Proposed to producers as a hippie-dippie psychedelic fallout shelter for the grooving ’60s to escape to in case of mass assault by the impending cynicism of the ’70s, Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg’s vituperative Performance is, instead, a sulfurous and fluorescent molotov cocktail thrown straight into the decade-long party the ’60s had been having with itself. Announcing itself with the foreboding funk of a hearse-like car careening across the countryside, the cryptic seizure of the film’s editing then immediately interjects with an explicit sexual tryst that sours into a fiery throttling match between fleshy shapes that soon enough barely even resemble the human form. We’re a minute in and we already cower in fear for the sadomasochistic holocaust the co-directors are about to unfurl upon us.
Initially conceived as a pseudo-A Hard Day’s Night for the increasingly ubiquitous Rolling Stones, Performance tingles with Mick Jagger’s lecherous, libidinous vulgarity and embodies his ejaculatory, violently spasmodic qualities in the gesticulations of Roeg’s psychotic, carnal camera. In Roeg’s directorial debut – Donald Cammell having found such a kindred spirit in the lurid cinematographer that he afforded him nearly complete control of the film’s look and co-director status – he thrusts violently onto the audience, prefacing the deranged, arrhythmic editing of his masterpiece Don’t Look Now with a nasty, atemporal work of experiential nuclear fallout. Someone with money wanted a paean to anarchic ’60s good cheer, and Roeg and Cammell turned the party into a monstrous rave-up tumbling over itself into manic-depressive hysteria.
It’s an outre film, through and through, with Roeg’s sublime work in B-picture horror throughout the ’60s now, for the first time, untempered by the weight of conformity or mainstream cinema. Fittingly released at the end of an erupting volcano of world cinema, Performance vacillates between influences with the brio of free-form jazz friction-lit into a firestorm. Trickles of Godard’s disruptive editing and apocalyptic cinema-on-the-run abound, as do the French and American tough-love gangster pics like John Boorman’s Point Blank (the distance that Performance shoots you from) and Melville’s Le Samourai (fittingly, Performance feels like the ’60s turned into a lost, wandering ronin committing seppuku).
Do we have any human portals into this reckless fantasia? Sort of. When brow-beating Chas (James Fox) has his brow-beaten by the very gang he enforces for, he goes into hiding in the company of now-”demonless” former rocker Turner (Mick Jagger, his acting debut). The film’s been snarling around them so much that the malarial malaise creeping underneath the battering-ram screw-loose filmmaking has to secrete out in Mick Jagger’s performance of all things, not so much a post-coital act as post-life one. The whole film has the spontaneity of being caught up in its own death throes, and Jagger adds the from-the-grave chill to counterpose the off-its-rocker energy without ever sacrificing the scabrous black-and-blues the film leaves all over you.
So it’s a kaleidoscope swept up into a maelstrom, a carousel of acid-trip anxiety wrestling with masculine mod-culture run amok. If Nicholas Ray and George Romero formed a band, you might get a song like the hedonistic day-glo nightmare expressed most startlingly in Roeg’s bloodied-red cinematography or his serpentine edits, embodying the disastrous decimation of the times in a bizarre, unheralded concoction of guerrilla-style camerawork and prowling, subjective cinemovement. The film doesn’t always know where it’s going, mind you – for psychological depth, it isn’t a patch on Don’t Look Now or Roeg’s later art-rock hyrbid The Man Who Fell to Earth. But the appeal of his debut feature is the insouciance of the technique spiraling out of control. In getting away from any intent or individual character psychology, the film enraptures us with a world that had seemingly slipped away from everyone.
Certainly, the film escaped from its producers’ intonations like flickers of abominable, intoxicating energy radiating outward into the world beyond their control. Rumor has it that the film was financed simply because Mick Jagger was involved, affording Roeg and Cammell – who writes like a flurry of batty, Beat-infused, Burroughs-esque unchained-minds – a sort-of complete control over their disorienting, slurred film. The film’s production was troubled and is probably best left a mystery, but let us rejoice in the fact that the stream-of-consciousness sexual escapade, howling midnight fright, and discombobulated and decadent daydream we received was surely surprise to the higher-ups involved. The phallic imagery alone is a tease, but even that belies the way the film’s most striking, playful, surreptitious cut is decidedly feminine: a silhouetted mountaintop, glorious and beautiful, shocked into maddened reality, and it’s a nipple of all things. Stir with the echoing sound that scratches into your consciousness and you’ve got a sort of London Underground for the true cinematic reprobates among us.
There are several dozen more famous films that survived the cultural cleansing of the early ’80s as markers of the New School angry cinema of the modern age, soothsayers of an era’s end. Given the cinephile, you’ll probably hear Bonnie and Clyde or The Wild Bunch or MASH as the de facto turn-of-the-’60s spirit-of-the-times piece, but no film from the era rattles at the bones and frays the nerves like the savage zeitgeist-chronicler Performance (certainly, none of those other films are as awash in performative sexuality, but that’s just the cherry on the heretical pie). We enter hoping for a bar-room brawl, and we leave burning in the fires of Altamont.