Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Her own person: Deceased Artiste Sondra Locke

Sometimes artists and entertainers are defined by their choice of romantic partners when they pass. Such was the case with actress and director Sondra Locke, who in all too many obits that appeared last week after the revelation of her death at 74 (she died in early November) was referred to primarily as the “ex of Clint Eastwood.”

Considering the nasty-ass way that Eastwood ended their relationship, and the salient fact that Locke’s career was more interesting in the years before and after they were together, this was a sad injustice to her life and work.

She began her professional acting career by winning a contest to star in Robert Ellis Miller’s 1968 adaptation of Carson McCullers’ The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. The film is a heartbreaker, thanks to its script and direction, and its wonderful cast (led by Alan Arkin and featuring Chuck McCann). It is not easily forgotten because it captures both the awkwardness of youth and the fraternity of outsiders.

In the years immediately following Heart, Locke starred in a number of truly unusual low-budget features. This was a result of both the oft-commented-upon (in this blog, and everywhere else) unusually experimental nature of filmmaking in the early Seventies and Locke’s own somewhat otherworldly presence onscreen.

She had a featured supporting role in Willard (1971) and the unpleasant character study Cover Me Babe (1970). The latter stars Robert Forster as an egomaniacal playboy filmmaker who makes suitably surreal films and is willing to emotionally manipulate his friends to see how they will respond.

Locke’s role in the film isn’t very large, but she suits the atmosphere of the piece, as she plays an adventurous free spirit who is temporarily involved with Forster’s self-obsessed filmmaker. She also participates in one of his hidden camera shoots, in which she wears a fake chest to grab the eyes of male passersby (at 12:23):

The film that defines how Hollywood saw her at this time is the odd drama Suzanne (1974, aka “The Second Coming of Suzanne”). Directed by the son of actor Gene Barry, who costars as a Joe Pine-like arch-rightwing newspaper and TV personality, Suzanne is the story of a young filmmaker who devises a picture about a female Christ. Locke is the hippie girl who gets the role because of her beautiful – and, again, otherworldly — presence.

The actress suffers a real crucifixion in the film’s “what the fuck was that?” finale. At this point, as the director hammers the nails into her hands, we hear Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne” on the soundtrack. The film is available in various public domain prints, presumably cut for TV; there are several minutes missing in these prints, as well as key images from the crucifixion scene, so the Cohen song “jumps” at various points. 

Suzanne is one of those films that could only have been made in the “maverick” era of American moviemaking. While it ultimately winds up as a derivative, directionless mess, Locke is impressively ethereal in the role.

While Suzanne is the single strangest film Locke starred in, a horror film called Death Game (1977, shot in ’74) definitely rates as the second weirdest Locke performance. A male fantasy that quickly degenerates into a suspense thriller, the film concerns a husband (Seymour Cassell) left on his own who is visited by two blondes (Locke, Colleen Camp) who are out to cause trouble.

The film reflects two paranoid fears of middle-aged men in the early Seventies: the fear that “women’s libbers” would taunt men with sex (but not deliver) and that another Manson family was out there, waiting to kill people in the suburbs. Director Peter Traynor plays with both of these notions and also adds humor and kinkiness into the stew.

The three leads lend their roles an eerie verisimilitude, especially Cassell, who had starred in two Cassavetes films by the mid-Seventies and was thus the New York Jewish aspect of Cassavetes’ middle-aged male protagonists. Seymour was not pleased with Death Game, though — to the extent that he didn’t dub his character and so his familiar scratchy tones are heard nowhere in the film.

Locke and Camp were adult age when they played the leads, who are a teenager and her “jailbait” friend (or they claim to be – nothing can be taken on faith in this deranged pic). They are both very sexy and very menacing, although Traynor undercuts the menace at points by including a playful song sung by a chorus of British children on the soundtrack (and the film’s finale is one of the best shaggy dog endings ever devised).

The vintage Seventies trailer (the Tarantino-led group of current-day, would-be exploitation auteurs can never achieve *this* kind of Seventies-sleaze):

Before exploring Locke as a director, let’s briefly visit the films she did with Clint Eastwood. As noted above, she always had an unusual presence onscreen. The characters she played ran the gamut from ethereal and fragile to able to survive catastrophic weirdness. The last quality was one that appeared in her films with Eastwood.

It's definitely worth noting that in her films with Clint she most often played women who were harassed, molested, or raped. Even in Bronco Billy (1980), the lightest and most pleasant movie she made with him, she is accosted, so that Eastwood can come along and help her out. In the grotesque Dirty Harry outing Sudden Impact (1983) Locke getting raped is the “engine” for the entire movie.

