By Dean Goldberg.
On November 23th, 2018, a particularly cold and rainy Saturday afternoon, my friend, Jonathan David, a commercial director living in Los Angeles, texted me a headline about the death of director Nicolas Roeg: “I heard this on BBC Radio and immediately thought of you,” it chimed. Unfortunately, there really isn’t a connection between me and the controversial British director. I’ve never met, interviewed or worked for the man. But if there is a thread, it’s in the fact that I found Roeg’s work fascinating, intensely cinematic and narratively courageous.
Roeg’s biography is fairly well known. One of the last to come out of the old school English film tradition, Roeg first found work as “Clapper,” then spent nearly twenty years as a camera operator until he stepped into his role as an ace Cinematographer. His second unit camera work included Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago. His work as a cinematographer included, The Red Mask of Death, Fahrenheit 451, Petulia and Far from the Madding Crowd. As a director, he lensed his first solo film Walkabout (1971) as well as his collaboration with Donald Cammell on the infamous Performance (1970).
As a director, his third film, the 1973 outing with Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie titled Don’t Look Now, established his credentials as one of the most talented of a rather large stable of new directors both in Europe and America. Don’t Look Now has finally been acknowledged as a major British film; in fact, in 2011 directors including Sam Mendes, Mike Leigh and Terence Davies were invited to compile a list of British classics. They named Don’t Look Now as number one. Unfortunately, his later films never reached the popularity of that “gothic thriller.”
Yet Roeg did have his successes – if not commercially, then certainly artistically. After receiving very critical reviews, his The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), starring rock star David Bowie, has surfaced as a relevant, though flawed work.
That the earliest co-directing collaboration with Donald Cammell, Performance established the cult of Roeg, there is no doubt. That these and many other of Roeg’s films, including Insignificance (1985), Track 29 (1988), Bad Timing (1980) and Eureka (1983), all deserve the same appellation is up for debate, and while not everything that Roeg pulled out from his creative suitcase worked, the things that did were laced with a kind of genius.
To his detriment, Roeg’s style reflected the overindulgence of the 1970s and all the narrative and visual baggage that came along for the ride. His use of camera zooms, montage, film layers and quick cuts were inspired, but often suffered a quick expiration date. It seems likely, at least to me, that while Roeg will never be dismissed as one of the great directors, the bulk of his work will gather dust in the film canon’s moldy and rarely visited attic, and that’s a damn shame.
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“The only Performance that makes it, I mean really makes it, is one that achieves madness, right? Am I right?” (Mick Jagger to James Fox in Performance, 1971)
In Film International 15.3, I wrote that “Performance is a film that does achieve a sort of madness and along the way we are treated to an incredible musical score, a virtuoso performance of camerawork and a sexy, scary, fascinating drug induced battle that falls somewhere between self-worship and self-destruction … it is the film itself that stands as a breakthrough of cinematic language and takes its place as one of Britain’s greatest and most revolutionary films.” The film remains a favorite for aspiring directors and editors in that it is a vital today as it was nearly fifty years ago.
Walkabout, Roeg’s debut as the sole director, was positively reviewed when it came out in 1971, but disappeared until it was transferred to video in 1997. Since then it has regained its stature, thanks to a fine 2010 Criterion release. While Roeg is clearly working out his cinematic style here, it is an amazing visual and visceral experience, though very much an “independent” movie with the director also shooting film.
It was with Roeg’s third outing (not counting a music documentary, Glastonbury Fayre) Don’t Look Now that the director hit his stride. This film is undoubtedly Roeg’s most successful, in that he succeeded on almost every level: with an excellent narrative (from an equally excellent short story by Daphne DuMurier, who, incidentally loved the film), and beautifully photography by Tony Richmond. Roeg’s temporal anarchy lifted each frame of the film to new heights, positing a new definition of semiotics and the cinema. “Things are not what they seem,” and “The fragile Geometry of Space” were placed in the audiences’ lap as clues as well as thematically moving the mystery along.
