What a Performance
By Nicky Charlish.
Performance, dir. Donald Cammell & Nicholas Roeg, 1968
According to the film guides, Performance was released in Britain in 1971. So far, so correct. Less accurately, they sometimes state that the film was made in 1970. In fact, it was made in 1968. Why the discrepancy?
When the film was originally sold to Warner Bros there was no script. The company had somehow assumed that a film about a meeting between a rock star and a gangster – the basis of the slim outline they had been given – would be a caper movie, a screen synthesis of spoof criminals with the pop-playfulness of the Beatles‘ film A Hard Day’s Night. That was not what they got. Instead, they were landed with a film which included copious amounts of violence, sex, drugs and rock and roll all served-up with an almost aristocratic insouciance.
What’s Performance about? Director Donald Cammell – former painter and said by some to be a godson of black magician Aleister Crowley – wanted a film which explored madness and sanity, fantasy and reality, death and life, vice and versa. We get them here in abundance. Chas Devlin (James Fox) is a gangster on the run from both the police and gang boss Harry Flowers (Johnny Shannon) after murdering one of Flowers’ proteges, Joey Maddocks (Anthony Valentine). Going to ground until he can make good his escape from the pursuers, Chas finds himself holed-up with a faded rock star, Turner (Mick Jagger). In Turner’s pre-gentrification Notting Hill home – furnished for the film by hip interior designer Christopher Gibbs in a style that combined fashionable Moroccan artefacts with faded British country house elegance – the gangster’s macho, xenophobic personality is deconstructed by Turner and the singer’s girlfriends Pherber (Anita Pallenberg) and Lucy (Michele Breton) with the aid of drugs. Simultaneously, the effeminate Turner – because of his contact with Chas – starts to recover the more masculine part of his personality. Meanwhile, Chas is tracked-down by Flowers’ henchmen. A bloody denouement follows.
As the film was being made Warner Bros – their fears fuelled by what they’d heard of its contents – looked-on with increasing unease. At a test screening, their concerns were shown to be amply grounded: people walked-out in protest and the wife of one studio executive was, allegedly, sick. It took two years – and some judicious work in the cuttingroom – before Warner Bros could bring themselves to let the picture strut its stuff on America’s cinema screens.
The film is a snapshot of late Sixties London. It’s also atmospheric. Outdoor shots capture the city’s drab streets, yet it was a time when inexpensive accommodation was still plentiful: London could be a city of dreams on the cheap. Slide guitar backing work summons-up a languid spirit belonging more to America’s Deep South than the dreary streets of London. Jagger belts-out ‘Memo From Turner’, symbolizing the synthesis between gangster and rock star. And there’s the voice of session singer Merry Clayton as she sings the backing for the long walk of Chas to Flowers’ car – more of that in a moment; her (seemingly) joyful sound serving like the ‘Dies Irae’ of the requiem mass with its message of impending wrath and doom. Its atmosphere is enhanced by the way Cammell made the film in the spirit of magic realism, the literary form in which an element of fantasy is incorporated within a realistic setting in order to bring-out its hidden meanings. Writer Jorge Luis Borges is usually regarded as a forerunner of this style and the film pays homage to him: at one stage, Turner reads an extract from one of his stories, and a picture of Borges plays a symbolic role in the film’s climax (more of this later).
But, forty years after its release in Britain, is Performance more than a mere historical and aesthetic curiosity? Yes it is, and for several reasons.