A lighter moment amidst the victimization:

The most valuable thing that came about as a result of her much-chronicled relationship with Eastwood (filled as it was with him playing the alpha male offscreen as well as on) was that she got the chance to direct twice. She was supposed to continue her directorial career (a TV-movie and an indie film appeared, years later) but, her court case against Eastwood alleged, she was screwed over by Warner Brothers, where she was contractually employed to direct, but the thirty projects she pitched to the studio were all turned down.

While her relationship with Eastwood was (seemingly) stable, she made her directorial debut with one of the strangest movies to come from a major studio in the Eighties (and given the bizarre array of things that were produced in the Eighties, that’s saying something). Ratboy (1986) is an odd mixture of allegory, comedy, and drama that revolves around a reporter (Locke) who finds a rodent-like humanoid creature whom she helps to exploit in the media, and then begins to sympathize with. 

Ratboy thus starts out as both a Frankenstein/Phantom of the Opera “freak with a broken heart” horror tale and A Face in the Crowd-like statement about the star-making side of the media. It then becomes a very broad comedy and finally ends up as a tearjerker wth moments of suspense where the “Ratboy” is in jeopardy.

The comedic aspect stays with one the longest, most likely because Locke cast a number of comic actors and standups in key supporting roles. Funhouse favorite Gerritt Graham, Louie Anderson, Robert Townsend, Bill Maher, Jon Lovitz, Tim Thomerson, and others wander by, making Ratboy of a piece with the sorry sketch-comedy films that played on cable over and over in the Eighties.

The most fascinating piece of casting in the film is the Ratboy himself — or rather Ratgirl. Sharon Baird, a little person who had been a child star on “The Mickey Mouse Club,” plays the lead role, with a rodent headpiece designed by Rick Baker. Thus Ratboy’s crush on the reporter character does seem to be a lesbian infatuation. Baird’s character is intended to be fully sympathetic, but her costume and makeup look like the outfits worn by little people in the Krofft shows.

While watching the film, one wonders exactly which of its many “sides” was supposed to be the one that would attract a potential audience. One assumes the “tragic hero” aspect, but that is hardly believable at any point. The downright outrĂ© nature of the film earned it a cult following among French audiences and some fantasy fans. It’s by no means a good film, but it remains a fascinating film.

Locke’s second film was a much better, more easily digested work. Impulse (1990) stars Theresa Russell as an undercover cop who works vice and is conflicted about her job and the brief relationships she is having with other cops.

Russell is a fearless performer willing to take roles that most mainstream actresses would turn down (especially the “Oscar ladies,” who are looking to build a career of sympathetic performance tailored to lead the way to awards and the A-list). By the time of Impulse she had done terrific work with her partner at the time on and off-screen, Nicolas Roeg, and had been in a surprise box office hit (Black Widow, directed by Bob Rafelson). In Locke’s film, she gives a mature performance as a character who lives in constant danger and seemingly thrives on the play-acting entailed in her job.

Jeff Fahey is less impressive as the pretty boy attorney working on a big drug case who becomes Russell’s lover. His blandness is counterpointed with the casual sexism of Russell’s boss (George Dzundza), a condescending veteran who harasses her on a regular basis, including showing up inside her apartment unannounced.

The only fly in the ointment here is a coincidence that occurs about midway— the “impulse” in the title, which is just too pat to taken seriously. This one bit of clunky happenstance aside, Impulse is a well-crafted noir that has a compelling low-key quality.

After her legal battles with Eastwood, Locke retired from acting and directing. Thankfully, Funhouse interview subject Alan Rudolph convinced her to take a role that was initially to be played by Lesley Ann Warren in his wonderfully “personal” character study Ray Meets Helen (2018).

Locke was absolutely perfect for the part of Helen, a single and very neurotic woman who assumes the identify (and nicely affluent lifestyle) of a dead woman (Samantha Mathis). One of the best scenes finds Helen in a posh restaurant where she has no idea how to behave — again, Sondra’s otherworldly quality fleshes out a rather unusual character.

Rudolph’s personal films have always been a brilliant mixture of film noir and screwball comedy, with a focus on romantic relationships that are heart-wrenchingly real (in milieus that are tinged with little touches of fantasy).

The triumph of Ray — besides the fact that it was made on a shoestring — is that it is a “senior romance” without even overtly mentioning that aspect. Locke seems shaky in her part (we now know she had been battling cancer for some time) but that benefits the role. Her costar Keith Carradine looks terrific for his 69 years but the” seasoned” nature of the characters becomes clear in a beautifully comic flirtatious scene between the two in the posh restaurant.

