I’ve now been writing this blog for a year – I got an email from WordPress telling me this at the weekend – and have written on a variety of subjects. My earliest posts related to the fact that the blog was started as part of an MA course – I’m now in the second year of this. So lots of the posts were quite academic and looked at questions of online identity, which I still find fascinating.
A lot of the posts have been political in tone – much of last year was spent obsessing over politics. I campaigned for Ken and even went to the Labour Party Conference. I went on Newsnight talking about schools.
All heady stuff.
Anyway. For once I’m not going to bang on about the cuts. Or feminism. Or Michael Gove. I’m going to wallow in nostalgia and indulge my more louche hedonistic side. I’m going to write about the pure pleasure of watching Performance, Douglas Cammell and Nicolas Roeg’s cult film from the 60s.
Here’s the trailer:
I’ve been meaning to watch the film for literally years – I love 60s art films – and tried watching it about ten years ago. It was very late at night and I was pissed and crashed out after about half an hour with very little recollection of what was going on.
Anyway, I finally got round to ordering the film and watched it twice this weekend. I’d been reading about Marianne Faithfull in some hideous rag (ie the Daily Mail) and it reminded me that I had to watch this film.
I was gripped within the first few frames.
My mistake had been to watch it drunk. The film is designed to disorientate, using flash forwards – where frames from later in the film are cut into the action in the opening shots. It is the exact opposite of continuity editing, designed to feel natural and easy on the eye – can you tell I’ve got to write another essay soon…?
Although the film was very much sold as a vehicle for Jagger,
you don’t see him until some way into the film. In fact the film was originally sold to Warners – the studio – as some kind of madcap caper like A Hard Days night.
So you can imagine the reaction to the finished product. Dark, violent and stuffed full of sex and drugs and rock and roll. Apparently a studio boss’s wife vomited during the screening.
A screwball comedy it is not.
Anyway, the film starts off as a kind of gangster film – you can see in seconds where Guy Ritchie, everyone’s favourite Mockney got most of his ideas from. Much of the action revolves around James’s Fox character Chas, an enforcer for gangsters closely modelled on the Krays who also likes to do his own thing – they see him as a cog in their organization and he sees himself as an individual. As we all like to.
I could write pages about how the stylised violence of the film’s earlier scenes prefigure Clockwork Orange
– I’ve even read stuff online about how Jagger was considered for the role of Alex. Again, it’s hard to know whether or not this is true.
I started watching the film waiting for Jagger, initially seeing the gangster bit as something to endure. But as I said, I ended up gripped. The film edits scenes where Chas is beating the crap out of someone, or trashing someone’s property with scenes in a court room where a stuffy barrister is talking about corporate ethics. About the right to takeover companies. Which is what our gangsters do.
This was particularly pertinent in the age of the asset stripper – as typified by characters such as Jim Walker. He was the ultimate corporate raider back in the 60s – profiled here in Adam Curtis’s excellent documentary The Mayfair Set
The parallels are explicit and the bold and jarring editing forces you to make the connection, just as later in the film, the editing forces you to confront Chas’s identity crisis, as he literally disintegrates in front of us.
This in turn made me think of something else I’d been looking at – apropos of my next essay, on filming and editing. Although not especially competent at video editing myself, I have spent many hours directing edits, stringing together short packages for ‘list’ shows. You look for the laugh and build it round that. Obviously there is an art to it, but you’re not going to win any awards, or challenge anyone’s perceptions about anything.
What I did – and pretty much most films and TV also do so – comes under the heading of what Peter Watkins, famous for making the chilling 60s film about nuclear attack The War Game, calls the monoform.
He explains it here on his website:
The monoform is glib, the monoform is samey and the monoform never attempts to take us out of our comfort zone.
Whether it’s scenes of extreme violence, Anita Pallenberg shooting up heroin into her bum, Jagger in bed with two women or the fact that the directors filmed some scenes with James Fox while he was on acid. Pallenberg alone manages to consume coke, hash, mushrooms and cocaine – as well as heroin – while the film also has a distinct undercurrent of occult darkness and black magic witchery. For a start, Cammell was the godson (or should that be Satan son) of none other than Alastair Crowley, who became terribly hip amongst rock stars in the late 60s.
If you want to read more about all things Satanic, check out this book by ex Blondie bassist Gary Valentine Lachman:
I read this book in the early 2000s and can’t recommend it enough. It’s an absolute mine of information on some of the darker stuff swirling about in the psychedelic soup of the 60s.
I could ramble on for ever about the fantastically decadent interiors of number 81 Powis Square – where Jagger’s character Turner hangs out – or the shots of a genuinely squalid Notting Hill. Yes, I knew it was a slum before the bankers and celebs moved in and I remember it being a bit tatty in the 80s. But this was something else.
But for me, Performance is all about this: