A bit of a character

I showed a bit of PERFORMANCE to my students last week as part of a class on filming dialogue — I wanted to show them how interesting and experimental they can get.

The clip got a lot of laughs! The performances do go right to the edge of caricature, but Roeg & Cammell’s framing and cutting are so eccentric that they also invite a knowing response.

The coverage starts off almost conventionally in the establishing shot. There are some freeze-frames, though, accompanying a stills photographer’s flashbulbs — looks like Scorsese picked up on this. Certainly Paul Schrader has cited PERFORMANCE as a particularly good movie to steal from, and a back-to-back viewing with MISHIMA will confirm this.

James Fox’s Chas gets told off by his boss, with accompanying yes-men, while Anthony Valentine, his erstwhile victim, gloats. (Really appreciated Valentine’s work in TO THE DEVIL A DAUGHTER and THE MONSTER CLUB when we podcasted about those).

Once we start seeing closer angles, though, things get weird. There’s an in-your-face quality that’s nightmarish — the lens is wide and the actors are uncomfortably close. It does have an alcoholic quality — that moment when you’ve had a few and you suddenly notice how funny everything looks and feels.

As the scene progresses, the shots and cutting both get more fragmented: Roeg’s framing cuts off parts of faces in a most odd way, reducing characters to mouths or eyes:

When we see Chas, the angles are closer, more centred, lower. The effect is to isolate him from his surroundings. Close-ups and low angles can be used to confer strength, but not here:

Chas breaks into a sweat, and his eyes dart around the room.

Now, Cammell attested that in collaborating with Roeg, he took charge of the actors and Roeg handled the camerawork, and this worked very smoothly. My first geuss about the scene was that maybe the two filmmakers were diverging in their intentions, resulting in the shots feeling really wacky.

But James Fox’s eye movements convince me this is quite false: the crazy angles are actually a subjective rendering of what he’s experiencing, a sort of panic attack, coupled with a dissociation from reality, and a kind of ADHD distracted hyperfocus. Chas is seeing things very clearly, but only in a jumble of bits.

At one point, Cammell and Roeg surprise us by cutting to a b&w photo of a limbo-dancing violinist, then zoom out to catch Anthony Morton in profile. Throughout the scene, Morton freaks us, and Chas, out, but delivering his lines either right down the barrel of the lens, or off into the void.

A similar dissociating effect occurs earlier when everything fades into bluish monochrome and seems to go far away:

Quite scary, in fact. With a change of lens, some experimental colour grading, and rearranging the furniture in the office, the filmmakers have turned the room into one of REPULSION’s distorted nightmare spaces.

That photo on the wall is probably one of the filmmakers’ little connections — tying us to the idea of performance, which is mentioned in the scene (Chas, who “puts the frighteners on flash little twerps,” is a performer whose role is to terrify) — anticipating the musician character we’ll meet later — it also ties up with the photographer and his flashes, and with the b&w subjective imagery from the office scene. The sudden cut to the photo also makes us think a new scene has begun, before the zoom-out reveals that we’re still trapped in this one.

The lesson is, Be bold!

7 Responses to “A bit of a character”

  1. ehrenstein47 Says:

    “Performance” is one of my all-time favorites. It is THE British gangster film — all about The Krays made when The Krays were still in power. The opening sub-plot involving Fox’s Chas threatening anupper-class member of Parliament REALLY HAPPENED. The Krays had him in a vice because he was having an affair with a Kray “enforcer” — as did Francis Bacon (whose imagery Cammell and Roeg copy throughout the film). Because Roeg had a successful career as a director and Cammell hadone problem getting a film off the ground after another “Performance” quite annoyingly referred to by most critics as Roeg’s film — when it’s Cammell’s in almost every way. As a whole their partnership is a bit like Powell and Pressburger, where the latter did the writing and the former the directing. But while Roeg is a great DP, EVERYTHING he’s shooting comes from Cammell. None of his own fims ar a bit ike “Performance.” Colin McCabe’s BFI book on the film is invaluable in its detail of who did what and where it all came from. I also recommend the documentary “Donald Cammell: The Ultimate Performance” I met Cammell when “White of The Eye” was released. he was handling his own publicity. Never before had I been to a screening where the director handed out the pree kits. it’s a great and sorely neglected film with a phenomenal performance from Cathy Moriarty.

  2. ehrenstein47 Says:

    In “Donald Cammell: The Ultimate Performance” Barbara Steele (who first met him when she was an art student) says it’ s really surprising that he wasn’t gay. True. He had the aspect of the most soignee and sophisticated of gay en. But “Donald’s thing” (as Patrick Bachau called it) was threesome with women. (His friendship with Bachau is why Cammell did a walk-on in Rohmer’s “La Collectionneuse”)

    Fox’s performance is like nothing else in cinema. here is this upper-class Britisher who turned himself in a Kray tough. He didn’t take aohter acting role for ten year after this — it was so upending. Anita Pallenberg does a marvelous job of playing herself. Michelle Breton (“a creature of Donald’s” according to Bacau) vanished off the face of the earth after this. Cammell’s direction to Mick was simple: “Act like Brain.” The person who was most upset by all of this was Keith, who drove around the house where the film was shot in a frenzy. He was convinced that Mick was going to steal Anita from him. But that did not happen.

  3. ehrenstein47 Says:

    I was luck enough to meet Frank Mazola who did the final edit. The film was made in 1968. Warners was so horrified they were beside themselves. A big complaint was the fact that it takes so long for Mick to show up. So Mazzola had the bright idea of including shots of Mick spray painting the walls early on, He also heavily fragment the violence.
    As a youth Frank was a gang leader at Hollywood High. Nick Ray discovered him and put him in “Rebel Without a Cause” because of his gang style and cred. But rather than an actor he became an editor. He told me quite a lot about James Den, wit whom he accompanied to a preview of “East of Eden.” “Hide m! Hide me_ Dean said on leaving the theater. He knew he was a hit and it scared him. Sadly he never got to deal with his success as he died in a car accident before “Rebel” was released.

    The film to see after you’re through with “Performance” is “Love is the Devil : Study For Portrait of Francis bacon” by John Maybury with Derek Jacobi as Bacon and “James Bond” (Daniel Craig) as his lover (and model and victim) George — a Kay tough who wasn’t tough enough to withstand Bacon.

  4. ehrenstein47 Says:

    I write about the times I met Bacon HERE

  5. ehrenstein47 Says:

  6. I wrote about The Ultimate Performance for the World Directory of Cinema: Scotland. A great documentary.

    There’s a monograph on the film where the author tracked down Michelle Breton, and learned that she was a teenage runaway collected by Cammell — underage — kept around for long enough to make the film, and eventually more or less abandoned. Not good.

    A strange irony is that while Roeg and Cammell collaborated happily up until the edit screened to Warners, they fell out after Cammell re-cut the film, compressing the first half with furious cross-cutting to get to Jagger’s scenes faster. And yet that cross-cutting became Roeg’s trademark, whereas Cammell didn’t really pursue it with the same enthusiasm.

    This, along with Roeg being much busier and having more luck with producers, led to the strange misconception that this was somehow Roeg’s film alone.

  7. ehrenstein47 Says:

    A bit of “Jeffrey Epstein” in Cammell? Or maybe “Roman Polanski.” And yes it’s Mazzola’s final edit that makes the film zing. He was as fascinating as Cammell.

    What sets Cammell apart from literally everyone else (even his close pal Kenneth Anger) os that he regarded Death as a kind of “Trip Experience.”

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