Carradine’s Ray is clearly smitten with Helen, but she is wary as hell. A lingering shot of the two holding hands across the table communicates all we need to know about their burgeoning interest in each other — and their age.

Hopefully Ray Meets Helen, which was shuttled out on DVD without any fanfare and can be found online legally, will serve as an epitaph of sorts for Locke, as opposed to the unpleasant headlines that adorned some of her obits — the worst being the reductive (and insulting) Hollywood Reporter header “Actress Sondra Locke, Embittered Ex of Clint Eastwood, Dies at 74.”

Locke deserved better, and got it from cult movie fans and those whose interest in movies goes far beyond the films she made with her ex. Now... what was that old man’s name again?

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Winding down (for twenty-five years): Deceased Artiste Nicolas Roeg (part 2 of two)

And now comes the depressing part. After the Seventies, it became harder for a truly visionary filmmaker like Roeg to get a project off the ground. That changed for a short time in the late Eighties when more “product” was needed for home-video labels, but by the Nineties it was again difficult for a filmmaker known for skewed chronologies to get a film made in Hollywood or even in the U.K.

Roeg’s cousin in dream film, Ken Russell, took anything he could get in the Eighties and Nineties with the results ranging from the sublime to the disappointing. The “mavericks” in America settled for making mainstream projects with little to nothing of their stamp on the projects. Scorsese became the gent who makes overblown multiplex fare with with the un-versatile Leonardo. And Altman — well, he remained the one visionary who kept his “identity” by constantly working in theater, television, and on low-budget film projects and films with European funding.

Roeg, however, was not as much of a “salesman” as Altman was (and didn’t want to switch to theater like Altman, or theater and opera like Russell). So his output slowed to a crawl from the Eighties onward. As with Russell, it was odd that a director who created “music videos” in his films before the phrase ever existed couldn’t find much work in the music-video era of cinema. But as with “Unkle Ken” Russell, Roeg did direct a few music videos and thankfully did benefit from that late Eighties need for more VHS product.

Here Roeg talks about one of the reasons the film industry “shut down” creatively in the early Eighties: the emergence of conservative leaders Thatcher and Reagan, whose influence spread to the movie industry.

For an interesting look at what could’ve happened with the arthouse world, check out the anthology film Aria (1987), which featured segments by Roeg, Russell, Altman, Godard, and several other directors who were struggling to retain their unconventional filmmaking styles in the post-Star Wars film industry. Here’s the end of Roeg’s segment, starring Theresa Russell (in male drag), a visualization of an aria from the opera Un ballo in maschera by Verdi.

The first Roeg feature in this new era was the very ambitious Eureka (1983). Drubbed by critics and dumped by its distributor when it came out, the film now has a strong cult reputation in the U.K. It has a sterling cast of American character people but, to this reviewer’s eyes, it is a willfully uneven affair that is one of only two of Roeg’s films that can, sadly, be deemed extremely corny. (The other is Cold Heaven — see below.)

The film is a decades-spanning tale of wealth and intrigue centered around an American gold prospector (Gene Hackman) who becomes a millionaire and is undercut by the French boyfriend (Rutger Hauer) of his daughter (Theresa Russell) and a Jewish gangster-businessman (Joe Pesci, assisted by an impossibly young Mickey Rourke). The early scenes depicting Hackman striking it rich are perfectly in line with Roeg’s previous five films, but the ensuing melodrama is something he didn’t do very well (because he was always very sincere in his best work, no matter how outlandish the plots were).

All five of his preceding films were intimate studies, even if they were set in an incalculably big setting (the outback in Walkabout) or concerned cosmic issues (The Man Who Fell to Earth). Eureka tackles big themes but within the context of one man, his family, and his business rivals, making it feel like a TV miniseries about an embattled family (in the “Winds of War”/“Thorn Birds” tradition).

The film’s second half hinges on a major surprise that is introduced in a long, violent sequence. This “trauma” is then followed by melodramatic plot twists that are embarrassingly hokey — including a lengthy bit where a husband (Hauer) interrogates his wife (Russell) on the stand in a court trial sequence that would’ve seemed overbaked in a Forties “poverty row” picture.

The next film by Roeg was a return to form, which seemed fairly gimmicky upon its release but has aged very well. Insignificance (1985) is an adaptation of a play about a hypothetical meeting between Marilyn Monroe (Theresa Russell) and Albert Einstein (Michael Emil, Henry Jaglom’s brother), joined by a McCarthy-like senator (Tony Curtis) and a non-DiMaggio-like baseball player (Gary Busey).

