THE EYEBALL, The Rumpus DVD Column: #24 Nicolas Roeg’s First Five Films

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PerformanceYears ago I happened upon a series of arresting images on cable. There was a young Mick Jagger cavorting in a bath tub with two svelte beauties. A child wearing a fake mustache. A still image of Jorge Luis Borges rising out of a gunshot wound to the head. It was a documentary about Performance, the directorial debut of Nicolas Roeg (technically, he co-directed it with Donald Cammell). Years passed with the title of this film tucked away, and last weekend I finally got around to watching it on DVD.

Somehow, over the past ten years I’ve managed to watch Roeg’s first five films, which span that incredible cinematic decade, the 1970s. And for some reason I didn’t give much thought to who directed them, in part because each one seems like such a singular phenomenon unattached from any unifying vision of an auteur. But watching Performance last week was like placing the final piece in a puzzle. I took a step back and considered the films as five components of an arc.

Performance is about a London gangster, Chas, played by James Fox, who goes into hiding in a decrepit mansion where a pop star named Turner (Jagger) suffers through some sort of creative dead end. Turner luxuriates in a perpetual, druggy menage a trois with Pherber (Keith Richards’s girlfriend Anita Pallenberg) and Lucy (Michele Breton). It’s rumored that the drugs and sex in this film are not simulated, and it would actually be more shocking if it turned out that they were. The story is one of clashing cultures, of South End thugs literally falling into bed with the psychedelic youthquake. There’s violence, nudity, and Mick Jagger in a suit singing in a homoerotic precursor to the modern music video. Oh yeah, and those references to Borges. What’s not to love here?

The ways Roeg and Cammell dealt with the maleability of gender here is incredible, way ahead of its time. The only explanations I can fathom for how this movie found distribution through Warner Brothers are 1. Mick Jagger was in it, and 2. It was the year 1970. Next to El Topo, this must have seemed like a movie you could bring your grandmother to.

Roeg’s next film, Walkabout traded the debauched filth of London for the gorgeous vistas of Australia’s Outback. It, too, is a culture clash movie, though on a scale far more grand. It’s about two Australian children (Jenny Agutter and Luc Roeg) who are stranded in the wild after their father fails to murder them then goes ahead and shoots himself in the head (Borges fails to appear this time). They soon meet an Aboriginal boy (David Gulpili) who shows them how to draw water from the sand (among other survival techniques) and leads them eventually back to civilization. It’s a sad, soulful film, and when the modernist architecture appears after your eyes have adjusted to the gnarled trees and idyllic pools of this otherworldly land, it comes as something of a shock. I came to see civilization as a blight in this movie, as something to escape from, like Mad Max in reverse.

From the Outback to Venice, then, with Roeg’s third feature, the thriller Don’t Look Now. Jonathan Lethem wrote a swell appraisal of the sex scene at its core, the one between Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie. It’s a truly remarkable scene in a movie I found to be kind of hokey, the surprise ending in particular. Years ago, in my life as a dotcom schmuck, I interviewed Kiefer Sutherland on a red carpet and threw him the ultimate softball, asking for movie recommendations. Don’t Look Now was one of the movies of which he spoke highly. Think about that a moment. What if one of your favorite movies was one in which you watch your dad doin’ it?

So say you’re a director and you’ve been to London, Australia, and Venice. Where next? Well, space, naturally. In Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth, David Bowie stars in the title role, doing stuff like starting technology companies and becoming alcoholic. Perfect casting, really. I must admit I watched this film on an old Fox Lorber disc, not the newer, tricked out Criterion Collection version, which sits on my shelf as yet unopened. So it might be unfair of me to say I found this movie a somewhat interesting mess. Rip Torn is in it, and it makes me sad that I saw Torn in the soul-killing Tom Green vehicle Freddy Got Fingered, truly one of the worst movies ever made, before I saw him in this. So my viewing of him was corrupted by my bad memories of seeing him humiliated in that hideous, idiotic “comedy.” I clearly need to give The Man Who Fell to Earth another chance.

(By the way, did you catch the narrator on that trailer? Is that Bill Shatner up in that shit?)

If you’ve spent your life wishing you could catch a glimpse of Art Garfunkel’s butt crack, Roeg’s Bad Timing is the answer to your prayers. In one reality, I am a great admirer of Garfunkel. The man is so spectacularly well-read I can do nothing but genuflect before him. In the reading department, Art Garfunkel makes me feel like a total pussy. And yet in another reality, I consider the films of Nicolas Roeg and I group these names: Mick Jagger, David Bowie, Art Garfunkel. It’s like that old Sesame Street song about one thing being not like the others.

Bad Timing also stars Theresa Russell in full-on vixen mode and Harvey Keitel in a lame impersonation of a cop. The story–a murder mystery set in Vienna–is sort of flimsy, but Garfunkel and his taint do an admirable enough job, and by the way did you know that when this movie was released in October of 1980, Art was reading Lester C. Thurow’s The Zero-Sum Society? I did not know that.

While Bad Timing may have fallen short in story and in the male actors’ performances, Roeg’s signature editing, marked by disorienting smash cuts, makes it worth seeking out. Considering these five films I have to admit that the part of me that creates stories for a (meager) living comes away disappointed. But my eyeballs gorge on these works of art, crammed as they are with sudden movements and windy deserts, real-looking naked bodies and shadowy staircases, all scored with unsettling noises and acid rock dirges. I’ll say it–Nicolas Roeg is one of my favorite directors. But he’s a favorite in a way no other director is a favorite. I love his films despite–and sometimes because of–their flaws.


Ryan Boudinot is the author of the short story collection The Littlest Hitler (2006) and the novel Misconception. He was a DVD Editor at Amazon.com from 2003 to 2007. His work has appeared in McSweeney's, The Best American Nonrequired Reading, and other journals and anthologies. He lives in Seattle and teaches creative writing at Goddard College's Port Townsend MFA program. More from this author →