:: Article

Performance redux

Paul Buck interviewed by Richard Marshall.

3:AM: You approach the film from a series of angles – the art scene, the London drug scene, the gangster scene, the film scene and so on. This gives the reader a very intense and close up way in to the film. Was that your intention, can you say something about your approach?

Paul Buck: Performance is an extraordinary film in that it didn’t fit into the known patterns of filmmaking, whether mainstream or art-house or underground or whatever term you want to use. It didn’t fit categories in that respect. Or even genres. Is it a crime film? It’s often pushed into that field. But it isn’t. It blends and jags or Jaggers its way into all manner of fields. Thus the idea that one can write about it in a conventional manner seems a bit misguided. That approach is destined to fail on some levels. I thought the best way would be to unravel the film by taking the main protagonists, in front and behind the camera, and try to explore each and see how they fitted together as a team, or bunch of travellers. Because it seems to me that the film is more the result of a composite of people and trends and the zeitgeist that made that film, and made that film what it was and what it was to become. In that respect that approach also moves away from the old chestnut of was it Cammell’s film, or Roeg’s film. I didn’t want to give too much attention to that dispute, though I acknowledge it. I wanted to try to piece together the kernels, the essentials, essences and interests of the contributors and see where they meshed together, whether in the morning, afternoon, evening or night, how they came to make this enormous psychodrama. Though I didn’t pursue Maya Deren’s film in the book, that first ‘poetic psychodrama’, that I just alluded to, perhaps I could have made some further interesting inroads there too.

The other thing I wanted to do was pursue some parallels with the film. For example, to plant information out of sequence in the reader’s mind, sometimes gradually with respect to an idea, so that when I required the reader to notice the point I could trigger their memory and they’d understand the point on more than one level. This is something the film does. Indeed this idea, and the way it is pursued by Roeg in his subsequent films, is something I’ve taken on board in my own writings over the years, it’s part of my modus operandi let’s say. Thus it had a point here, I was acknowledging one of my key influences. Of course I knew this approach might well go over the heads of some of the readers who might just want the book to tell the story of the film, as I did call it a biography, not specifically an analysis or overview of various interpretations. Effectively I thought the way to talk about the film was to treat it on biographical terms, as least theoretically, because labels are anathema to me and present themselves as ripe for breaking or reconstructing. I was also aware that there could possibly be a wide range of readers, given that Jagger features and the publisher is known for its music output, not that any pressure was exerted to bear that in mind, or to conform in any way.

As I saw it, you have to decide early on whether you are trying to write a book for readers, to seduce them into seeing the film, if they’ve never seen it, or to resee it if they have. Isn’t that the nature of such a book? It’s no good being smart and showing how clever you can be, filling it with really obscure references so that you leave the vast majority of its readers in limbo. I don’t do what I just did above with Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon. I needed to find references that could be noted clearly and easily understood or pursued further by anyone who was interested in particular points. Fortunately the film does keep to a series of references of the time that were quite clear, at least clear to me, references that have grown in stature since the 60s. But there are others that are more tangential, but just as vital. So I needed to find ways to bring them in. And yet, to keep piling facts after facts after facts runs the risk of walking the whole project into a treacle tart. I’ve seen that done before. So I set myself challenges too, one of which was to go back in time and plant myself in that period, which happens to have been my own formative time. The other was to attempt to view it from various angles, various disciplines and interests, as that approach, which forms and informs the film, fitted my own method. But perhaps I should say more on those points later.

As the areas covered have been part of my life for many years, the film has been ticking away inside me. Notes have been made when teaching and using the film as a point of discussion. Notes have been made when reading. Notes made when watching other films. I had around 150,000 words before I had been asked to write it, before I had even started thinking of it anew. I did say 50,000 in one interview, but that was wrong. I rechecked. It was 150,000 that I’d typed and filed over the years. When one has spent a lifetime building an archive of books and references, clippings and notes, I think one owes it to oneself, and indeed one’s family, to justify a cramped home environment and make that giant step of finding ways to inveigle some ideas from the mass and spin them together, hopefully to make an interesting read.

