Tuesday, March 31, 2020

PERFORMANCE 1970

Nothing is true. Everything is permitted.

For as long as I can remember, I've been drawn to movies about the fluidity of identity. From the great grandmother of all identity crisis movies, Ingmar Berman’s Persona (1966), to mind-melding favorites that have intrigued and captured my imagination over the years: Secret Ceremony (1968), The Servant (1963), Images (1972), Obsession (1976), Single White Female (1992), 3 Women (1977), Vertigo (1958), Fedora (1978), Black Swan (2010)—the cinema of self-exploration has always held a weird fascination for me.

Perhaps it has to do with my childhood. After all, I did grow up during television's Golden Age of the polar-opposite-twin. That '60s pop-culture window when The Patty Duke Show (identical cousins!) spearheaded the trend for every sitcom coming down the pike to feature characters who are identical twins with yin/yang personalities: Bewitched, I Dream of JeannieThat GirlGilligan’s Island, etc. Prolonged exposure to that kinda stuff can't help but mess with a kid's head.
Alas, the less fun but more persuasive theory is that I'm drawn to movies about fragmented personality because the most impressionable years of my adolescence hit at precisely the same time America was in the deep throes of an ideological identity crisis. Responding to the Vietnam War, social injustice, and a veritable laundry list of grievances leveled at standard cultural norms, the nation trained a mirror on itself and began the process of deconstructing years of conformist conditioning.
With consciousness-expansion and self-exploration the rallying cries of the counterculture, young people challenged society's demand for individuals to always be in performance; constantly donning masks and role-playing in support of hollow, outdated concepts of so-called normalcy. Few films have captured the generational ethos of the "put-ons" (traditionalists adopting false personas to conform) vs. the "drop-outs" (bohemians withdrawing from society and rejecting convention) with as much assurance and visual distinction as Performance.   
James Fox as Chas Devlin
Mick Jagger as Turner
Anita Pallenberg as Pherber
Michele Breton as Lucy
The hallucinatory brainchild of screenwriter Donald Cammell (Demon Seed) making his collaborative directing debut with cinematographer/co-director Nicolas Roeg (Don’t Look Now), Performance is set in the waning days of the Swinging London era, circa 1968. Albeit, a shadowy, considerably seamier Londontown than one might associate with Twiggy or Austin Powers. (Performance was completed in 1968, but distributing studio Warner Bros. was so appalled by the results, they shelved it until 1970).

Dandyish Chas Devlin (James Fox) is an enforcer for genial protection racketeer Mr. Flowers (Johnny Shannon). Chas' inherently sadistic nature makes him a man happy in his work, but when his equally-inherent arrogance and temper lead to the death of a rival partner, he winds up running afoul of both his gangland employer and the police. Assuming the unwittingly self-aware persona of a professional juggler named Johnny Dean, Chas takes refuge as a roomer in a dilapidated Notting Hill townhouse owned and occupied by a retired, reclusive rock star named Turner (Mick Jagger), and his two bisexual bedmates: longtime paramour Pherber (a Delphic Anita Pallenberg) and boyish hanger-on Lucy (16-year-old Michele Breton).
Predating Father Merrin's portentous arrival in The Exorcist (1973), Chas'  appearance at 81 Powis Square signals his entrance into another world. In fact, when he enters Turner's house, we never see him go through the door. One minute he's outside the door speaking through the intercom, the next he's standing in the entryway; as though passed through another dimension or beamed aboard an alien spacecraft.

Two (dis)similar men, tenant and landlord, both in hiding of sorts, under the same roof. One violent and aggressive, ever looking into mirrors and (too) quick to assert that he knows exactly who he is. The other, a nowhere man, an erudite “male, female man” creatively adrift after being abandoned by what he calls his inner demon. The uncurious Chas, certain he has landed in a madhouse ("It's a right pisshole. Longhairs, beatniks, fee-love, foreigners...you name it!"), simply wants to lay low while awaiting a fake passport and passage to America (Turner: "Place to go, isn't it, for gangsters?").

