This Peculiarly Human Preoccupation, Love: Nicolas Roeg’s Bitter Counterculture Classics
Cinematekene er et samarbeid om felles digitale visninger på cinematekene i Bergen, Kristiansand, Lillehammer, Oslo, Stavanger, Tromsø og Trondheim. Montages setter gjennom ukentlige artikler fokus på filmene i utvalget. Nicolas Roegs The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976) vises fra og med torsdag 23. februar – sjekk tidspunkter i oversikten hos ditt cinematek.
Gabrielė Liepa (b. 1993) is a film & literature graduate from Amsterdam University College. Gabrielė’s interests include literary and film history, and art films of the Cold War era.
When Nicolas Roeg passed away in 2018 at the age of 90, the film world lamented losing one of its most brazen and creative directors. This reputation, however, had taken a long while to catch up with his career. Starting work in Marylebone Studios in London as a tea boy in 1947, he worked his way up to the cinematography department and, two decades later, debuted as a director. However, it took much longer still for his films to be reappraised and find their spot in the British film canon. Financially unsuccessful and critically ambiguous releases followed one after the other, but no other films can be said to have undergone such a drastic reevaluation as the counterculture classics Performance (1970) and The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976).
I don’t believe it’s an overstatement to declare Performance as one of the most notorious British films ever made. Its fraught production and ensuing battle with Warner Bros. is the stuff of legend – imagine a film so upsetting to the bourgeois mores that, during its first preview, most people walked out, one studio executive’s wife vomited and the film was shelved for two years while it underwent three edits in an effort to tame its explicit nature. But hold on, I’m getting ahead of myself.
Co-directed with Donald Cammell, a Scottish bohemian painter-turned-screenwriter, it was the first directorial effort for both him and Roeg; he took the reins of the look of the film, while Cammell busied himself experimenting with the story and the actors. Sanford Lieberson, the sole film’s producer, was also in his first venture; these circumstances have undoubtedly contributed to the unwieldy nature of the film, but also to its nonchalance vis-à-vis sex, drugs and violence (and I don’t only mean depictions thereof). Conventions were seen as limitations, both filmmaking– and society–wise, and thus disregarded, which helped transform this gangster film into something much more ambiguous and sinister.
Performance starts in a typically Roegian manner: fragmented shots of bodies of mafioso Chas (James Fox) and his girlfriend having sex cross-cutting with images of a falling fighter jet and a Rolls-Royce crossing through the country, rock’n’roll switching to a disquieting soundscape and a woman’s voice, humming. Snapshots of Chas observing himself in the mirror, dissociating. Already here we see the both visual and storytelling themes that will preoccupy Roeg for the rest of his career: the fall of man, corrupting opulence, alienation, cruelty, all usually explored through obsession with sex.
Sergei Eisenstein’s influence on Roeg is most apparent in the way he depicts scenes like this: frantic images both immersed in body heat and already disdaining it, distancing themselves from the peculiar gymnastics of the flesh. This juxtaposition with a different time or space reveals both the fleetingness and the violence of sex. It is immediately apparent Chas is a sadistic narcissist even before we find out he is an enforcer that enjoys his job a little bit too much.
While the first half of Performance concerns the East London gang for which Chas works, and is the straightforward part during which he goes about performing his duties, settles a business matter (with possibly a former lover?) and subsequently goes on the run, it is also the part that got excised the most. According to Lieberson, this part was initially “more profound about the London scene at that time” and contained enough violence and homoeroticism to make Jean Genet proud; these original preoccupations can now only be glimpsed through some innuendos and visual winks.
The exploration of queer sex and violence within the criminal underground was made possible due to David Litvinoff, Soho scenester associated with the notorious Kray twins and liaison between the film industry and the East End mafia – cheekily credited in the film as dialogue coach and technical advisor. He mentored Fox in the ways of the mafia, who went full Method in preparation for his role. John Bindon, as much an actor as a gangster, was also involved in the film and apparently showed up one day on the set carrying a finger he bit off a guy in a brawl the night before. The scene in which Chas pours a gallon and a half of acid on the aforementioned Rolls-Royce was taken from Bindon’s life. We can only wonder what other scenes had been inspired by lived experiences that were deemed too violent and never made it to the final cut.