3:AM: The scene out of which the film emerged is intense and brilliant and also dangerous. That sense of violence – real physical violence as well as the metaphorical representation of violence – is a constant presence in your book. The use of real gangsters and hard men breaks down the line between pretence and actuality – and this is a theme of the film too, isn’t it?

PB: The film has two elements that are strong: sex and violence. But neither can be neatly parcelled in conventional terms, or neatly presented and tied with a bow, particularly the violence. It’s too easy to tag it to the East End, Bow Bells and neat ribbons. It was the era of the Krays. But it was also the era of the Richardsons, south of the river. And there were others, like Jimmy Evans, who didn’t fit into the gang structure as shown in the film. So the reality is jagged anyway. And there’s the violence of the music world. A double-edged sword where the Stones, as an obvious example, were using violence in their assault, both lyrically and aurally, and indeed physically in their presence and performance. They had that image and were also still in the process of image building as they dragged the violence across the room, and yet at the same time they were denying and decrying with innocent eyes in their interviews. And I use other examples of that time, like The Who, and Hendrix, because it is easy to check and see some footage, and ponder the myths, as they are well-documented. And then there is the violence in the theatre, which I show in various ways, not only with the situation like Bond’s Saved, or Peter Handke’s Offending the Audience, or Brook’s production of Marat/Sade, and US, or underground theatre, like Nuttall’s People Show in their early days… which blends into the world of Happenings, like the Actionists from Vienna… or the acid painting of Gustav Metzger… These were some of the artistic violences, part of the times. Fortunately I was there and involved in some of these activities, directly or as an observer, a close in observer, a youngster with eyes wide open.

So I ran with some of the violent sources and echoes. I say some, because I could keep adding more here, now, or over the pages as I did in the book. And yet, as you say, I did use it to a high degree. I tried to keep it as a motif in each and every chapter. I was drawing out the violence, dangling the threads of violence, indeed the sexual aspects too, right the way through. I was making a bed of violence, a carpet perhaps, for the film to be lain on, or more correctly to meld into. And I was binding the sex and violence together too. Everything entwines, nothing just runs around without catching on something else. And that’s what I think is important. If I keep going here then I’m writing the book again. 300 pages might seem a lot, but in reality given the enormous composite of people involved, the actual book does rather proceed at a pace, and I think I could or should have taken things further. Or I should have written a bit about some others that I left out, or barely mentioned. And it’s not trying to be excessive when I say it could easily have run into a thousand pages of facts and ideas without too much effort. But I really had to keep the momentum going, just as in the film. That’s what was important to me, to keep up to speed with the film. It’s not an academic treatise. I also wrote it on purpose with the threads hanging loose, not tied together, not neatly packaged. If anyone wants to pull at some of the threads I hope I’ve given them enough material to pursue matters further. Besides the layers of violence in all those artistic disciplines, and indeed in the cultural angles, I also wanted you to understand the violence of the language itself, the violence of shooting film, the violence of editing, the violence of the sounds, the music and other effects. In other words, the whole process and fabric of the film. And I tried to do that in the writing, to use certain words with their inherent violence, to write in ways that conveyed violence.

The use of words in this manner is derived from my 60s education with the French, being involved with the writings of Bataille, Artaud and others. I think of Agnès Rouzier, one of the Change Collectif. I translated some of her work. If I recall well, Deleuze said that she sexualised language. It is what I try to do, have always done in my own writing. I try to get inside the words themselves and find their inner rhythms, explore their inner being, and bring out elements, whether it can be termed sexualising, or making violent, or whatever it is I’m exploring at that point. Of course when writing an essay, particularly as in the case of Performance, it is not so easy to do that without driving everyone mad. But I do choose my words, I do construct sentences in certain ways, I do juxtapose and reorganise paragraphs or ideas to conflict. When I talk about these ideas I use terminology like ‘fault line’, ‘precipice’ and other physical geology terms to describe my approach. It comes from the fact I was studying chemistry and geology after I left school. So it is no accident that I see Performance in these terms too, that I was drawn to Performance years ago. The very fabric of the film is permeated with violence and I tried to bring that out as much as possible in my book. But if the reader wants they can take it further, watch every scene, every shot from that perspective. There is more to be drawn out.

