A druggie, schizophrenic, S&M ‘A Hard Day’s Night’…and then some
Often cited as one of the greatest films in British Cinema, Performance is a hallucinogenic trip (pun intended) through London’s criminal underworld, the tentative edifice of identity, and the whole glorious mess of psychotropic drug-soaked late 1960s pop-culture when flower-power was beginning to wilt and swinging London was beginning to sway.
Co-directed by renegade screen-writer and uber-bohemian Donald Cammell (White of the Eye, Demon Seed) and helped to manifestation with the guidance of cinematographer turned visionary director Nic Roeg (Don’t Look Now, The Man who Fell to Earth) the movie begins with Rolling Stone singer Mick Jagger playing Turner, a has-been rock star ensconced in his Notting Hill mansion living a dissolute life of orgiastic decadence having lost his creative daemon. Nevertheless, despite this creative fallow period he adequately entertains himself with the spellbinding Pherber (Anita Pallenberg) and exquisitely androgynous Lucy (Michele Breton) in an atmosphere where money floats idly on bath water and psilocybin mushrooms are served for breakfast…until one day Chas (James Fox), an on-the-run South London gangland hood, knocks on his door seeking solace under the guise of being (obviously) a juggler. However, it doesn’t take long for Turner and Co. to cotton onto Chas’s weak ruse and, voyeuristically fascinated by the implications of the violent underworld Chas inhabits, indulge in a bizarre rite where definitions of violence and sexuality are explored, and identity is deconstructed to reveal it’s underlying ontological insecurity (to borrow a phrase from infamous 60s’ anti-psychiatrist R. D. Laing).
“Infamy, infamy. They’ve all got it in for me!”
Shot over the course of 12 weeks in 1968 on a budget of £400,000, the movie has since enjoyed an uninterrupted reign as the monarch of all cult movies, a reputation accentuated by the multitude of stories (by turns lurid and tragic) circulating around the movie’s conception, production, and reception. Indeed, the movie and the millieu that spawned it were so sui generis in almost every respect that it would have been impossible for the studio executives to imagine the project they had green-lit. In fact, many assume that the project was given the go ahead by studio executives who, in seeing the name of a Rolling Stone attached, no doubt envisioned an anodyne film-pop hybrid like A Hard Day’s Night. However, Performance is as far away from a mainstream-courting, tongue-in-cheek romp as you can get. Instead it is a raw and (in more than one sense) adult film which is self-consciously transgressive and deviant in every respect. So try to have some sympathy for the wife of one exec who is rumoured to have vomited at an initial screening while another was apparently heard to say “…even the bath water was dirty”. How much of this is apocryphal remains up for debate but a review printed in the New York Times a few years later articulated the feelings of many when it wrote that “you don’t have to be a drug addict, pederast, sado-masochist, or nitwit to enjoy Performance, but being one of those things would help”. Something of an inauspicious start, one might say.
What is sure is that, after various cuts and re-edits, the film was shelved for 2 years after it was finished in 1968, not seeing the light of day until 1970. Saying this, by modern standards this seems a quaint over-reaction: modern pop videos are arguably more sexualised than anything on show in the movie and, as a result, the sex scenes between Jagger and Pallenberg – despite out-takes being shown at adult movie festivals on the European circuit – come across as positively tasteful (although another rumour has it that the sex wasn’t simulated and was indeed real, something which no doubt *cough* annoyed Stones guitarist Keith Richards, who Pallenberg was officially with at the time). Modern audiences may also smirk a little at the depiction of drug-taking in the film which lacks both the glamour of Scorcese-style fistfuls-of-coke-flung-into-the-air as well as the searing gritty realism of films like Christiane F or Trainspotting.
Okay, sure…the film is dated somewhat (even down to the casting of Jagger who, after emerging from his late 60s “Baudelaire phase” and establishment-baiting anthems such as Let’s Spend the Night Together, Street-fighting Man, and Sympathy for the Devil , ended up symbolising mainstream bloated arena-rock and went on to accept a Knighthood in 2003). However, in the same way that we need to remember that throughout the 1960s Jagger’s sexualised druggie androgyny and dirty Blues-inspired rock’n’roll was perceived as a very real threat to the status quo we likewise need to keep in mind that it was films from this period – like Performance – which broke new ground wherein other films would be allowed to follow. Secondly, despite this I would argue that the violence in the first half of the film still actually packs quite a punch today in terms of grittiness, the conflation made between violence and sex, as well as the implications of homosexuality within the gangland world which, it should be remembered, was still a tangible presence in late-60s London owing to the Kray brothers and their “Firm”. Thirdly, it should be noted that for all its explictness, the drug-taking, sex, and violence in the film are merely vehicles for the grander ruminations on identity that are the heart of the film.
“Nothing is true, everything is permitted”
Out of the directorial duo of Nic Roeg and Donald Cammell it is Roeg who, with the acclaimed The Man who Fell to Earth and the bewilderingly beautiful Don’t Look Now, went onto to establish himself as a director of considerable standing while Cammell struggled to get his various subsequent projects off the ground. Nonetheless, Performance should really be recognised as Cammell’s baby as its content is a clear articulation of the man, his musings, and his fetishes – from organised crime to drugs to threesomes and to the work of Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges. Borges, in collections like Fictions and Labyrinths wrote short stories in a magical realist style which collapsed the distinctions between imagination and reality and created worlds of confusion which elicit awe in the possibilities that open up. This influence soon pops up in the first interaction between Chas and Turner when Chas is trying to convince Turner that he needs a place to stay because he is a juggler:
CHAS: I’m an artist, Mr Turner. Like yourself.
TURNER: You juggle?
CHAS: Why not?
