brand of bizarre, mysterious, envelope pushing, challenging, and thought provoking films for another twenty years, although not without a multitude of problems, misunderstandings, and minor releases. The intriguing score is the second from the late Jack Nitzsche, who went on to do films like The Exorcist, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Blue Collar, Hardcore, Stand By Me, & The Hot Spot. Randy Newman, who so far has racked up 15 Academy Award Nominations between scores and original songs, acts as conductor the year before his first composer job. Playing guitar was Ry Cooder, who did albums with Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, John Lee Hooker, as well as working on Extreme Prejudice and Dead Man Walking, and doing a strong job composing several films (even if most weren't great his work a strongpoint of Walter Hill's movies) highlighted by The Border & Paris, Texas. Mick Jagger does his first and best acting work, albeit playing a version of himself.

Overshadowed in all of this is Donald Cammell, who is probably most responsible for the quality of the piece. Writing his first film Duffy (where in a precursor of things to come his vision was greatly altered by the time it hit the screen) introduced him to James Fox, who he felt could be much better utilized in a harder more with the times role. For his second script Performance, Cammell was giving his first chance to (co) direct and (associate) produce. Cammell, previously an artist and illustrator, knew guitarist Brian Jones of the Stones from the connections of that Bohemian scene, leading to the casting of Jagger and Jones' former girlfriend Anita Pallenberg (who was going out with bandmate Keith Richards at the time of filming). The other main performer, Michele Breton, was a friend of Cammell's who never acted again but had the needed omnisex look.

When the artistically stunted Warner Brothers saw what Cammell & Roeg gave them, they were horrified. Expecting some kind of Rolling Stones companion piece to the Beatles movies, they not only had no idea how the market the film, but no desire to because the content (originally an X rated film) and style somehow soiled the decency of their company. Roeg wound up disassociating himself from the film, while Cammell stuck with it and after two years an edited down version that was still great and Warner Brothers still had no idea how to market was released. Although the film left a huge impression on some filmmakers and fans and became a cult favorite, its failure at the box office was put on Cammell's shoulders.

The most obvious influence the film has had is in defining what would become a music video. Aside from the nudity, over a decade later when MTV started, the section where Jagger performers the song Memo from T would become their standard theme video. Cammell wound up doing some music videos, most notably for U2, but that brings us back to the reason he probably hasn't been given proper credit.

Cammell was Wellesian in his inability to complete a project. He had a very specific vision - the violence, bullet in the head, sex, confusion, odd humor, jumps in the timeline, and so forth - that was considered not marketable in 1968 and became less and less marketable over time as challenging and experimental films all but disappeared from the mainstream. With one Cammell project going awry after another while Roeg enjoyed his biggest success with films like Walkabout that exceeded this films strength in cinematography and Roeg's most similar film to Performance, The Man Who Fell To Earth, again starring a rocker (the far superior acting David Bowie) people assumed he was totally the man behind Performance rather than simply the more talented of the two. By the time Cammell got his next true vision to the screen, the little seen 1987 gem White of the Eye, Roeg was down to minor releases with the exception of his very impersonal project with Jim Henson, The Witches. Cammell was so jinxed that when he was finally backed by a company that had no problem with his material, Nu Image, they butchered his work claiming his presentation of the script they agreed was too challenging. Removing around an hour from Wild Side and editing it in a way that altered everyone's perception of the film, they turned it into a standard B sexploitation film and sold it on the premise that you got to see Anne Heche do a lesbian scene. Cammell had his name removed from the film before it was released, but was so depressed over his inability to get a real version released that he did his own sad performance, killing himself with a gunshot to the head like it was one of his movies. Ironically, three years after Cammell's death, his longtime friend Frank Mazzola (uncredited for some of his first editing work on Performance) succeeded in getting a version he edited based on Cammell's documentation released.

Cammell was right about Fox's potential. He became his Chas character perfectly by living Chas. Unfortunately, the experience lead to him taking a 10 year hiatus from acting to do volunteer work for good causes. Chas walks around detached and stone-faced, always conscious of himself and his surroundings but not seeming intent on or interested in anything. He's waiting for his next part.