The film is one of only three Roeg comedies (that’s counting the Jim Henson production The Witches), so it’s quite unique. The premise is indeed a gimmick, but the contents of the film are pretty radically weird, especially the scene in which Marilyn explains the theory of relativity to Einstein, to show him she knows how it works.

It’s quite a comprehensible encapsulation of the concept and was in fact a favorite scene of Stephen Hawking (see the end of the Roeg documentary embedded below). Hawking clearly enjoyed hearing a scientific principle explained by a woman in heels and a billowy skirt.

Insignificance is also very much about how fame affects people. Its ending is truly a master stroke — Einstein imagines Marilyn and his hotel suite blown up by a nuclear bomb (since this version of Einstein is riddled with guilt about the dropping of the atom bomb). In this scene Roeg’s tendency for exploring dreams and fantasies comes to the fore again, with uncommon power.

The next film is an underrated gem that, as of this writing, is out of print in the U.S. Castaway (1986, no connection at all with the simpering Tom Hanks picture) is a brilliant exploration of male-female relationships and the notion of modern urban folk trying to cope with life on a deserted island (it’s not a spoiler to say that they can’t).

One can readily see the appeal of the material for Roeg – like Walkabout, it deals with the veneer of civilization and how it changes (or disappears) in a remote locale. Here, the story is a real one — a middle-aged man advertises for a “wife” to accompany him to live for a year on a deserted island between New Guinea and Australia.

The man (played by 48-year-old Oliver Reed) finally finds his desired partner for the experiment in a young woman (played by 24-year-old Amanda Donohoe, in her first starring role). The two sleep together before journeying to the island, and clearly Reed’s character thinks they will be partners in all regards. But the young woman has absolutely no interest in having sex with him the minute they arrive on the island.

Kate Bush wrote the theme song for the film, based on a line said by Reed’s character later in the film, “Be kind to my mistakes.”

Although the couple have no sex for the majority of the picture, their bodies are always centerstage, as Donohoe is nude throughout and even old Ollie is mostly clothes-less. The latter, in fact, creates the film’s only only problem — since both characters are suffering from malnutrition, anther man’s scrawny belly has to be shown instead of Ollie’s rather ample one.

Roeg came up with a brilliant way to explain this in the course of the film. The lead couple don’t see themselves as scrawny, and thus when they are seen by the few visitors to the island they are then (and only then) seen as scarily thin. The rest of the time, since we are living in their world, we see the couple as they see themselves, sunburnt and plagued by bug bites but not fatally thin.

Adapting the book about the “experiment” by Lucy Irvine (whom Donohoe plays), the film also functions as a terrific allegory about male-female relationships when the parties involved are removed from polite society. In an interesting twist on Godard’s Pierrot Le Fou, which Roeg evoked in several of his films, here the woman is the sensible member of the couple and the male is the “dreamy” one who would prefer to be having a good time.

One Aussie character, who visits the island as a census taker (a very funny interlude), sums the situation up quite handily with the question, “What happens when people know too much about each other?”

By this point Roeg’s style was “out of fashion” (for feature films — not for music videos), so his “simplified” style is seen here for the most part. Thankfully, though, as Castaway moves on, more dream images and montages appear. It’s an absolute shame the film is currently out of print in both the U.K. and the U.S.

The aforementioned late-Eighties surge in the production of movies made on modest budgets with a recognizable star or two resulted in at least a handful of worthy films by arthouse directors like Roeg and Ken Russell, who were able to return to their Seventies level of productivity by turning out a film a year.

The off-kilter, playfully perverse comedy Track 29 (1988) was the only time the late, great Dennis Potter worked with a director whose talent was the equal of his own. The film is a variation on Potter’s teleplay “Schmoedipus” in which a young drifter (played by a pre-Rocky Horror Tim Curry) arrives at the house of an middle-aged housewife claiming to be her son. In the film the “son” (Gary Oldman, with dyed orange hair that makes him look like his later pal David Bowie) visits the house of a sexy, bored Southern wife (Theresa Russell).

In real life, Russell is only a year older than Oldman, so there is no way she could be his mother. His character could be telling the truth, but is more likely to be a scam artist or some kind of mental case. He knows quite a lot about her life, including information about the baby she gave up, although here Potter changed the scenario and made certain that we know early on that Oldman’s character is an hallucination that Russell is having.

