Tuesday, 5 April 2011

This week in film: the performance that makes it all the way, a bit of a cavort, a bit of a list, a question of attribution.

I was planning to continue my account of the 1980s and my fearful place in them, but I’ve also been feeling the need to write about the present and report on things I’ve been up to of late. So, for those of you following my blog on The Gentle Art Of Procrastination, I’m afraid — oh, you guessed it — you will have to wait for a while longer. Define irony. I’ll be back soon with it, don’t worry.

All the world’s a stage and all the men and women merely players, wrote Shakespeare with metaphysical accuracy, if that’s not too much of a contradiction in terms. You know the rest: they have their exits and their entrances and one man in his time plays many parts. We are different things to different people. Family gatherings in particular require one to adopt various roles: somebody’s husband, somebody’s son. Brother, uncle, nephew, cousin…it’s starting to sound like some sort of phonetic code in here. Beyond the titles conferred upon us by genetic, familial inheritance we  represent other, often more practical things: customer, cook, colleague, composer, confidante, conspirator, concubine — though not necessarily all to the same person, silly. It’s struck me this past week that I have discharged many different life designations in the short days since my last blog entry. Er, probably best not to dwell on the concubine bit. That’s a blog all its own. By someone else entirely.

What I’m trying to say is that lately I’ve had some interesting intimations into how I am regarded by other people and it’s led me to consider this whole question of attribution. If you think you’re mad, so the saying goes, then you’re probably not as mad as all that. If only, eh? This piece of homespun psych profiling is, of course, transparently threadbare; if enough people believe you to be crazy, you may eventually hold the opinion as surely as if you got the doctor’s certificate and matching straitjacket — and possibly with better cause to do so. I do so very much judge myself by how I think other people view me, as I’m sure most of us do.

People often remind you of things you have said or done in the past. Only little things, really. A card I sent a loved one that I’ve almost entirely forgotten. An argument I had with a colleague in a previous job. Opinions forcefully foisted onto a friend. Something — whisper it quietly — actually amusing I may have said last year. I can remember being down the pub once with a group of work colleagues who simply couldn’t believe that I hadn’t taken acid at some point in my life — fact — and then accepted this with the collective warning: “Don’t ever! You’re the last person who should try it!” If there’s one thing I take away from these exchanges it’s the conclusion that I’m regarded as something of an eccentric. I have a suspicion, albeit in the nicest possible way, that most people believe I go home of an evening to my TARDIS, its walls bedecked with Star Wars memorabilia, and sit on a purple toadstool listening to Jethro Tull in a sweet-scented haze.

I find this slightly inaccurate, but it would be churlish to dwell on that when obviously it’s immensely comforting and complimentary. It demonstrates to me that I am a chap of consistent personality to everyone I meet, so I must be doing all right most of the time. It may also suggest that I’m rather nervy, capable of being wildly inappropriate and irresponsible...but I’m a largely self-confident chap and prefer to accentuate the positive. Best of all, I love it when people suspect I’m a Time Lord. Maybe I am.

The problem with all this earnest navel-gazing is that every now and again you want to confound expectations, let the world know that this old man can still pull a surprise out of the increasingly baggy sack, so to speak. Consequently, as someone with a reputation for being a bit of a know-all, it can on occasion delight me so very much in a perverse way when I can profess a cheerful ignorance on a subject. If you want a perfect example of an ignorance worn proudly for all to see, it lies in the list of films I have never seen — those classic movies that are part of the vocabulary in any cinematic conversation, yet have passed me by for one reason or another. Everyone has a handful of these films in their repertoire — or rather, they don’t, if you follow me. It’s often a discussion that invites tiresomely snorted, obtuse derision — “‘t’choh! What do you mean, you’ve never seen Citizen Kane…?” — but it certainly gets people going.

The list could be almost infinite of course, so I’ll keep it down to a few. All of them are, I’m sure you’ll agree, surprising omissions and naturally almost any one of them could be remedied by setting aside two hours and raiding my wife’s DVD collection, but until then, here you are — read ‘em and weep:

Casablanca: Bogart and Bergman’s sweeping romance set against the encroaching shadow of Nazism. “Play it, Sam.” Dooley Wilson singing of the fundamental things of life as time goes by. I’m afraid the problems of a man and a woman doesn’t amount to a hill of beans in my life to date.