The key to the Chas character is he doesn't have his own personality. Chas is a narcissistic perfectionist. Everything must be in order down to the smallest detail. He's the king of the badasses with an extremely fierce intensity, but he's always playing with his hair when he's not around the gangsters. Even during sex, he's got his mirror handy and he's observing himself in it (similar to what Christian Bale did in American Psycho). He puts on a show and he's totally into his act, but otherwise he's not really there.

Chas seems more concerned with his work, but that's only because it's what he's on this earth to do. It's violent demon's work being the muscle for gangsters, but he does find a way to make "putting the frighteners on flash little twerps" different and perversely entertaining for himself and his often humorous supporting cast. His best act is destroying the finish of a shiny Rolls Royce by pouring acid all over it and shaving the driver bald except for one patch. Later in the film, we see that this patch is the path into a person's head. Getting back to the kind of anal perfectionist Chas is, he complains to one of his partners in crime that he gets soap (shaving cream) on the driver's collar.

Chas gets himself into trouble with his boss and the law over a guy from the neighborhood he used to be friends with but wound up fighting with named Joey Maddocks (Anthony Valentine). Maddocks runs a betting office and is being merged into the organization. Chas can't keep personal relations out of business like his boss Harry Flowers (Johnny Shannon) suggests. He embarrasses Joey with a performance and one thing leads to another until Chas is saved from Joey by suckering him with one of his performances, but ultimately condemned by the results of it and forced to flee the area.


It may not seem like it at the time, but much of the first half sets up the second. In particularly, there's the running them of the merger. The court scene is related to the plot, but its main concept is survival by the weaker combining with the stronger for the mutual benefit of both. It's progress for both because they are missing something that the other has. It's talking about companies, which are generally measured by the profitability (current and/or potential), but with human beings there are so many different measures of strong and weak. I realize what I'm saying here is nothing new, but I believe if these things are in mind the much-debated ending will seem much clearer.

Harry is always throwing out words and phrases that manifest later in a different way. He says "Well tomorrow he learns what's true and what's not" as he takes a picture down that's in front of a mirror. "Your relations with Joey was double personal." Joey tells Harry the shop is his whole life, and Harry responds, "Exactly Joey. Mine too. Mine too."

The link between Chas and Turner is established the first time we see Turner. A scene of Chas coloring his hair to disguise himself is intercut with a scene of Turner coloring his walls (he's painting it black and red). It's a coincidence that he winds up finding out about Turner's Notting Hill place, a great hideout because the artist underworld is seemingly a different universe from the gangster underworld he and his pursuers are used to. The thing is, when he gets there it's as if he not only belongs, but has finally returned. Chas is sure he knows who he is, but at the same time seems to sense this is his realm (unless it's another of his acts). At this point, with little Lorraine (Laraine Wickens) recognizing him and calling him dad (she's too young to know him if you believe he simply hasn't been around for several years) any explanation seems required to delve into the supernatural, but we'll hold off on that for a minute.

Turner was a big rock star, but he can't create anymore because he's lost his demon. He's now a hermit living in his own little world of art, sex, music, and drugs with Pherber (Anita Pallenberg), Lucy (Michele Breton), and Lorraine. Turner has long hair and sometimes wears lipstick, making him look like a chick. Lucy has short messy hair and very underdeveloped breasts, making her look like a boy in his early teens. The camera and editing tricks during the sex/nude scenes make it hard to identify the sex of the person. Lorraine is a little girl who wears skirts, but looks like a boy and talks like a midget. To add to the confusion the characters are constantly changing their looks with hair color, wigs, a fake mustache, and so on. Pherber, although engaging in a lesbian relationship with Lucy, is the only one with a clear sex, but she's the one most interested in the concept of identity sharing. All this is largely there to throw you off, but it does capture the freedom and experimentation of the setting. Some excellent shots where the reflection in a mirror puts things like a woman's breast on a man and a man's face on a woman are incorporated - yet another type of merging - but this is where the important information is, where Anita explains to Chas how the split occurred.