The scenes between Russell and Oldman are sublimely odd and curiously sexy. The latter cannot be said for the very funny sequences depicting the affair between Russell’s doctor husband (Christopher Lloyd) and a kinky nurse (Sandra Bernhard). The scenes featuring these two concern the husband’s model train fixation (and a side interest in being spanked by the nurse); the scenes where he attends a model train convention offer an amusing satire of American patriotism, similar to the critique of Americana offered in Insignificance.

The Nineties brought a slowdown to Roeg’s career, resulting in him making a few TV movies. A thoroughly “normal” adaptation of Williams’ Sweet Bird of Youth was made for NBC and aired in prime time in 1989 (thus making it the most easily seen of Roeg’s films in America, unfortunately). A very well-acted but otherwise (again) normal adaptation of Heart of Darkness (1993) was made for TNT with Tim Roth and John Malkovich. The most normal project Roeg ever undertook as a director was the two-part 1996 telefilm Samson and Delilah (part of the Turner-funded series of Biblical dramas).

The only Roeg TV-movie that had any connection to his features was the Showtime film Full Body Massage (1995). Essentially a play in filmic garb, it concerns an art gallery owner (Mimi Rogers) who has a substitute masseur (Bryan Brown) show up one day for her usual session.

The film made quite an impression on younger male viewers because of the fact that Rogers is nude throughout the majority of the film. It actually is quite a compelling dual character study, but still fits into the post-Eighties safe sex mindset, as it concerns the two lead characters’ love and sex lives but contains not a single sex scene.

On the theatrical front, 1990 saw the release of the only family friendly Roeg film, The Witches. The last picture personally produced by Jim Henson, the film splits quite neatly into two halves. In the first half, there’s content meant to frighten children; the second half is a cutesy, barely watchable journey by the lead character, a boy turned into a mouse by Anjelica Huston and her rather middle-class-looking coven.

The second half reassures the kids watching that all will be right with the world — thus it is another Roeg project that is extremely well-shot and edited but has little connection to his main preoccupations as a filmmaker. The noxious super-happy ending turned off one adult in particular — author Roald Dahl, who was outraged that Roeg, Henson & co. changed the more downbeat ending of his book.

Cold Heaven (1991), Roeg’s last film with Theresa Russell, is a puzzle, as anyone familiar with Roeg’s best films will wonder why he consented to adapt this rather tepid thriller about a “resurrection” that ends with an almost insultingly preachy ending.

Here are interviews with Roeg and Russell on location for Cold Heaven. Most interesting is hearing Roeg discussing how he has major trouble getting funding:

Compared to the usual supernatural (or simply “linked by coincidences/fate”) scenarios that drove his earlier pictures, Cold Heaven is an out-and-out piece of Catholic mysticism that ends up being, as mentioned above, a regrettably corny affair.

An affair is in fact the core of the plot — a wife (Russell) is planning on leaving her boring husband (Mark Harmon) for her more lively lover (James Russo), but the husband’s sudden injury and death from an ill-timed swimming accident throws her into a panic. The husband’s sudden reappearance constitutes either a nightmare/hallucination or an honest-to-you-know-who miracle (since this is not a Dennis Potter scenario, take a guess which direction this screenplay takes).

There are some of Roeg’s trademark associative edits and beautiful montages throughout the picture (including some lovely undersea images), but the fact that the film is predicated entirely on the lead character’s guilt over cheating (on an incredibly boring person, it must be said) makes Cold Heaven a lesser Roeg title.

His next film, Two Deaths (1995), is an incredibly solid work that is barely known. Another scenario that takes place in a limited amount of indoor sets, the film is a return to the themes of Bad Timing, as we see a charming but morally repulsive protagonist recount the tale of how he “destroyed” a woman.

The small ensemble cast — another low-budget film staple that makes a film feel like a play — are superb. The male leads are nearly all British actors and the female star is Brazilian, but they all play Slavs. The film is such a tight, moving drama that one can easily set aside that bizarre decision.

Michael Gambon (reunited here with his Singing Detective costar Patrick Malahide) stars as a well-respected doctor living in an Eastern Europe country that is undergoing a revolution. He invites his old school chums to dinner one night and proceeds to tell them about how he “destroyed” the most important woman in his life, the maid (Sonia Braga) who has been tending to them throughout the evening.

The set-up is classic Roeg, as we initially feel that the doctor’s obsessional love was at one point sincere, but we realize very quickly that he’s been playing a literal game of “master and servant” with this woman — who made a deal to be his maid/sex partner if he kept alive her true lover, a comatose revolutionary.

The editing and visuals are mostly straightforward but the extreme story line is the kind of grim yet thoroughly involving material that established Roeg as a brilliant and influential filmmaker in the Seventies.