There is one gesture of violence that I’m not sure I really pointed out enough in the book, and that is the one engineered by The News of the World. In their attempt to prevent Jagger from suing them after their two incompetent journalists had mistaken Brian Jones for Mick Jagger in Blaises’ one night, they tipped off the police to make the drugs raid at Redlands. The irony is that as a result of all that happened, the harassments, the trial, the Hamilton images that live on forever… it was that press exposure and infamy that gifted Jagger to the Hollywood purse and enabled Performance to be made. Perhaps it might never have happened otherwise. I like that. Turn it up, to paraphrase Harry Flowers. So the thought, as you mentioned, of real gangsters and hard men being involved, whether in informing the research, or whether there on the set, as with Johnny Bindon, would go without saying. And one can extend this further. In the fight scene, Cammell asked the participants if they could do it for real. Anthony Valentine as Joey Maddocks was none too keen. He was strictly an actor, you stage these scenes. James Fox said he wasn’t perturbed, he could handle himself, after all he’d been in the Thomas à Becket gym daily for some months and was quite keen to test his abilities. In the event, as I understand it, the initial takes were made with others from the gym who became damaged and retired hurt. So Fox and Valentine came to an agreement to stage it. Cammell’s ideas were always to do it for real. Hence the issues that evolved with some of the sex scenes. That said, real violence and real sex might not always look too spectacular to the viewer. Things are staged because of the look to the outsider, the voyeur, not for the feelings of the participants. However, they seem to have found a way as the essence of these activities of violence and sex come across on the screen.

3:AM: There are several moments in the book where you show the link between acting and violence. The two central performers in the film, Mick Jagger and James Fox fascinate you as they seem to be working out this acting/performance/violence equation as the film is being made. Was it a matter of them finding something in themselves or were they being changed through the process?

PB: What you see is a film. The results of that film are accomplished in many ways. That is the case for all films. There are stories that surround many directors, many actors, stories about their methods. To take Jagger and Fox, as you suggest, you have to plot back through their histories up to that point. Jagger wanted to act, had Marianne Faithfull at his side at the time, a singer, but, more importantly, an actor in her own right, frustrated and restrained, but with possibilities, as William Gaskill, who was running the Royal Court, has noted. Fox was an actor, had made The Servant. The edge that you see on the screen for The Servant, that underlying violence, was what was going to be explored in Performance. Though I didn’t write about it, the actual filming of The Servant didn’t necessarily have unanimous appeal as I heard from those on the floor. A lot of what struck us about the greatness of that film, the captivating image of Fox, was to do with the editing process.

Back to Performance. There’s a clash of two cultures in acting terms with those two. Jagger’s role-playing as a singer had evolved in a personal and experiential way, and Fox’s had followed a more traditional acting route. That created some ground for friction. But really the edge that is explored and brought out on the screen was fed and blossomed in the dressing room, having had its foundation secured earlier in private life, for there was already a personal relationship between Jagger, Fox and their respective partners. I bring out some of it, but you can go much further, piecing together what you think is true. So I explore this and also bring in that sense of menace that goes on within Harold Pinter’s early plays. To add, you need to know that The Servant was scripted by Pinter, and that Roeg was cameraman on The Caretaker. And also that you’re running with a feeling of the times when Pinter was very much part of the contemporary fabric. And I also bring in Peter Hall talking about directing Pinter to give further credence and understanding. And if we want to bring in further ingredients, we can add David Litvinoff, who was a friend to all the main participants. His role as ‘researcher’, catalyst, agent provocateur, and goodness knows what else, also involved bringing his sharp wit to the proceedings. Iain Sinclair and others have told us things about this character. At the moment someone is writing his biography. Hopefully they’ll succeed, because the evidence seems elusive, many of those who could supply interesting angles are dead, others have vague memories, as occurs when one is trying to write a biography when the sand in the hourglass has almost run its course through the neck. I’m hoping however that just a bit more will be revealed to fuel further the tensions that were living under this Performance project.

