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The Essentials: The Films Of Nicolas Roeg

The Essentials: The Films Of Nicolas Roeg

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.

“Performance” (1970)
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]

“Walkabout” (1971)
Working with an elliptical storytelling approach that would become part and parcel of his stylistic approach, Roeg fractures this survival tale so deeply that you almost forget it’s a borderline horror film. When two young siblings are cast into the wilderness by a suicidal father, they must face the cruel nature of the unforgiving outback — so goes the logline. But what emerges under Roeg’s direction is a film so impressionistic and subjective that it can and has been taken for a parable on any number of themes, from a critique of rural vs. urban living, to a meditation on the cruelty of nature, to a commentary on the impossibility of cross-cultural communication. What’s certain is that part of its beauty is the deceptive simplicity of its central story: from a fairly threadbare narrative start point Roeg weaves a surprisingly dense fabric of allusion, symbolism and inference as the two children come of age in their different ways: the young boy learning something of survival and death, the young girl unlocking her nascent sexuality. Roeg famously improvised most of the film from a 14-page script loosely adapted from the James Vance Marshall novel, but this looseness is deceptive too: by the time the film reaches its dreamy conclusion, it has reached such a pitch of strange resonance that it’s difficult not to be completely absorbed. A spellbinding journey through “the land of lost content,” “Walkabout” is an immensely fulfilling experience. [A]

“Don’t Look Now” (1973)
The most unforgettable film from Roeg’s unequivocal golden period, 1973’s “Don’t Look Now” is a peerless psychosexual masterpiece, one that is still too often overlooked despite periodic reappraisals (like a recent Time Out London Critics’ survey that named it the Best British Film of All Time). Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie play a pair of mourning parents who, after the tragic drowning death of their child in a kaleidoscopically poetic prologue, travel to Venice. Sutherland is an art restorer overseeing a large-scale project, and Christie, under considerable strain and susceptibility, falls in line with a pair of psychic sisters while a series of grisly murders seize the waterlogged city. It’s hopelessly atmospheric stuff, based on a short story written by Daphne du Maurier, the English author who also inspired Hitchcock’s “Rebecca” and “The Birds.” But the real triumph of the film is the way that Roeg pieces the film together in his typically elliptical way – how images (a small figure in a red rain slicker, a funeral barge) reoccur and collide into one another and sequences seem to be caught in the whirlpool of memory, with past, present and future shuffled together. The film is also notable for offering up the single greatest sex scene in the history of cinema, which was not only aped by Steven Soderbergh in “Out of Sight,” but is still an area of contention, with some close to production claiming that the sex wasn’t, er, simulated. Only “Don’t Look Now,” with its intoxicating oddness, can inspire everything from Lars von Trier’s “Antichrist” to the recent 007 entry “Casino Royale.” The movie was billed as a “psychic thriller” but not even the most gifted prognosticator could have predicted the film’s staying power. [A+]

The Man Who Fell to Earth” (1976)
Are we so sure about Ziggy Stardust not being based in reality? David Bowie does a pretty convincing job in Roeg’s surrealist sci-fi classic of playing a stranded alien trapped on Earth and forced to become a technology mogul in order to rebuild his spaceship and send resources back to his dying planet. Bowie’s “Thomas Jerome Newton” however, gets lost in the excesses of the era (as, coincidentally, had so many of the period’s finest directors, musicians and actors) his vices eventually swallowing his ambitions and clouding his focus. Gradually his native curiosity turns into an insatiable appetite for alcohol, television and fetishistically exploring his alien pansexuality (cue one of the most fucked-up sex scenes to ever hit the screen) as he slowly, in typically Roeg-ian hypnotic fashion, falls from grace. Featuring great support from Buck Henry, Rip Torn, Candy Clark and even Apollo 13 commander Jim Lovell in a cameo, Bowie’s turn, in his first lead performance, is so intense as to feel pretty definitive, though surprisingly he wasn’t the first person considered for the role. That honor goes to the late Michael Crichton (wtf?) who, according to Roeg, had the requisite height, because “imagine if aliens came down to Earth, they’d actually be quite tall.” Roeg’s adaptation of the Walter Tevis novel may be surprisingly insular considering the picture’s global implications, but its moody, nightmarish tone and hallucinatory sequences turn “The Man Who Fell to Earth” into a hypnotic, trance-inducing experience beyond your average genre “experiment.” [A]

“Bad Timing: A Sensual Obsession” (1980)
A mutually self-destructive May-December romance between an older jealous psychiatrist who doesn’t subscribe to the terms “normal” and “mad,” and a secretive and mercurial 25-year-old student is a recipe for disaster in Nicolas Roeg’s 1980 sexual obsession psychodrama, “Bad Timing.” Told in serrated, frenetic flashbacks (naturally) and starring Roeg’s belle du jour Theresa Russell (they were involved romantically shortly thereafter and married in 1982) and Art Garfunkel, the elliptically, often jarringly communicated drama centers on the couple’s quickly-growing damaged romance, his paranoia and jealousy, and her subsequent psychological breakdown and attempted suicide. Set in Vienna, Harvey Keitel also stars as an American detective trying to get to the bottom of her overdose while Denholm Elliot plays an old lover. As is often the case in Roeg films, conspicuous cinematic conventions steal most of the scenes — agitated, clipped editing, conspicuous zooms and 4th-wall-breaking protagonists smiling at the camera psychotically, etc. Disturbing and rather cretinous in its excruciating ending, the film was originally rated X and then somehow was toned down to make an R-rating, but still cemented Roeg’s reputation as a Brit-perv on par with Ken Russell, only more tasteless. A fractured look at the collision of love, sex, obsession, control and the desire to belong, as the films central mystery unfolds, it all begins to border on melodrama, but Roeg’s dyslexic narrative leaves you ultimately shocked and senseless. [B+]