But for Turner, Chas holds a strange fascination. Recognizing a brethren showman and fellow mask-wearer behind the fastidious swagger (Chas is the Joan Crawford of mobsters), Turner endeavors to get into the gangster's head to find out why the turn-on of violence has always been life's crowd-pleasing, repeat engagement headliner compared to the turn-on of drugs, sex, and rock & roll.
Convergence

A psychedelic head-trip whose themes of fragmented identity and malleable reality illuminate every frame, Performance gives the appearance of being a hallucinogenic enigma, but it's a film that knows precisely what it wants to say, its path and vision clear as crystal. From its dizzying opening montage, Performance establishes itself as a bombardment to the senses and assault on reality.
Hitting the ground running, it volunteers nothing in the way of explanation, exposition, or exits as it sets about dismantling linear notions of personality and identity in a startling tapestry of images and ideas. And it goes about it at breakneck speed, fairly daring you to keep up.
Anthony Valentine as Joey Maddocks
Early drafts allude to a past sexual relationship as being the source of the
ambiguous acrimony between Chas the enforcer and Joey the bookie

Contrary to its reputation for being impenetrable and opaque, Performance's plot is really pretty straightforward in and of itself (slim, even); it's in the telling where things take a headlong turn into crazy. With duality as its defining thematic and visual motif, everything about the look and feel of Performance—from its fluid representation of time (past, present, and future intersect kaleidoscopically) to its recurring patterns of mirrors and twinning—is linked to the concept that everyone and everything has its shadow and light, yin and yang.
Peace & Love / Hate & Violence
The paradox of the '60s "All You Need Is Love" flower power hippie movement is that the '60s was also an extremely violent and socially turbulent decade. Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated three months before filming began on Performance. Here, a newspaper clipping referencing King's 1964 trip to Oslo, Norway to receive the Nobel Peace Prize has been posted on a headboard by one of Turner's previous tenants.

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
Performance is the Doublemint Gum of head movies. A double your pleasure, double your fun mind-fuck expedition to the axis points of male/female, sex/violence, queer/straight. Virtually everything in this film is the mirror image of something else; a reflection viewed through a fractured prism that turns in upon itself and back around again.
Performance’s most ingenious application of dualism is in having the film itself—paralleling the arc of its two lead characters—structured as two separate movies that ultimately converge into one.
The first film is a brutal gangster movie about a preening East End hoodlum. The second is something like a stoner’s homage to Billy Wilder’s Sunset Blvd.; the recluse in this instance, a past-his-prime rock star (“He had three number ones, two number twos, and a number four!”) numbing himself with drugs and decadence. Their eventual convergence—a dive into the deep end of the magic realism pool—leads to the dreamscape collision of two separate worlds and the hallucinatory merging of two disparate men.

Memo from Turner
Making good on his desire to get into the head of his houseguest, the vampiric Turner assumes the dual role of mobster and rocker in Chas’ drug-fueled musical hallucination. A taunting ode to brutality, dominance, macho posturing, and their role in repressed queer desire. 

SHOOT
Chas and Ferber take aim. He with a gun, she with a movie camera.


"Who am I? Do you know who you are?"
Identity and image. The watcher and the watched. Throughout the film, characters suddenly appear to be looking directly at us, addressing us and challenging our presumptive certainty that we have the slightest idea who's who, what's what, or can discern reality from fantasy.


THE STUFF OF FANTASY
Though Performance was not successful in its initial release, it has since gained the reputation of being the film that defined an era. And in many ways, that’s true. While Hollywood depictions of the '60s and hippie culture invariably leaned towards the absurd (Skidoo -1968) or exploitative (Angel, Angel, Down We Go – 1969), Performance distinguishes itself through its matter-of-fact depiction of bohemian drop-out culture, casual drug use, and libertine sex. Further anchoring it to the era is its visual style, which is reflective of the underground and experimental films of the day.
The gender-fluidity that's now practically a prerequisite for pop music stardom was far from common back in the '60s. Even with the proliferation of long hair, gender representation in rock has always been assertively male and hetero. Jagger was among the first to mine the hip marketability of androgyny and bisexuality.

The life that Turner lives defines the epitome of the hippie ideal: no work; an independent income; a sprawling house overflowing with pillows, posters, and Moroccan accents; and nothing to do but spend the day screwing, getting high, listening to music, and reading Jorge Luis Borges.
But where Performance truly excels is in capturing the era's fascination with psychedelics and inner-exploration. The 1950s, with its emphasis on conformity and rigidly-defined gender roles, was the decade that professed to know all the answers. In direct contrast, the late-1960s was all about questions.
Dressed in a caricature costume of a gangster, Chas' self-identification with his work asserts brutality, aggression, and power as the provinces of maleness. Turner shakes up Chas' already wobbly self-certainty by proposing that when you change your drag, you change your perceptions. Identity-based labels like masculine, feminine, male, female, are but another form of discardable, reusable performance.    