3:AM: I’ve got to say this is a much more interesting Mick Jagger (and Rolling Stones) than we find in the loads of books and films appearing at the moment. The contrast between the sexually ambiguous appearance of Jagger and the genuine smell of evil in the film contrasts with the fake image of ‘bad boy band’ branding that was artificial, doesn’t it? It’s as if you’re saying that the fake image of being bad was made real here in aspects of making the film?

PB: I think I have left quite a bit to be read between the lines, particularly on the level you are talking about. A biography, or a film book, or a book about a book, these works are supposed to unravel and explain and effectively close down most of the readings and understandings of the work under research. But Performance is about mystery, has loads of questions that one could resolve, falsely I suspect. It just doesn’t fit the pattern of other approaches to my mind. It needs some mystery, some aspect of being unresolved. That’s why I didn’t want the main protagonists to give me answers now, I didn’t want that closure, whether it was true, or not, whether it was their agenda now, to add a neat bow to their own lives. It needed those shifting and drifting sands, those illusions and sparkling lights on the mosaic. Performance is a bit like an oasis in the desert, a Marrakech, with the image that the bandits are in the mountains just outside the city, overlooking the city.

Things are suggested. I was very careful in my wording at times. I might have known more than I let on, I might not have wanted to step into legal quagmires, and quite rightly. I love this film, and I love the participants, the roles they play, and I also mean those behind the camera. They have become a kind of family, not a fictional one, but a real one, one that lives in my house, on my shelves, in my head. I don’t need to meet these people necessarily. In fact, as people will tell you, never meet those you admire, or love. It’s partly true as I’ve discovered over the years. But on another level it’s okay because we are so far from this film now, little can damage it for me. In other words you have to decide whether you say things, or let things remain that can be misread or taken out of context, and which could easily distort the picture you’re trying to create. There’s enough to work with, I concluded, without that added burden.

For example, there’s a moment in the 2001 documentary that Jagger produced on himself, Being Mick, where his daughter asks him not to bring home a woman who is as young as her, or similar words. It’s humourous. But it could also have a greater importance to viewers than it might have otherwise. Indeed it can overshadow the film to some degree. Of course, Jagger could have made them cut it. But he probably decided it was funny, let it stay. I think he might have done better to drop it. That’s not censorship, it’s just finding the right tone for the overall documentary. These subtle touches can become important, show whether you are still understanding what is going on. I think he might have kicked himself afterwards. Hoped the damage wasn’t too bad, given that he was trying to build a positive image with that documentary. I mean, unlike Keith Richards, Jagger has too many interests to sit and write a book, or oversee the writing. It is easier to let others shoot a documentary and then oversee the production, make that a kind of personal statement. As the whole Redlands fiasco shows, life can hang on little incidents. That’s why people try to manipulate such moments. Or cause them in the first place. The lure of fame, fortune, power, immortality.I don’t want to fuel speculations and acrimonious tales about further goings-on, or salacious stories that were part of the 50s and 60s when everyone was trying to find a new world, stepping from the black-and-white into a colour-filled world, expanding their minds, opening their bodies, spreading wide their limbs, liberating all aspects of the psyche. There was no one correct path. There were paths. Some aspects we look back on with hindsight are naff, some are dubious, and some today we see as no-nos. But haven’t we got better things to do than generate some miserable stories? Are we all so perfect? Are there not more pressing social problems today for the world? So I can’t ignore, but I can leave another layer to say that this was also part of what makes the film uncomfortable, part of what makes it work, makes it ‘happen’, as Pherber says. They were all trying to make it happen, let things happen. It was frustrating on the set too, as she shows, banging at the kitchen table, a very good moment where the reality blends into the film itself.