After a long layoff Roeg made his last film in 2007. Puffball: the Devil’s Eyeball is a strange, amorphous creation that thankfully has some terrific moments despite its uneven script and lamentably goofy title (which comes from the source material, a novel by Fay Weldon).

The film’s plot concerns a young Englishwoman (Kelly Reilly) who is remodeling a house in Ireland to live in with her boyfriend. Her neighbor (Miranda Richardson) is resorting to supernatural means to get pregnant and becomes jealous when our heroine gets there first. The motivations of the characters get increasingly murky as the film moves on, but the performances are terrific, especially those of Reilly, Richardson, and Rita Tushingham (as Richardson’s witchy mother).

Everything in the film’s plot is related to fertility, so it makes perfect sense that Roeg was able to reintroduce his intense sex sequences (when he was directing at age 79!). There are three of them here, with the best being a roll in the hay (yes, a real one) between Reilly and Richardson’s farmer husband.

The film is far from Roeg’s best work, but it is watchable and has some gorgeous images (and the frenzied sex scene). The finale is a major disappointment, considering the direction in which the material has seemingly be heading but, let’s face it, even an uneven Roeg picture is better than most Oscar-winning directors’ entire output.


Three last Roeg-related items. The first is very odd indeed, a BBC production for a series called “Sound on Film.” Roeg directed the short film, which is a flashy assortment of images featuring the super-model scored to music by Adrian Utley of Portishead. It’s a uniquely over-the-top project, which seems to suggest that the birth of Ms. Schiffer was the beginning of the universe as we know it.

How often do you hear a song devoted to the work of a single filmmaker? Mick Jones clearly loved Roeg’s films to pieces — thus this song and music video, which celebrates Roeg’s films from Walkabout to Insignificance.

As a final offering, here is the most authoritative documentary thus far on Roeg. It aired in conjunction with the book The World Is Ever Changing, a 2011 memoir taken from a series of interviews Roeg’s wife Harriet Harper conducted with him.


Thanks to Paul Gallagher for help obtaining some of the titles mentioned here.

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Time passages: Deceased Artiste Nicolas Roeg (part 1 of two)

Nicolas Roeg forged a style that was so visually and narratively distinctive that one can identify his work from any single scene in his best films (and can see his influence in later films by other directors just as easily). A shallow evaluation of his contribution to cinema would be that he “made actors out of rock stars,” but his most valuable innovation involved blending memories, dreams, and fantasies to depict the thoughts and emotions of his characters.

He served an apprenticeship in the film industry for more than two decades before becoming a director. From “tea boy” to second unit director (Lawrence of Arabia) to cinematographer, he put in his time and the results showed. His most memorable stints as d.p. include Masque of the Red Death (arguably Corman’s best, and the best-ever screen adaptation of Poe), Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451, and several Richard Lester films, most notably the dark and potent Petulia, which is Lester’s best drama. Its style and visuals lead the way to Roeg’s directorial debut.

Roeg broke apart his storylines and reassembled them in front of the viewer. The clearest point of comparison would be Alain Resnais, who dismantled the chronologies of his early features and produced beautiful, seamless montages that followed both dream logic and the functions of memory.

Roeg’s films have more clear-cut narratives than Resnais’ work, but he also doted on things that his characters remembered or were about to undergo. It’s a haunting style that makes his best films impossible to forget and yet also provides for new discoveries each time they are rewatched.

In interviews Roeg spoke about his dislike for storyboards and rehearsals. His films were always tightly scripted, but he did work with his editors in the Seventies and Eighties to “refine” the material — in the case of Bad Timing (1980), he took a chronological storyline and rejiggered it so we see past, present, and future throughout the film. His dislike of rehearsals most likely stemmed from the fact that he cast either seasoned pros (Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie in Don’t Look Now) or amateur actors (his rock star trio; his son Luc in Walkabout) who were prone to do their best work on-camera.

His debut as a director, Performance (1970), is a film that caught the zeitgeist of its time while offering a glammed-up variation on Bergman’s Persona. Jagger is terrific in the film (pretty much playing himself), while James Fox went through a complete transformation (and, according to most accounts, a nervous breakdown afterward) — a posh actor playing a working-class gangster, he has his gender-preference and his mind bent by Jagger’s character, resulting in a schizophrenia that is manifested in the film’s visuals.

Roeg directed the film with Donald Cammell. Cammell handed the actors and dialogue, with Roeg crafting the visuals. Different critics and academics attribute the editing to either man (two professional editors are credited, with two others indicated online as having done uncredited work), but clearly both made a contribution.