Violence and transgressive desires, however, were only half the trouble. From a studio executive’s point of view, there can be few things as unfortunate as a director picking up a copy of Jorge Luis Borges during the production of an anticipated entertaining flick – you know, lest they get ideas. Only that’s exactly what Cammell did, and he allowed Performance to morph into an exposé of the hypocrisies of British society and its underbelly where mafia, celebrity and royalty mingle and mix and, eventually, amount to the same thing (literally). Under the influence of Borges and a whole lotta drugs, the cast and crew invited audiences into a psychedelic journey through a decaying labyrinth in which, as Turner (Mick Jagger) spells out himself, “nothing is true, everything is permitted.” No wonder Warner Bros. got more than they bargained for.
This insanely risky and ambitious move to marry intellectual genre experimentation with countercultural carnal abandon may seem at odds with each other, but both share a dismissal of metanarratives that reinforce the boundaries of knowability, desire and permissiveness (with the result of the studio heads reinforcing said boundaries, but alas). When Chas goes on the run, he ends up renting a room from a bohemian triad involving a has-been rockstar Turner, devilishly played by Mick Jagger, magnetic Pherber (Anita ‘It Girl’ Pallenberg) and the illegal alien Lucy (Michèle Breton, in her only film role), who all occupy a damp, dark and sensually auratic house in Notting Hill. Mind-bogglingly, Chas tries to pass for a professional juggler who wants to keep a low-profile, but, for obvious reasons, he is soon found out.
Underground Chas wants and underground he gets, first despising this bunch of hippies and then falling under their seductive influence, a reluctant psychedelic trip playing no little part in the process. Identities, gender roles and pent-up desires start to merge, climaxing in Chas’ fantasy (and a proto-music video) of Turner getting his mojo back, appearing as his boss and undressing his fellow gangsters while performing the song “Memo from Turner.” It’s all as confusing as it sounds, but confusion shouldn’t always be uninvited in a cinematic experience; if you give into the film’s psychedelic flow, you will gladly drift between intoxicating snapshots, both visual and conversational, and witness Chas’ laxation of superbly stifled macho posturing. It’s all about performance, not plot, so let it wash over you.
The making of Performance was as chaotic as the end result, with Keith Richards sulking around the set because of rumours that the sex scenes were unsimulated (Anita and him were partners at the time) and refusing to play “Memo from Turner,” ending up replaced by Ry Cooder. Anita was starting to shoot heroin. The sex footage was so “obscene” lab technicians refused to develop it. Fox became an evangelical Christian during the shooting and quit acting for a decade afterwards. It’s difficult to choose a favourite “fun” fact, and these barely scratch the surface of the odyssey of the film’s production. What I do lament is the film that could have been, perhaps only a little more coherent but certainly a lot more transgressive (for example, Chas and Turner wake up together, drawing each other near but Turner is magically transformed into Lucy just seconds later.) Nevertheless, what the filmmakers eventually wrestled out of the studio became an apt manifest for counterculture showing up by its own death bed while still revealing the violence lurking in the culture it was done countering.
The next rock’n’roll genre-bending extravaganza in Roeg’s career was The Man Who Fell to Earth, and it took to heart the rule that sci-fi is never really about outer space. In it, David Bowie immersed himself in his debut role as Thomas Jerome Newton, an alien who, well, falls to Earth, seeking water resources for his dying planet and family. This film, too, begins with images of a fall, in this case of a rocket(man) interspersed with landscapes of the American Wild West. Here, the fall of man finds its inevitable collision in Americana, not Swinging London, though, first, it starts off as a promising rags-to-riches preamble.
While cheekily passing for an Englishman and, perhaps, adapting to American society a little too well, the alien quickly manages to kickstart a technology innovation corporation with hopes of building a spaceship able to carry water, but instead gets trapped in the folly of avarice and the vagaries of the American society. It’s not quite a spoiler, because there isn’t a sustained story throughout; the beats in the film are so plentiful and jumbled, the right approach towards enjoying it isn’t for the story per se – it’s for the singular, visceral experience that will, like in the case of Performance, envelope the viewer.