What's important are the little clues to the duality of Chas & Turner that are dropped less and less innocently as time goes on. Chas says things like "I'm an artist Mr. Turner, like yourself." Turner says things like "Because after all there was only one" and "I'm not telling you anything you don't know, am I old man?" Probably the most telling statement in this regard happens within a few minutes of their meeting.

Turner: I wonder Mr. Dean, if you were me, what would you do?
Chas: I don't know. It depends. It depends who you are, which I don't know.
Turner: Who I am? Do you know who you are?

Some people look at the 2nd half as Turner & Pherber messing with Chas' mind, but the best interpretation seems to be to take anything about identity as literally as possible despite what conventional logic and phrase context tells you. Sure, Chas is out of his depth in the world of Turner and Pherber. He's not used to their drugs and mind games, but that's not the reason. The real reason is that Chas and Turner are two halves that form a whole, a whole that was once a juggler named Johnny Dean. When the split occurred, Chas only got the part that performs, the demon. That's why he has no life or history and is just waiting impatiently for his next role. Chas tells Turner, "Personally, I just, you know, perform." Turner got everything else, even to the point of exerting some control over Chas. This is shown by Turner being Chas' boss in Memo from T, as well as Chas saying, "I'm alive and well. You push the buttons." Turner is useless without his demon because he cannot be productive himself. He can't play his rock and roll. He can't leave the house because he can't perform, and in this world almost everything requires a performance. It seems that Cammell understands the Bohemian lifestyle is not going to last, which is why Turner can't be happy in spite of all he has in his little world. It's necessary for Chas and Turner to rejoin, to merge.

(Major Spoilers)

The longer Chas and Turner are together the more they begin to blend. Each begins acting more like the other, answering questions they shouldn't know the answer to. The film starts with a seemingly unrelated scene where of a jet flying that soon makes us feel like we are this jet. Turner's transformation doesn't happen that quickly, but being able to use some of Chas' ability is the first step in their merger.

Turner's name can be taken somewhat literally, and all his questions are geared toward learning more about his other half so he can alter them both. He's way ahead of the normally dominant Chas because he's the stronger more talented half. He realizes the need to get back to Johnny Dean because he has enough Dean to know he's missing the rest. He knows in order to do this he must get into Chas' head, literally, which is the reason for the whole psychedelic mindfuck. It's Turner and Pherber that keep trying to clue Chas in to kill Turner. That's the point of the mushroom Pherber gives Chas, the blues tune Turner plays, Turner's reading from Sabbah about assassination leading to paradise. Hell, Pherber puts the gun in his hand with Turner bending down so he can shoot him in the top of the head, but Chas rolls over the table and screams because he's being driven out of his mind, or more precisely his identity. The more Turner learns, the less Chas has left of himself, which is why he incredibly uncharacteristically forgets his follow up call to Tony Farrell (Kenneth Colley) that's to help finalize his flee to America.

Chas finally understands what he must do when he says, "You don't know where I'm going pal" and Turner replies, "I do." To merge one body must be sacrificed, a murder/suicide. Although Turner is the dominant half, he hasn't gained enough of Chas yet to do the sacrifice, the performance. The bullet into the top of the head tunnels through Turner's brain, releasing all the information into the merge.

That physically the two were always doubles is why they are familiar to everyone but each other. This is also shown by a picture of Chas that shows two Chas rather than one. As with Pherber and Lorraine earlier, after Chas merges with Turner, Chas' gangster friends recognize him immediately even though he's now being played by Mick Jagger. That we've just been shown Turner's dead body in the closet before we see Turner driving off with the gangsters proves (at least to me) their duality and their merger. Chas is physically gone because he was the lesser of the two that merged, but the note he left to Lucy and the gangsters interest in him prove he's still around, partially.



* Copyright 2002 - Raging Bull Movie Reviews *