I guess the person who comes out of this film, and my book, as a fascinating character is Jagger. I’m as surprised as anyone to say that. We all have our views of him, whether true or not; we have all constructed our bad boy, in all manner of ways. We all hate him is the accepted view. He hasn’t helped it either. But what do we expect from him? What does he expect from himself? These are unanswerable. And that’s what is intriguing. Even if I was to meet him tomorrow, I have no idea what to expect. I have no idea what his agenda would be, whether those five minutes would mean anything. You’d have to live with him for quite some while to get a good sense. And that’s not on. And I wouldn’t want it to be on. But everyone seems determined to parcel him up, everyone seems to want to say they’ve got him right in their summarising. I think what I do bring out is that at the time when the film was made he shows his middle-class roots, his very good middle-class upbringing. A very proper one. And perhaps some of the others involved, from a higher class, if we’re using that means of categorisation, are not so proper in their middle-classness as the rest of us think they should be. What is middle-classness about? And the other thing is that at the end of the day Jagger comes across as very caring for children, which was probably unusual, given that he was only 25 and living in this whirlwind of not only the times, but his own career. I would expect that aspect of him has never changed.

3:AM: Donald Cammell comes across here as complex and intense – and brilliant – a figure as any we might find in the so-called Swinging Sixties. Looking at his pivotal role in the scene and in the making of the film, how would you summarise his role in the project to make the film?

PB: I think I paint the picture that the film is, in essence, Cammell’s project. It was his baby. But it was also created by the very real contributions of all those brought in. Whether it be Jagger and Fox, or indeed Anita Pallenberg (who made a big contribution on many levels), and Nic Roeg, of course, who I paint in with the backstory of the earlier films that he was involved in that show through, at least a few of them, no-one can command space for an extended focus, again there’s a very long essay, if not a book, on the Roeg before Performance, leaving aside what came later. And there were all the others too, like Marianne and her role, or Christopher Gibbs, Robert Fraser, and Deborah Dixon, who we have to remember was living with Donald from the late 50s through to when the film was being set up, and who was brought into the film not as a costume consultant, but as a set consultant, Donald deliberately wanting to create the ambience of their home in Paris, and more than that, aspects of their relationship. She was in London to check out whether Tuesday Weld was right for the part. Once the role of Pherber switched to Anita then it was another kettle of fish, part of another story of the intimate world of Donald and Deborah. At every step Donald is there, part of it, leading it, but at every step, the others are contributing. It is very much a team work. It couldn’t exactly be run as a democratic organization where everyone has a say, even if it is suggested as such. Someone has to take control. And Donald did. His character might have been self-defeating at times, as anyone will tell you, but things happened because of him, and things happened that went wrong, but which were turned to an effective positive aspect in the end. Not that I’d advocate trying to make films or anything in that manner. It’s a huge destroyer of time, energy and more. Witness how many films Donald made, and the nature of those films he did make. It is difficult enough to sustain a life as a film-maker. Nic Roeg had a great burst for years, produced some amazing and key films, before the system managed to find the right set of reins to keep him under control, one could say.

3:AM: It’s a scene that involves both artists and writers who have become recognised now as tremendously important – Balthus and Hamilton, for example, and Pinter – it always strikes me that the script is very Pinteresque. And when I read Sinclair today I hear that same power – all that aggression and violence, and beauty. I sense that you are very attracted to elements of this scene?