TURNER: Why, why not? Why not a jongleur? It’s the third oldest profession. You’re a performer of natural magic.
CHAS: …I perform.
TURNER: I bet you do. I can tell by your vibrations…you’re an anti-gravity man! Amateur night at the Apollo. Cheops in the bloody pyramid. He dug a juggler or two, didn’t he? Remember? And the tetrarchs of Sodom…and Orbis Tertius
This last reference name-checks the famous Borges story Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius. The influence can also be found in copies of books by Borges lying in the apartment as well as in the movie’s climatic confrontation when a seemingly possessed Chas enters the bedroom of Turner and Pherber and says “I gotta be off now”. “No, I’m going to talk to you some more” Turner protests.
CHAS: Nah, I gotta shoot off now.
TURNER: I’ll come with you then.
CHAS: (pause) You don’t know where I’m goin’ pal.
TURNER: I do.
TURNER: I dunno.
CHAS: Yeah you do.
Chas then fires a bullet which propels us into Turner’s head towards an image of a man. This man is none-other than Borges himself.
Chas is then led out of the house by gangsters who’ve tracked him down (and who are appalled by the hippy clothes, wig, and feminine appearance essayed by the once gruff bloke), into the car which, as it drives off, reveals to us the face of Turner. The two men’s identities have become entwined. Or magically switched places. Or…something. It’s hard to state categorically an end to film which makes it’s raison d-etre the intentional blurring of lines between masculine and feminine, sex and violence, hetero- and homo-, pleasure and pain, self and other. Indeed, Jagger’s girlfriend at the time Marianne Faithful called the production a “psycho-sexual lab” and “a seething cauldron of diabolical ingredients: drugs, incestuous sexual relationships, role reversals, art and life all whipped together into a bitch’s brew” and nowhere was this more apparent in the role of Turner who Faithful urged Jagger to model on a combination of fellow Stone Keith Richards and soon-to-be ex-Stone Brian Jones – further fuelling the aspects of transgressive identity and sex as while Pallenberg was dating Richards at the time of shooting she had originally dated Jones.
Let it Bleed
And while Cammell’s story is certainly the most tragic, it isn’t the only tale of breakdown associated with the movie. In fact, rarely has any movie before or since had such a profoundly disconcerting effect on those associated with it. Anita Pallenberg began using heroin during the filming of the movie (a habit which lasted until 1987) and remarked at the conclusion of filming that she felt “drained” and that “the optimism of the 60s had totally gone for me.” In a similar fashion, Jagger and Fox smoked DMT on set between takes and although neither gained a serious drug-addiction Fox, who up until Performance had been known for playing upper-class gents, had begun hanging around with real-life London gangsters as research for the role and after filming began an introspective spiritual journey leading to him quitting acting for a decade and becoming a born again Christian.
So perhaps it could be argued that Jagger escaped the ‘curse’ of Performance relatively unscathed; however, between the conclusion of the filming and its release the Stones would play their disastrous set at the Altamont festival on December 6, 1969. It was here, in a concert Rolling Stone magazine slammed as “the product of diabolical egotism, hype, ineptitude, money manipulation, and, at base, a fundamental lack of concern for humanity,” that Hell’s Angels hired for security purposes stabbed to death Meredith Hunter, an 18-year old concert goer high on meth and himself brandishing a gun during the Rolling Stones’ set. The incident was captured on film and even included in the final cut of the tour documentary film Gimme Shelter. Billed as a west-coast Woodstock the festival proved instead to be the perverse negative, the haggard Portrait of Dorian Gray, and served for many as the literal and figurative end of the 1960s. Shortly after this Jagger threw away all of the books he had collected on the occult which had inspired several Stones’ songs of the period. He also promptly broke off his association with experimental film-maker and practising occultist Kenneth Anger (incurring his ire in the process), for whom he had already provided a soundtrack for the short film Invocation of my Demon Brother and who had already arranged with Jagger to play the part of Lucifer in his magnum opus Lucifer Rising. The Stones were never the same group after that and, depending on who you ask, they were never as good after that either.
The most tragic victim, though, is that of Cammell himself. After Performance he bummed around Hollywood for decades writing scripts and having them rejected. He did manage to direct a couple of films but these were critically panned, the salt in the wound being that the released versions were often hacked to pieces by the studio into forms unrecognisable by Cammell himself. In the end, disappointed by decades of rejection and anonymity he committed suicide with a shotgun to the head. However, death was not instantaneous and he is reported to have walked around for some time afterwards and remarked to his partner, in a curious and morbid reference to the climax of his most well-known film, that he “couldn’t see Borges”.
Quite a catalogue of woe for one film. But perhaps all this is to be expected from a movie where the lead character announces that “the only performance that makes it, that really makes it, that makes it all the way, is the one that achieves madness.”
As previously mentioned, since its release the movie has ascended to the title of unrivalled King of Cult Movies and always scores well in critics polls of Best British Movies as well as, simply, Best Movies. And likewise, the status of Cammell’s remarkable screenplay and creative vision are more readily accepted. What’s more, however, is that looking back on the movie nearly fifty years after its release it is a powerful historical document of a particular period of the counter-culture revolution (much like Jean Luc Godard’s own 1968 movie featuring the Stones One Plus One/Sympathy for the Devil)…but not the tired hippy, “flower-power” guff but a more psychologically and philosophically penetrating treatment of the darker underpinnings of such adolescent idealism. And Performance is such a product of both its times and the unique talent of Cammell that it seems a prophetic awareness of the souring of forbidden fruit tasted by so many, all optimistic for better things but whose visions of the future were soon to be smashed by the Altamont Disaster, the Manson Murders, and the end of the Sixties.
Proceed with caution.