While The Man Who Fell to Earth also gained a cult status, its links remain challenging if not baffling for many. In my recent film class, the students were nonplussed by the non-linear narrative and, not having a familiarity with the oeuvre Bowie, were not very impressed by the whole affair.
Bad Timing, another film, like The Man Who Fell, with a musician as star (here, Art Garfunkel) suffers, in my opinion, from Garfunkel’s anemic performance more than anything else. The subject matter, near necrophilia, was a turn off for many, but the film itself is mesmerizing. It was also the beginning of Roeg’s real and cinematic affair with young Teresa Russell, whom Roeg later married. Ironically, even with her blonde California girl sensibility and style, Russell reflected the nuance of Roeg’s work. I think this is because, like his work, Russell is not what she seems. There is mystery and depth beneath her superficial prettiness, a willingness to go to the edge both physically and psychologically. Roeg’s next outing, Eureka, however, was a commercial and artistic disaster. His first big budget Hollywood film just couldn’t find itself, despite actor Gene Hackman’s performance.
Insignificance, which began life as a play by Terry Johnson, revolves around an imaginary meeting between Marilyn Monroe (Theresa Russell) and Albert Einstein (Michael Emil). It’s a time bending tour de force that pits the movie star in with the famous mathematician in a debate about time and space. Throw in Gary Busey as Joe DiMaggio and Tony Curtis as the Senator and what transpires is an intriguing, interesting movie. In recent BBC documentary about Roeg, he relates that scientist Steven Hawkings was so impressed by the scene where Monroe uses a toy fire engine, a flashlight and a balloon to explain the theory of relativity to Einstein, that he had used the clip in his presentations and carried around a picture of Miss Russell.
Roeg’s next film of note was Track 29, with Russell and a young Gary Oldman. Roger Ebert summed up the film best in his review in the Chicago Sun-Times:
Somebody asked me if I liked this movie, and I had to answer that I did not, then I realized once again what an inadequate word “like” is. The reason I didn’t like ‘Track 29’ is that the film is unlikable – perhaps deliberately so. But that doesn’t make it a bad film, and it probably makes it a more interesting one. Like many of the strange, convoluted works of Nicolas Roeg (Don’t Look Now, BadTiming, Eureka, Insignificance), it is bad-tempered, kinky and misogynistic. But not every film is required to massage us with pleasure. Some are allowed to be abrasive and frustrating, to make us think.
In fact, Roeg’s deliberate opposition to any sort of sentimentally may be the key to his failure to be a “favorite” director within the pantheon of great movie makers. After Track 29 Roeg suffered serious setbacks and settled on directing some bad television and, save for The Witches (1990), never again directed a major feature film. While Don’t Look Now might have been Roeg’s Citizen Kane, never again reproducing the magic of his early films, his work stands among the most original, most beautiful and most important of any director working after the late sixties. He was a unique combination of the old English studio system – he was precise, never out of focus, never settling for mundane images, never every casual in his mise en scene – and the best of the radical filmmakers.
Nicolas Roeg forced viewers to move out of their comfort zone, not just to be content to be radical for the sake of being radical, or submerged into a cool counterculture scene (like David Hemming’s character in Antonioni’s Blow Up). As much as possible, Roeg invited you to live in the film, not just to visit. In his most controversial film, Performance, Mick Jagger’s character, Turner, proclaims that “there is no truth, everything is permitted,” something that turned out to be very scary proposition under the direction of this iconoclastic director.
Dean Goldberg is an associate professor of communication arts and film studies at Mount Saint Mary College, a small liberal arts college in upstate New York. He spent more than half of his adult life as a film editor, writer and director and has, for the last fifteen years, been a full-time teacher. He teaches both production and film studies. His article “More Than a Touch of Madness” on Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg’s Performance (1970) appeared in issue 15.3 of Film International.