PERFORMANCES
Actor James Fox is no stranger to identity-crisis dramas. He first gained notoriety for The Servant (1963), which was another film about mind games and power plays carried out in a sexually cryptic arena. From the first time I ever saw him (1967’s Thoroughly Modern Millie), I’ve felt Fox radiated an appealingly ambiguous “Is he gay or just British” vibe that is put to good use in Performance. His finishing school take on an East End Cockney thug is as frightening as it is canny.
Johnny Shannon as gay crime boss Harry Flowers. Anthony Morton as gang member Dennis 

Making his film debut, Rolling Stones frontman Mick Jagger may have frustrated Warner Bros. stockholders by making his official entrance into the film at roughly the 45-minute mark, but it’s the kind of delayed unveiling that bestows gravitas and narrative heft on a character before they utter a sound. Playing a man of mystery, Jagger gets to let his rock star mystique do most of the talking, bringing both erotic danger and a sort of touching melancholy to his role. I’m not sure if he’s very good or very well-used, but his Turner is perfection.
As the Black Queen/The Great Tyrant in Barbarella, Anita Pallenberg almost stole that film from Jane Fonda. And she nearly does the same with Performance. Hers is a captivating, devilish performance.

THE STUFF OF DREAMS
Being that I was 12-years-old in 1970, Performance’s scandalous reputation and gender-bending ad campaign were sufficient reasons for my parents to forbid me to see it during its original release. I was in my 20s when I saw it for the first time in a Los Angeles revival house.
What impressed me about Performance then is what I contend to this day; it is one of the rare examples of a genuinely startling film. Not shocking in terms of explicitness, but audacious in the uniqueness of its personal vision and so very unlike anything I’ve ever seen. And I gotta say, seeing it now on Blu-ray with the much-needed assist of subtitles is like discovering the film anew.
Truth and illusion. Masculinity redefined. Identity reassigned.



BONUS MATERIAL
When Chas arrives at Turner's home, he notices on the stoop several bottles of milk, a box of mushrooms, and four Mars candy bars. This is a jokey reference to the notorious 1967 drug bust at the Redlands country estate of Rolling Stones' Keith Richards. The arrest made headlines (and later refuted) because, along with finding drugs, reports claim that when the police broke in, Jagger was seen eating a Mars bar out of the vagina of then-girlfriend Marianne Faithful.

Documenting Decadence and Debauchery
In the short film from 2016, actor James Fox and Performance producer Sandy Lieberson discuss photographer Cecil Beaton and his visit to the set in 1968. Watch it HERE.


Copyright © Ken Anderson 2009 - 2020

14 comments:

  1. Spurred by this review, I watched this again for the third time, and it finally "clicked." (First time was many years ago at Eastman House as part of a series called something like "Offensive films." Also included: Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.)

    I think for a lot of first-time viewers, the effectiveness of the first part is lost as you're waiting for Jagger to show up. And there's so much in those early scenes when you're paying attention--really good filmmaking.

    One thing that surprised me was how much of the soundtrack was blues rock (if not straight-on blues) and not psychedelia, which was probably what people expected at the time.

    Thanks for pushing me to try this one again.

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    1. Hi MDG
      I’m sure Warner Bros would agree with you about the "Waiting for Jagger" issue. That was one of their biggest gripes with the original edit. So much so that the only way Cammell was able to placate them was to include a few flash-forward images of Jagger in those early scenes, creating a sense of foreshadowing and nonlinear time.

      You're also spot-on in noting that there’s so much going on in the first half that informs and clarifies the latter sequences. Almost everything in Chas’ hallucination refer to things we’ve seen and heard in the first half.
      Glad you brought up the issue of the music. It's one of the things fans of the film refer to with such high praise. PERFORMANCE is such a natural for psychedelic music that the bluesy/synthetic sound it instead goes for feels bold and is ultimately so welcomed.

      I'm glad you gave PERFORMANCE another look. I like it a bit better each time I see it. And as I mentioned above, seeing it with subtitles is like seeing the film for the first time. So much I missed in those British accents!
      Thanks for commenting!

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  2. Hi Ken - can you believe I have yet to see this one? Now I must. After all, you are the one who turned me on to Don’t Look Now and now the gorgeously restored blu Ray is now in my collection! And that is only one example of the many films you have opened my eyes to.

