‘While we sleep here, we are awake elsewhere and that in this way every man is two men.’ (Jorge Luis Borges)
Performance is finally to be released on DVD, complete with around 30 minutes of extras. Unfortunately these don’t appear to include any of the footage that had to be cut before the film could get its initial release. Although whether any of the cut footage would make the story any clearer or merely further muddy the waters, I cannot say. But of course, as with many Nicolas Roeg films, following the plot is hardly the most important element (although, despite the elliptical editing, the story is a simple one).
Performance was produced in 1968 by Warner Brothers in a pre-Easy Rider attempt to exploit the ‘paisley pound’. It was co-directed by the screenwriter Donald Cammell (he also wrote Duffy 1968) and the then well-known cinematographer Nicolas Roeg (Petulia 1968, Far from the Madding Crowd 1967). Central to Warner Brothers’ interest in the project was the casting of Cammell’s friend of a friend: Mick Jagger. Whether they were really expecting a knockabout comedy in the vein of A Hard Day’s Night or Help, as has been suggested, I am not sure. But when they saw the finished product they were horrified and shelved the film indefinitely; as one disgusted exec claimed, ‘Even the bath water is filthy’. It was not until the ownership of Warner Brothers changed hands that Performance was finally released at the end of 1970 (after a dramatic re-edit).
There are so many myths and stories about the film’s troubled production (and after-effects) that it is hard to know what to believe. Did James Fox (Chas) take his performance too far and become involved with real gangsters before becoming a born-again Christian? He didn’t make another film, or even act, for many years. Keith Richards, so the story goes, was so unhappy about girlfriend Anita Pallenberg’s sex scenes with Jagger (apparently not a performance) that he had to be banned from the set. And Jagger having difficulty playing himself (he wasn’t very convincing) decided to play Turner as Brian Jones (Pallenberg’s original Rolling Stone boyfriend).
Performance is often cited as a film that defines the end of the 60s; as a perfect example, along with Altamont and the Manson murders, of the hippy dream destroyed by violence. But the violence in the film comes not to end peace and love; it exists alongside it. Hate is merely the flip side to love; violence to sex. One of the scenes that most disturbed the censors (and Warner Brothers too, I presume) was the inter-cutting of the whipping Chas receives from a gangland enemy with the scratching fingernails of his lover. The film suggests that violence and pleasure have gone hand in hand throughout history. Turner relates the mythical story of Hasan-i-Sabbah and his hashishin or assassins (most famously told by Marco Polo) who committed murders in order to be allowed to return to their drugged garden paradise.
Hasan-i-Sabbah’s last words, Turner tells us, were: ‘Nothing is true. Everything is permitted’. It is a maxim that would surely appeal to the Argentinean writer Jorge Luis Borges. Borges is the film’s main literary influence and reference. Turner reads excerpts from his story ‘The South’; even the gangsters are seen reading a Borges collection; and it is his portrait that is smashed by the tunnelling bullet. With its philosophical questioning of who we are and the roles we play Performance plays like a Borges story set between the East End underworld and a Notting Hill hippy underground of the late 60s. However, where Borges’ stories are short allegories or parables about ideas only loosely attached to a particular place or time, Performance‘s mise en scíÂ¨ne gives us rich descriptions of its two contrasting milieux.
Despite its universal themes, it is a film that could indeed only have been made at that time (although its 1977 reissue claimed, ‘Ten years ahead of its time… Are you now ready for Performance?’). It is hard to imagine it being made either two years earlier or later and impossible to think of a major studio financing such a film at any other time. It is heavily stylised in both its cinematography (distorting lenses, switching of film stocks) and its design (Turner’s Moroccan interiors). The editing is often non-linear (images from the story’s end are cross-cut into the very start of the film) and Jack Nitzsche’s soundtrack is possibly the most experimental element of the whole film. However, many of the performances are almost ‘kitchen sink’ in their realism (many unprofessional actors are used, not least Mick Jagger) and the dialogue is loosely scripted and delivered with a certain amount of improvisation (the actors were often told what to talk about rather than what to say). But what places the film so clearly at the end of the 60s is the heavy-handed symbolism (costumes, wigs and mirrors feature prominently) and forced metaphors (when asked what his performance entails, Chas replies, ‘I juggle’), although in the gangland section the dressing-up (Chas putting on his ‘work clothes’) is more subtly played than when searching through Turner’s fancy dress box, later in the film.
The film’s bohemianism shows a continuation of the literary drugs and decadence of the Romantics (Shelley and Byron) through to the turn-of-the-century occultists such as W.B.Yeats and Aleister Crowley (Cammell’s father was Crowley’s biographer). Rimbaud and Verlaine’s pot circle called themselves ‘Club des Haschischins’. The drug-taking in the film is in that same ‘experimental’ vein rather than the hedonistic joyride one would expect from Mick Jagger. Even the hallucinogen given to Chas is the more literary mescaline and not the 60s trip favourite LSD.
It is through his unsuspecting experiment with hallucinogens that Chas begins to rediscover his true self beneath his multi-layered performance as a gangster pretending to be a juggler. It was widely believed (and still is) that such drugs allowed access to the deep unconscious mind. Thus the film’s famous line: ‘The only performance that makes it, that really makes it, that makes it all the way, is one that achieves madness’. The unconscious mind needs to believe the performance too. Both Chas and Turner have lost touch with their true selves through over-playing a role. Chas’ stylish and violent gangster has lost touch with his more ‘feminine’ side perhaps due to his (at least hinted-at) repressed homosexuality. The film shows this through a series of mind games and visual metaphors, some of which are a little heavy-handed, others beautifully playful as when Pherber (Anita Pallenberg) reflects her breast onto Chas’ with a mirror.
Turner is perfectly in touch with his feminine side, often morphing into the androgynous Lucy (MichíÂ¨le Breton) and back again, via the magic of the editing suite. However, he is missing something (his mojo has stopped working, it seems). Similarly at that time, The Rolling Stones had just finished their much-criticised attempt at a Sergeant Pepper. Although Their Satanic Majesties Request, released in 1967, was a brilliant psychedelic album, Jon Landau wrote in Rolling Stone at the time: ‘They have been far too influenced by their musical inferiors and the result is an insecure album in which they try too hard to prove that they too are innovators, and that they too can say something new. [It is] an identity crisis of the first order’. In the film Turner and Chas’ identities are enigmatically merged with the final murder/suicide/execution pact. In real life the Rolling Stones replaced Brian Jones, the inspiration for Turner, with the more prosaic Mick Taylor and rediscovered the back-to-basics libido rock of Sticky Fingers and Brown Sugar. Jones was mysteriously drowned less than a month later.
Overall, it is a flawed (Chas overhearing Turner’s address in a café doesn’t work and seems unnecessary) and messy film but it is held together by James Fox’s incredible central performance. The Krays-styled underworld is as curious as the Notting Hill scenes; the gangsters have pretensions as businessmen (‘It’s a merger, Chas’). The boss Harry Flowers (Johnny Shannon) is both hilarious and menacing with his misplaced maxims: ‘United we stand. Divided we’re lumbered’. It is an ambitious and experimental film (although not necessarily ‘ahead of its time’) that kick-started Roeg’s career as a director (and virtually ended Cammell’s). It is another long overdue release for one the key British films of any decade.