In the Nicolas Roeg film Bad Timing (1980), Theresa Russell remarks, “I don’t think it was a lie, it was words.” This thinking could be applied to Roeg’s own style of filmmaking, one in which images collide and pile up. Sometimes they resonate and reveal something, sometimes they don’t and reveal more. He knows that images can’t always be trusted, but it’s not their fault.
Starting as a cameraman, Roeg quickly racked up an impressive list of varied credits, including sequences in the David Lean epic Lawrence of Arabia (1962), the Roger Corman directed Masque of the Red Death (1964), and Francois Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451 (1966). In 1968, when he started directing his first film. Performance, he had an expert eye and excellent training – he also had the right time in history to make his kind of films. Pop art was explosively experimental and mainstream cinema was growing increasingly stylized and daringly explicit From the late 60’s to the early 80’s, Nick Roeg embraced this freedom and directed a series of stylish enigmas that were as fiercely artistic and off-center as any film from a major studio could ever be.
One wonders if Warner Brothers read the Performance script beyond the line ‘starring Mick JaggeT when they agreed to back the movie. It starts as a British gangster film, but quickly becomes a malevolent cocktail of violence and rock and roll decadence. In it, Chas (James Fox), a criminal on the run, hides out in a decaying townhouse shared by reclusive rock star Turner (Mick Jagger) and his concubines (Anita Pallenberg and Michele Breton). Through stream of consciousness editing, personalities fracture and recombine, and Chas is tested and seduced by Turner’s hallucinatory and androgynous lifestyle.
The film’s schizophrenic tendencies continued off-screen: it was co-directed by Roeg and painter Donald Cammed; Jagger played a combination of fellow Rolling Stones Brian Jones and Keith Richards; and Pallenberg was dating Keith Richards, who wasn’t pleased with Pallenberg and JaggeTs explicit screen time. He wasn’t the only unhappy one – Warner Brothers refused to release the movie and tied it up in editing battles until 1970, during which time Roeg completed his next film, Walkabout (1971). Ultimately, Performance took itstoll on those involved. Fox left acting to become an evangelist, and in 1996 Cammell emulated the film’s finale by shooting himself in the head. Most tragically, Jagger grew a beard for Tony Richardson’s film Ned Kelly (1970).
1973’s Dont Look Now is the closest thing to a “normal” movie that Roeg would make during that decade. It tells the story of John and Laura Baxter, played by Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie, on a working vacation in off-season Venice, trying to come to terms with the death of their young daughter. Though more straightforward than Roeg’s earlier films, Dont Look Now is still a complex visual puzzle. The viewer is never sure if the Baxters are pawns of psychic forces or victims of a tragic string of coincidences. As the title playfully suggests, not every image on screen should be given equal weight’ its up to the viewer to decide what to believe and what to discard. One part in particular kept people guessing.
The controversy surrounding Sutherland and Christie’s robust sex scene proved that the audience was looking, and wondering, just how much was faked. For some it proved that the new permissiveness in film was too permissive, but for many it fulfilled the promise of adult filmmaking that “adult ” films did not Though explicit, the sequence is not gratuitous or exploitive. By intercutting mundane shots of the Baxters preparing for a post-coital dinner date, Roeg makes the scene about domestic healing and not just naked gymnastics (though some might want to heed the title’s warning as Sutherland brushes his teeth and weighs himself au naturel). With this kind of thoughtful approach to his work, one can understand why noted actors would trust Roeg and take such chances with their performances.
The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976) is a sci-fi film that’s more concerned with alienation than aliens. David Bowie is perfectly cast as a willowy, weary visitor who comes to Earth to find a cure for his drought-stricken planet, but becomes a Howard Hughes-like victim of ennui, alcohol, and the all-American need for the material world. As the title implies, this is an earthbound fantasy. The space travel consists mostly of NASA stock footage, and the alien transports on Thomas Newton’s home planet look like loaves of bread on rails. Glimpses of futuristic gadgets are few and far between. However, what is on display are the actors bodies.
If flesh and sex united previous Roeg characters, they are a stumbling block in this film. Rip Torn cavorts with an interchangeable series of coeds to escape dissatisfaction with his life, while Bowie and Candy Clark play a numbing domestic charade that is doomed by fundamental physical differences. Sometimes bodies are downright nasty. The scene in which Bowie reveals his extraterrestrial self to Clark, is a moment of such fleshly angst that it would chill even the mutant chambers of David Cronenberg’s heart.
Roeg’s next movie. Bad Timing defies convention at every turn. It’s a murder mystery that neglects to include a murder, while being an erotic thriller that includes a naked Art Garfunkel. To be fair, Garfunkel is quite effective, as Roeg teases another curious performance out of a pop star slightly out of his element. However, the more interesting bit of casting concerns Theresa Russell. After Roeg had finished with her as the film’s focus of obsession and sexual violence, he made her his wife, demonstrating that this director’s best art resonates with the events of life.
As the 80’s moved on it became evident that Roeg’s groundbreaking days were behind him. Films like Eureka (1984) and Castaway (1986) stand out, but most of his remaining projects mark his progress from auteur to hired gun. Full Body Massage (1995), starring Mimi Rogers and Bryan Brown, shows this shift. He’s still able to lead his attractive and recognizable cast into daring territory, but ultimately the movie feels like little more than a thinking man’s skin flick. It would seem that time, which Roeg fractured and twisted for so long, had its revenge not only on the aging director, but on his industry. His quick cutting and collage-like style had become the norm for music videos and commercials, but with none of the philosophy. When considered in flashback, which is always potent in Roeg’s world, his achievements are all the more jarring and spectacular.