    I too have been fascinated by James Fox ever since he was Julie Andrews’s “silly boy” Jimmy doing the Tapioca-slapioca in Millie! He is marvelous in The Servant as well...which I only saw many years later. Not gay, just British—love that!

    Jagger was certainly a looker back then, so photogenic in your beautifully curated screen captures, but can he act? (I will find out soon!) Bowie was probably the best of the rock and pop stars who crossed over to acting. Interested to see how Mick fares!

    Hope you are staying safe and watching lots and lots of movies!!!
    - Chris

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  3. Hey Chris - I think if a bunch of us film bloggers got together and shared what classic films or iconic films we've yet to see, it would be both eye-opening and funny.
    I'm thrilled if this post inspires you to check out PERFORMANCE, because I really do find to be such an exceptional movie. I think it's one you'll watch and then almost instantly want to revisit, it's that rich of an experience.
    And given that you like James Fox, this role really plays off his versatility (for the longest I didn't think the skeevy guy in PERFORMANCE was the squeaky clean fellow in "Millie" - plus, I always got him mixed up with his brother Edward).
    Thanks for commenting, Chris, hope you enjoy it as much as I did, Stay safe, wash those hands, and have fun catching up on your personal "To watch" list!

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  4. Hi Ken-
    I'm a newcomer to your blog. I got here via The Lonely Lady (which is probably #1 in my personal 'bad movies I love' list), moved on to Lost Horizon (which is also on said list, in the top 10 as well) and then I decided to see what your most recent post is. I'm doubly pleased to see you're still occasionally posting, and that the topic of your last post was Performance.

    As something I had become slightly familiar with via the Danny Peary Cult Movies books, Performance was on my radar but I wasn't in a rush to watch due to my lack of overall interest in the Rolling Stones and psychedelic artifacts. However I had recently rewatched Don't Look Now and Walkabout and decided to go a bit further down the Nicholas Roeg wormhole.
    (I'd also recently seen The Servant for the first time, which James Fox is excellent in.) I was pleasantly surprised to find it much more intriguing and cohesive than anticipated, exactly as you mention in your post. It totally works, and deserves a larger audience than it currently has...although it's probably not mainstream enough for that to occur. The gay audience should certainly embrace it more, especially as gender fluidity becomes much more of a regular aspect in daily human existence.

    Your writing style, spot-on analysis of what film opinion is (opinion versus overall fact), vast knowledge of factoids and great sense of humor are very much appreciated in this kindred soul. I do hope you'll continue to write and I look forward to making my way through your back catalog of posts. Stay safe and keep on keepin' on.
    Cheers-
    Pete

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    1. Hello, Pete
      I can’t imagine a more gracious or flattering introduction than your very kind comment! I’m thrilled if you feel you’ve found a kindred spirit for your love of good/bad in these virtual pages, for I know that anyone with an appreciation for THE LONELY LADY and LOST HORIZON (and possessing the aesthetic fluidity to embrace DON’T LOOK NOW and WALKABOUT) is an individual I’m grateful to have happened upon this blog.
      It's enlightening to hear from someone seeing PERFORMANCE for the first time and confirming my belief that it is a far more coherent narrative than its reputation had suggested. The rock & roll emphasis that was always so much a part of its marketing, figures minimally, just as with the whole psychedelics angle.
      I think the viewing chronology (THE SERVANT, DON’T LOOK NOW) leading up to seeing PERFORMANCE worked in your favor, as it seems as though you were already fond of Roeg’s work and impressed with Fox. I’m glad to hear you found the film interesting. Certainly, the timing worked in my favor in your being generous enough to take the time to share your comments about the film here.
      I'm happy you didn’t remain an anonymous reader, and I hope you continue to check out the site and feel comfortable (and welcomed) enough to share more of your thoughts on films with us.
      Hope you’re staying safe and staying home! Thanks, Pete!

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    2. Pete, welcome to Ken's great blog. His writing on film just keeps getting better and better.

      Danny Peary's Cult Movies was my intro to film-geekdom, and my Bible from the time it came out (I was about fifteen or so.) I still remember years later having a conversation with this rock guitarist I worked with who told me that he loved the Performance, and then I mentioned the part where Anita Pallenberg is laying on the bed and stroking her fur coat right over her vagina. Well, he was flabbergasted that I hadn't actually seen the film at that point, but I knew about this sequence since Danny Peary had described it in Cult Movies as "one of the most erotic scenes in film history."

