You might say it’s a good month to be a fan of British cult filmmaker Nicolas Roeg. Just last week the Criterion Collection released the director’s 1985 oddball picture, “Insignificance,” and this week, his landmark science-fiction film “The Man Who Fell to Earth” starring David Bowie is being given a limited U.S. theatrical re-release to mark its 35th anniversary.
Roeg began his career as a member of the British film establishment, acting as a camera operator on Fred Zinneman’s “The Sundowners” (1960) and Ken Hughes’ “The Trials of Oscar Wilde” (1960), shooting as second unit photographer on sequences of “Lawrence of Arabia” and moving his way up to cinematographer on pictures like François Truffaut’s “Fahrenheit 451” and iconic ‘60s British pictures like "Petulia" directed by Richard Lester and John Schlesinger’s “Far from the Madding Crowd.” But when it came time for Roeg to helm his own picture with the 1970s psyche-identity mindfuck “Performance,” he eschewed ingrained traditions and threw narrative out the window, displaying a disposition that would characterize all his best films.
An influence on many current mainstream filmmakers with an experimental bent -- Steven Soderbergh, Christopher Nolan, Danny Boyle, Tony Scott, Ridley Scott, François Ozon and more -- Roeg’s idiosyncratic style is jagged, jarring, elliptical, a confluence of sound and picture attempting to create a new film grammar through a kaleidoscopic collage of juxtaposed imagery. Memory in fleeting, nightmarish fragments is key; Roeg’s films are the smashed mirrors of the subconscious, the broken pieces endlessly reconfiguring to provide ephemeral glimpses at the images imprinted on their shattered surfaces.
His obsessive, voyeuristic R-rated sexual peccadilloes also figure front and center in many of his films, so much so that he could challenge (and possibly defeat) like-minded cult director Ken Russell for the title of 'most perverted and freakiest English filmmaker of the 1970s' (especially considering Roeg’s pictures don’t generally feature Russell’s variety of jovial camp).
While his pictures may not have historically been held in the same regard as those of fellow esteemed Brits Lindsay Anderson and John Schlesinger, Roeg’s work is truly important, as cinephiles like those at the Criterion Collection will attest (four of his films are issued on their label). While most of the efforts from his later years are either unbearable and/or unmentionable, the work he did in his halcyon days makes this explorer of cinema’s unconscious one of our favorites.
Update: Some good, timely news for Region 2 types: Film Detail report that Roeg's masterpiece, "Don't Look Now," is getting a Blu-ray release in the U.K. very shortly: on Monday July 4th, in fact. All the extras from the 2006 DVD are on board, including a commentary by Roeg, and there's also nearly two hours of new featurettes, including interviews with Donald Sutherland, DoP Tony Richmond, and Roeg fan Danny Boyle. No news yet as to whether it'll cross the Atlantic, but importers should certainly find it worth it.
In many ways the disembodied, not-so-distant cousin film to Ingmar Bergman’s “Persona,” Roeg’s directorial debut (co-directed with fellow freak and existentialist Donald Cammell) examines similar themes of identity and the blurring, assimilation and loss of self -- only set to the backdrop of gangsters in the U.K.’s swinging ‘60s. Starring a little guy named Mick Jagger in his second-ever big role, the psychedelic psychodrama features James Fox as a gangster on the lam who finds himself taking refuge in the basement of a rich rockstar shut-in (Jagger) and his coterie of gorgeous naked women (Keith Richards’s then-girlfriend Anita Pallenberg and Michèle Breton). They take drugs, play draggy dress-up and generally lose their marbles. Meanwhile the back story is unsurprisingly the stuff of legend too: the set was full of sex, drugs and rock 'n’ roll, yielding "stories so good I can't possibly deny them," as Jagger said. And yes, during the shoot Jagger basically stole Pallenberg away from Richards; Pallenberg herself failed to hide her growing heroin habit, and straight-laced James Fox was so traumatized by the goings-on that he pretty much stayed away from acting for almost a decade (after shooting wrapped he reportedly became an evangelist). The film itself, with its ménage a trois, casual drug use, gender-bending drag scenes and jagged Burroughs-esque cut-and-paste editing techniques, was extremely shocking and lurid to its 1970s audience and it still jars today. Though Warhol and other underground filmmakers had depicted sex and drugs onscreen before, “Performance” was one of the first films to do so for a major studio and upon its first screening, Warner Bros. reportedly wanted the negative burnt. Even by today’s standards "Performance" is experimental, disjointed, hallucinatory and yes, as you might imagine with a ‘60s freak-out film, sometimes unintentionally funny. More often, though it's just disconcertingly bizarre. [B]