The aforementioned Citizen Kane: Brother Orson Welles. “Rosebud”. Xanadu. All lost on me, I’m afraid. I’m reliably informed that it’s not actually a gripping view, but what do I know one way or another?

Casino: Scorsese. De Niro on good form. Sharon Stone. Joe Pesci. Excessive use of the word ‘fuck.’ Seriously, why haven’t I seen this?

Friday The 13th. Any of them. The good ones. The bad ones. The one set in space that I’m told manages to be both at the same time — they’re all awaiting my consideration at an appropriate juncture.

Schindler’s List: Spielberg. Liam Neeson. Ben Kingsley. Ralph Fiennes as an unspeakable bastard. A red coat in a sea of black and white. John Williams’ achingly sad score with Itzhak Perlman. At least I’m familiar with the last  bit.

Performance: Donald Cammell and Nic Roeg. ‘Memo From Turner.’ James Fox. Mick Jagger. And Mick Jagger. Vice. And Versa.

Do you know, I finally did something about this one the other week. But first, a word or two on my good friend JCC.

I have over the years been fortunate enough to have made friends with many people who have proved to be entertaining, stimulating and rewarding company when it comes to discussing music. JCC is particularly engaging, especially over a pint. He shares with me a turn of phrase that frequently runs to the arcane, the convoluted and — I’m going to say it — the downright sesquipedalian. He’s a well-kept chap in his mid-fifties who spent the late-Sixties onwards in passionate pursuit of music, whether that be collecting albums, attending more gigs than you’d think one lifetime could comfortably accommodate and selling records around the world. A gentleman of the top order, with an inexhaustible supply of tales of fleeting encounters with rock stars and a Zelig-like attendance at some noteworthy events in modern music history — stories all told with characteristic modesty and infectious glee. As you can guess, we have many mutual points of discussion.

I had mentioned not so long ago to JCC that I had never seen Performance and his reaction was incredulous. “I’d have thought you of all people would have seen it!” he chided genially, adding that it was one of his all-time favourites, clocking up more repeated screenings than any other film he could recall. A later admission of my omission on Facebook led a few other friends to suggest that the real Paul, the one who’d seen Performance, had surely been replaced by a robot double and the game was up. As it happened, the recent Nicolas Roeg retrospective at the British Film Institute (BFI), London afforded a chance to redress this cinematic lacuna, stat, and JCC had thoughtfully secured a couple of tickets to see not only Performance, but also in rock’n’Roeg-related vein, The Man Who Fell To Earth, starring David Bowie. More on Bowie and that film at a later date.

The BFI, for those of you who may not know, forms the filmic part of the complex of crazy, angular concrete constructions that comprise the South Bank — while the Royal Festival Hall represents music, the National Theatre provides drama and the visual arts can be found in the Hayward Gallery. A building to house each aspect of the Arts. Architecturally, the styles can be filed variously under ‘Futurist’, ‘Brutalist’ and ‘Seemed Like A Good Idea In The Sixties.’ I recently saw a Doctor Who story from 1973 featuring Jon Pertwee dashing at speed across several then-pristine walkways of the Hayward, doubling for an alien base — as well it may have seemed to anyone outside of London in those days. It’s the concrete; it’s A Clockwork Orange concrete: so very dull in colour, texture and the morose, uniform appearance it lends to structures made from it. I used to hate them all. However, the passage of time and my frequent happy associations with this sprawling labyrinth of buildings have played an interesting trick on me and lately I’ve become rather fond of it. I’ll never become a fan of concrete, but what goes on along the South Bank and within lends the whole area such a fecund air of creativity and inspiration that what was once a plain old Seventies eyesore to me has become funky, friendly, familiar and any other complimentary words beginning with F that you’d care to think of. Shame the bars are so shamefully overpriced tho’.

The shifting of appearance. Aha! I knew there was a reason for my previous paragraphs of ramble-scrambled preamble. Self appearance — and other people’s perception of it — is one of the driving themes at the very heart of Performance.  I’ll assume you’ve not seen it before I continue, and refrain from plot detail.