PB: The thing is that some viewers take on some references and sources, while others take on a different bunch. One can run with a lot of references in this film. You chose Balthus and Hamilton as examples. I’m sure we could find references that ran to a virtual blank in terms of sustainability in today’s sense of art or cultural history. But during that period few would have picked up on Balthus and Hamilton, whereas now it all seems quite clear. And the way they are tied in is not difficult to ascertain. They are not hiding or veiled. I reference Paul Mayersberg pointing out the way in which Godard used references, by not using obscure ones. He tended to draw from those that were part of the French education system, ones that many people knew. Whereas Cammell and Roeg went for those they felt part of, not concerned whether a wider public knew them to any great degree. What cannot be qualified is the role an artist will have in his time or after. As examples I could use Bataille and Artaud. In their lifetimes both were known by the few, not by the many. The two influential French shapemakers of their time were Breton and Sartre. And then, after both of those dominant characters died, their influences waned to some degree. Why should that be? A brief answer could pursue the notion that both Breton and Sartre published their work as they produced it. Both of them lived with a public face, both of them created their empires, their worlds that counted on being in the limelight. On the other hand, Artaud had issues that limited his ability to be public, and Bataille was just not interested in devoting time or energy to that part of the business. Bataille was working away, drawing together threads from various disciplines. Bataille started magazines, spread his ideas in more private and secret ways. His work has been published, almost all of it now, but it has been a long process since his death. It was with a handful of intellectuals that his influence was felt, people who carried his name and influence further, people like Foucault, Derrida, Baudrillard, Lacan, Artaud had a similar influence, his ideas about theatre and more, most of his writings coming after his death thanks to the devotion and hard work of Paule Thevenin who selflessly transcribed his notebooks and fought against a family that would have destroyed all his papers if given the chance. I use those examples because Bataille was influential for me starting way back in the 60s. It was not just his ideas, his books, which of course took years for me to read as few were around and I had to wait for the next volume in the Collected Works being published by Gallimard. For me Bataille was important as an editor, as someone who brought together ideas and disciplines, something I’ve tried to do in my own life and adventures. So you can see that a film like Performance is a godsend to me, drawing in all those references from literature, film, art, theatre, counter-culture, crime, transgressive behaviour.

So you see it in my work, not only in the book about Performance, but in my book, A Public Intimacy, that draws on my collection of scrapbooks, that seeks to find a new narrative for autobiography. Or the book Lisbon, another way to explore a city, a cultural biography masquerading as a travel book. Or Spread Wide, that works with my letters from Kathy Acker, dating from 1979 when she was discovering Bataille and preparing to move to Britain, delving playfully into her text to find other courses that reflected our common interests, both of us determined to journey within the language, and here also being mischievous with the personal and public faces, relevant too as regards the Performance book. Or my own editings, particularly with my magazine, Curtains, that chased its way through the 70s, setting the foundations for my juxtapositions and weaves of ideas, its traces linking back into Performance as I noted. It’s become a distinct way of working for me, though one I’m not prepared to settle with in an armchair beside the blazing logs on the fire. Thus, the exhibition In the disappearing mist, the gift whispers, out at Focal Point Gallery through last autumn, which should manifest itself as a catalogue, a catalogue with a surprise twist if all goes along with the suspect ideas in my head, an exhibition that developed as an extension of just being a one person exhibition, because I brought in other people’s work and my relationship to certain ideas within their work. It was in fact a concept that echoes an exhibition around Jean Paulhan that I saw at the Grand Palais in Paris in 1974. Thus I explored weaves and echoes through work by Susan Hiller, Clunie Reid, Lucy McKenzie, Kathy Acker, Richard Prince, Tatjana Doll, twelve people in all, right through to the work by Claude Royet-Journoud where I made a pinboard by selecting from around a quarter of his notes and letters to me in the 70s that flowed from Paris on a weekly basis, his notes giving me addresses, things of interest to pursue, enthusiasms, encouragements, passions – all that was feeding my Curtains project, which has carried forward to now, driven as I still am with passions to open up areas and ideas, to introduce one thing into another, to show how works and ideas rub against each other, and spark further interests. Some of these notions I take up in my own writings, others I’m trying to edge and seduce others into pursuing. That’s the fun of this life I think, the pleasure of the passion.

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First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, April 1st, 2013.