Despite the book and documentary about Cammell (both fascinating) that claim he was the “real genius” of the pair, Roeg’s later work does bear out his immense talent. Cammell made three other films, of which White of the Eye is a terrific surreal thriller; the other two are fun but not very good (making Cammell’s genius more of a “what if?” situation).

Walkabout (1971) was Roeg’s first solo directorial effort, and it shows just how beautiful his visuals, and how inventive his editing, could be. It’s a sun-drenched film that offers sharp commentary on what comprises “civilization” in the mind of Westerners — in this case a British teen (Jenny Agutter) who is stranded with her young brother (Luc Roeg, Nicolas’ son) in the Australian outback.

Agutter’s character is one of several Roeg protagonists who is charming and unlikeable at the same time. The Aboriginal teen boy (David Gulpilil) who serves as the only lifeline for her and her brother is an object of sly derision for her. While she accepts his help in finding sources of food and drink, and surviving the deadly heat, she also maintains a patronizing attitude toward him throughout the film (only in the final moments does she realize what a prig she has been).

The film is Roeg’s next to last credit as a cinematographer, and it is a triumph in that regard. The photography is peerless, with the most beautiful sequences occurring when images of the landscape are superimposed over each other.

The editing (credited to Antony Gibbs and Alan Pattillo) is also stirringly brilliant. We see frozen images of certain actions, which brings to mind the work of Funhouse deity Chris Marker. Other sequences tear down the thin curtain between reality and illusion — a prime example being the moment where the young boy sees a hunter killing a buffalo. The footage is then shown in reverse, as we enter the boy’s mind and see the “resurrection” of the fallen animal.

The last film that Roeg shot is also his only feature-length documentary. He received co-director credit with Peter Neal (listed on the credits as “completion director”) for Glastonbury Fayre (1972), a look at the 1971 Glastonbury music festival, held in  June of that year. It’s a standard-issue rock-doc, which does have some interesting images and edits, but its only major difference from other music-festival films that came out in the wake of Monterey Pop is that a good deal of emphasis is placed on spiritual ceremonies.

The proceedings become more spirited when Arthur Brown is seen around the midway point, performing with a band who are wearing facepaint (take that, KISS!). Brown’s theatrics are punctuated by scenes of a cross-burning ceremony (a benevolent one, in which crucifixes are set alight, presumably because they look “trippy, man!”).

The druid/pagan/what-have-you embrace of spriritualism reaches its height when a substitute for the Maharishi shows up and lectures the crowd (happily chanting “hare krishna”) on the positive aspects of love. Then Christian ministers hold a mass, spontaneous chanting and dances are taking place in another area, and one begins to wonder if the drugs are fueling the heavy interest in religion, or the other way around.

The musical acts are not identified, so you either know ’em or you don’t. The other two that distinguish themselves are Melanie doing “Peace Will Come” and (the last song in the movie) Traffic doing Winwood’s classic “Gimme Some Lovin’.”

The most notable trivia about that Glastonbury festival was that a “folk rock” act performed songs from his latest album on guitar. He’s on the soundtack album but is nowhere to be seen in the movie: future Roeg star David Bowie.

Roeg then made the unforgettable Don’t Look Now (1973), based on a story by Daphne Du Maurier. Here two important facets of Roeg’s work appear for the first time. The first of these is a deep well of tortured emotion, that is glimpsed in the brief shots that make up his dream/nightmare-like montages.

Like his countryman and fellow dream-film master Ken Russell, Roeg was often accused by critics of being clever for clever’s sake, while both filmmakers actually conveyed much genuine emotion in their best films. Even if some images can’t be fully understood until the end of the picture (or on a second viewing), we get the impression that these memories and dreams matter very much to the characters, and we thus absorb the longing (or loss) contained within them.

The other Roeg trademark introduced in Don’t Look Now is an impassioned sex scene. Here the participants are a married couple (Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland) who can’t escape memories of their dead daughter, but who also clearly have a healthy sex life, informed by a very real love for each other (ruptured by the husband’s desperate belief that the daughter is still alive).

The sex scene was controversial for its time. In this most chaste of filmmaking eras in the U.S., the scene seems even more erotic but also serves an important function in the narrative, defining the characters and showing how sex is a regular part of their relationship. This is signaled by the cuts to their getting dressed afterward that are inserted into the scene. 

Don’t Look Now contains one of the single scariest finales of any film ever made. It won’t be given away here, but suffice it to say that it lingers on in the memory and, despite being equally as jarring on repeated viewings, it does have its own inherent logic (the logic of nightmares, of course).