So, what did I know about Performance before I saw it? It’s hard to read anything about the Stones in the Sixties, films of the Sixties or indeed ‘the Sixties’ without some mention of it. Rumours abounded — still abound — of a shooting schedule that unfolded in as much of a giddy, hallucinatory whirl of events as anything depicted in the film. Did Mick Jagger and his onscreen lover Anita Pallenberg ‘do it’ for real during their sex scenes? Did paranoia concerning this method acting cause her boyfriend Keith Richards to spend some days of the shoot at first sat for hours in a parked car on location, keeping watch — and then latterly banned from the set? The woeful series of events that befell various people who worked on the film are well-documented for anyone caring to create a case for there being a ‘curse’ on the film:

Leading man James Fox, possibly as a distraction from his father’s terminal illness at the time, threw himself into his work and subsumed himself in his role as a cocky young gangster so completely as to be consumed by it, turning his back on film for a decade and becoming an evangelist; leaving God, as it were, to sort him out.

Jagger’s girlfriend Marianne Faithfull attempted suicide, his old bandmate (and Pallenberg’s ex) Brian Jones drowned in his swimming pool and the stabbing of Meredith Hunter by Hell’s Angels at the Stones’ infamous Altamont gig all happened pretty much within a year of the film’s wrap.

In the 1990s, Cammell himself, something of a gun freak and unhealthily obsessed with slow, prolonged suicide, eventually achieved his aim — pun grimly intended — by shooting himself in the head in such an artful fashion as to take 40 minutes to die; all the while remaining sufficiently cognisant to request a mirror and regard his last minutes transfixed in satisfied fascination.

And what of the film itself? It was filmed in the summer/autumn of 1968, but wasn’t released in the UK until 1971, due to terse correspondence between Cammell and Roeg on one side and Warner Brothers on the other; the latter having expected — perhaps not unreasonably — a nice, roly-poly musical flick starring one of the world’s biggest pop stars and instead getting a film that, so the story goes, caused one of the nice wives of the WB execs to puke her guts up at a boardroom screening. On a more professional level, the board had cause for more practical concern: Cammell and Roeg both had no previous directing experience and it’s entirely possible that Cammell was ‘given’  Roeg, who by then had considerable cinematography expertise, to render the wilder parts of his script into a practical, workable scenario. It’s hard to say exactly. It was the Sixties: they did things differently then. Nonetheless, all of this immediately gave me a pretty good working idea that the film I was about to see was going to be a trippy, tumbling, freewheeling and mostly dark affair.

I’m pleased to report that my preconception turned out to be only partly true. Performance hits the ground running as a hard, cohesive movie. The world of a small, late-Sixties London racket, ‘this terrific democratic organisation’ as it gets called, is well-realised, with Cammell’s dialogue sounding suitably geezerish and evincing the sort of nervous laughter that often, bizarrely, comes from menacing situations. And this I certainly didn’t expect; Performance is funny. A switchblade’s edge between fear and funny, to be sure, but given all the darkness popularly associated with it, I hadn’t expected the film to make me laugh — for all the right reasons — quite as often as it did.

From the outset we are almost assailed with a confident, relentless editing technique, done with wit, method and precision. A pompous barrister issuing legal threats in court alternates with a scene of half-glimpsed, sadomasochistic sex. Before too long the barrister’s declamations seem to be a damning commentary on the copulation, but then the addition of a high-pitched, noodling and frankly grating synth noise over every word he says lets you know exactly whose side this film is going to be on. And so the film continues, using cutaways and visual juxtapositions to make their own commentary beyond the mere essence of the storyline. It’s said that Jagger’s first appearance — a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it shot of Turner brandishing a spray paint-gun — was inserted into an earlier reel at the behest of a studio executive who complained that their precious pop star, their box office catnip, was otherwise absent for the first 40 minutes or so. If that’s the case, then even this tiny detail —placed within a scene alternating shots of a punch-up with someone defacing walls with a can of red paint — works serendipitously.

Mick Jagger occupies the lion’s share of the publicity and images usually associated with the film but if you want my opinion, it’s really James Fox’s film. His acting background and upper-class features have won him a surfeit of patrician roles over the years, but here he turns in an utterly convincing performance as Chas Devlin, the chippy, cocksure, sharp-dressed enforcer. There’s not an ounce of fat on him or his portrayal. At one point in the proceedings, Chas disguises himself in a long black mac, slicks back his barnet, dyes it a dark, unconvincing red and pulls on the requisite shades. As he walks distrustfully down the streets of a down-at-heel, pre-gentrified Notting Hill, Fox looks like no one else from the Sixties at all. He looks more like The Clash’s Joe Strummer of ten years hence. The effect is compounded in the moment when a typical miniskirted dolly bird comes down the steps of her flat and stops to let him pass: the decades nearly collide.