      Ken, are you familiar with the Supporting Actress Smackdown? I am addicted to it lately, but I don't see it listed in any of your website links:

      http://thefilmexperience.net/blog/tag/smackdown

      Enjoy.

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    3. Hi Rick
      I am wholly unfamiliar with the blog link you posted (thank you). I haven't gone over it in any depth, but from what I've seen it appears to be a treasure trove of the obscure and underappreciated. I've put it on my link list. I can easily see how you could become addicted!
      (And thank you for your always kind words.)

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  5. Oh, and I forgot to mention I also read your post on the most recent Annie remake, and you've convinced me to give it a viewing. Kudos!

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    1. Ha! That's actually wonderful Pete. But as I always say to folks who are inspired to see a film I have written fondly about...please consider the source; I'm the guy who liked "Xanadu." Have fun!

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    2. Oh, full reveal: I'm a child of the 70s that grew up with an ELO-loving sister (and I've happily drank the Kool-Aid ever since), so the pump was already primed for me to whole-heartedly embrace "Xanadu", from a music standpoint anyway. The film is, and will always remain, a prime example of what defines the phrase "guilty pleasure." Also, being a gay male I'm required to have at least one main female diva-esque figure, and Olivia is my figurative and literal musical muse.

      I also saw the post regarding your tribute dance studio makeover. OMG, the work that Bruce did for that is nothing short of phenomenal!

      I'll definitely be commenting again as I digest more of the posts and films contained within. I can already tell I'm more likely to agree with your suggestions/opinions than disagree...and even if I do, no biggie! I just finished reading about Toys Are Not For Children, and it's a definite must for a future viewing. It's currently in line behind Dinah East, which I also just learned about...

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    3. Your comment confirms that you have found a family of sorts with this blog and its readers. It's a welcoming place for individuals who are passionate about films yet harbor a democratic, snob-free attitude about cinema. It's mostly about the enjoyment of movies and celebrating how they have touched us personally.
      I'll relay your compliments to Bruce about his ZANADU makeover of that dance studio. He is indeed a talented man.
      And please don't think agreement is a requisite for commenting. On the contrary, when people share contrasting views on a film I post about, I think it affords the reader the opportunity to appreciate how no two people have to see the same things in a movie.
      I look forward to hearing from you again. And do check out DINAH EAST. In my opinion it's an undiscovered gem. Thanks, Pete.

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  6. It seems that sheltering-in-place is a great way to find new entertaining and informative blogs such as yours. I was deep-diving into the charms of David Janssen vis-à-vis another site I frequent and chanced upon your fabulous review of the '75 stinker, Once is Not Enough. I love a review that is a lot more fun to read than the film is to watch. Your analysis of Performance is insightful and is sure to lead your audience to seek it out again, if not for the first time. I won't pretend that I was sophisticated enough when it came out to appreciate it beyond its decadence, which was thrilling enough at the time. Suffice it to say that it was on the top ten list of my long-since departed best friend. And funny you would mention Persona, as it was about the only Bergman film he had the patience for. Like your blog, he had the gift of recounting a movie in a way that made you feel you had seen it. In fact, it could be disconcerting to later catch the flick and find you liked the way he told it better. This applied especially to the films of Antonioni, who I find perplexing. Anyway, thanks for what you do, and, p.s. I loved the autobiographical bit in the OINE review about being an usher at the Alhambra Theater in '75. I'm sure there's some stories there.

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    1. Hello! My apologies for not seeing your lovely comment earlier (stress-eating and constant napping takes up so much time!), but reading your comment here really made my day. Especially what you shared about what sounds like a remarkable best friend.
      There's a lyric in Stephen Sondheim's "Pretty Women" that goes "Tis your delight, sir, catching fire from one man to the next" which always feels like the perfect description of how a contagious enthusiasm for a film can inspire in the listener a desire to check out the film for themselves, and perhaps repeat the same contagious process (if you'll pardon my use of THAT word).
      So you had the opportunity to see PERFORMANCE when it first came out? Had I been able to, like you, I would have appreciated the decadence and not understood much of what was going on.
      How perfect that ONCE IS NOT ENOUGH brought you here, for it sort of sets the tone for the kind of films I like/cover here. So since my piece on it didn't send you running for the hills, I hope you stop by now and then and feel free to contribute. I so appreciate your very kind compliments, and I welcome you to the asylum. We have some of the nicest people here. Cheers!

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