The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976) is arguably Roeg’s best film and inarguably one of the best science fiction films ever made. The absolutely perfect casting of David Bowie is only the most obvious of the ways in which Roeg crafted a film that is at once a political statement, a sensory experience, and an unlikely but incredibly effective character study about addiction.

The political aspect of the film is what makes it such a significant and powerful work of science fiction. The American government seeks to crush Bowie’s character and the best way to do that is to “normalize” him (via surgery) and reduce his threat (by encouraging his alcoholism — an obvious corollary to the plight of Native Americans).

Roeg generally stayed away from political themes (with the exception of a subplot in Bad Timing and the setting of his underrated Two Deaths). In The Man Who Fell... Bowie is constantly under surveillance by the government, something that becomes clearer on repeated viewings of the film. He faces numerous menaces, but none is as mysterious and unbeatable as America itself.

The aesthetic aspect of the film is unassailable. Roeg was at the top of his game in the mid-Seventies, and the visuals and editing are superb. We inhabit the mind of Bowie’s alien and are as confused and disturbed by the hallmarks of our society as he is. We see his memories of his planet and his visions of a past he never knew (as when he sees American farmers from a previous era in an empty landscape). What appears “impenetrable” or obscure becomes easy to understand as the film moves on (and Roeg’s eye for evocative empty settings proves him to be a fitting heir to one of his heroes, Antonioni).

The final dimension, and the one that has made the film so resonant over the decades, is the purely personal. Writer Walter Tevis wrote the novel The Man Who Fell to Earth... as an allegory about alcoholism (he maintained that his first few novels were all about alcoholism in one way or another). Tevis wrote two kinds of fiction: gritty urban scenarios (The Hustler) and very smart science fiction. Scripter Paul Mayersberg kept alcoholism at the core of the plot, thus creating the single best depiction on film of the way we inhabitants of Earth would most likely treat an extraterrestrial (if we didn’t just kill it straight off).

If one wants to see the difference between the films of the Seventies and those of the Eighties, just compare The Man Who Fell... to John Carpenter’s romantic but ridiculous Starman (1984) and Spielberg’s cheesy little alien, who’s as cuddly as a domestic pet, in the mawkish slop that was E.T. (1982).

Roeg’s career unfortunately breaks into two distinct parts. The first is squarely situated in the Seventies, and the second (which will be covered in the second part of this piece) begins in the early Eighties and continues on until the end of his career, in 2007 (he made one final short-short in 2014).

The dividing line came right after his fifth film, Bad Timing (1980), which stands as a kind of summation of his genius, in the form of a very grim but compulsively watchable tale of obsessive love and sexuality.

We begin with the end of a tempestuous relationship — an American woman (Theresa Russell) living in Germany is taken to the hospital, as she quickly succumbs to a drug overdose. Her lover, a college professor (Art Garfunkel), flashes backward and forward through memories of their relationship, showing us how much he wanted her and what he was capable of doing to prevent her from leaving him.

The most astounding fact about the film is that it was scripted and then shot as a strictly chronological narrative. Roeg “dismantled” the storyline and then reassembled it as a jigsaw puzzle of memory and longing.

Garfunkel was the third and last “rock star” — the mellowest of the bunch by far — to whom Roeg gave a starring role (Art had already had supporting roles in Catch-22 and Carnal Knowledge). He’s uncommonly good, even though one senses he is “adjusting” to the role as the film proceeds. As it stands, he clearly had a tougher job than Jagger (who basically played himself) and Bowie (who was indeed living a fairly “alien” lifestyle while making The Man Who Fell...).


His character is one of the most unlikeable in all of Roeg’s work. He is cold and distant, and grows more and more quiet and inhuman as the film moves toward an unforgettably nasty sequence set in Russell’s apartment.

The supporting male lead, Harvey Keitel, is terrific in his role, but it is very hard to believe that he’s a native German cop — mostly because Harvey speaks with his usual New Yawk accent.

The real star and “life force” of the picture is Russell as the carefree young woman who is sexually obsessed with Garfunkel but falls out of love with him as he turns colder and more possessive. This was Russsell’s first film with Roeg — the two went on to get married and have two children. She starred in five of his features and two shorts he made for anthology films.

Her character is a complicated woman. She continues to maintain a sexual relationship with the professor even after she has clearly stopped loving him. His eventual “turning” on her results in one of the most harrowing moments in any of Roeg’s films. The scene could be likened to various moments from Hitchcock films, but since it contains a sexual aspect it hits harder than Hitch’s “lethal husband” sequences.

To be continued...