After getting ‘double-personally’ involved in something he should have kept strictly business, Chas incurs the wrath of his boss, Harry Flowers (Johnny Shannon) and is forced to hide out in the house of a reclusive rock star — Turner, ‘played’ of course by Mick Jagger. Turner’s career is on the wane, he has ‘lost his demon’, claims not to even like music any more and he sees in Chas the quality he seeks. He soon gets to work on his new tenant and without giving anything away, hallucinogenic substances are ingested, identities blur osmotically, weirdness ensues.

There’s little more I need to say on Jagger’s casting: he is as good as you’d expect him to be. In other words, one suspects Mick never needed to ask anyone what his motivation was in any given scene and he essays the part with an artless, instinctive, vulnerable and curious charm. It’s very telling though that his most assured moment occurs in the famous ‘Memo From Turner’ sequence where he’s required to sing his way through the scene.

The film is peppered with splendid supporting roles too. Anthony Valentine, normally associated with smoother roles, also plays against type and turns in a decent, edgy part as a bookie; Johnny Shannon, genial, a touch OTT, but memorable in the part of tubby, hairy-backed, queer gang boss Harry Flowers; the unknown and never-heard-of-again Lorraine Wickens, stealing every scene she’s in as the tiny, cheerfully blasé daughter of Turner’s landlady; Ken Colley,  known and loved worldwide to Star Wars fans as the beleaguered Admiral Piett, here working his nervy features and frame as boxing club owner Tony Farrell — to name but four. Sadly, Anita Pallenberg’s role as Turner’s lover and commentator Pherber, despite some good, insightful lines, has not worn well and seems today a rather clichéd archetype of the decorative, tiresomely liberated hippie bird: a product of her times — or more precisely, a remnant of the times Performance itself and its kin would come to blow away. For despite its Sixties provenance and setting, Performance is among the first of its kind, a Seventies motion picture in spirit.

I’ve talked before about the debate over when exactly ‘the Sixties’ ended. Of all the theories offered, be they sea-changes in the political, economic, cultural or social landscape, it’s safe to say the Sixties didn’t end precisely at midnight on the 31st December, 1969. And the Seventies didn’t start from there on, either. 

To conclude, permit me a moment of pure geekery and check out that chunky typeface, stark white capital letters, rounded at the edges, at the start of the film. The very first thing we see in fact: it was to become such a Seventies font. It graces more than a fair few 1970s tv shows, of which numerous BBC Sports events and the classic sitcom Porridge instantly spring to mind — and would fall out of favour before the onset of the Eighties. It’s literally the first inclination that Performance is not going to be that bouncy, happy, living colour musical movie that the Warner Brothers execs hoped it would be on that fateful, vomit-festooned day.

As Turner says: “the only performance that makes it, that really makes it, that makes it all the way, is the one that achieves madness” Performance itself dances giddily with this madness and its consequences. I’d love to imagine that the powers-that-were knew exactly what they had on their hands apart from carrot chunks: they had witnessed the death — albeit if only in purely cinematic terms — of the Sixties, right there.

Next time, I’ll tell you what I made of The Man Who Fell To Earth, a film I had seen on television at least twice before I saw it on the big screen the other week.

David Bowie. Yeah, that’s a whole other story indeed!


Currently listening to:
Black Sea (XTC, 1980)
All The Young Dudes (Mott The Hoople, 1972)
The Beatlegs (FAROFF, Beatles mashup download EP, 2005)
Mashopolos (Wax Audio, mashup download album 2007)
In On The Killtaker (Fugazi, 1994)
Playing With Fire (Spacemen 3, 1991)
Pawn Hearts (Van der Graaf Generator, 1971)

Currently reading:
Performance: The Pocket Movie Guide (Mick Brown, 1999)

Currently watching:
Doctor Who twists in the wind with Sylvester McCoy: Time And The Rani, Delta And The Bannermen, Remembrance Of The Daleks (BBC, 1987-88)
Doctor Who’s spectacular rebirth: the first five series, with Christopher Eccleston kicking the door in, David Tennant rushing through and Matt Smith bringing up the rear — and all of it pretty damn good (BBC, 2005-2010)

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