Performance (1970)

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*. The attraction of obscurity. Item: In 2006 Paul Schrader published an essay on film canons (it appeared in the journal Film Comment), at the end of which he presented his own canon of great movies, divided into three sub-lists of gold, silver, and bronze films. Among the twenty films on the gold list, his very best of the best, are all of the usual suspects – Rules of the Game, Citizen Kane, Tokyo Story, Vertigo, 8 1/2, The Godfather – as well as . . . Performance!
*. Performance is one of those movies whose status has undergone a near total critical reversal since the time of its release. Initially seen as a mixed-up mess, with audiences walking out of preview screenings, it went on to gain a reputation as a cult film, and then became a more mainstream critical favourite.
*. For some reason this is a trajectory common to many films of this period: Easy Rider, The Last Movie, Zabriskie Point . . . the counterculture met with reaction, then acceptance, then reward for (presumably) being somehow more authentic, for being made against the studio grain at a time (the last time?) when this was still possible.
*. I also wonder how much of the turnaround in the case of Performance is due to the fact that it doesn’t make much sense to anyone the first time through. I remember being baffled my first time seeing it, and I had come prepared.

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*. I guess this is one way of saying that my first impression was not unlike that of Richard Schickel’s (“the most completely worthless film I have seen since I began reviewing”), but I’ve come around a bit. A bit.
*. It’s full of generic stuff (the British gangster film, the swinging London film) but it’s also unique. A lot of it doesn’t work, but it is a movie that rewards occasional re-viewing.
*. Of course, becoming a critical favourite can be a mixed blessing. David Thomson: “The film is not anywhere near as good as the stories that surround it. . . . By now there is enough written about it to nearly bury the film.”
*. In a poll a few years back (also appearing in Film Comment) Jagger’s performance was voted as the best ever by a musician in a film. There couldn’t have been a lot of competition. It’s weird just how poorly the charisma of pop stars – and they are some of the most charismatic people on the planet – translates onto the big screen. Jagger is very dull here: you keep expecting him to come alive, to say or do something interesting, but he never does, at least until he starts singing. It’s the same sort of let down you feel when watching David Bowie, or Bob Dylan, or Sting on screen. Whatever you think of their music, they’re just not very good actors.
*. Danny Peary: “He [Jagger] is withdrawn, awkward, restricted so much that he sings his only song while behind a desk, and is forced to spit out through his swollen red lips such inanities as ‘I don’t like music!’ and ‘The only performance is one that achieves madness.'”
*. This is an outlier in being a cult film that Peary really doesn’t like much. In Jagger’s defence his lips were already a trademark and he didn’t write the dialogue. His withdrawn performance is, however, striking.
*. A year later, for the documentary Gimme Shelter, Jagger had perhaps learned something. “You know I’m not going to be an actor in this film,” he told the Maysles brothers. And he wasn’t. Off stage he is a total blank, refusing to “perform” for the Maysles’s camera at all.
*. I’m not even sure Jagger was the right choice for the role of Turner. He looks a bit young to be playing a musician who crashed off the top of the charts ten years ago.
*. I think this is a point worth putting up front because Performance is still probably best known today as Mick Jagger’s movie. Given the rest of his (non-documentary) filmography, it’s also his best (he narrowly missed appearing in Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo).
*. I do like James Fox, but I have to wonder if this is the result of seeing him in relation to a cast made up primarily of non-actors. He’s practically alone in being someone who knows what he’s doing. Danny Peary again: “he looks stranded among amateurs.”
*. What are we to make of the gay gangster angle? It seems Harry Flowers is gay. He’s looking at what seems to be early gay porn in bed (along with the Jewish Chronicle). This doesn’t seem to put any of his associates out. Is this the pink mafia of swinging London? Meanwhile Chas is introduced to us as het, but he is accused in paint of being a “poof” and I assume he is being beaten because Joey wants him to somehow confess to being such. Why?

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*. The androgyny also ties in with the gay subtext. Turner is a “male and female man.” The French girl Lucy is “underdeveloped” to the point of being “like a boy or something.” Pherber applies lipstick to Turner (an all-day job, one imagines) and he calls her “sir.” I’m still not sure what sex the little kid is supposed to be. And then of course much is made of turning Chas into a woman.
*. But (and it is a big but) Turner may be drawn to Chas but he doesn’t try to seduce him. And Chas and Pherber do not fuck. Somehow he resists her. Because she is too decadent? Because she is a woman and he’s looking for someone a little more boyish, like Lucy?
*. The sex is boring. As sex (almost) always is on film. You have to wonder why people bother.
*. Probably the most striking thing about the film today is the editing, not just for being so abrupt but for the number of cutaways that are atemporal or just plain bizarre. But I’m not sure how much of this was intentional and how much of it was the result of Warners insisting on re-cutting the film. Apparently they were among the many who despised it on a first viewing, and so sat on it for two years before releasing it.
*. The central conceit, that all the world’s a stage and everyone, even (or especially) gangsters, is a performer, that identity is something fluid and that each of us has the potential to turn into someone else, seems trite to me.
*. The dialogue has some nice Pinteresque moments of lowering nonsense. The whole scene when Chas goes in to the kitchen to ask Turner if he can use the “blower” (phone) is very good. It may contribute to the film’s theme, but nothing at all in terms of information is conveyed and it ends with a mocking “Yes, no. Yes, no.”
*. The ambiguous ending is pure Pinter as well, recalling The Birthday Party (which, coincidentally, was made into a movie the same year).
*. A natural evolution then, from the theatre of the absurd and high modernism to head films? From Beckett and Pinter to Cammell and Hopper?
*. But how literary a film is this, really? There are some books lying around. Some authors are quoted. It was supposedly written under the influence of Borges, who is (visually) dropped into the proceedings several times rather bluntly. But what does Borges have to do with all of this?Borges wasn’t a boho or a beatnik except by adoption. The attraction of obscurity, again.
*. Nicolas Roeg was a director, or photographer, of obscure moments. This was one of them.

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