First, it’s a reminder that much-mythologized Swinging London had its dark side. The film’s violence had its counterpart in real life, dished-out by the Kray Twins and other London crime figures (David Litvinoff, the film’s dialogue consultant and technical adviser, was an associate of the Twins). Early in the film, Flowers’ henchmen – including one played by genuine criminal John Bindon – terrorise the staff of a mini-cab firm which he is incorporating into his empire and shave the head of the chauffeur of a barrister who is trying to implicate Flowers in a criminal trial (the silent shot of the chauffeur who has subsequently collapsed in front of the car is just as shocking as the act itself). There is no romanticising of gangsters here: we see the red meat of criminality – any lingering doubts about gangsters being good guys would be put to rest by Get Carter in 1971. As well as the nature of the violence is the fact that it’s tied in with gay male sexuality: Flowers is homosexual, and there’s a hint of a past affair between Chas and Maddocks. When the film was released, newly-legalised homosexuality had a camp image (think Kenneth Williams and Frankie Howerd here). Even today, the idea that all heterosexual men are spoiling for a fight whilst their gay confreres are essentially cuddly still lingers, arguably, in the public imagination (and, perhaps, with some feminists too). In Performance, the idea that homosexuality is harmless is laid firmly – and, for some, disturbingly – to rest.
Next, Performance raises issues around social and sexual identity: issues which are still alive today. (Yes, it’s nature versus nurture time; an old battle, but one where the evidence is continually shifting, so ensuring that the issue cannot be side-stepped.) How natural are violence and macho male behaviour? Are sexologists like Judith Butler correct when they say that the expression of sexuality is a performance, a role which people play in the manner of an actor because society expects them to or – as argued by others such as the male-to-female transsexual and gender commentator Julia Serano – does such behaviour have deeper roots (albeit ones which are, of course, open to cross-fertilisation from societal sources)? Is Chas’s feminisation the product of heightened emotional awareness or simply of drug use? For Cammell, these weren’t simply academic issues, and the tension which pervades the film does not come from the accurate application of acting skills. He has been quoted as saying that he always regarded the film as a comedy and, in a sense it is, a black comedy of manners, both on and off screen. Cammell enjoyed winding people up, which he did here by putting the actors in challenging situations such as requiring foppish upper-class actor James Fox to toughen himself up (with boxing trainer Shannon’s help) to play the working-class villain Chas. Keith Richards – Pallenberg’s boyfriend – was worried that her on-screen relationship with fellow Rolling Stone Jagger might become something more substantial. Jagger, meanwhile, had to turn-in a performance which combined the toughness of Richards with the effeminacy of Pallenberg’s former lover Brian Jones. The shoot was shot-through with a druggy atmosphere – freelance broadcaster and commentator Mick Brown, in his excellent book on the film, recalls Anthony Valentine being told by a technician that a joint was easier to come by on the set than a cup of tea. Some of the performers had their fair share of psychic scars, arguably exacerbated by the film, to deal-with in later years. Breton and Pallenberg would have drug problems and Cammell – of whom Keef, in his autobiography Life, gives a less than flattering portrait – went on to commit suicide.
Finally, Performance makes us question the assumption that liberal values have triumphed. After Turner’s death at Chas’ hand – an act which leaves Pherber traumatized and during which we see the face of Borges as a bullet enters the singer’s head – Performance ends with Chas entering Harry Flowers white Rolls-Royce and receiving the friendly greeting ‘Hello Chas’ – possibly one of the most chillingly cheery phrases ever uttered on film. As the car drives off we see Chas looking out – except that he has Turner’s face. The gangster has embraced the long-suppressed feminine side of his personality, achieving a sort of wholeness. But this is short-lived. We suspect that Chas, who has been told by his captors that he’s being taken to the country, is being driven to his death. His fate symbolises the end of the alternative life-style dream. Today, on the face of it, the fighters for the counter-cultural values of the 1960s have been victorious in the areas of gender and race. But, arguably, those liberal triumphs are considered as optional extras by the establishment when faced by other threats that make les evenements of ’68 look small beer indeed: no British newspaper or TV channel had the courage to show the Danish cartoons of the prophet Mohammed which caused an uproar among Muslims in 2005. The grandchildren of the Sixties revolution need to be alert against being fooled.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Nicky Charlish is a freelance writer and proofreader who has contributed to, among other publications, Melody Maker, Record Mirror, Midweek and, currently, to Penpusher and the Culture Wars reviews of the Institute of Ideas.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, December 7th, 2010.