What A Performance ZANI on the Great Cult FilmWritten by Paolo Sedazzari
© Words – Paolo Sedazzari
In today’s homogenised film industry, marketing people will contrive the tag ‘controversial’ and brazenly plaster the word all over the promotional material. But Performance was met with genuine and intense controversy on its release in 1970. People escaped in droves from test screenings, the film-makers were shunned at parties. In the words of co-director Nicholas Roeg “we were pariahs, people walked out of rooms when we came in - just for making this film.”
The film was ahead of its time and yet of its time, laced with heady imagery and compelling themes. For instance - the idea of the gangster who ‘performs’ in order to put the frighteners on his subject. Then there’s the link between men of violence and homo-eroticism, as embodied by the Kray Twins, a big talking point of the time. The S&M savagery of Francis Bacon’s paintings are an obvious influence on many of the film’s images, as are the ideas of fragmented identity, inspired by Argentinian author Jorge Luis Borges, who makes at least three photo appearances in the film.
Performance takes us into a world of gangsters, reclusive rock stars, debauchery, insanity and hard drugs. But for all the talk of Performance’s non-linear cut-up style, the story and structure of Performance is quite straight forward. The first half gives us Chas (played by James Fox), charismatic London gangster who loves his job. Chas is a victim of a revenge attack, (lots of S&M homo erotic imagery here) but fights back and kills one of his own firm. Part 2 sees Chas go on the run and hiding in the home of reclusive rock star Turner (Mick Jagger). The safe haven turns into a madhouse as Chas enters a world of drugs, sex and generally has his mind fucked with by Turner who is wrestling mentally with his own identity.
A big part of the film’s appeal is its quotability. The dialogue is mesmerising - poetic yet realistic, especially the material around underworld boss Harry Flowers (Johhny Shannon).
What’s your favourite Performance quote? Take your pick from –
‘Trend setting wot, Sir?’
‘I need a bohemian atmosphere.’
‘I like that Gordon turn it up’
‘Are you threatening my client?’ ‘You bet I am ponsey’
‘Comical geezer, you’ll look funny when you’re fifty.’
‘The only performance that really cuts it – that goes all way the way is the one that achieves madness. Right?’
With Nic Roeg as Co-director and Director of Photography, the film is technically accomplished but it was in the field of editing that saw the film’s lasting legacy and influence. The fast flash-cut style of editing was ground breaking, though not unique to Performance at that time (Point Blank, Goddard). But ironically it was this technique that salvaged the release of the film, as Warner Brothers insisted on seeing Jagger in the first half of the film, and in the script he wasn’t due to appear until the second half. The film’s main editor Antony Gibbs refused to do such a ‘hack’ job - so enter Frank Mazzola to re-cut the first half of the film and give the film it’s trademark editing style, copied many times since - in motion pictures, music videos and even adverts. Before Mazzola set to work on Performance, Donald Cammell the film’s other Co-director gave him a rousing pep talk, quoting the Jean-Luc Goddard line at the head of this article.
One Mick Jagger
One should not underestimate Jagger’s role in getting Performance made and to achieving the cult status it has now. It was Jagger’s rock star cache that helped convince Warner Brothers to give Donald Cammell the money to make this film, even though Warner Brothers thought they were getting a Stones answer to A Hard Day’s Night. Boy - were they in for a big surprise!
Though the film died on its release, Jagger’s presence in the film ensured it at least carried some interest for late night cinemas crowds and TV buyers, and it was here where the film acquired the cult status it has today.
Follow That Cammell
To love Performance is to love Donald Cammell. Though many contributed their talents to this picture, ultimately it was Cammell’s concept and vision. Performance is a very rare example of a maverick intellect being given a decent budget and let loose on a film with a full creative licence. Very seldom has it happened since, and Donald spent the rest of his career battling for that elusive creative licence.
Because after giving us the genius of Performance, Donald struggled to make more films. In a parallel, better universe the film industry would have said unto Cammell ‘do what thout wilt’ and have given him the money and the resources to make a film every couple of years. He stayed in Hollywood hoping that his friend Marlon Brando would make things happen for him, as Jagger did. But Brando only wasted his time.
Cammell directed three more completed films - Demon Seed, White Of The Eye and Wild Side. None as notable as Performance but all very worthy of your attention.