“Eureka” (1983)
Towards the beginning of “Eureka,” Roeg’s manic excoriation of the corrupting nature of capitalism and mankind’s essential rapacity towards nature, society and each other, frustrated prospector Jack McCann (a mad-eyed Gene Hackman) staggering around the Yukon encounters a grinning vagrant. “What are you smiling at?” Hackman shoots at him. The bum rasps, “The end!” and then proceeds to blow his brains out. It’s a neat parallel for what the film would come to represent in Roeg’s own legacy – a self-sabotaging endeavor that all but ended his career in America, and a curio that has remained largely dormant since its release and subsequent burial in 1983. Its stature has grown over the years, with some taking Hackman’s McCann as a precursor to Daniel Planview in “There Will Be Blood,” and it remains a tough, infrequently brilliant picture. Its quicksilver plotting affords far too much time to a drippy romance between Theresa Russell and her tempestuous beau (Rutger Hauer) instead of Hackman’s rumpled quasi-Midas who wallows in material wealth and spiritual impoverishment. And although Paul Mayersberg’s script is frequently absurd and overly literal (“I don’t want your gold! I want flesh!”), eventually descending into out-and-out dull courtroom farce, it proved that Roeg could still film an old geezer getting flambéed by a blowtorch or a loco pansexual voodoo orgy like nobody’s business. The British filmmakers that have since cited the director as a formative influence – Danny Boyle and Christopher Nolan – seem laughably pedestrian by contrast. [B]

Insignificance” (1985)
In the Nabokov story “Signs and Symbols” (so good they should put it in the water), the protagonist suffers from “referential mania”: he sees significance in everything. Thinking about 1985’s “Insignificance” — its title is just the first riddle — we know how he feels: every object, person and event seems to refer to something else within the film, and to things without. Watches, blood, Hiroshima, shoes, lookalikes, relativity and the relationship between baseball and gum — the film layers theme upon motif to such a pitch of semantic hullaballoo that the climactic holocaust is kind of a relief (also it allows us an unforgettable image of a twirling Marilyn with her skirt on fire.) The plot: unnamed versions of Albert Einstein, Marilyn Monroe, Joe di Maggio and Sen. Joe McCarthy collide over the course of a single night in a strange mix of psychological/political commentary and fan fiction. Adapted for screen by the original play’s writer Terry Johnson, the film is talky and at times the performances feel telegraphed: The Actress is played by Roeg’s then-wife Theresa Russell with a breathy capriciousness that, initially at least, borders on caricature. But these are deliberate choices; the staginess makes the moments of ‘pure’ cinema — like the quick edits to surreal scenes remembered or imagined — all the more effective, even as the soundtrack veers wildly from apropos to anachronistic. It’s a fascinating house of mirrors reflecting infinite distortions of the nature of identity, fame, intelligence, the (im)possibility of human connection and either the utter significance, or the complete insignificance, of everything. Out as of last week on the Criterion label, this is a film we love, even if thinking about it makes us feel like The Actress when she looks at the stars: small and lonely. Oh, and kind of stupid, too. [A-]

The Witches” (1990)
Forgotten about almost as quickly as it debuted, “The Witches” is arguably the last Nic Roeg film to actually matter. (This was right before he slipped into making chintzy made-for-television crap.) Based on the beloved children’s book by Roald Dahl, it’s a genuinely weird and unsettling adaptation, possibly the only cinematic incantation of Dahl’s to capture his gonzo spirit that hovered right between terror and glee. Angelica Huston, in one of her finest and most underrated performances, plays the leader of a coven of witches who turns the main child character into a mouse for a majority of the running time and outlines a plan for exterminating the children of England. It’s heady stuff, especially for a family movie, but Roeg brings it to the screen with his characteristic stylistic impishness (lots of hard zooms, fish-eye-lenses and the like; sadly the film has never been released in anamorphic widescreen in the United States). Also of note was that this was the last feature film that Jim Henson worked on before his untimely death. Given Henson’s love of the bizarre and grotesque (hello, “Dark Crystal!”), it seems fitting that this was his big-screen cinematic swansong. The movie is positively bewitching. [B+]

For The Completists: As you may know, Roeg made a few films in the mid-to-late 1980s, and several in the 1990s, which we haven’t talked about here. This is because, principally, they’re not very good, with even the greatest fans of the director struggling to defend them. The ’80s entries, “Castaway” and “Track 29,” are at least watchable, with the director’s skills still firmly in evidence. The former is notable mainly for far more exposure to Oliver Reed’s cock than anyone ever really wanted, while the latter, a collaboration with British TV great Dennis Potter, suffers from the miscasting of Christopher Lloyd, but does at least have a strong early performance from Gary Oldman.

The 1990s, however, was when the rot truly set in. A disappointing TV version of Tennessee Williams’ “Sweet Bird of Youth” with Elizabeth Taylor closed out the 1980s, while poorly-regarded erotic thriller “Cold Heaven” followed “The Witches.” After that, there was a version of “Heart of Darkness” with John Malkovich and Tim Roth, made for TV, an episode of “The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles,” more sub-“Basic Instinct” stuff in short “Hotel Paradise” and “Full Body Massage,” forgotten oddity “Two Deaths” and a television version of “Samson & Delilah,” one starring Liz Hurley as Delilah, which should be a key to the quality of the finished film.

Roeg finally returned to the big screen with 2008’s “Puffball,” and the wait was definitely not worth it — a dreadful horror flick starring Kelly Reilly and Donald Sutherland, it was a pale reflection of past glories, and rightfully disappeared on its release.

Gabe Toro, Jessica Kiang, Rodrigo Perez, Drew Taylor, Sam Price, Sam Chater

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