That is not to say that The Man Who Fell to Earth is only a Panavision ride; Newton is the modern Icarus, and his downfall has quite a bit to say about the human condition. The film directly references W.H. Auden’s poem about Bruegel’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus; this story is an exploration of Auden’s line that, in the grand scheme of mundane things, the downfall is “not an important failure.” Or that tragedy isn’t all that grandiose if it is happening next to, and not to, you.
Roeg basks in this fatality of human narcissism, especially when it comes to interpersonal relationships. Like in many of his films, he zooms in on romantic obsession; his characters always demand possession and control over their lovers’ freedoms, come hell or high water. In this film the toxicity unravels through Newton’s initially sweet– but half-hearted relationship to Okie Mary-Lou (Candy Clark); he’s learning about romance through television – it seems like the thing for humans to do – and she happens to pass by. Their conversations are trite and the lack of chemistry is painful to watch: Mary-Lou is seemingly oblivious to this but finds a way to chain Newton’s heart to hers by turning him into a fellow alcoholic. Roeg is never as cynical as when he bares the neediness of lovers, and though his characters’ pathetic ways are hyperbolic, they always strike a familiar chord.
The relationship between Mary-Lou and Newton is one of the most crazed ones I’ve ever seen, and the film oddly manages to showcase an alien’s experience of this peculiarly human preoccupation, love. There is only that much pretending that Newton can do, however, and their relationship will culminate in a lunatic frenzy of love gone putrid, which will showcase Newton’s ultimate amused detachment, and Mary-Lou’s deranged dependency.
Oddly enough, though, Roeg’s characters always seem to genuinely enjoy themselves, even if the way the sex scenes were edited in The Man Who Fell to Earth reveals the debauchery to be poorly calculated. Discussing Roeg’s filmography, Lee Hill writes that his characters typically “don’t realise they are in hell because they have been having too much fun for the most part.” Only we, the viewers, know that you don’t get to go to hell without destroying someone you love first.
Newton’s integrity is the one that, in the end, gets destroyed, but his downfall is not only predicated on the abuses he suffers from those close to him; various sectors of American society inflict needless violence on his unadulterated mind and body. The dissipation of his mind starts with the corruptive influence of television and ends with government–sponsored surgical experimentation – curiosity in both cases seems to be the culprit. Television and alcohol poison his credulous being, and his clairvoyance is mindnumbed; apathy sets in, and his altruistic quest is replaced by bingeing. Roeg was making a point about the violence of consumerist indulgence long before we were worn down and left with no alternatives, and the contemporary status quo is exposed afresh in this chaotic but deeply-felt tale.
There’s a melancholic note of art imitating life – Newton’s dispossession was inhabited by Bowie so naturally because he felt no need to act the part. His celebrity attracted the wrong kind of crowd and his drug addiction was getting out of hand at the time; he admitted that he “wasn’t of this earth at that particular time,” feeling as disoriented during the whole shoot as Newton himself. The alien’s journey to Earth turns into a truly bad trip and, whether deliberately or not, the film feels like addiction inhabited, with temporality transmuted into hellish perpetuity in which we are fated to repeatedly give into our weaknesses. Whether it’s the consumption of images, substances, or bodies – The Man Who Fell to Earth reveals the Earth to be a well-stocked purgatory, and us catastrophically unwilling to acknowledge and move past it.
Both films were destined for initial failure, with a vision grander than the studios’ willingness to see them through. Upon seeing The Man Who Fell to Earth, Paramount Pictures also raised hell and refused to pay for it. When it was finally released in the US, it was re-edited, with the studio cut making no sense at all. Both films were supposed to have their stars create full soundtracks for them, which unfortunately never happened for one reason or another. But both films, too, contain thematic and cinematic strands that make Roeg’s films truly unique experiences, which saw to it that the films gained a cult status through the midnight movie scene. While neither of them reached the depths they aimed for, they also pulled no punches, something the industry wasn’t (isn’t?) ready for.
Roeg was one of the few British filmmakers who was willing to risk it all; and while sometimes the shots didn’t land, how extraordinary it is, still to this day, to see a film that refuses to cater to the caprices of the industry.